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Kristof: Quit Hating on the Evangelicals
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This Sunday editorial by Nicholas Kristof has been making the rounds in the atheist blogosphere. Here's the intro:

At a New York or Los Angeles cocktail party, few would dare make a pejorative comment about Barack Obama's race or Hillary Clinton's sex. Yet it would be easy to get away with deriding Mike Huckabee’s religious faith.

Liberals believe deeply in tolerance and over the last century have led the battles against prejudices of all kinds, but we have a blind spot about Christian evangelicals. They constitute one of the few minorities that, on the American coasts or university campuses, it remains fashionable to mock.

I've seen comments pointing out the obvious objection to the first paragraph, and Kristof must have gotten a lot of letters on the subject, because his blog attempts to answer some of the criticism, starting with this objection:

It's disingenuous to compare pejorative comments about race or gender to pejorative comments about religion. After all, we have no control over our race or gender.

Granted, that is a difference, and it's probably worse to insult someone whose face was scarred in a car accident than voluntarily as part of an African tribal rite. But why insult either person? Indeed, most liberals are respectful of people's life choices and nonjudgmental of others, and liberals have generally been far more tolerant of Muslims than conservatives have. Yet even in temples of liberal tolerance such as university campuses, one of the few groups it's still acceptable to deride is evangelical Christians. Mormons, too, I suppose. In the 1960's, conservatives often displayed a foolish prejudice against people with long hair or beards, and that wasn't made sensible simply because anyone could get a haircut. The problem was that it relied upon caricatures and demeaning stereotypes of the "other," and such pejorative stereotyping and mockery is inappropriate even if it relates to characteristics that are not innate. Such as faith. And by the way, one thing we might have learned over the millennia is that religious wars aren't good for anybody.

Well where do we draw the line between mockery and criticism? The way I read Kristof, he seems to be against any sort of criticism of others' ideas when it comes to religion.

For example, is it mockery to say: "Your ideas are poorly justified and you have very little evidence to support your claims. Faith, believing something with poor justification, is not a virtue, it's a vice."

Just how unsubstantiated does a belief need to be in order to earn Kristof's criticism (or mockery, for that matter)? If Kristof were at one of those imaginary LA cocktail parties, and he found out one of the guests believed that Zeus was the king of gods, and this fellow wore a necklace with a little lightning bolt on it, would Kristof treat such beliefs with deference and respect?

His justification for treating unjustified beliefs with kid gloves is the tired old utility argument. Because evangelicals do a lot of good things in the name of their religion, we should respect them and their beliefs.

This is silly, of course. Imagine a belief system which taught that if you relieve the suffering of enough people (though that number would be kept secret), you would eventually attain the power to transmute any metal into gold. Now imagine if I were actually able to convince people to belief this. Followers who actually believed this in their hearts would undoubtedly help many, many people. Should we determine the merit of such a system simply on the basis of its outcomes? Or should we care about its basis in fact? Should we care about whether or not it's a sensible thing to believe?

So Kristof is massively wrong on two counts: 1) Religious ideas should be privileged against criticism, and 2) The utility of unjustified belief systems should put them beyond criticism.

As others have pointed out, we enter a state of intellectual stasis when we refuse to engage each other over ideas. We celebrate debate and criticism in virtually every other arena, from art to why should religious ideas be off the table? And the utility of an unjustified belief system should not put it beyond scrutiny. One can imagine all sorts of systems that would foster altruism that could be completely without any sort of reasonable foundation. If it is the desired behavior that is the ultimate goal, then as a society we should be interested in adopting and refining belief systems that generate the most charity, longevity, and happiness. If we find out that Mormons are the happiest and most charitable, then we should all adopt Mormonism. If the most effective religion is Hinduism, we should all adopt that. If it's the utility, and not the truth behind it, that we care about, then the utility is what we should focus on, right?

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