Can a person be both a bigot and a nice person? If so, who or what do we blame for their bigotry? The person themselves? Religion? Indoctrination? What (if anything) should be done about it?
A few years ago while I was a student, I worked in a shop part-time. I had some co-workers who were Muslims, and we’d have lots of heated (but friendly) debates about religion. We still keep in contact, and I’m pleased to call them my friends. In fact, I largely have them to thank for my becoming a more ‘card-carrying’ atheist. I had never come across anti-evolution or creationism before I heard them talking about it, and it made me read Dawkins and get involved with atheism and skepticism.
Anyway, I saw this from one of them today (I warn you; it contains egregious anti-semitism):
The woman that posted this is one of my friends and is a really nice person, however the second commenter is someone I don’t know – I presume a friend of hers.
This isn’t a new experience for me. Another (really very nice) Muslim friend once told me that she thought that stoning adulterers to death was a righteous judgement. Another time, two nice Muslim guys (two of my friends, of course) were having a not-so-nice discussion right in front of me about how much they were looking forward to gay people being tortured in Hell, and how they wished they could do it themselves.
I want to make it clear that I am of course not making the claim that all Muslims or even most Muslims believe these sorts of things. Perhaps the latter is true, but that is an empirical fact that isn’t really relevant. I could add my Christian friends who have told me that my being destined for Hell is a just and good judgement.
Is Religion Responsible?
You are probably thinking “why do you keep calling them ‘nice’? How could someone who thinks those kind of things possibly be called ‘nice’?”
All this reminds me of a quote from Steven Weinberg:
With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
These people are ‘nice’ in every sense apart from when they express these sorts of views, and I’m sure they’d never actually hurt anyone. They are the ‘good people who do evil things’ in Weinberg’s aphorism.
Now, one possibility is that their religion did not cause them to believe these things, but rather their cultural upbringing did. This is a tricky distinction, since if you are brought up in a particular religion then that religion usually forms an integral part of that upbringing, and so it is difficult to prise these factors apart. I think it is reasonable to put at least these hateful beliefs down to their religion, since they do seem to be based on religious considerations, such as the Prophet Mohammed being insulted and things like that.
To add further weight, consider the non-religious racist, such as a stereotypical member of the English Defence League. I don’t know anyone in the EDL, but if I did, I doubt I would excuse their beliefs or still refer to them as ‘nice’. But why not – what’s the difference? Well, for some reason or other, I excuse my friends’ religiously-motivated hate on the basis that it is religiously motivated – as if deep down they don’t really believe it! I suppose there’s an intuition that if my friends became apostates then they’d also shed the belief that adulterers should be stoned to death.
So if they are really ‘nice’ people, who are led to believe nasty things on account of their religion, then where do we go from here? I wish to ask three questions:
1) Am I right in saying that their religion is responsible? One difficulty with this view is that there are plenty of Muslims who would completely disavow these sorts of beliefs, so why can’t my friends keep their religion while not being anti-Semitic at the same time?
2) Is excusing my friends reasonable? As I say, they are nice, good people, who also hold some wildly out-of-place beliefs. I’m not asking whether they should be confronted over these beliefs – I think they should. I’m just asking whether we ought to have the same disdain for them as people, as we do for racist members of the EDL.
3) If the answer to the previous question is yes, then should we consider the cultural upbringing of members of the EDL too? Perhaps a particular member was brought up and taught that ‘Britain should be [white] British’. Perhaps they could be an ‘apostate’ in the same way someone could ditch their religion.
I’m interested in what people think.