The faith wars

My latest column in The Boston Globe deals with the ever-contentious debates over religion. It was inspired, in large part, less by punditry than by the squabbling I have seen on internet forums and blogsites.

BEHIND THE political divide in America, there is also a religious divide. The split is not just between people who believe and people who do not; it is between those who see religious faith as society’s foundation and those who see it as society’s bane. So far, the debates on this subject have generated more heat than light, as both sides preach to the converted and talk at, not to, those who disagree. In the most recent volley in the faith wars, British pop star Elton John has said that if it were up to him, he would “ban religion completely” because it promotes anti gay bigotry and hate.

A look at recent best-selling books illustrates the divide. Ann Coulter’s “Godless: The Church of Liberalism” excoriates liberals for being, well, godless. Bill O’Reilly’s new tome, “Culture Warrior,” urges traditionalists to combat the evil influence of the “secular-progressives.” For the other side, there’s “Letter to a Christian Nation” by philosopher Sam Harris, who calls all religion “obscene” and “utterly repellent,” and “The God Delusion” by biologist Richard Dawkins, a tome whose title speaks for itself.

Both sides in the debate traffic in simplistic stereotypes. Anti religionists such as Harris assert that religion is dangerous because it has historically promoted violence and oppression — and, in the form of Muslim extremism, continues to do so today. Yet the greatest atrocities of the 20th century were committed by totalitarian states armed with ideologies that were either explicitly atheist (communism) or non religious (Nazism). What’s more, in the past and at present, religious fanaticism has often served as a vehicle and a cover for other tribal allegiances, such as nationalism.

Equally misguided, however, is the claim made by many champions of religion that secularists lack the will to combat evil because they are moral relativists who don’t believe in good and evil anyway. Pat Tillman, the football player tragically killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan, was an atheist who joined the armed forces after Sept. 11 because he wanted to fight for his country against the barbarians who attacked it. Andrei Sakharov, a physicist and a secular humanist, stood up to the Soviet regime in the 1970s, at great risk to himself, in the name of human rights.

A religion, like any other set of beliefs, can be used for good or bad. In America, some people used the Bible to justify slavery, but Christians were also in the forefront of the battle to abolish it. Any passionately held belief, whether or not it includes God, can make some people intolerant, closed-minded, unwilling to look at facts that
contradict their dogma, and hateful toward those who disagree.

It doesn’t help that religion has become intertwined with politics. A recent column by film critic and pundit Michael Medved conflates attacks on religion with criticism of the political power of religious conservatives: Such books as “The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right” by Rabbi Michael Lerner, written from a religious point of view, are lumped together with Harris’s anti religion screed. Meanwhile, conservative author Heather MacDonald, writing in USA Today, complains that “skeptical conservatives” feel marginalized in today’s discourse. The new vogue for wearing one’s faith on one’s political sleeve is a prescription for religious strife.

Given the right’s efforts to legislate explicitly religious values and to smuggle the pseudo-scientific religious doctrine of “intelligent design” into science classrooms, an anti religion backlash was probably inevitable. But attempts on the left to expunge all religion from the public square have contributed to the problem.

Each side in the faith wars is angry and afraid. Secularists see a creeping theocracy in attempts to outlaw same-sex unions, abortion, and stem cell research and to promote government funding for faith-based charities. Believers see assaults on their values everywhere from education to television and movies. Non religious Americans feel they are a beleaguered minority; in fact, more than half of Americans hold a negative view of people who don’t believe in God. Religious Americans feel, also with some justification, that they are held in contempt by intellectual and cultural elites (remember Ted Turner’s reference to Catholics as “Jesus freaks”?)

Unfortunately, the current polemics only reinforce these fears. Religious people see atheists who are hateful and intolerant toward faith, to the point of wanting to ban it; secularists see champions of religion who promote hostility toward non believers and wield religion as a political club. Under these circumstances, there is little prospect for dialogue or true understanding — only for more shouting.

I’m sure I’ll get my share of ribbing for trying to be too even-handed and find fault with both sides. No, I don’t think both sides are always equally to blame in any debate, and even in specific debates involving religion — such as “intelligent design” — I see no point in trying to split things down the middle. But in the larger debate about religion versus secularism, I have found the intolerance to be largely equivalent on both sides. In the past six years, the religious bullies have had more power in American society at large than the secularist ones, sometimes with genuinely coercive consequences (see the Terri Schiavo case, attempts to gut stem cell resesarch and smuggle ID into science classrooms, even faith-based initiatives funding which in some cases means preferential social services for Christians or potential Christian converts). However, no one should have any illusions about secularist bullying in those sectors where the secularists have more power. Let’s not forget genuine cases of intolerance toward voluntary religious speech by students in public schools, and toward other non-coercive religious expression in the public square.

There is no question that many among the literati view religion with irrational hostility and contempt; and there is no question that all too often, in responding to these attacks, religious conservatives are quick to show irrational hostility and contempt toward all who are not religious. See, for instance, this December 2005 blogpost by Gerald Vanderleun, who assails historian Peter Watson’s preposterous assertion that “ethical monotheism” is the worst and most harmful idea in human history — and ends up essentially asserting that nothing good in history or in human life is possible without monotheistic religion.

Similar extremes prevail whenever people start arguing about religion; and, typically, neither side realizes how intolerant and condescending it is. I have seen Christians react with anger to the suggestion that believers are gullible and simple-minded, and then in their next breath suggest that non-believers are less moral and/or lead spiritually empty lives. I have seen atheists denounce religion for promoting intolerance and displaying intolerance toward anything smacking of religion.

A final note: I think the encroachments of science and religion on each other’s turf contribute greatly to the hostilities. The “intelligent design” movement boosts the worst stereotypes educated secularists have of religion. Conversely, scientists who speak of the very idea of the human soul with a condescending irony fan believers’ worst fears about science as a cold, inhuman, anti-spiritual enterprise. Sam Harris, apparently, plans to write a book on neuroscience — which he began to study late, as an outgrowth of his philosophical interests — debunking the concept of free will. That’s not going to win many friends.

By the way, the Michael Medved article mentioned in my column can be read here. And here is Heather MacDonald’s article on “skeptical conservatives.”

13 Comments

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13 responses to “The faith wars

  1. Joan

    It’s embryonic stem cell research that religious conservatives oppose, Cathy, not generic “stem cell research.” And there is no “ban” on stem cell research, and there never has been — there is just no federal funding, which you must acknowledge is nothing even remotely like a ban.

    The ethical issues surrounding embryonic stem cell research extend into areas like human cloning, which makes many people squirm, not just the religious.

    It wouldn’t cost you much — three, maybe four words — to include “embryonic” when talking about stem cells, so that at least there, you’d be accurate.

    Because here: Secularists see a creeping theocracy in attempts to outlaw same-sex unions…

    You’ve turned the thing on its head — same-sex unions have never before been legal, and traditionalists who are trying to preserve the basic unit of society resent having such a thing imposed by judicial fiat.

    There’s a lot going on in this debate, obviously, and I well understand the strict word counts required by op-eds. I kinda think you bit off more than you could chew.

  2. Rainsborough

    Should the government fund embryonic stem cell research or not? If it doesn’t, that will retard research substantially–that’s the way research works.

    Should this decision be made on purely scientific grounds? If it is, government funding will go forward. For who knows at this juncture whether it will pay off or not?

    Should this decision be made by democratic majorities? If it is, again it will go forward–even Missouri, despite its many conservative Christians, voted for funding.

    The decision to cut off the promise of research is being made by a minority in power, on religious grounds.

    Young gives a balanced account. But on the debit side, on the side of religiously grounded intolerance prevailing, must be placed the refusal to fund embryonic stem cell research.

    And she forebore even to mention the appointment to the “family planning” post in HHS of a man opposed–on religious grounds–to contraception even when used by married couples, and who has powerpointed that too much sex causes brain damage.

  3. Anonymous

    A few years ago I made a list of people on the liberal and conservative ends of the political spectrum who were eachother’s counterparts. Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore are counterparts, for example, as are Noam Chomsky and G. Gordon Liddy. (I could go on.)

    But it now seems that we need a new list: religious fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists who are counterparts to eachother. The first pairing that comes to my mind is Jerry Falwell and Richard Dawkins. Any other suggestions?

  4. Synova

    I was shocked to realize that not only was stem cell research legal, but that embryonic stem cell research is legal.

    I haven’t *yet* heard anyone supporting embryonic stem cell research do anything but imply that there is a ban on it. A person has to really look into it before it becomes clear that it’s entirely legal in the United States, it just can’t be funded with my taxes. Why the obsfucation?

    And there *are* approved embryonic stem cell lines that can be used for tax funded research… just no new ones.

    I think that human cloning is fine, BTW, I just want “good faith” care taken of anything that can possibly be considered human.

    And in India they are worried that poor women will reproduce just so they can sell the cord blood… oh those narrow minded Christians… how can they dare talk about medical ethics?

    And about that impending theocracy… I’d really like to see some data to back it up, because while I realize that the common refrain is that the theocrats have taken over I think it’s likely more hot air than not. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that freedom of religious expression has actually decreased, rather than increased.

    I’m not sure what Schiavo was supposed to prove about anything whatsoever… yeah, it was a public circus, but are people *really* so evil (no matter if misguided) because they think the error should be made on needlessly keeping people alive rather than needlessly killing them? Are our Eugenic tendancies really so remote that no one remembers them?

    Intelligent Design seems to me to be a back-lash against an ever increasing secularism in public schools and the feeling that children are being actively and purposefully pushed away from their religious faith. Considering I homeschool and considering the number of times I’ve heard exactly that argument made for not allowing parents to opt their children *out* of the secular indoctrination… I think it’s likely that parents are responding to a real and purposeful anti-theological threat in the form of “science” education.

    Rather than accept and promote freedom of religious expression for less common religions, proclaiming that people are free to have a religious identity, we have been faced with often nit-picky, sometimes extravegant, efforts to remove Christian symbols from the public sphere, which proclaims that just *seeing* religious symbols is intolerable.

    Do people wear their faith on their sleeve more than before? Or have we just decided lately that even knowing about someone’s religion is excessive? Just seeing a symbol in public is intimidating?

    Clinton was publically observant and Kerry campaigned by giving the Sunday Sermon in churches…

    …why have “the last six years” been so uniquely worrisome?

  5. Synova

    Obfuscation… dang it.

    My spelling skills seem to be in the toilet lately.

  6. Cathy Young

    Joan and synova: I agree that I shoudl have used more precisely language re the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The point is that religious conservatives are demanding that the government selectively withhold funding from a particular (and highly promising) kind of research on religious grounds. (The existing embroynic stem cells are highly inadequate, so I think that’s a bit of a red herring.)

    As for same-sex unions: first of all, I said that secularists (or many secularists, at least) perceive the effort to outlaw them as creeping theocracy. I actually think you have a point in saying that conservatives are simply trying to preserve the status quo. However, the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment would not simply preclude interference by judicial fiat but would also effectively preclude the legalization of same-sex marriage (and possibly even civil unions) by legislatures. Already existing domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples have been targeted as well.

    synova: I fully acknowledge in my post that there has been hostility to religion in some public schools, mostly on the East and West coasts. (There have also been cases in the Bible Belt of overt Christian indoctrination/proselytizing in the public schools.) However, that does not justify the teaching of pseudoscience in science classes in the name of religion.

    As for the atmosphere in the last six years: I have no problem, of course, with presidents and other public figures being religiously observant or at times invoking God. However, in the last few years, there has been, IMO, a very palpable change in the political atmosphere so that wearing one’s faith on one’s sleeve has become a virtual requirement. We have a situation in which one of the two major political parties is so beholden to a particular branch of Christianity that it is openly said that a candidate who shares its socially conservative platform (Mitt Romney) could not get the presidential nomination because he belongs to a different branch of Christianity. And that’s just one example. I get a pervasive message from the conservative establishment that it’s impossible to be a good American unless you are religious. And that’s something new. 12 years ago when the Republicans took Congress, Newt Gingrich hardly ever mentioned religion. Now every other word coming out of his mouth is about religion.

    Anonymous — that’s a good idea for pairings of the intolerant. How about Judge Roy Moore and Elton John? *G*

  7. Synova

    re: Mitt Romney. Being a mormon is probably a bigger hurdle than Giulliani’s social liberalism, dressing in drag and personal problems.

    It’s not that Romney is not quite right and therefore Giulliani would be even *farther* from acceptable, it’s that he’s mormon, which is not even considered Christian by a whole lot of people. About the only thing worse would be if he were a Scientologist. A great many people believe that the mormons, of any sort, are a cult. The church government is both authoritarian and secretive, which helps not at all.

    A “different branch of Christianity” would be the Orthodox or Catholic church or the Copts.

    BUT depending on how he presents himself it may not matter in the end. People can be funny that way. I feel confident that Giulliani could carry all but the most hard-line of the Christian right. The people who tell me I’m wrong about that are from outside that community and are judging from their own assumptions and prejudices. I pay no attention to them.

    My first reaction is that being a mormon may be insurmountable for Romney, but my second thought is that I’m not sure.

  8. Cathy Young

    synova–not sure what you mean by hardcore. As far as I know, the leaders of the Christian right have said that someone like Giuliani cannot get the GOP nomination. You say that people who make this argument come from outside that community. Do you know “non-hardcore” religious conservatives who say they would vote for Giuliani? I’d be happy to be proven wrong on this one.

  9. catnapping

    As a pagan (I’m not new age or wiccan, but as a native american, do not have a name for my beliefs, sorry.)

    ..anyway, as a pagan, I fear any and all rightwing monotheists. I see no difference betweeen the christianists and islamists, except funding. If the white separatists in america had the same sponsors as Al Qaeda, they’d be doing exactly the same shit. Hell, they already are, but on a smaller scale.

  10. Catnapping

    sorry, my profile didn’t take that time.

  11. Anonymous

    You’re using a seriously false equivalency here if you think Dawkins has anything approaching the power, influence, or potential danger of the Religious Right.

    More broadly, the culture wars have nothing to do with religion or secularism. Rather they are about libertarianism vs authoritarianism. Jimmy Carter was an evangelical Christian but he didn’t want the government to teach ID-iot brand creationism. Al Gore is a southern Methodist but you can be quite sure that if his presidency had been ratified, he would not have appointed FDA staffers who lie about abortion causing cancer.

  12. Peter R

    You’re using a seriously false equivalency here if you think Dawkins has anything approaching the power, influence, or potential danger of the Religious Right.

    I think the false equivalency here is yours. The comparison of one individual with a collective referred to as the “Religious Right” misses the point. Dawkins also belongs to a “collective”, or rather many of them. As far as power and influence, the secularists control the vast majority of higher education institutions in this country, and that translates to more power and influence in the modern world than Pat Robertson or his ilk could dream of.

    The absurdity of some of the claims can be easily demonstrated by Cathy’s article. For example:

    Secularists see a creeping theocracy in attempts to outlaw same-sex unions, . . .

    Now I don’t equate opposition to same-sex marriage as “theocracy”, but for those who do, it should be obvious that the “theocracy” is receding, not creeping forward. SS marriage was never recognized anywhere in the US prior to the late 20th century. Indeed, most non-religious folk would have considered the idea absurd as recently as a couple of decades ago. Now we have one state that recognizes it, another that might, another that has an equivalent (for state purposes) institution, and most observers, and opinion polls, see the momentum as for SS unions. It should be obvious to an objective observer that if we equate SS unions with theocracy, it is receding. Maybe not fast enough for the likes of some, but that is a different matter than creeping forward.

    I’m a little puzzled as to what Cathy’s principled objection is to Dawkins fatwa against religion is. Isn’t her fatwa against ID of a like kind?

  13. Freudian Slip

    It amazes me how out of context people can take things sometimes. Anything to make a point I suppose!
    Matt

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