Last Thursday night, I attended an event at Hambone’s in Lawrenceville. The event was billed as a panel discussion entitled The Future of Religious Freedom in America. In the posted Meetup, there was no mention of the sponsor of the event, or who the panelists were, or any other specifics. But being the militant antitheist that I am, it sounded like something that I might enjoy, and so I made the trek to Lawrenceville to give it a try.
Traffic was kind of heavy so it was already 7:00 when I walked in and saw a fair number from our non-believer community there. I sat down at a table with two other people and saw a number of brochures strewn around the table so I picked one up to see what it was all about. Lo and behold, the brochure was for the America’s Future Foundation and was loaded with all the code words the hard right is so fond of using. (Subsequent research showed me that this group is allied with ALEC and several other Koch organizations. ALEC is the driving force behind much of the RFRA legislation – codifying the right to discriminate and hurt people in the name of your particular delusion.) So I was not sanguine about the prospects of this being a legitimate dialogue, but one of the two panelists was our own Jeff Prebeg, who is a pretty bright guy, albeit somewhat inexperienced in a debate/panel discussion type format. But I figured that Jeff could hold his own, all things being equal.
As it turned out, all things were not equal. The other panelist seems to be a Catholic theologian and quasi-professional apologist named Brandon McGinley, essentially a ringer. Nothing like stacking the deck. Not only that, but McGinley was given about 70% of the mic time, with the remaining 30% being split between the moderator, David Vesely, and Jeff. Hardly equal time. But that’s not the worst of it.
McGinley constantly blathered about “truth”, implying that the only valid truths are Catholic dogma and that the Catholic Church has a monopoly on truth. I found this especially offensive when he made several assertions on contentious social issues with the claim that the dogmatic positions of the Church are absolute “truths”. Like the position that marriage is only valid between a man and a woman. Quite a number of times he referenced the issue of the bigoted, delusional cake baker being forced to bake a wedding cake for a same sex couple and how that infringed on his religious freedom. More on that later.
One of the first tropes that he trotted out was a variation of the fundagelical nonsense that Newtown, hurricane Sandy, and other tragedies are somehow punishment for homosexuality and abortion and other horrible sins. While he didn’t phrase it that way, he did imply that all of societies ills are a result of secularization and would be solved by increased religiosity. I distinctly got the impression that he would prefer to live in a theocracy – provided that the prevailing delusion was the one he supports. Even worse is that he seems to have no problem with the idea of executing atheists. Jeff had listed all of the countries (and they are many) where it is legal to execute atheists because of blasphemy laws making criticism of the locally dominant religion (invariably Islam) a criminal offense. McGinley’s only problem with those laws seemed to be that they protected the wrong imaginary friend. If the blasphemy laws were focused on protecting his Catholic sky fairy from criticism, he would be in favor of them.
I’m sure that some of you think that I am being too harsh by referring to religious belief and believers as “delusional” and am unfairly prejudiced against believers. While I readily admit to being dismissive and contemptuous, I believe that contempt is fully justified and I am not being unfair. Hear me out. If I were to claim without evidence that Martians landed in my back yard and visited me, talking with me over dinner, then going back to Mars leaving no trace, you would rightfully consider me completely delusional and perhaps mentally ill. Or if I claimed, again without evidence, to be the re-incarnation of Napoleon and he spoke to me in my mind telling me to assert my divine right as Emperor – and then I acted upon that claim, you would also deem me delusional and probably mentally ill. So when people claim without valid, credible evidence that they have an imaginary friend in the sky who tells them how to live their lives, shouldn’t you say that they are just as delusional and mentally ill? Then consider this: other than a matter of degree, what is the difference between the cake baker who believes that he has been told by his imaginary friend to hurt gay people and that poor woman from the North Hills who believes that the voice in her head told her to kill her children? Or the deluded jihadis who believe that their imaginary friend told them to go out and kill a bunch of people in the market or fly airplanes into buildings? While there is an enormous difference in the severity of these different actions, the basic principle/delusion is the same.
Going back to McGinley’s constant spouting of the notion of his “truths”. The problem with that argument is that all of these dogmatic “truths” are predicated on a false premise – that being the existence of the imaginary friend that he worships and all of the mythical nonsense that goes with it. If the foundation, the basic premise has no credible evidence to support it, then it is therefore invalid and all of the so-called “truths” that derive from it are also invalid (unless, of course, they are in concert with truths derived from an evidence-based premise). As Hitchens’ Razor states – “That which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. (After the talk, I spoke to David Vesely, the moderator, and expressed how offended I was by McGinley’s rantings. I made the point that his truths were invalid and that only truths derived from an evidence-based reality have any validity. His response was that McGinley’s “reality” was his Catholic worldview. No, Mr. Vesely, that is his delusion. It may seem real to him, but since there is no credible evidence to support it, it is not real and therefore a delusion.)
And this brings us to the problem of religion in the public square. McGinley’s contention that we need more religion in the public square is a bogus one. Between the various sects and sub-sects of Christianity, the various different iterations of Islam, and the different sects of Judaism, there are thousands upon thousands of different and competing “truths”. And all of them are based on the a priori notion that their particular imaginary friend exists and is the one true imaginary friend. If we allow them all into the public square and grant them all equal deference in the formulation of public policy and laws, we would have chaos. The only reason that we don’t have that right now is that Christian privelege is largely unchecked and is able run roughshod over everybody else. But as we become a more diverse society, this will change and allowing religion to have unassailable deference is a recipe for disaster. (As an example, look at the outrage from delusionals whenever Lucien Greaves and the Satanic Temple demand to be treated equally under the Constitution. Now multiply that by a thousand.)
The only solution, then, is to create the fully secular secular society that our nation’s founders envisioned. We all have our five senses and the power of observation, all of which enable us to quantify our world and to have standards for describing and communicating about the world around us. Using these universal tools, we can have a mutually agreed upon understanding of our material world and use that as a basis for determining what is real and what is delusion or wishful thinking. This, in turn, can lead us to agreed upon truths that will unite us as a species rather than divide us into tribes with different “truths” based on different delusions, which with the ensuing strife would be a recipe for disaster.