In one of the comments fields at the science blog Pharyngula, I came across this little gem from somebody styling himself nate-dogg:
I just so happened to see Bill Maher in concert last night. He was talking about the religious right and said something like, “They tell me I don’t respect their religion. Well, I don’t. But I don’t have to. I tolerate it, which is all that’s required of me as an American. It’d be nice if they’d return the favor.”
The comment comes in response to P.Z. Myers’ takedown of this piece about atheists in Raw Story. I don’t have the time or inclination to say anything about it right now. But Maher’s remark gets at something that I really like about America, and points up something that I find really tiresome about the way Amy Sullivan and other theorists from the pews are always berating the left for not “respecting” religion.
About 20 minutes south of where I live is a big Islamic center, right off Route One, near a burrito joint. About 10 minutes north is a Pepto Bismol-colored Hindu temple covered with intricate panels, right across from a high school. Along the way to either one, I pass churches and synagogues. I have yet to see any Buddhist temples, but that’s okay – I saw a couple in the Yellow Pages a little while ago, so I know they’re around.
A secular society makes it possible for all these religions and denominations to go about their business without worrying about what I think – or, for that matter, what anybody else outside their faith thinks. Bill O’Reilly can bloviate all he likes about how “secularists” are wrecking the country, but the fact of the matter is that by leaving government out of religion, America allows all religions to flourish.
I like living in a country where Diwali, Ramadan, Christmas and Hannukah all have room to be celebrated or ignored. That’s a big part of what America is about, and a big part of the reason why Republicans, when they made their unholy alliance with the religious right, forfeited a large measure of their claim to be true patriots. When Jerry Falwell and his ilk screech about Christians being persecuted, what they really mean is that Christians (that is, their relatively small sect within Christianity) can’t call all the shots. Well, they shouldn’t call all the shots – no religion should.
Describing the early pagan phase of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon wrote that “the various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful . . . Toleration produced not only a mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.”
That sounds like a good formula for any society to follow – especially ours.