Posted by: Jeff | January 14, 2010

Go Ahead and Criticize the Other Guy’s Religion

I realize it’s easy to mock Brit Hume’s recent declaration on Fox News that Tiger Woods would be better off abandoning Buddhism and converting to Christianity. (And God knows, as The Daily Show segment points out, that the conservative complaint about Christianity having it harder in the public sphere than other religions is a bunch of crap.) But I think Ross Douthat has the right idea here:

Somewhat more plausibly, a few of Hume’s critics suggested that had he been a Buddhist commentator urging a Christian celebrity to convert — or more provocatively, a Muslim touting the advantages of Islam — Christians would be calling for his head.

No doubt many would. The tendency to take offense at freewheeling religious debate is widespread. There are European Christians who side with Muslims in support of blasphemy laws, lest Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad have his reputation sullied. There are American Catholics who cry “bigotry” every time a newspaper columnist criticizes the church’s teaching on sexuality. Many Christians have decided that the best way to compete in an era of political correctness is to play the victim card.

But these believers are colluding in their own marginalization. If you treat your faith like a hothouse flower, too vulnerable to survive in the crass world of public disputation, then you ensure that nobody will take it seriously. The idea that religion is too mysterious, too complicated or too personal to be debated on cable television just ensures that it never gets debated at all.

This doesn’t mean that we need to welcome real bigotry into our public discourse. But what Hume said wasn’t bigoted: Indeed, his claim about the difference between Buddhism and Christianity was perfectly defensible. Christians believe in a personal God who forgives sins. Buddhists, as a rule, do not. And it’s at least plausible that Tiger Woods might welcome the possibility that there’s Someone out there capable of forgiving him, even if Elin Nordegren and his corporate sponsors never do.

Or maybe not. For many people — Woods perhaps included — the fact that Buddhism promotes an ethical life without recourse to Christian concepts like the Fall of Man, divine judgment and damnation is precisely what makes it so appealing. The knee-jerk outrage that greeted Hume’s remarks buried intelligent responses from Buddhists, who made arguments along these lines — explaining their faith, contrasting it with Christianity, and describing how a lost soul like Woods might use Buddhist concepts to climb from darkness into light.

Religions are a lot like cars. (Seriously, stick with me on this.) There is the conceptual category “car,” just as there’s the conceptual category “religion.” But then there are actual, particular types of cars and particular types of religions. And everybody agrees, as a matter of course, that some actual types of cars do a better of job of, well, being a car than other types of cars do. It’s just that not everyone agrees on which type of car that is. Stands to reason that the same logic applies to religions.

When it comes to cars, we debate and argue in public over which ones are better all the time. Final agreements are rarely reached, but the different camps generally manage to carry on the perpetual argument without anyone freaking out or becoming grievously offended. While lots of people disagree vehemently over what the best type of car is, everyone seems to be perfectly fine with the other guy thinking his car is better than theirs and saying so in public. And vice-versa. Our civic discourse would probably be a lot better off if we could handle religion the same way.



  1. I agree with most of your line of reasoning.

    To me, it is idiotic to fight over the religiosity of ones perspective–albeit, there are philosophical and ethical undertones that may drive certain behaviors to a detrimental state of conversion–without first, embracing intellectual conviction. The egotistical poise of the former always makes for the destabilization of the latter.

    Nice piece.

  2. Arius

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with the qualifications you bring up.

    My experience is that the most substantive and meaningful religious conversions are the ones that sneak up slowly on people, and which surprise the person being converted as much as anyone.

    The more dramatic and conscientious conversions, which are what we usually picture when thinking of the term, tend be ways of working out personal crisis, social circumstance or personality issues by proxy. Hence the egotism in these latter cases, since the person converted is usually looking for broader validation via the conversion.

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