Norman Lear, the man behind All In the Family and founder of People for the American Way, offers a nice sounding but completely illogical argument today over at On Faith, the new Washington Post religious discussion site.
In an effort to combat the "mayhem and murder" that Lear sees as the direct result of people making their faith public, he starts by trying to establish that every person has a unique "understanding of and compact with our Maker." He postulates that no two people have the exact same experience of or beliefs about god (whatever or whoever that may be) and therefore we should keep those beliefs and experiences to ourselves, at least in the context of trying to convince others to accept them also
Now, even if Lear’s unsupported premise was true (and I am not at all willing to grant it), it would not follow that everyone should keep their beliefs private. This would only be the case if the beliefs people have are not objectively true and their religious experiences are not being interpreted correctly. That is to say, Lear’s encouragement of silence only makes sense if everyone is completely wrong about what they believe and experience. If, in fact, religious belief is just something people make up for themselves or something that people are deluded into accepting (perhaps to provide comfort, etc), then sharing those beliefs with others would be pointless. The idea that "my religious truth is the one true truth" would be silly. For example, arguments over the size of Santa’s sleigh or color of his jacket would be pointless because Santa does not exist.
Put another way, the notion that all religious belief is subjective and should not be debated publicly only makes sense if all religious doctrines are objectively false. If there is no "maker", if there is no "god", then keep your silly ideas about him or her or it to yourself.
On the other hand, debate about things that (at least might) objectively exist should be encouraged in order to arrive at the actual truth of the matter. Just because people have different beliefs about and experiences of something or someone does not mean that there is not objective truth to be known about that thing or person. Some people thought the earth was flat. I’m glad we didn’t stifle debate on that. Some people think I am a big jerk. I hope we can keep the jury out on that for a while.
If there even might be a god, religious beliefs and opinions should be out in the open so that we might strive to arrive at the truth of the matter. Have we established that there is no god and all religious belief is subjective (objectively false)? Not even Norman Lear thinks so, which makes his argument so weak and self-refuting. If he honestly thought that religious belief was subjective, he would not have written an article encouraging us to accept his belief, which he clearly thinks is objectively true for everyone.
Indeed, Lear disregards his own advice about shutting up to such a degree that he spends the rest of the article preaching to the reader about keeping "the rule" of the universe: "Treat others only as you would have them treat you." He claims that this is an absolute moral standard that transcends all religion and that it should be practiced along with having "reverence":
Reverence for our planet, what we know to be our universe, reverence
for daybreak and nightfall; for our children and their children;
reverence for one another and for that golden rule and the prophets
that passed it down to us.
At this point, the question for Mr. Lear has to be, "says who?" On what basis is he making these objective truth claims about the universe? Why should we accept that his truth is the one true truth (a sentiment he claims to despise)?
He does not give us a reason to believe it, but he clearly seems to think that he has achieved a point of universal objectivity that the rest of us haven’t. He looks down from some high perch above us unenlightened ones and sees that golden rule as a river:
I like the metaphor of the 1000 mile river. It sees several climate
changes as it flows, and responding to those changes, the vegetation
along its banks changes also. It’s the same water that nurtures the
varying growth, but it is all compatible and in harmony. This tree and
that plant does not “tolerate” the trees and plants not like it. The
golden rule is to view the “other” as entitled to be other, not as
Now, there is no substance the the argument that the golden rule is the one true truth, the absolute standard of the universe (the river) from which all religions (the vegetation) grow, but time restraints will keep that discussion for another day. For now let me emphasize again that Lear’s appeal to "keep God inside you" is self-refuting and downright dangerous, as following his advice would leave him with the only microphone.