Commentary: Critic of religion uses a straw man to justify rudeness

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square performs at the General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Saturday Oct. 6, 2018.

Gregory Clark’s Oct. 10 column, “Ridiculous, repugnant ideas don’t deserve respect,” responding to Holly Richardson’s op-ed, “We can know God’s will and see his hand,” rang seriously off-key to me. He either misread and misconstrued her main points, or at the least pursued a narrow, contorted interpretation.

Mostly it appeared a straw-man argument, bolstered by other basic logical fallacies (i.e. a real God wouldn’t allow such-and-such, so belief in God’s existence deserves derision), to justify rudeness.

The chief straw man Clark creates and attacks goes something like this: Many religions have false, irrational, sometimes ridiculous or harmful beliefs, practices and historical incidents (cherry-picked and presented in disingenuous manner in my estimation); therefore, contrary to Richardson’s remarks, we should not respect such beliefs and their adherents. Consequently, mocking them is fair game.”

But nowhere does Richardson say religions are infallible or that we should just blindly accept their tenets and refrain from critiques. In fact, she clearly states otherwise. As I read it, two key points were: 1) Try to see some positive in religion (a historical source of morality, values and laws, hence civilization), and not only the clichéd blemishes. 2) Let’s not denigrate and mock one another as we discuss matters of faith.

It appears she was simply advocating the golden rule, common to many world religions.

Richardson wasn’t saying don’t draw Muhammad — but maybe don’t rub sketches into the faces of your Muslim neighbors. And perhaps it isn’t really helpful to laugh at someone’s Jewish skullcap at an office party because you think his aversion to pork is foolish, or dangle a comedic prop made from Latter-day-Saint temple garments just to be rude, funny or make an ugly statement.

If Clark really wants to expose the error of religion, does he really believe ridicule is the answer? If his daughter embraced the ways of Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King or Eric Liddell to help the disadvantaged, driven by personal faith, would Clark mock her sincere beliefs? Or perhaps just kindly reason with her — while praising the service?

And suppose he could time travel to see the pioneers of the science that now supports his family, those who were also believers, or visit with the deistic and theistic founders of this country. Would he insult Newton, Pascal, Bacon, Boyle, Lavoisier, Priestley, Volta, Faraday, Maxwell or Mendel? Gray, Pasteur, Lord Kelvin, Thompson, Marconi, Carver, Fleming or Von Braun? Locke, Jefferson, Washington or Lincoln? Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, King or countless others? Would he deride their personal religious beliefs or praise their contributions?

And what of leeches, blood-lettings, miasmas, alchemy, Bible codes, eschatology and a geocentric universe? Does he currently mock the seemingly irrational scientific belief in an ex-nihilo singularity that underpins the current standard theory for the universe’s origin? Of all that we see and are? Or the purely materialistic universe of atheists, where all is mere accident, our words just scratches and noises of random colliding molecules that just happened to coalesce into you and me, through well-placed lightning bolts and mutations? With the logical conclusion that truth-and-error and right-and-wrong are human artifice and evolved illusions, why bother to even debate? Doesn’t the pure materialism of atheism negate “knowing” and “agency”? The atoms in our mouths and brains are simply following the fixed natural trajectory of billiard balls set in motion at the singularity; consciousness itself is just a clever atomic Jedi mind trick. But I digress.

Again, I don’t believe Richardson was asking anyone to stop critiquing religious belief, practice or history. Just that we try to be fair — and show respect in the process.

And in the extreme event we must forcefully oppose or expose something truly dangerous, let’s do it without without mockery.

Daniel V. Wilson

Daniel V. Wilson, Cedar Hills, is a teacher of the deaf with degrees in philosophy, religion and deaf education, who knows enough to know that he knows next to nothing, but stands with Holly Richardson on matters of faith and respect.