In this week’s newspaper the Dutch philosopher and columnist Martin Slagter questions the assumed right of religious beliefs to command automatic respect. Our very laws are slanted in favour of this, both socially and politically. But, Slagter wonders, just how justified is such a stance really? I weighed Slagter’s words against my own experiences. Right here in Holland, in my own neighbourhood, Christian Calvinists have averted their eyes and turned their backs on me when I have walked past them, apparently for no other reason than that my appearance is fairly goth (how ironic, then, that both they and myself favour wearing black!). When considered simply as preferred lifestyles, there is no reason whatever that my Calvinist neighbours should not give me as much social acceptance as I would give to them. And yet in some mysterious way, because their own lifestyle is belief-driven, they apparently assume the moral high ground, and their actions leave me feeling judged by them accordingly.
On various Internet forums I have had much experience debating the case for science (drawn from my own professional experience) with numerous Fundamentalist Christian creationists who clearly considered that Charles Darwin is almost interchangeable with the Prince of Darkness himself, and who regarded the theory of evolution as the ultimate heresy. The sheer toxic invective directed at the theory of evolution in general, and Darwin in particular, actually took me aback the first time I encountered it. And it was not so long ago that a furore broke out here in Holland when it was discovered that the Christian Evangelical channel was broadcasting David Attenborough’s commendable Life of Mammals nature series with the scenes which referred directly to evolution discreetly edited out.
To encounter minds right here in the 21st century which sincerely believe that dinosaurs were on board Noah’s Ark (which they had to be, if one also believes that all animals were created within one extremely busy week), and that the Earth is no more than 6,000 years old, was an experience for me almost akin to culture shock. I don’t go toe-to-toe with creationists any more (these days I’d sooner more fruitfully spend my time writing my blogs!), but in the two years which I did so, I encountered some very strange minds indeed in the anti-evolution camp. ‘Strange’ in the sense of apparently being willfully misshapen by the very religious beliefs which they sought to uphold.
Borders inside ourselves can be slipped over without our even noticing, and these include borders of human decency: of a sense of moral worth in what we believe as religious faith, and the acts which we perform in the name of such faith. Inevitably, this now includes those acts of social violence and terror which are committed in the name of Islam. To physically attack another – even to take a life - in the name of ‘upholding’ one’s faith is to diminish both oneself and, inevitably, one’s faith as well. And how bitterly ironic is it that you exultantly proclaim that ‘God is great!’ at the very moment that you take the lives of those (as someone doing so surely must believe) who are the creations of that same God?
I personally see no reason why religious belief as such should be granted respect as part of any privileged package deal simply because it is religious belief, and not some other form of moral code or ethical principle. Sure, we should respect the worldviews of others, but that respect should have more to do with a deeply-driven sense of human decency, of ‘doing the right thing’. And in religion, alas, that is not always present. Should I respect a religion whose ultimate authority on this Earth throws a mantle of tacit inaction - even protection - over the systematic and long-term pedophiliac activities of those answerable to it, instead of firmly establishing its own moral authority by conducting a rigorous and sweeping root-and-branch excision from their holy offices of the offending priests who have been responsible for ruining so many young lives?
Steven Weinberg said: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things… that takes religion.” Everything in me wishes that it were not so. Desperate experience shows that it is.
 Martin Slagter: Geloofsovertuiging is ook maar een mening (‘Religious conviction is also just an opinion’), in De Volkskrant, 3 October, 2012.
 For those unfamiliar with the arcane logic of creationists, they rely for this particular bit of reasoning on the calculations of Archbishop James Ussher, who in the 17th century totted up all those Biblical ‘begattings’ to conclude that the creation of the Earth took place on the evening before 24 October, 4004 BC. I try to be tolerant of others, I really do. But truth to tell, inside a creationist’s head is not a place that a sane, well-balanced person would wish to be.
Top image: Alberta Human Services. 2nd image: AnimalPhotos! 3rd image: Associated Press.