This article was solicited by a CRI well-wisher and submitted by Kalavai Venkat as a rebuttal to an article on proselytism that appeared on CRI a little while back. It is an interesting assault on the libertarian notion of religious freedom from a non-traditionalist perspective. As a facilitator of open debate among different views, CRI is pleased to publish a different angle to the debate on conversions.

The author has also graciously consented to engaging with anyone if they wish to rebut this article.

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Not all libertarians are religious but they consider religious freedom to be an inalienable right and oppose state interference with religious affairs. In the libertarian worldview, so long as someone offers a religion and another is ready to consume it the state cannot interfere with it. As a result libertarians support proselytizing in principle even when they are opposed to what the proselytizer preaches. The libertarian position is that every individual should decide for oneself whether to accept or reject a religious teaching.

  • Is the libertarian position reasonable and scientific or is it arbitrary?
  • Do individuals really make a reasonable choice when it comes to faith-based religions? Is every individual capable of deciding for oneself? Should one embrace beliefs that harm one?
  • Should an individual subscribe to and propagate religious beliefs that could harm another that may not subscribe to it?
  • Should parents abuse their own unsuspecting children by forcing harmful religious beliefs upon them?
  • Should religious freedom be an inalienable right or a privilege earned only when the teachings and practices of a religion are beneficial to individuals and society?

Why Do People Believe?

Do individuals really make a choice when it comes to faith-based religions as libertarians assert or do these religions spread by other means? Science offers insights into how religious ideas spread.

Richard Dawkins is a distinguished Oxford biologist and well-known atheist who first propounded the idea of memes. Susan Blackmore (The Meme Machine) and other scientists have built upon it. Just as biological traits are inherited through genes, social ideas (religious belief being an example) are inherited through memes and transmitted by imitation and copying. The inheritance of ideas through memes results in a meme-complex or memeplex. The study of memes is called memetics. The analogy of how a child speaks a language or dialect with the same accent as her parents or community members is helpful to understand how memetics works. She observes and imitates them while she grows up. In this case, the process of acquiring an accent through imitation occurs through a memetic inheritance. Similarly, faith-based religious beliefs are memetically inherited. Blackmore points out that religious ideas spread through a memetic process in which memes would jostle to occupy brains and that:

“Just as with genes in a gene pool, the memes that prevail will be the ones that are good at getting themselves copied…they flourish in the presence of other memes that have already become numerous in the meme pool.”[1]

So, the memetic understanding is that once a religious belief attains a numerical critical mass it is more likely to get reinforced by attracting more followers including the unsuspecting children of the converts. A good example of this is the exponential growth of Christianity in South Korea once it had attained a critical mass. The reason for this is simple. Dawkins points out that a human being survives by the accumulated experience of previous generations and that there is a selective advantage to conformance. So, a child conforms by following the religious beliefs of his parents. As a result only one in twelve children break away from their parents’ religious beliefs.[2] This indicates that most people do not make a choice when it comes to religious beliefs but merely conform to the dominant religious meme. This invalidates the libertarian presupposition that one chooses one’s religious beliefs.

Should Every Individual Decide For Oneself?

The libertarian position presupposes that everyone is capable of deciding for oneself and where one goes wrong one should live with the consequences of one’s decision. However, science shows that every individual is incapable of deciding for oneself.

Glossolalia (talking in tongues or the fluid vocalization of speech without any comprehensible meaning in a group setting) is rooted in Christianity and there are many biblical verses that reference it.[3]  However, only a minority of Christian sects such as the Pentecostals that practices it today. The Pentecostals consider it an energizing state in which the God of Abraham intervenes and influences the brain. However, neuroscience has a different story to tell.

The neuroscientist Andrew Newberg scanned the brains of the Pentecostals while they engaged in glossolalia. Pentecostals had surrendered voluntary control and the activity in the limbic system of the brain had increased in turn amplifying the emotional intensity of the experience for the practitioner. This is bad news because an increase in the activity in the limbic system results in a hyperactive amygdala, a key organ in the limbic system which generates anxiety and fear and triggers a flight-or-fight response. Newberg found out that a 12-week regimen of yöga helps reduce the activity in the amygdala. This was also corroborated by the studies of Creswell, Way, Eisenberger, and Lieberman where they asked the practitioners of dhyāna (Hindu or Buddhist meditation) to consciously label their feelings from moment to moment (which is the exact opposite of glossolalia where one surrenders self-control) and found out that the activity in the amygdala decreases.[4] Yet, many Christians embrace this harmful practice of glossolalia instead of embracing the beneficial yöga thereby confirming that many individuals, including adults, are incapable of deciding for themselves.

So, the libertarian edifice is built on an unscientific premise.

One Believes, Others Suffer

Libertarians argue that so long as one does not impose one’s religions on others one, especially an adult, is free to practice a religion whether it is good or bad.

Here, the libertarian definition is narrow because it fails to recognize that dangerous religious beliefs spread like viruses and infect others who never chose to embrace such beliefs and hence violates their rights. There is evidence that faith-based religions behave like viruses and eventually destroy the host. In Virus of the Mind – the New Science of the Meme, Richard Brodie leverages the researches of Dawkins, Dennett, and Hofstadter to make a powerful case for how pernicious memes (some religious beliefs fall into this category) invade and destroy the mind just as a virus invades and destroys the host.

In a memeplex, an adult that has embraced a dangerous religious belief proselytizes one’s own unsuspecting children and thus transmits the pernicious religious meme to those that never asked to be infected with it in the first place. This violates the rights of those children to grow up immune to pernicious religious beliefs. Memetics informs us that if those pernicious religious memes are copied – any form of proselytizing would facilitate that – they will become dominant in society which would force future generations of humans to inherit a world infected by such memes even though those generations never chose to inherit such a world.

In effect, the libertarian position is arbitrary, naïve, and myopic because it privileges the imaginary rights of the uninformed adult at the expense of the real rights of children, informed adults, and future generations.

Religious Freedom: A Right Or A Privilege?

A right is something inalienable to an individual whereas a privilege is something the individual earns.[5] Some religious teachings seriously endanger the very existence of non-believers. If such religious teachings are not restrained it would even violate the rights of non-believers to exist. I will illustrate this by discussing a couple of inalienable features of Christianity:

  • Anti-Semitism is inherent in Christian beliefs. What is the first question a child would ask when she encounters the cross or the crucifix for the first time? She would ask, “Who killed Jesus Christ?” The New Testament has the answer, loud, clear and repeated many times over: the Jews. If the child were to grow up as a faithful Christian, believing the words of The New Testament to be true, then she has to believe that all past, present and future generations of Jews are guilty of deicide, because that is what her holy book would tell her. In The Dark Side – How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth, the psychologist Valerie Tarico corroborates this point by showing that there is a direct correlation between one’s observance of Christianity and one’s anti-Semitism. This should not be surprising – the Lutheran theologian Norman Beck demonstrates that The New Testament alone has over 450 anti-Semitic verses, many of which were uttered by Jesus himself.[6] It calls the Jews “Christ-killers,” “children of the Devil,” “brood of vipers,” etc. Since Christians believe their scripture to be the true and inspired word of the God of Abraham, Christian societies have historically been anti-Semitic and persecuted the Jews. This culminated in the Holocaust of the Jews under the Third Reich. As Dawkins points out, Hitler was inspired by Jesus (Matthew 3:7) to call the Jews a “brood of vipers.”
  • Christianity teaches that Jesus would judge everyone on his Second Coming and usher in the Kingdom of God (a thousand year old reign – Hitler was inspired by Jesus to call his Third Reich a thousand year old reign). What about those who refuse to believe in Jesus? Well, they would be put on the hell-bound cargo post-mortem to suffer eternal torment (Mark 16:1) by getting roasted alive in the furnace of hellfire (Matthew 13:40-43). This belief has historically dehumanized non-Christians in the eyes of Christian believers and has resulted in numerous genocides – those of the Native Americans, Jews, Gypsies (who are the biological descendents of the Jāts of India), Vietnamese Buddhists, and Iraqi Muslims being a few examples.

Even though the Buddhists, Gypsies, Jews, and Native Americans ignored or rejected Christianity, they were still exterminated by the mere existence of Christianity. The libertarian stance that one has the right to embrace Christian beliefs is arbitrary because such a stance ignores the reality that Christian memes threaten the rights of non-Christians to exist. It is akin to absurdly arguing that some children have the right to get infected with the smallpox virus whereas the reality is that once infected they would cause the deaths of other children. A reasonable and scientific stance would be to inoculate all children against the smallpox virus. In the religious context, it would be reasonable and scientific to conclude that every religion earns the privilege of religious freedom only by offering beneficial and not harmful teachings to society, Christianity has not earned that privilege, and all individuals have the right to be inoculated against the Christian meme.

Can The State Restrain Christianity?

A libertarian would concede that a non-Christian has the right to defend oneself from the Christian meme but insist that one cannot depend on the state to restrain Christianity. Instead, a non-Christian should rely upon free speech or self-organization to challenge Christianity. This is a wishful libertarian thinking that ignores the fact that Christians are impervious to free speech, evidence, and reason when their unreasonable beliefs are challenged. The best evidence for this is the Christian boycott of the teaching of the theory of evolution which threatens their beliefs. A majority of Christians not only carry on with a nihilistic lifestyle but also actively suppress free speech that threatens Christian beliefs as their reaction to the airing of the documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus[7] by the Discovery Channel illustrates. James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici inform:

“The evangelical Christian community mobilized a protest directed at the Discovery Channel demanding that the film not be shown again. Discovery received more than one and a half million e-mails from this irate constituency within twenty-four hours. Its switchboard was jammed with protesting phone calls for several days after the film aired. An orchestrated campaign directed toward the main advertisers supporting Discovery Channel programming quickly followed. As a result of this onslaught several major advertisers threatened not to advertise on Discovery if the show were ever aired again.”[8]

Of course, a very small minority of Christians indeed abandon their faith once they are exposed to reason. This usually happens when they go to universities. However, this still leaves a majority of the Christian core intact to jeopardize the safety of non-Christians. So, free speech is an ineffective weapon to deal with this threat. It is unrealistic to expect the Hindus to self-organize to counter Christianity because Hinduism is not congregational. It is undesirable to be a congregational religion because only faith-based religions made up of flocks of unquestioning believers tend to be congregational.

More pertinently, the libertarian view that society is a marketplace where religions compete for a share is irrational because it fails to recognize that faith-based religions such as Christianity are memetic viruses of the mind. Consider the hypothetical example of an oncologist that refuses to attack and obliterate cancer cells with chemotherapy or radiation and declares that the healthy cells are free to defend themselves in the free market of competition between carcinogenic and healthy cells. He would lose his license to practice right away. Replace the oncologist with the state, cancer cells with Christian memes, and healthy cells with the memes of reason and the absurdity of the libertarian stance becomes obvious. A state that would actively restrain Christian memeplexes to safeguard society is the only viable option. The state should disallow the running of Christian schools and hospitals, ban proselytizing, restrain parents from infecting unsuspecting children with Christian memes, require every child to receive a rational education, and actively take away the wealth that Christian organizations horde.

Conclusion

The libertarian stance on religion is arbitrary, unscientific, and irrational. It is not based on a scientific understanding of how religious ideas take root in society. It does not recognize the need to safeguard the rights of children who are abused by their Christian parents. It is myopic in nature since it privileges the rights of the uninformed living adult (i.e., Christian) over the rights of informed adults, children, and future generations. Many libertarians worship American constitution and make a big deal out of the separation of the church and state enshrined therein without realizing that it was at best the result of political expediency of the time. Matthew Alper points out that most of America’s pioneers were rabid religious fanatics.[9] None of those sects would have agreed to let the state interfere with its preposterous beliefs. The founding fathers took the path of least resistance by conceding that the state will not interfere with religion. However, they never stipulated that religion cannot interfere with the state and that was very much allowed. As a result, religious bigotry has continued to grow and influence state decisions in the USA since then. In hindsight, this constitutional provision has proved to be detrimental to society. Had the founding fathers mustered the courage and possessed the foresight to stipulate that the state will not tolerate harmful religious beliefs, perhaps Christianity would have been weeded out in due course of time, numerous genocides perpetrated since the founding of the USA avoided, and nobody would be trampling upon scientific research into stem cells or the rights of gays and lesbians to marry or adopt children.

Hindus have little need for libertarianism or to seek inspiration from America’s much hyped founding fathers. We have better role models, thinkers, and visionaries. One such is the celebrated naiyāyika (logician) Jayanta Bhaṭṭa, who advocates in Ǡgamaḍambara (Much Ado about Religion) that the state should subject harmful religions to logical scrutiny, falsify and ridicule them, and take legal measures to restrain them.[10]

Kalavai Venkat is a Silicon Valley-based writer and an atheistic, practicing Hindu.

 


[1] Dawkins, Richard: The God Delusion, p. 228. Kindle Edition.

[2] Dawkins, Richard: The God Delusion, Kindle Locations 1758-2834.

[3] Acts 2:11, 1 Corinthians 14:27, Romans 8:26, Mark 16:17, Acts 2:4, Acts 2:11, Acts 10:46, Acts 19:6, 1 Corinthians 12:10, 1 Corinthians 12:28, 1 Corinthians 12:30, 1 Corinthians 13:1, 1 Corinthians 13:8, 1 Corinthians 14:5-29.

[4] Newberg, Andrew, Waldman, Mark: How God Changes Your Brain – Breakthrough Findings From a Leading Neuroscientist, pp. 43-52.

[5] In my paper, The Christian ‘Right’ To Proselytize (American Atheists Quarterly, 1st Quarter, 2011), I had argued that religious freedom is not a right but a privilege that every religion must earn provided its teachings are beneficial and not harmful to the individual and society. I had brought up the example of the Christian sect of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) of the USA to highlight this point. The tenets of FLDS encourage polygamy with minor children but American law prevents the practice because it violates the rights of the girl children concerned. Here, society implicitly agrees that religious freedom is a privilege earned only when one’s practices do not harm others. However, as Daniel Dennett points out, while we unhesitatingly curtail the religious freedom of the so called cults we never apply the same yardstick to religions with a large number of adherents. I will add that while we cognize certain types gross violations of rights such as polygamy we fail to cognize other types of violation of rights such as predatory religious teachings that plant hatred in the minds of the unsuspecting believer. In that paper, I had defined a set of reasonable criteria to evaluate religious teachings, evaluated Christianity using those criteria, and concluded that Christianity had not earned the privilege of religious freedom.

[6] Beck, Norman A.: Removing Anti-Jewish Polemic from our Christian Lectionaries, a Proposal, http://jcrelations.net/en/?id=737 .

[7] This scientific discovery falsifies Christianity and gives it the dubious distinction of having become the first falsified religion in human history.

[8] Tabor, James D., Jacobovici, Simcha: The Jesus Discovery – The Resurrection Tomb that Reveals the Birth of Christianity, p. 52, Kindle Edition.

[9] Alper, Matthew: “God” Part of the Brain – A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God, p. 203, Kindle Edition.

[10] In a subsequent article, I will explain what kind of political system would be beneficial to society and can restrain harmful religions. Indo-European idea of republic is a very good pointer in this direction and can be adapted for today. In short, any system that privileges the lowest common denominators in society (democracy, all variants of socialism, and Abrahamic religions are examples of such a system) at the expense of the wiser elements of society will eventually self-destruct.

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Kalavai Venkat

Kalavai Venkat is a Silicon Valley-based writer, an atheist, a practicing orthodox Hindu, and author of the forthcoming book What Every Hindu Should Know About Christianity.

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