When secularists complain about the influence and agenda of religious conservatives they most often focus on the alleged “intolerance” of the Christian right. A recent interview with pop music legend Elton John, however, demonstrates that non-believers will go much further than the faithful in their expressed desire to stifle all dissent.
On Sunday, November 12, Sir Elton told interviewer Jake Shears (a performer with the group “Scissor Sisters”) that he wants to see an organized effort to suppress institutionalized faith. “From my point of view I would ban religion completely,” the superstar declared, “even though there are some wonderful things about it…. But the reality is that organized religion doesn’t seem to work. It turns people into hateful lemmings and it’s not really compassionate.”
His main gripe against religion centers, inevitably, on the negative attitude toward homosexuality in all the world’s great faiths. “I think religion has always tried to turn hatred towards gay people,” he mused. “Religion promotes the hatred and spite against gays.”
Despite that “hatred and spite,” religious leaders actually express more tolerance to homosexuality (and non-believers) than Sir Elton expresses toward organized faith. Imagine the indignation if a religious leader suggested that we need to “ban homosexuality completely” --- or urged an outright prohibition on atheism? It’s true that many believing Christians want to persuade gays to overcome their same-sex urges, or try to get non-believers to replace their doubt with faith, but no factions in the varied array of conservative religious groups has called for “banning” ideas with which they disagree.
Believers remain supremely (some would say naively) confident in their ability to win every argument with doubters: that’s why there’s no attempt to shut down atheist organizations (like the summer camps for non-believers we’ve featured on my radio show) or to censor public criticisms of religious institutions. Yes, Christian conservatives object to the use of public funds (from the National Endowment for the Arts and other organizations) for anti-religious messages, but that’s an issue of sponsorship, not censorship. When it came to the notorious “work of art” by Andres Serrano showing a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine, the debate centered on its funding by the federal government, not the right of the artist to display his own warped creation in public – a right which no one questioned.
The controversies about public display of religious symbols nearly all center on secular demonstrations of militancy and narrow-mindedness, involving attempts to remove or suppress expressions of faith (like crosses in parks, or Ten Commandments displays in public buildings, or the words “under God” in the pledge) that have existed innocuously for decades. Very few of these disputes involve efforts by the faithful to impose new symbols in prominent places, or to “ram their faith down the throats” of the unwilling public at large. It’s the secular left that’s consistently intolerant of American society as it’s existed for years, not religious conservatives who express unwillingness to allow public disagreement with their convictions. In the bitter debate about teaching our children about the origins of life on earth, religious activists make no attempt to block the teaching of Darwinism or random natural selection, but it’s pro-evolution fanatics who fanatically resist any messages or questions that even hint at Intelligent Design.
Secularists are less willing to accept the ideas of believers (ideas they regularly deride as dangerous, deluded, dumb) because they worry (appropriately) that they are losing the international debate. A point of view confident of its own arguments wouldn’t make the case for “bans” or “suppression” --as Sir Elton John did so fatuously in his recent interview.
At the conclusion of the conversation, he all but concedes that the “hatred and spite” he imputes to organized religion never really applied to him or interfered with his personal pursuit of happiness. “I don’t know what it is with me,” he sighed. “People treat me very reverently. It was the same when Dave and I had our civil union – I was expecting the odd flour bomb and there wasn’t. Dave and I as a couple seem to be the acceptable face of gayness, and that’s great.”
It might also be “great” if Sir Elton and other committed secular leftists adopted the same respectful attitude of live-and-let live toward religious believers (those “hateful lemmings”) that most of the faithful so readily accord to them.