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March 1, 2014

Religion should be a comfort, not a weapon

By Sam Pollak
The Daily Star

---- — Discuss politics or religion in any establishment that specializes in dispensing alcohol, and — proprietors warn — the discussion is highly likely to result in you waking up on the tavern floor and spitting out teeth, probably your own.

So, it stands to reason that a discourse — even a written one — that involves both politics and religion is fraught with peril.

But it is irresistible given the way some folks in state legislatures and other institutions have been using religion as a cudgel to institutionalize prejudice, ignore scientific facts and promote ignorance.

For instance:

Lawmakers in Arizona, which — rumor has it — is part of the United States of America, passed legislation recently that would allow any business person in the state to deny — for religious reasons — service to anyone who might not be a heterosexual.

Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, first said she would have to really give the matter some serious thought before she decided to veto the bill that was passed with overwhelming GOP support.

Apparently, the governor’s thought process was influenced not so much by the blatant discrimination in the bill as by recollections of the boycotts following the state’s insipid 2010 immigration law that cost Arizona an estimated $140 million in tourist and business revenue.

This week, major state business organizations and both of Arizona’s Republican senators urged her to veto the despicable bill, and the National Football League issued a not-so-subtle threat to move next year’s Super Bowl out of the state.

The legislation had little to do with religious freedom, and everything to do with using the power of a government to cater to a loud, bigoted, right-wing minority.

And it’s not just Arizona. A whole mess of states have been flirting with using religious rights to institutionalize hate, fear and prejudice.

Others with efforts to turn members of the gay community into second-class citizens by statute include Idaho, Utah, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Oregon and Ohio.

If all it takes to legally refuse service or accommodations to someone is to declare that doing so would violate religious beliefs, then why stop at gays? Sure, why not blacks? Why not Jews or Muslims or Catholics?

The Bible is chock-full of things that were used in a twisted way to justify segregation of the races. It can similarly be employed to justify just about anything, depending upon someone’s interpretation of Scripture.

If the bills’ supporters had their way, as I see it, I wouldn’t even have to belong to one of the world’s great religions. I could start my own, worshiping a lamp in my living room that I would call Ralph. Then, if I owned a restaurant and didn’t want to serve people who have blue eyes, all I would have to do is say that my deeply held religious belief was that Ralph forbids it.

Ridiculous, right?

But perhaps not so ridiculous as a recent televised “debate” involving Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” with Ken Ham, founder of Kentucky’s Creation Museum.

Nye is an engineer and television personality who has taught a generation of young people about science. Ham is an Australian who has a profitable ministry in Kentucky, believes the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that “creation science” should be taught in schools along with evolution.

Nye was a lot more knowledgeable, and certainly more polite than I would have been, when he presented a wealth of geology, paleontology, astronomy and carbon-dating evidence against Ham’s so-called “historical science,” which essentially came down to ignoring anything that wasn’t in the Bible.

“I find there’s only one infallible dating method,” Ham said. “It’s a witness who was there, who knows everything and told us, and that’s from the word of God.”

As for me, I think everybody should have the right to believe whatever they want (even in “Ralph”). They have a right to inculcate their children with their beliefs and send them to private religious schools. But faith is faith, and creationism is not science, and it has no business being taught as science in public schools.

Full disclosure: I’m Jewish, and my personal belief is that those who believe fundamentally in the Adam and Eve story don’t give the deity anything close to enough credit. To me, a God with the patience and unfathomable knowledge to spend 13 billion or so years getting the universe step-by-scientific-step to this point is far more impressive and credible than one who might create a talking serpent.

But what I believe isn’t science, and it shouldn’t be taught in public schools any more than what Mr. Ham believes.

Religion should be respected and cherished, but if it’s used as an excuse to deny some people their rights or to promote an agenda that substitutes faith for science in our public schools, it just becomes a weapon.

No true believers would want that, would they?

Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at spollak@thedailystar.com or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/sampollak.