Articles, Princeton writings September 16, 2004

In politics, religious zeal can be blinding

by Kai Chan

One must tiptoe through the tulips of religion with twinkle toes. Recently, a colleague and I discussed the French ban on conspicuous religious displays. I argued that although not perfect, the ban was appropriate. My friend, who is originally from a Muslim country but not religious, deplored the law. In fact, he so fiercely opposed the ban that he became belligerent in what was supposed to have been a civil debate between two educated persons.

I referred to some anecdotal evidence that demonstrated some French-Muslim women might actually be happier with this law in place. At this point he lost his composure and began yelling: “You are not Muslim! So how do you know what (French) Muslim women think? I am Muslim, and I can tell you that the vast majority of (French) Muslim women are opposed to the ban!”

In any case, he became so bellicose that a friend stepped in to calm his nerves. With that said, let me plod my size nines through the garden.

What makes some people so fanatical about religion? It has the power to turn otherwise intelligent people into irrational ideologues. And lest we think that this zeal is confined only to Muslims, I can attest that intelligent Jews and Christians can be likewise unreasonable when broaching particular subjects (e.g., Israel-Palestine and abortion).

These zealous moments have real consequences. The current administration has cut foreign aid to desperately needy African nations because they include abortion in their health services. The fact remains that abortion is legal in the United States and in these African nations, yet this White House refuses to give them aid because of its own religious views. Never mind the fact that high fertility rates are one of the factors that creat a poverty trap for these countries.

But these assumptions often go unquestioned.

It is rather peculiar that many people who are of a certain religion are so precisely because their parents are of that religion, or because they were raised in that environment. It seems that we want to hold on to what we learned when we were young at all costs, even though we have discarded other childhood notions. How many people who are religious consciously choose it? How many simply follow the path of least resistance? How many take the time to think that theirs is the correct one?

In this sense, religion is more about connecting with our family and culture than finding spirituality. But why do so many of us accept it into our lives — religiously — without scrutiny?

An economics professor from my undergraduate days once told a funny story about the absurdity of human nature, noting how many economists do not practice what they preach. For instance, some of his colleagues wrote about market efficiency and how the exchange rate is a random walk (martingale), yet speculated on the markets and used quasi-mystical strategies in their own portfolios. Economics for these people, he mused, was about getting published rather than stating their true beliefs. (Either that or money and greed — and love — makes fools of us all!)

He drove the point even more succinctly when he mentioned that economists were not the only people guilty of such behaviour. Take for instance, he said, of a geologist, who from Monday through Friday educates people about how the earth was created billions of years ago, and that the continents are the result of tectonic plates shifting since before the age of the dinosaurs. Yet on Sundays, she will believe that the world was created in six days.

For those who have read Descartes, why not apply that same Cartesian doubt — “I think, therefore I am” — into your life? If you approach life from this perspective you will gain a lot of insight into the world and learn more about yourself. (Admittedly, Descartes made the fallacy of presupposing the existence of God in his own little thought experiment; even the best of us succumb to our primal urge to find greater meaning in life.) I am not asking anyone to abandon religion. If it gives you peace of mind, connection to your culture, and happiness, then great. Yet, it is outrageous that many of us do not question religion the same way we question other things in life.

And incidentally, according to a poll cited in The Economist, sentiment among French-Muslim females for the law was split 49/43 for and against the law, respectively, while the French-Muslim male split was 35/63.

The Daily Princetonian: “In politics, religious zeal can be blinding”

By Kai Chan Columnist Published: Thursday, September 16th, 2004

Comments 1
  • Reader’s response to “In politics, religious zeal can be blinding”

    Chan column ‘insulting’ to Princeton’s religious community

    Regarding ‘In politics, religious zeal can be blinding’ (Kai Chan, Sept 16):

    Before Kai Chan goes accusing everyone of unquestioningly following the religion of their parents, he might want to visit a number of religious organizations on campus. He might find that there are large numbers of highly intelligent, capable, and mature students who have chosen to reaffirm their faith in their parents’ religion, or in the case of others, to actually venture out on their own spiritual path of discovery.

    More importantly, before he begins to generalize — the very sin his friend is accused of committing — he may want to look at the statistics, which show that between 40-50 percent of Americans identify themselves as evangelical, born-again Christians.

    And finally, to end an article by condescending to those of us who, according to Chan, are looking for “peace of mind, connection to your culture, and happiness,” is frankly insulting. As an alumna of the declared number one institution in the United States, I’d like to believe that I have more intelligence and contemplative thought, along with the various other Princetonians who espouse religion, than the hypothetical people Chan describes.

    Kate Thomas ’03

    My original response when I was a columnist for the Daily Princetonian:

    My response is simply to refer to the following article: “Religion can blind followers to the truth” (Daily Princetonian April 6, 2005). My criticism of religious fanaticism comes from direct experience in the church, yet I am also very understanding of the religious perspective, although I have my disagreements. The letter writer should be more careful in her remarks (especially when we are acquaintances).

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