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Zealotry and its victims

Published March 27, 2005

Many of the men and women who have been holding vigils outside Terri Schiavo's hospice are exhibiting the worst of America's home-grown strain of religiously grounded ignorance and hypocrisy.

They clutch their Bibles and rosary beads and hold signs that proclaim it a moral duty to care about life for the vulnerable and disabled, but exhibit no such passion when Republican leaders declare the need to cut food subsidies and medical care for the needy while reducing taxes for the wealthy.

Voting patterns indicate that the more overtly religious someone is, the more likely he is to vote Republican; and Republicans are more likely than Democrats to shrink potentially lifesaving programs for the nation's poor and infirm. According to that logic, patients such as Terri Schiavo should be kept alive indefinitely regardless of their prognosis, but it is okay to cut the state Medicaid program that paid part of their medical expenses. The logic is about on a par with the acolytes of Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, who weep and moan for "dead babies" but vote for leaders who are perfectly happy to ignore the 8.4-million children who don't have health insurance. (Terry, by the way, was in charge of organizing political pressure to reinsert Schiavo's feeding tube.)

How can people live with such internal contradictions? It has to do with the suspension of rational thought.

Terry's followers are people who tend to take the Bible as literal truth. They apparently have no trouble reconciling the 3.5-billion-year-old fossil record with the creationist theory that the Earth is some 6,000 years old.

Understanding science involves logic, rigor and an appreciation for the value of evidence - which is not a world in which religious fundamentalists travel. Their belief that Schiavo would one day recover was not shaken when medical science determined that she was in a persistent vegetative state with part of her cerebral cortex having been replaced by spinal fluid. And they ignore complex public policy issues on the provision of social services that have life-and-death consequences for living people, in order to fight to save embryos in a petri dish.

In his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, author and neuroscientist Sam Harris says it is time we stop tiptoeing around religious zealots - of any faith or denomination - and start challenging their implausible world view.

"If history reveals any categorical truth, it is that an insufficient taste for evidence regularly brings out the worst in us. Add weapons of mass destruction to this diabolical clockwork, and you have found a recipe for the fall of civilization."

Harris is particularly worried about the rise of militant Islam. But his call is that we stop insulating all religions from the credulity tests we would normally apply to other fields of inquiry, such as physics and history.

In Deuteronomy 13:6-10, it is written that "if your brother" or "son or daughter" or "spouse" or "most intimate friend" tries to steer you toward worshiping another God, "you must kill him. . . . You must stone him to death." Similarly, the Koran 9:73 declares "make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites." Harris says those who follow the strict dictates of their religion, such as the Osama bin Ladens and Christian Armageddonists of the world, take such passages literally and look forward to the elimination of nonbelievers.

He puts the blame for allowing the perpetuation of these ancient blood decrees on religious moderates. Those who reject the murderous exhortations from these holy books, but refuse to denounce those who accept every word as a direction from God, are giving fundamentalists a pass, according to Harris. "By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally," Harris writes.

Those people in the middle, who think it is inappropriate to challenge the religious certainty of others, have allowed our country to be hijacked by irrational forces. In poll after poll, a large majority of Americans say they would not want to be kept alive as Terri Schiavo has been. But the elected branches of government are beholden to a vocal fringe of religious extremists, such as Douglas Scott, president of Life Decisions International - an organization devoted to destroying Planned Parenthood - who has declared that end-of-life directives are irrelevant. "Regardless of who thinks Terri would be better off dead, even if this included Terri herself, no one is permitted to take an action or inaction that will kill someone," Scott said in a statement.

By following the lead of fundamentalists, our nation has turned off course. It is time for religious moderates to start challenging the dangerous views of some of their brethren.

As Harris insightfully notes: "The only thing that permits human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-ended way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts. Only openness to evidence and argument will secure a common world for us." That would be a world in which fundamentalists are marginalized by their own closed minds and Terri Schiavo is allowed to rest in peace.

[Last modified March 27, 2005, 00:34:19]

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