Recently, the Pope announced that fighting homosexuality is just as important as protecting the rainforest. These comments have been rightly attacked from many angles. For me, what it highlights most is the ways in which religion can produce poor prioritization of issues. By according certain things sacred or venerated status, they can become a disproportionate focus for attention, a spark for conflicts, and an obstacle to the completion of more important work. Because religions elevate acts that are purely symbolic (say, baptism) to having a high level of perceived practical importance, they can get in the way of the achievement of practical goals, like enhancing and protecting human health and welfare, as well as that of the natural world. To those who say that religion is necessary to make the majority of people act in moral ways, it can be riposted that many of the supposedly moral issues that get the most attention are basically distractions from the real challenges being confronted by humanity.
This is precisely the property of religion that is satirized by Jonathan Swift in the conflict between the Big Enders and the Little Enders in Gulliver’s Travels. Ultimately, the issue of what gender of people a person is attracted to (or wishes to marry) has as much relevance for other people as which side they choose to crack their boiled eggs on. In spite of that, there are those who successfully employ emotions stirred up over such trivial issues as means to bolster their own support by turning people against one another.
Religion isn’t the only force within society that elevates the symbolic to the practical in a potentially harmful or distorting way. Certainly, there are comparable transformations within politics: in which symbols come to be more important than the things they represent, and their defence comes to be a distraction from more important endeavours. Whatever the cause of such instances of ‘missing the point,’ it is to be lamented. It must be hoped that people in a few hundred years will have learned enough to laugh at an idea so silly that protecting the environment and reinforcing traditional gender norms are (a) both desirable ends or (b) equally worthy of attention.