My wife tells me that this one is going to get me a fatwa from the Archbishop of Canterbury, but here goes anyway.
Religion is absurdly privileged in our society. Just the other day the Catholic primate of England (the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor) claimed that Catholic adoption agencies should be exempted from a law requiring agencies to consider gay couples as adoptive parents. The reason he gave was that “The rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well-meaning”. This was promptly supported by the primates of the church of England.
Of course, they did not really mean it. Or rather, they did not mean that the rights of conscience in general cannot be made subject to legislation. After all, there are plenty of positions held most conscientiously by other members of society that I suspect that the leaders of the Christian church would indeed want to have subjected to legislation. Or do the leaders of the Catholic and Anglican churches think that the beliefs of Nazis, racists and others, which are just as sincerely and conscientiously held as their own, should also be given free rein? How about a Nazi adoption agency that refused to allow Jews or blacks to adopt white children?
In fact what they really meant was that religious beliefs should be privileged. Why this should be so apparently goes without saying. But what special merit is there in religious belief? I cannot think of any, though I can think of many reasons for being deeply suspicious of any belief that announces that it is the will of God.
One of the sillier expressions of pro-religious prejudice is the widespread view that religion is the only basis for morality. The opposite is closer to the truth: morality based on (revealed) religion is quite amoral, as it seems to consist of accepting someone else’s morality (i.e., God’s) regardless of whether one actually believes it oneself.
It would be reassuring if all religious people who came up with the morally repulsive notion that we should obey the will of God merely because it is the will of God really meant that one should analyse what we (supposedly) know of that will and its moral implications, decide whether it did indeed provide a valid moral framework, and only if it did, then adopt it as our own. But then it would be our will, not that of God, and if (as becomes evident when comparing the Old and New Testaments) God changes his mind, we would persist with our own beliefs until shown that they were wrong.
But what do we actually get? A series of beliefs of no obvious moral merit, including some fantastically vicious and bloody threats in the Old Testament. Most of it reminds me of Dr Johnson’s famous (but apparently apocryphal) book review – ‘Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good’. Insofar as it is morally acceptable (or even intelligible), it could have been dreamed up by pretty much anyone, and to the extent that it is not, then it is not, and should be ignored or even actively resisted.
And that is the point. There is no reason society as a whole should privilege a system of ideas whose starting pont is outside the universe, and indeed outside all possible knowledge and experience, and then presumes to pronounce on the world at large, even when it is completely ignorant about most of it. There are plenty of ways of responding to people who think like that. One of the most effective is to increase their dose.