And I just couldn’t in good conscience vote for a person who doesn’t believe in God. Someone who honestly thinks the other ninety five percent of us suffer from some form of mass delusion.
(Palmer Joss from the movie Contact)
Carl Sagan, who authored the novel on which the movie is loosely based, died before the production of the film Contact was complete. And while the film is fairly true to Sagan’s humanistic and atheistic outlook, the scientist was nevertheless fascinated by the the human mind’s need to seek out the mystical properties of the universe. It’s not that Sagan hated religion as some atheists demonstrate on a regular basis. He hated its dogmatic approach to seeking and explaining universal truths – something that offended his scientific soul to no end. More than anything however, Sagan railed against the impact of religion on politics in America, seeing the self-evident danger of connecting the zeal of the true believer in religion with any political movement or politician.
Now it’s not often that I rise in defense of a belief in the supernatural, the mystical, or simple faith in a power greater than ourselves. Being something of a befuddled atheist, I tend to look at the impact of religion on politics and how the threads of religious belief have been woven into the very fabric of our society rather than examining the efficacy of a belief in God itself. But Sagan was much too broad in his condemnation of the confluence of religion and politics in America. He consistently ignored the fact that most of the mass reform movements in America have been animated by religious fervor; abolition, temperance (which affected the nascent womens’ rights movement), “prairie” populism, civil rights, and the moral basis for the anti-war movement of the 1960’s.
The positive impact of those reform movements on American life can sometimes be described as uneven at best. The temperance movement was allied with anti-immigrant forces. The “prairie populism” of the late 19th century was hijacked by large eastern money interests and manipulated for their own ends. The civil rights movement has degenerated into a lobby of special pleaders, no different than those who advocate price supports for wheat. And the moral underpinnings of opposition to Viet Nam morphed into the moral absolutism of the new left. Nevertheless, religion’s impact on our politics has been a plus over the years, supplying a moral basis for change as well as animating and inspiring some of our most important historical figures.
Religion and politics in this country are joined at the hip. But that doesn’t mean that our citizens are drunk with it – the “drug” that Communists believed religion to be. Americans look with an equally jaundiced eye at politicians who profess their faith too vigorously as well as those who give short shrift to any kind of religiosity. Part of this is certainly due to our Puritan roots, a movement against the outward manifestation of religion, reacting against the rites and rituals of the Church of England. But it also reflects the eminently practical side of the American citizen; the majority of us don’t think about religion that much and when we do, we tend to be surprisingly tolerant of how someone else worships their god.
That there is intolerance in America of other religions among a significant percentage of the population is born out in FBI statistics of hate crimes directed against people based on their religious beliefs. But what is truly remarkable is that there so few incidents to record. Out of a little more than 8,800 hate crimes committed in America in 2005, there were 1407 victims of crimes based on religious bias. And out of those victims, by far and away the largest group offended against were Jews (364). The next largest religious sect targeted were Muslims – 89. This is down from more than 500 Muslim victims of religious based hate crimes in 2001.
I might note that there was exactly 1 atheist who was victim of a hate crime that year. And the number of hate crimes against Protestants and Catholics totalled 54. So much for persecution of us atheists.
What these statistics don’t tell us is how many American citizens stared in disapproval when a Muslim woman walked by in a Chador. Or how many people razzed a Hasidic Jew for their distinctive facial hair (payoth). Or how many articles skewering Scientology as a scam and a farce were written. Or how many websites are on the internet that write the most laughably ignorant screeds against a “Papal Conspiracy” or even how anti-Catholics have latched on to theThe DaVinci Code to prove one nefarious thing or another about Catholicism.
Committing an overt act of aggressive violence against a practitioner of a particular religion is one thing. It is the intolerance visited upon religions in the form of a lack of respect for custom and beliefs that I believe to be a more significant problem in that this aspect of bigotry is not only becoming more common, but also more acceptable to both sides of the political spectrum.
In fact, both right and left are increasingly using religion as a political club, attempting to “prove” one horrible thing or another about their opponents. What makes this a matter of curiosity to me is that not all religions are targeted. For the left, it is Christians (or more generally, historical Judeo-Christian beliefs) who have borne the brunt of some of the most vile, hate filled speech imaginable. On the right, it is the simple minded attack of equating the entire Islamic faith with terrorism and/or world conquest while raising the specter of collusion in this fantasy by the left.
This is not to say that there should be no criticism directed against the followers of these religions for their stupidities or villainies. I have taken both Christians and Muslims to task for their excesses and their fake piety on many occasions. It is not criticism that is intolerant but rather the gratuitous, unthinking, unreasonable, shallow critiques that are passed off as “analysis” or “the way things really are” that reveal a profound bigotry disguising itself as political commentary.
Both sides are equally guilty of this calumnious behavior although, perhaps being a conservative, I see the left’s gratuitous Christian bashing as more obscenely casual than the sometimes laughably earnest efforts on the right to connect the left to Muslim extremism (while denigrating the entire Islamic faith in the process).
Trying to prove that the left is sympathetic to Islamic extremists is fairly simple – as long as you ignore the facts and concentrate on the left’s lack of enthusiasm for fighting the War on Terror the way that many of my fellow conservatives believe it should be fought – by bombing any number of countries who are clear enemies of the United States or who don’t speak out vigorously enough against the Islamists in their midst. In this case, it is simply a matter of using illogic to make the charge that since liberals don’t condemn the Islamists loud enough or often enough, they somehow support them – a bit of sophistry that understandably infuriates the left.
And always present in these charges is the belief that the left is somehow complicit in what many conservatives refer to as the “dhimmification” of America – the belief that by being too tolerant of the Muslim faith, we are actually playing into the Islamist’s hands and readying ourselves for domination by Muslims. What my conservative friends mistake for submission is no more than a strain of Political Correctness toward religion that manifests itself in many ways – including bending over backwards not to offend evangelicals:
Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah’s flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).(HT: C & L)
“In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “It is disconcerting that the official position of a national park as to the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is â€˜no comment.’”
Having said all of this, there is ample reason for criticizing the left’s myopia regarding the real threat of Islamic extremism and their apparent sanguinity in the face of Islamists using their favorite talking points when criticizing the United States. This doesn’t make them supporters of the extremists nor does it make them any less patriotic. It only reveals them to be the useful idiots of the Islamists, a charge they refute by trying to point to all the ways in which the Islamists resemble religious conservatives. This is a laughable argument that fails to address the fact that a tape from al-Qaeda can sound very much like many a diary that appears on Daily Kos or many columns that appear in Raw Story or on Juan Cole’s ever more conspiratorial-minded blog, Informed Comment.
On the other side of the coin, it has been shocking to watch over the last few years as the left has thrown off all restraints and attacked the Bush Administration and their supporters using some of the most nauseating anti-Christian invective imaginable. It isn’t enough that the left denigrates the use of devout Christian beliefs by the Bush Administration to advance a political agenda (such as the above example regarding the Grand Canyon). Such criticism (if carefully done) is valid and necessary. The problem has been the stomach turning way in which not only the beliefs of evangelicals and Christians in general have been denigrated, but also the lifestyle, the manners, the customs, and concerns of these folks which have been turned into fodder for ruthless parody or outright hate filled rants that reek of cultural and intellectual superiority:
But there is one number that stands out among the rest as absolutely unbelievable. Twenty-five percent of Americans believe that Jesus Christ will return to earth in 2007. TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT! IN 2007!
These people are nuts. There’s no polite way of saying it. If I sound superior, too bad. Sanity has its advantages.
If some of the famed cultural warriors of the right want to take me on and defend their cherished Christian cohorts, step on up. I’ll take every one of them on and win very, very easily.
Here’s my plan for victory – wait till 2008. When Jesus doesn’t come – again, for the 2,007th time – I will be proven right. Will the people who believed he was coming in 2007 change their minds? Of course not. They’ll just say he’s coming in 2008. And on and on it goes.
I will gladly step up and defend the 25% of Americans who believe in the second coming of Christ – a belief that many protestant denominations teach is imminent and that their congregations should expect Christ’s return at any time.
How “sane” the author, Cenk Uygur, of this vicious, anti-Christian piece actually is can be gleaned from this jaw dropping passage:
You people are seriously disturbed. You think a magic man is going to appear out of the sky and grant you eternal bliss. If the man’s name was anything other than Jesus, that belief would get you locked up as a psychotic. And the fact that you have given him this magic name and decided to call him your Lord doesn’t make it any more sane.
Imagine for a second if instead of Jesus, some psycho was waiting for a magical creature named Fred to come save him this year and suck him up into the sky. Now, who doesn’t think that man needs serious counseling and perhaps medical supervision? Now, you change Fred into Jesus, and you have 25% of the country.
Sometimes the world scares me. It is full of psychotics who go around pretending to be rational human beings. You think that’s offensive, then prove me wrong. I dare you. Show me Jesus in 2007 and I’ll do whatever you demand of me.
It should go without saying that it is not “psychotic” to believe in the tenets of any religion – the operative word being “belief” which denotes that which cannot be empirically proven but rather “a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing,” according to Dr. Johnson. And as far as rationality is concerned, I suggest Mr. Uygur read Thomas Aquinas for proof that reason and faith can, in fact, compliment one another. Indeed, as Pope Benedict recently elucidated brilliantly, reason is the basis for belief in God.
Why then, should the author stop at poking fun at The Last Days? For a “sane” and “rational” person, the idea of the son of a dead carpenter rising from the dead is ludicrous, the height of idiocy. Everyone knows once you’re dead, you’re dead. And what about all those “miracles?” Helping the blind to see and the lame to walk? You’ve got to be kidding. Except that this belief has animated and inspired scientific giants, none more prominent than Isaac Newton whose faith in God and that dead son of a carpenter led to discoveries that are universally recognized as the greatest in the history of science. “I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by those who were inspired. I study the Bible daily,” he wrote. And there is absolutely no difference between his beliefs and the beliefs that Mr. Uygur so sickeningly describes as “psychotic.”
This is but one example of the left’s despicable attack on people of faith. To find others, I suggest you Google up “American Taliban” – an outrageous, exaggerated phrase that seeks to tie the religious political right in America to the murderous tyrants who bullied the Afghanistan people until they were overthrown by American arms in 2001.
Intolerance is not confined to those with religious beliefs. As Mr. Uygur proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, the disease can manifest itself even among “sane” and “rational” bigots on the left. And the air of insufferable superiority and condescension by the Uygur’s of this country is so ripe that the stink of their ignorance permeates our politics to the point that rational discourse regarding the very real threat of religious influence affecting reason and science in society is impossible.
For I actually agree with some of the left’s critique of the religious right and their drive to impose their beliefs on the rest of us, although I think the threat is vastly overstated for purely political purposes. And the religious right’s intolerance of gays, of the teaching of science that contradicts dogma, and of the “godlessness” of the political opposition all contribute to a coarsening of political dialogue.
And it isn’t just the hard, evangelical right that exhibits this kind of intolerance. Many of my fellow conservatives, in their zeal to prosecute the War on Terror, much too often use too broad a brush in condemning Islam and, by extension, the left itself for what they see as failures to stand up to the extremists or worse, sympathize with their goals. The fact that moderate Muslims are too eager to play politics with Islamism by piggybacking their grievances on the attention garnered by the terrorists doesn’t mean that they support violence. They should be roundly criticized for their moral blindness not for the fact that they share a general belief system with the murderers.
I regret to say that even though many conservatives may deny it, their criticisms of Islam as a religion that seeks to enslave the rest of us smacks of the same kind of prejudice and ignorance exhibited by the left toward Christianity. It has the same out of control feel to it – as if by its very shallowness, it can cover a multitude of sins, both real and imagined. Both critiques should be rejected for what they are; muddled thinking born out of a desire to score political points rather than objectify the nature of the threat – be it radical Islamism or radical Christian fundamentalism.
I don’t expect any of this to change anytime soon. The echo chamber here in Blogland is a powerful instrument that enslaves adherents to a particular worldview and will brook no opposition. Apostasy on both sides is punished severely. One wonders if we’ll ever be able to get back to a place where we can all view the intersection of religion and politics with a wary but welcome attitude, seeing the moral underpinnings supplied by religion as a plus for our politics while recognizing the dangers of using politics to trash the belief systems of others.
What’s more, it appears that the group of park employees who sent the letter, vastly exaggerated their charge that the age of the Canyon could not be disseminated to the public.
What they’re bitching about is that a book that posits the notion that Noah’s flood caused the Canyon to be formed is still on the shelves after a year of dithering by Park bureacrats. I can’t tell if this is bureaucratic stupidity or the imposing of religious beliefs by Bush appointees on scientific questions. Whatever it is, the book should be taken off the shelves, especially after a directive stating that Park bookstores should be akin to schoolrooms rather than libraries was handed down.
And I can’t find anywhere in the linked letter where they actually say no one is allowed to give the true age of the Canyon (about 550 million years). It appears that Frank’s belief that this is simply more BDS on display is correct.