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By Sarah Braasch

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (1/28/86 – 02/02/10)

Masters of the shell game have been swindling and duping the overconfident and the ignorant for millennia. The game operator places a “pea” beneath one of three “shells”. The operator then shuffles the shells in front of the player before asking the player to guess at the pea’s location. Unbeknownst to the player, the operator has removed the pea via a sleight-of-hand technique. It is impossible for the player to best the operator. The operator is in complete control of the outcome.

Cultural relativists and obscurantists employ a similar sleight-of-mind technique to maintain control over human rights discourse and to deflect attacks from activists and the international community. They like to play a rousing game, which I like to call the Religio-Cultural-Racial Shell Game. The goal of the game is to hide the human rights violation by removing the violation from the discourse and entrancing any malcontents with the hypnotic effect of shell shuffling. The three “shells” in this game are comprised of the unholy trinity of Religion, Culture and Race.

If someone wishes to defend a practice, it is best to describe such a practice as a religious tenet, thereby bestowing upon it the greatest degree of protection from condemnation. It is almost enough to boggle the mind – the resulting effluvia of apologetics, if one only claims religion’s bigotries as religious liberties.

However, some practices are beyond the pale, even by gods’ standards, which are exceedingly capacious. The most horrific practices are becoming intolerable and unjustifiable, even in a world that pays the utmost obeisance to religious idiocy. This is the case with respect to such misogynistic practices as honor killings and female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced girl child marriages.

In such cases, it behooves the religious to disown their former bread and butter. They admit the existence of the practices in their societies, but impute it to the unorthodox work of culture’s unwieldy and nefarious ways. They thereby immunize themselves against attack. This is the now all-too-familiar “it’s not religion; it’s culture” switcheroo. Of course, some religious diehards will remain unswayed by reformation, no matter how politic. And, unflappable cultural relativist purists will be undeterred by the pejorative connotation of the attribution.

But, the cultural relativists have an ace up their sleeve, a magic trick long employed by the obscurantists. And, even the religious are beginning to take note. Besides the potent defense mechanism of screaming cultural imperialism, one may artfully dodge any accusations of having perpetrated human rights violations by obscuring the issue with indictments of racist intent. The stultifying effect of such a charge has been duly noted by the religious. They have wasted no time in doing their utmost to attempt to equate religion with race.

The greatest operators of the Religio-Cultural-Racial Shell Game move the pea as it suits them, beneath whichever shell of obfuscation that happens to serve best in the moment. Thus, they leave the human rights activist bereft of options. It’s not religion; it’s culture, unless we wish to claim it as religion, but, regardless, if you attack it, you will be accused of racism.

Case in point: the burqa. It’s not a religious tradition. It’s a cultural tradition. How dare you impugn Islam or Allah as commanding such an odious practice? Except when it is claimed as a religious tradition under cover of religious liberty. How dare you deny a woman’s free choice to express her religious faith? And, if you attack the practice, you will be charged with racism against Arabs, and, surprisingly, or not, Muslims, as if Islam were a race and not a religion.

Of course, all of these shenanigans are nothing but a ruse comprised of fetid, putrid smoke and shards of broken mirrors. Religion and culture are NOT non-overlapping magisteria. Religion is culture. To say that religion has some objective or absolute meaning or objective or absolute doctrine when wholly removed from its cultural context is asinine. This is simply an attempt to bolster the idea that religion bears some objective or absolute truth. This is false.

Religion has no meaning when removed from its cultural context. Religion was born from culture. Culture exists without religion, because humanity exists. But, without culture, religion ceases to exist. To pretend otherwise is to buy into the delusion of the objective or absolute truth of religious doctrine.

Religion is not the realm of divine values while culture may lay claim to the realm of human values. And, even if such were the case, no mere human is able to divine the distinction between the divine and the worldly. This fact has been borne out by the ages of human history, so I would be quite wary of the charlatan operators claiming to be able to do so now. Our understanding of what lies inside the realm of the divine evolves and fluctuates according to the whims of human culture. Strange that.

As we evolve away from religious idiocy, more and more barbaric religious customs and traditions will be relegated to the cultural realm and disowned by their respective religious forebears. Like a child who refuses to relinquish its disintegrating security blanket, the faithful are loathe to give up their cults. Instead, they are shedding tenets and customs and traditions and doctrinal commandments like a molting diseased emu, most of whose brethren are long extinct. The religious hang onto an illusory distinction between religion and culture as if their beliefs depend upon it. And, they do.

In the game of Hide-the-Human-Rights-Violation, cultural relativism is religion’s bitch. The religious are not cultural relativists. They are not moral relativists. They believe that they possess an objective and absolute moral truth. Their gods are supposedly infallible. So, when their religious traditions and tenets and doctrines and beliefs fail to live up to the most rudimentary human formulations of moral behavior, how to respond?

Well, those faults must be the result of imperfect human culture intruding upon the sacred and divine and pure religious space. So, of course, if one discovers that culture, including human, all-too-human frailty and cruelty, has set up camp in the campground of divinity, it has to be expunged.

But, this is all just lip service. All of those so-called cultural practices are staples of the diet upon which the world’s major religions feed. Misogyny, bigotry, slavery, genocide, rape, torture, racism and the list goes on and on. If those “cultural” practices go away, the world’s major religions will shrivel up and die, turning into emaciated carcasses to rot upon the garbage heap of dead religions.

This is cultural relativism’s raison-d’être: to do religion’s dirty work. And, isn’t that always how religion operates? Privately dependent upon that which is publicly disowned. Isn’t it ironic that those who proclaim moral absolutism rely upon those who aver moral relativism to protect those practices without which religion has no purpose and cannot survive?

And, religion protects culture, as the ostensible linchpin of any given culture, by bestowing an aura of respectability and sanctity. It’s part of their culture, but, at the same time, it’s their religion, so show some respect.

The same may be said for the race shell. Religion breeds racism, as does cultural relativism, yet both rely upon most persons’ abhorrence for racism as protection.

So, if you buy into the game, if you agree to play, as so many human rights activists do, out of western imperialist and colonialist guilt, what result?

If you refuse to acknowledge, for example, the role that religion plays in the subjugation of women, what are you saying as a human rights activist? You are saying that those societies that perpetrate the most egregious atrocities upon their female populations are sadists or idiots or both. You are saying that they are incapable of grasping the concept of human dignity or don’t care. And, you are perpetuating the religious patriarchy that created the problem in the first place. In other words – you have been duped. Thanks for playing.

Can we call a farce a farce already? Can we expose the little wizened man pulling the levers behind the green curtain? Or, must we continue, blind, deaf and dumb, politely and purposely oblivious to the sufferings of our fellow travelers?

I, for one, am no one’s mark, and I’m not religion’s bitch anymore.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...