The Chasm of the Middle Ground

We who fight against bigotry and for human rights do so because we believe that a more just, more peaceful, more compassionate society benefits everyone. Prejudice is irrational by definition, a blind and maddened serpent; you never know who it will strike at next, and the oppressors and the oppressed have changed places many times in history. Therefore, the only rational conclusion is that I should support equal rights for everyone no matter what groups I belong to, not just because I can imagine myself in an oppressed person's place, but also from the Rawlsian logic that this will protect me as well if I should ever be in their place.

But this isn't how religious fundamentalists view the world. The representatives of each sect see themselves as the sole repository of wisdom and truth, and all outsiders as misguided at best, evil and malicious at worst. Worse, most of them hold firmly to the theocratic, medieval mindset that God means them and them alone to rule, and there's no reason to share power with others or plan for any other outcome. To people with this mindset, there's no middle ground and no possibility of compromise.

We saw this in the fights over the American health-care bill, where Roman Catholic bishops asserted that any employer - not just a church employer, but any employer, even the manager of a Taco Bell - should be able to deny his employees insurance coverage for any medical procedure to which he objects on religious grounds. Since most major medical procedures are ruinously expensive if not covered by insurance, this is equivalent to saying that employers should be able to dictate their workers' access to medical care. In the same vein, when there was a rash of teenagers committing suicide after vicious homophobic bullying, evangelicals in the Anoka-Hennepin School District vehemently objected to a proposed anti-bullying policy, claiming that it was an unconstitutional restriction on their religious freedom. Evangelical spokespeople have also explicitly endorsed this logic, that "if gays are not the ones being discriminated against, then Christians will be".

I don't know exactly when this shift happened. It used to be that America's most influential religious leaders had at least some other identifiable priorities: feeding the poor, promoting interfaith tolerance, things like that. But sometime in the last few decades, their collective worldview has changed, and those things were left by the wayside. Today, what they want most of all, what they stand for above everything else, is the right to discriminate - the freedom to hate, and to treat people unequally as long as that hate comes from religion. Religious bigotry, apparently, is supposed to be more acceptable than someone who hates women, gays, blacks or Jews for entirely secular reasons.

The worldview that grows from this soil, the worldview of the bishops and the fundamentalists, is that human rights are zero-sum: any gain in the rights of a marginalized group can be achieved only by taking rights away from someone else. If the government doesn't show favoritism to their sect, that's not because the government is religiously neutral, but because it's showing favoritism to atheists. If the government makes it easier for women to get birth control, that's a violation of their freedom to prevent women from using birth control. If same-sex couples are allowed to marry, that freedom must come at the expense, somehow, of some right being lost by opposite-sex couples. (Lately we've been seeing a new permutation, which is that churches which object to same-sex marriage worry they'll lose the right not to perform it. Since no church in the history of America has ever been compelled to perform a marriage ceremony in violation of its theological beliefs, this seems an unlikely fear - and why does that justify keeping it illegal for everyone?)

The concept that's slipped out of their worldview is peaceful coexistence; they've lost the ability to conceive of people of different beliefs living side by side without one group imposing their will on the other. This also explains why they react in such a hysterical, disproportionate manner to criticism: in their eyes, if we say even a word against them, it must mean that our ultimate goal is to make it illegal for anyone to believe as they do. (What does it say about their own goals that they so readily believe this of others? I leave that up to you.)

What the churches fear most of all is that if the world changes and they stay the same, people will come to look down on them as archaic, bigoted and irrational, and won't want anything to do with them. And they're absolutely right to fear this. But rather than taking the obvious response - revising their morality so that it no longer is archaic, bigoted and irrational - their plan is to prevent anything from ever changing again, to fossilize our morality exactly as it is, so no one can say that religion is out of step with the times. This is a battle they're bound to lose; the only questions are how long they can drag it out and how much harm they'll do in the meantime.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Daylight Atheism: The Book is now available! Click here for reviews and ordering information.

Related Articles

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less