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.