Hate the Religion, Love the Believer?

Making the rounds on the internet today: this tweed from comic Ricky Gervais:

Suggesting I hate people with religion because I hate religion is like suggesting I hate people with cancer because I hate cancer.

Which is one of those things we all love to hate about the internet: a plausible-sounding pithy insight that crumbles on closer examination.

Alright – it’s half-true. It’s certainly possible, speaking as an atheist, to love and respect and even admire people who believe in God despite disagreeing with that fundamental core part of their worldview. I know, because I do it all the time (and I see religious people doing that with atheists the other way ’round as well). But let’s not kid ourselves here. Religion, unlike cancer, is not something that just happens to you, and it’s not AT ALL something that’s purely physical and distinct from who you are. Religion, unlike cancer, very much does reflect on what kind of person you are. So, if you hate religion, then you hate something fundamental about your religious friend or relative. It’s understandable that they would be a little put off by that.

It’s interesting that no one would accept this statement if we substituted "homosexuality" in for "relgion." Try it:

Suggesting I hate people with homosexual desires because I hate homosexuality is like suggesting I hate people with cancer because I hate cancer.

See what I mean? The politically correct crowd would never let you get away with that – and yet homosexuality is MUCH closer to cancer (in the sense of being something widely believed to be physical in origin that just kind of happens to you regardless of your other personality traits) than religion is! So, we’re missing some steps here.

That said, I understand the sentiment. Like I said, I love, respect and even admire people who believe in God. How?

Simple: God might be real, for all I know. I can’t disprove it. I just (a) haven’t seen any evidence for it and (b) don’t feel that it is helpful in explaining anything else about the universe besides. If someone could show me some evidence that God exists, or else convince me that although there is no direct evidence for God’s existence, some other things about the universe make more sense on the assumption that He does, THEN I would consider believing in God. But not before.

It always comes back to the same point for me: my beef is not with belief in God per se, it’s with the incongruity between the nature of most believers’ belief and the way they act about it. What I hate is not religion itself (though I admit I dislike religion), but the insistence among religious people that I respect their unproven hypothesis. I am perfectly willing to accept that it’s possible that there’s a spiritual dimension to the world that I just haven’t seen, and that they have, and that the nature of this dimension makes it difficult to communicate (which would at least be compatible with it’s not being readily visible to the rest of us). I don’t consider this likely, naturally, but that’s not the point. What undoes me is when religious people act like there’s some sort of moral failing in me for not being able to see what they can barely articulate, let alone prove. THAT’s when it crosses the line for me. And unfortunately, a great many religious people act in exactly that way.

That’s what’s to hate about religion.

Now, I get that in a tweet you can’t get deep, so this isn’t a criticism of Gervais. But I think the fairer thing to say is that, in fact, I do dislike religion, and that religious beliefs do count as a mark against a person for me, but that people are complex entities, and that just because I dislike one thing about them it hardly follows that I dislike all things. There is no one about whom I don’t dislike something (including myself and my cats!), and I assume everyone who likes me (there aren’t many) has things about me they dislike as well, so religious beliefs aren’t a deal-breaker. The real issue, and the thing that often can be a deal breaker, are religious people who think that it’s up to me to show they’re wrong, or that there’s something wrong with me for not seeing the "reality" of the spiritual dimension to the world. Even if such a dimension exists, it should be clear to the people who see it that it isn’t obvious to the rest of us, and that the burden of proof is actually on them. To the extent religious people accept that and act accordingly, I’m fine with them.

One thought on “Hate the Religion, Love the Believer?

  1. “What undoes me is when religious people act like there’s some sort of moral failing in me for not being able to see what they can barely articulate, let alone prove.”

    Can you elaborate on this?

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