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Today’s SPAZZY subject,


What is religion?

I’ve asked this question before, and the answer depends on who you ask.  As usual.

However, because it makes my arguments easier, we’re going to talk about religion as a moral and spiritual force.

What is the purpose of religion? In this definition, the purpose of religion is to provide man with a way to communicate with the spiritual, and to establish a system of ethics by which man interacts with the world.

What does this mean?  This means that religion provides us with a way to understand our spirituality, and grants a certain responsibility and purpose to our being-in-the-world.  In this context, everyone has a religion, and this fact is something I will maintain fiercely against all comers.

Something I say in conversation as a joke, but mean perfectly seriously: “I have my own religion, of which I am the only member.”  But for the purposes of this blog post, we’ll focus on the latter, so that we can begin to talk about religious intolerance.

So what is religious intolerance?

Religious intolerance is what happens when religion’s dictates clash with reality.  Any ethical objection to an action based wholly or in part on religious teaching is religious intolerance, if we want to be irritatingly technical about it, but we tend to think of it as less problematic if it doesn’t clash with our own personal norms.  For example, you don’t see murderers gathering in large numbers to protest the religious intolerance they face every day, because even they share sufficient cultural context with us to agree that murder, by and large, is generally a bad thing that people do.  

Also, just like Aristotle, I’m preaching to a choir…so if you’re not of the impression that murder is by and large a bad thing that people do, you should maybe stop reading and go back to 4chan.

SO RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE, THEN, is when people don’t feel that they can tolerate an action due to the dictates of their religion.  This is more or less caused by what we refer to as COGNITIVE DISSONANCE, which is that feeling in your brain when you really want to date two guys at the same time or when you try to think of a round square object that is both white and orange at the same time.

[For extra fun with cognitive dissonance, try this: imagine a four-dimensional object.  It’s just like a three-dimensional object, except in addition to height, width, and depth, it has a fourth dimension that is just as perpendicular to all of those as they are to each other. It’s a weird, uncomfortable mental sensation, isn’t it?]

COGNITIVE DISSONANCE is what happens when two beliefs clash.  In the simplest of cases these beliefs are polar opposites, like this:

“Thou shalt not kill.”

“I believe I just saw Jeff shoot Tim in the face. That is killing.”

The two belief systems (Killing is wrong; someone just killed) clash, and in the clash they produce cognitive dissonance and then a resolution that is usually semi-logical (Ergo; Jeff just did something wrong).

The logic point is something I want to emphasize, because when we’re yelling at people we want to make this clear.

EVERYONE MAKES SENSE INSIDE THEIR OWN HEAD.  Even crazy people follow their own zany logic; what makes them crazy, by and large, is that they’re a minority.   I follow my own zany logic; at times this makes people look at me oddly and ask if I was just talking to an inanimate object.  And I was, and his name is Phil.

So, shifting gears here and talking about intolerance in general.  What is intolerance?

The best way to define it, in my humble opinion, is as an inability to allow behaviors to proceed unopposed.

So loony religious types will not allow nontraditional marriages to occur in their country, assuming that it will pollute everyone with its terrible, terrible horribleness.

Rabid atheist types will not let even the faintest hint of religion escape their ravenous rationalism, lest everyone suddenly burst into gospel music and flee to the hills before the oncoming flood.

Why do we think this is problematic?

Because here in AMERICA, we tend to think that people’s actions should be unrestricted.

And, you know, also in other countries, where other stuff happens.

But these are systems of morality.  By definition they are meant to stand for what is right and what is wrong.

So how can systems of morality be wrong?

Well, because they are inflexible.  By and large, the moral systems that drive more problematic forms of intolerance tend to be eager to give us a hard-and-fast ruling.  In philosophical terms (HOLD ON TO YOUR HATS) they are DEONTOLOGICAL.




Quick definition, for those lucky few of you who haven’t come across this term.

Something deontological is rule-based. Actions are judged on whether or not they conform to a system of rules, and based on that they are assigned a value.  An example of a deontological system is a legal code, where, for example it doesn’t matter why you do something—as long as you don’t break any laws, it’s not wrong for you to do it.


But though most legal and religious systems are DEONTOLOGICAL, we don’t actually tend to function that way.  Life is rarely convenient enough to fit into a system of hard and fast rules. Lying is a great example.  We obviously think there is a spectrum of lies—that telling someone you killed their parents is a different sort of lie from saying you’ve got homework to do and won’t be going to the party (when the actual reason is you don’t like the people that are throwing the party).

What separates the two? Well, motive, for one.  In one example, you’re telling someone you killed their parents because…well, I actually can’t imagine why.  You’re a sick bastard, whoever you are.  But your motive is probably to cause them pain, because it’s difficult to imagine a situation where that would turn out well (though I’ll explore that in a second).

In the other situation, you’re trying to spare someone’s feelings by not telling them you hate their friends and want to stab them in the eyes.  It’s a delicate balance to strike.

But what if you were telling someone that you killed their parents to help them? If, for example, their parents had actually been killed by a giant death monster that was hiding in the other room and you were trying to get them to chase you so that you could lead them out of the house and into safety?  Well then, we might say that the ends justify the means—which, our legal systems notwithstanding, tends to be more often the way we look at the world.

A system of ethics that looks at the intended end of an action rather than the means is called a TELEOLOGICAL system.  Telos is Greek, or some sh*t like that, and it is basically the end or good—essentially, it’s whatever you’re trying to accomplish with your actions.



ARISTOTLE’S ETHICAL SYSTEM IS TELEOLOGICAL.   It’s more guidelines than actual rules, and in fact he recognizes that “it is a hard task to be good,” because “in every case it is a task to find the median.” [1109a24, if you want to whip out your Nicomachean Ethics and follow along].

So where moral decisions are involved, then, we don’t actually often follow hard and fast rules, because doing so tends to drive us pretty reliably right back into the stone ages and seems to make us act in a way that is creepy and robotic.  Ethical systems should have flexibility, right?  We are only human, and we err.



And I’ll be addressing it in a later post, now that I’ve laid some groundwork, but I think that’s enough information to spew for now.

And for now, if you are a person who would condemn others for their creed, their body, or their love, I’ll just suggest that you look at the ends of your actions.

Is your condemnation done for their sake?

Do you think of them and their feelings?

If not…maybe you should.

Because all people are people too.

And on a more high-level blog post summary:  Think about your own personal system of ethics.  Do you have hard and fast rules? Or do you just make sh*t up as you go along?  Reflection is the key to making sure you’re at least coherent in your ethical protestations.


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