Religious extremism represents a threat to civilization. Even moderate religion, perhaps unwittingly, aids in the spread of bad ideas in a number of ways (e.g. by supporting the ideas of blind acceptance of received truth, suppression of personal inquiry, and general disregard for rational and scientific processes), and is thus a tool by which extremists can manipulate large numbers of people. Somehow, religion needs to be reined in so as to prevent excesses such as 9/11, bombings of abortion clinics, killings of homosexuals, etc., as well as less immediate (but deeper) problems such as the creeping spread of scientific ignorance due to the promotion of counter scientific theories.
However, this must be done without harming freedom of speech and freedom of thought, as these are part of the foundation of our modern, free society. (They are also, ironically, among the many things threatened by religious extremism. We must be intolerant of intolerance without destroying our society's essential tolerance.)
So the question is where to draw the line – how do we reign in religious excess without undermining the basic principles of a free society?
Woozle's Tentative Proposal
- Do away with automatic nonprofit status for churches and other religions. They must meet the same standards as other nonprofits. "501(c)(3) exemptions apply to corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition, or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals." – simply drop the "religious" qualification. The laws are clearly set up with the idea that religion is a good thing; "religious" should instead be considered an undesirable attribute, and discouraged (but not prohibited) by legislation wherever possible.
- Hold religions(/nonprofits) accountable for the quality of the information they spread. Hold religious institutions to the same standards as educational institutions or government agencies. The principle is perhaps similar to "truth in advertising" laws: things you buy which make claims of benefit to the user have to prove that those claims are true; religions should have to do the same. (The catch: where's the "label" on a religion? Certainly advertising would be covered, but that's not the primary means by which most religion attracts and keeps followers.)
- Yeah, this gets tricky when even educational institutions are being forced to give ID "equal time", but that's a separate issue. Perhaps part of this effort could go towards establishing reasonable standards for "truth" -- what an organization funded by government subsidy (i.e. tax exemption) is allowed to state as fact and what it must qualify as opinion. This does tread on dangerous ground with regard to freedom of speech and risking the creation of something like a Ministry of Truth, but on the other hand a tax subsidy does make nonprofits rather more beholden to the government than other corporations, and we do have standards for what the government is allowed to label as "truth"... or we should, if we don't.
- In any case, it certainly puts those issues (what is truth, and how do we prevent our common body of truth from becoming polluted for private gain?) on the table in plain sight, rather than being hidden behind other issues as they generally are now.
- Ideally, when a religion wants to propagate dogma, which I'll tentatively define as "unprovable assertions of any sort", there should be some way to trace those assertions back to their source.
- One of the major difficulties in arguing with a Believer is that they invariably demonstrate that they don't really know why they believe much of what they believe; someone told it to them, and they sufficiently trust the teller that they don't bother to try and integrate it with everything else they know about reality. It's pre-digested for them, so it slips right through without having to engage the critical faculties.
- Another difficulty with such arguing is that it often seems somehow unfair to require one person to defend their entire religion. (Never mind that those of us on the other side are defending the entirety of science -- a much larger, more elaborate, and more often counterintuitive body of knowledge; we must make allowances for the mental frailty caused by hostile meme infections.)
- Both of these problems would be addressed if all dogma had to come stamped with a source – an official reference work or (preferably) a person, either of which could be held (somehow) accountable if the dogma was not found to be supportable.
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- 2007-04-15 Your Rationality is My Business by Eliezer Yudkowsky