In light of the ridiculous Amanda Marcotte/Shakespeare's Sister "controversy", I've been doing some thinking about the warped nature of our national discourse about religion.
The story so far, for those who have been lost in the woods for the past week: Amanda and Shakes get hired by the Edwards campaign. Right-wing bloggers go crazy and scour their blogs for "offensive" content, find a few jabs at Catholics (as well as some other allegedly-offensive stuff I won't bother with here), and try to get them fired. Edwards keeps them on but claims to be personally offended by their comments. (For more on the fake controversy, see just about every other political blog. There's way too much there for me to try to link to all of it.)
As a big fan of both targeted bloggers, and as a blogger (that no-one reads, maybe, but a blogger nonetheless!) who criticizes religion with some frequency, I consider myself to have something of a personal stake in this. The treatment these bloggers have received from the right-wing blogosphere troubles me for lots of reasons, but I'm far more troubled by the response from liberals and Democrats--and from Edwards himself: taking offense, but considering the offense insufficient to disqualify them for the job.
"Offensive" political rhetoric is not only tolerated but entirely expected in political blogs. That Amanda frequently drops the dreaded F-bomb and calls Republicans idiots, fascists, etc. is considered so par-for-the-course that even those calling for her head wouldn't use that as an argument against hiring her. But for some reason, criticizing a religion in the same terms is utterly beyond the pale, even when criticizing it on political/ideological grounds.
Religious tolerance is a progressive value, and one that is necessary for a healthy liberal society. Respecting diversity of ideas is just as important as respecting any other form of diversity. No-one should be imprisoned or silenced by the state or shut out of public office or passed over for a job due to their private religious convictions. But religious tolerance does not require that religions and religious ideas shouldn't be criticized, or even that they should only be criticized respectfully, with kid gloves.
Religious ideas are, obviously, ideas. They are not equivalent to the color of one's skin--they are susceptible to conscious choice and critical thought. To refrain from criticizing religious ideas out of a desire to "respect" religion may be the nice thing to do (at least in some contexts), but it also amounts to a refusal to take those ideas seriously. Taking an idea seriously requires examining its strengths and defects, its degree of justification and its coherence. Refusing to criticize religious ideas is in fact a far more real slight against religion than criticizing them in an "offensive" way.
One of my biggest problems with American political discourse is that it revolves around religious ideas that aren't taken seriously. As a secularist, of course, I would take issue with having a primarily religious political discourse in any event. But since it's what we have, couldn't we at least have real debates about religion, instead of treating it as something beyond debate? As liberals/leftists, I think we ought to do what we can to open up this sort of debate: keeping religious ideas outside of the realm of what is susceptible to criticism and discussion can only help the religious right, since it leaves what they claim as the source of their whole ideology outside the realm of legitimate discourse. To refuse to debate religious ideas because of misguided ideas about tolerance and the fear of being labelled a "bigot" would be a serious mistake.
To call even the harshest criticism of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church "bigotry" is simply absurd. To be bigoted against Catholics as a class is very different from thinking (and saying) that the official ideology of the Church is stupid and wrong. (The idea that it would be is particularly absurd in the case of a religion as internally complicated and diverse as Catholicism.) Bigotry against Catholics would entail a general prejudice against people who self-identify as Catholic that extends beyond one's opinion of their religious ideas to their worth as human beings more generally. But clearly neither of the targeted bloggers has expressed any prejudice of this kind.
(I would note that I don't think it counts as bigotry to think that the followers of some particular religion are dumb, either--as long as it is clear that you think they are dumb only to the extent that they believe some particular religious idea that is dumb. What a person believes reflects their judgment more generally, and religious ideas are no exception to this; but surely there are extremely intelligent people who believe in religious ideas I consider dumb. It would constitute bigotry to assume otherwise.)
In light of all these considerations, I find it very troubling that so many liberals feel the need to condemn these bloggers' comments. It would be one thing if the condemnation simply took the form of disagreement with the content of the comments--the troubling thing is that many people seem to think that the comments were deeply inappropriate, not just incorrect. I understand that Edwards himself, as a national political figure, can't really afford to be seen to endorse such strident criticism of religious ideas. But for the rest of the liberal critics: what's the big deal? Where's the impropriety? The comments were made on private blogs, and were criticisms of religious ideologies, not of classes of citizens. There is absolutely nothing inappropriate about that.
In response to the whole mess, Amanda issued an apology of sorts (see link above) in which she says she did not intend to insult anyone's religion as such, but merely to make points about the intersection of religion and politics. I think this is conceding too much. There is nothing inappropriate or intolerant about "insulting" someone's religion. It may not be the nicest thing to do, it may offend some people, but seriously: this is the fucking blogosphere. You can't expect people to be nice, and no-one should feel that they must bow to anyone who has this expectation.
In closing, as a pre-emptive strike of sorts, I'd like to make something clear:
When I attack religious ideas, I do intend to insult the religion in question. If a religion incorporates dumb and harmful ideas, it deserves to be insulted. No ideas should be immune to criticism simply because people believe them really fervently, or because they happen to be ideas about the supernatural. If I think some religious idea is dumb, I will say so. If I think that it is dumb to believe some religious doctrine, I mean exactly that, and I do in fact mean to say that it reflects on the intelligence of the person who believes it. (Believing something dumb is not the same thing as being a dumb person, but it reflects on your intelligence nonetheless.)
This may disqualify me from working for a presidential campaign, but I think I can live with that.