The quote of the day comes from a Facebook commenter to a story that's making the rounds on the internet right now. It concerns an ultra-orthodox Jewish rabbi who covered himself head-to-toe in clear plastic during a recent commercial flight and apparently remained that way for the entire trip. Speculation is that the self-Saran Wrapping was done to uphold the orthodox tenet requiring men to keep themselves completely separated from women.
The very simple quote in response to the image of a man sitting on a crowded airplane, covered entirely in transparent plastic?
"Respect his beliefs."
Now I want you to join me in a little thought experiment. I want you to imagine that the guy under the plastic isn't dressed in the familiar vestures of an orthodox Jew but is instead wearing soiled, beat-up jeans and a dirty shirt while sporting a ratty, unkempt beard and long hair. In other words, what if the man on the plane hadn't been expressing an extremist religious belief but was just, you know, nuts? Would anyone really be cavalierly demanding that people, particularly the people stuck next to this guy on the plane, "respect his beliefs" and not regard him as a run-of-the-mill whack-job?
I've made the argument plenty of times but this is such a perfect example of what I often complain about that I just couldn't let it pass without saying something. Basically what I'd like to know is this: Why are we expected to respect beliefs that are clearly outlandish and completely divorced from reality simply because those beliefs happen to be the foundation of one faith or another? The simple answer, of course, is that as a society we've decided that certain kinds of crazy aren't crazy at all, and that there's sanity in numbers. You can get away with just about any kind of behavior that would otherwise be considered unacceptable in civilized society as long as you're doing it in the name of your god and absolutely if your god happens to be one of the three or four most popular gods on the planet, the ones who won a few rounds of the Mr. Universe Pageant a couple of millennia ago.
But again, why is it necessary, even in the opinion of some self-professed nonbelievers, that the general public show respect and deference to the thought processes that would lead a man to wrap himself in plastic, presumably to avoid touching women and therefore offending God? How about this for a change: It's not. It's not necessary at all.
With the exception of those who allow their faith to lead them to do despicable things -- those whose behavior isn't simply eccentric but dangerous -- I do my best to respect people who claim to be religious. I respect the people themselves. That doesn't mean I respect their beliefs, because I don't. I don't feel the need to show one ounce of deference to the beliefs of someone who thinks that God listens to his entreaties any more than I would feel the need to show deference to the beliefs of a guy talking to a telephone pole on a street corner who thinks the same thing. Neither of the two has evidence to back up his claims and the only difference between them, really, is that one probably has a roof over his head and isn't considered crazy by most of society.
The fact is that when you peel away the culturally sanctioned rationale for not eating meat on a Friday, or sitting on a box and covering the mirrors after someone dies, or making sure that a woman's body is clothed almost completely, what you're left with is just plain old nuts. And what's worse is that the rules and restrictions adhered to by the faithful all too often negatively affect people who should be well beyond the jurisdiction of any one particular religion. It's one thing for someone to make a personal decision not to work on Sunday because he believes his god demands it -- it's another thing entirely for a pharmacist not to dispense the morning after pill for the same reason.
I quite frankly don't give a damn what your god wants; the rights, privileges, and even whims of living, breathing human beings supersede the requirement you've imposed upon yourself not to offend the imaginary friend you talk to before you go to bed every night. The rights of a gay person to get married or of a woman to have an abortion should at no point be considered equal to the "rights" of the faithful to adhere to the regulations imposed by Jesus, Yahweh, Muhammad and so on. Yes, you're allowed to believe what you want, but when that belief collides with reality, reality shouldn't be the one forced to submit. In the game of chicken between what's proven and what can't be, guess which one has to veer off.
No, a religious belief doesn't need to be respected just because it's a religious belief.
Because if you stripped away the religion, guess what a guy wrapped head-to-toe in plastic on an airplane would be?
Just plain, old crazy.
Update: Apparently it's possible the rabbi had wrapped himself in plastic because the plane was going to be flying over a cemetery. That obviously changes everything. My sincerest apologies.