Coverage of memorials on the ninth anniversary of September 11th have been eclipsed by the will-he-or-won't-he drama of Pastor Terry Jones's threats to establish 9/11 as "International Burn a Koran Day" and to inaugurate it appropriately.
The national consensus (barring perpetual hatemonger Fred Phelps) is that Jones is deeply misguided and ought to be talked down. In the past week, General Petraeus spoke out to say that the book burning would endanger the troops, religious leaders made their own interfaith pleas, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was the unlucky White House official tasked with making a personal call to Pastor Jones to plead with him to be reasonable.
They are all making a major mistake.
It is not unreasonable for Pastor Jones to decide that he ought to burn Korans if Islam is a pernicious lie, distracting believers from Christ and, therefore, something that must be combated on every front.
It is not unreasonable for Catholics to oppose the use of contraception in AIDS-ravaged Africa if the temporal suffering of those with HIV is nothing compared to the eternal torment waiting in hell for those who lusted and indulged in non-procreative sex.
It is not unreasonable for evangelicals to encourage illegal Jewish settlements in Gaza, no matter how destabilizing they may be to Israel's long-term security if they are a prerequisite for a Second Coming that is likely to occur within our lifetime.
The Christians I describe above aren't behaving irrationally per se; their behaviors follow logically from their premises. However, their premises seem untenable and absurd to anyone who is not a member of their faith tradition. Unfortunately for them, logic runs both ways. We can derive conclusions about how to act from our philosophical or theological principles, but we can also use those conclusions to judge our principles. A system of ethics that permitted spontaneous acts of murder would be unacceptable, even if it were internally consistent. When some strains of Christian belief inspire actions that are destructive or bigoted, we can reasonably assume that the premises are likely to be wrong and place the burden of proof on their proponents.
When we ask religious leaders to defend their absurd and bigoted premises to people outside their faith, we find ourselves viewing the same kind of farce that played out in Judge Walker's courtroom during the Prop 8 trial. The anti-gay marriage witnesses presented such a paucity of real data that Judge Walker stripped one of the men of his status as an expert witness.
Last night, the same scenario played out in the wake of U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips's ruling that the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy was unconstitutional and issuance of an immediate injunction. The coverage of the decision revealed that, once again, the other side couldn't keep up in the public sphere. According to Judge Phillips's decision, "[D]efendants called no witnesses, put on no affirmative case, and only entered into evidence the legislative history of the act."
When Christians or members of any other religious sect make claims that appear to be unreasonable, we shouldn't assume that our views can be harmonized with theirs. Too often, the interfaith discourse seems to assume that idealized versions of Islam or Christianity or Judaism exist that are 'modern' or 'enlightened' and are not in conflict with our secular values. That is not necessarily so. Plenty of religious traditions are not compatible with modern thought on moral behavior. We shouldn't cover up these inconsistencies, but, rather, examine them as a guide to choosing which belief systems to reject.