bookmark_borderReview of Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming

WHY WE FIGHT

A Review of Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, Norton (2007), 253 pp.

Reviewed by Keith M. Parsons

Soon after the U.S. entered the Second World War, the War Department commissioned prominent director Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) to do a propaganda film explaining and justifying America’s participation in the conflict. He made Why We Fight, a classic of the genre. Eschewing maudlin appeals to patriotism or overwrought rhetoric, Capra had the brilliant idea of using the Axis leaders’ own tools against them. German, Italian, and Japanese propaganda films provided him with his most luridly compelling images. Scenes of Hitler in his screeching, foaming rants and Mussolini posing and posturing were far more damning than any censure, however eloquent, Capra could have dished out.

Michelle Goldberg has mastered Capra’s technique. She lets the leaders of America’s growing Christo-fascist movement speak for themselves. We hear them proclaiming that doctors who perform abortions should be subject to the death penalty. Homosexuality would also be a death-penalty offense, though first-time offenders might be shown mercy and merely subjected to public humiliation. Strict Old-Testament law in all its ferocity is to be imposed. Goldberg quotes (p. 177) Michael Schwartz, chief of staff to U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R, of course, Oklahoma), saying of liberal judges “I don’t want to impeach judges. I want to impale them!” Such views are expressions of “Christian Reconstructionist” theology, a militantly theocratic creed propagated by ultra-fundamentalist theologian the late R.J. Rushdoony. Hard-line reconstructionsits constitute an American Taliban and openly advocate making the Bible the basis of a shari’a-type religious law that would trump all considerations of rights or personal liberty.

Strict reconstructionists are considered extreme even within the religious right, yet, as Goldberg documents, an offshoot of reconstructionist theology, dominionism, is a political philosophy that is rapidly gaining ground among “mainstream” right-wing Christians. Dominionism, or Christian Nationalism as Goldberg calls it, openly advocates theocracy—or “theonomy” as some of its proponents call it. That is, according to this creed, government at all levels and all of society’s leading institutions should be under fundamentalist Christian control. Other religions will be “recognized,” but Christianity will have official and approved status. Non-Christians will inevitably be reduced to second-class citizens. But, surely, aren’t these views also considered extreme, and aren’t they advocated only by a tiny, insignificant minority?

No longer. Many leading representatives of the religious right have been more or less open about their advocacy of theocracy. Statements issued by some individuals and organizations retain a fig leaf of vagueness, just enough wiggle room to permit plausible deniability if pinned down. For instance in its 2004 platform the Republican Party of Texas made theocratic noises, but managed to commit itself to nothing definite: “…the United States of America is a Christian nation, and the public acknowledgement of God is undeniable in our history. Our nation was founded on fundamental Judeo-Christian principles based on the Holy Bible (quoted, p. 27).” Others give full-throated voice to theocracy: “We must remove all humanists [i.e., non-fundamentalists] from public office and replace them with pro-moral [i.e., Christian fundamentalist] political leaders,” says Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind books (quoted, p. 39). George Grant, former executive director of D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Ministries wrote:

Christians have an obligation a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ—to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness. But it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice. It is dominion we are after. Not just influence. It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time. It is dominion we are after. World conquest. That’s what Christ has commissioned us to accomplish… Thus, Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land—of men, families, institutions, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ (quoted, p. 41).

Grant’s former boss, D. James Kennedy is even more ambitious; he wants to repeal the Enlightenment, reverse the Renaissance, and trash the classical heritage of Greece and Rome:

Clearly the Enlightenment in France was another expression of the Renaissance’s bearing bitter fruit. Had they known their historical models, the men and women of the Enlightenment could have had a preview of the coming attractions by simply looking back at the fruits of secular ideology in ancient times. In Greece and Rome, as well as in the succession of wars and disasters ever after, they could have had a portrait of the ghastly results their vision has produced (quoted, p. 43).

Kennedy’s model of good government is John Calvin’s theocracy in 16th Century Geneva.

So, why have Christian fundamentalists ratcheted up their truculence and stridency to such a degree? One of their own has been president for the last six and a half years, and has funneled billions of dollars of taxpayer money to fundamentalist organizations through his “faith based initiatives.” The U.S. Senate is rife with characters like Senators Inhofe, Coburn, DeMint, Vitter, Craig, Frist, Cornyn, and Brownback, who either are fundamentalists or are fellow travelers eager to toe the line of organizations like Focus on the Family and the Eagle Forum. The House is even worse. The Supreme Court has the Roberts/Scalia/Alito/Thomas clique, one justice short of an automatic hard-right majority. Despite some setbacks in the 2006 election (True Believers Santorum and DeLay were lost from Congress), haven’t things been going their way for some time?

But even to po
se such a question is to grossly underestimate the religious right’s boundless self-pity and consuming sense of victimization. Two events in particular seem to have piqued its paranoia: The court-mandated eviction of “Roy’s Rock,” Judge Roy Moore’s 2.6 ton Ten Commandments monument, from the Montgomery judicial building, and the court-ordered removal of Terry Schiavo’s feeding tubes. These events precipitated an eruption of rage and invective from fundamentalists and reinforced their palpably absurd but passionate conviction that Christians are persecuted in this country, particularly at the hands of “liberal, activist judges.”

Goldberg is an investigative journalist who spent a great deal of time getting to know some of the religious right activists and attending their conferences and gatherings. She found many of them to be personally affable and cordial, but, she notes, when she was a reporter assigned to the Middle East, she observed a similar phenomenon: People, all warmth and smiles, would invite you into their homes and serve you tea but the next day would cheerfully send a suicide bomber to blow up people like you. Likewise, when the cameras are rolling, Pat Robertson can turn on the good ol’ boy charm and the “aw, shucks” grin that would make you think he was Andy Griffith. But, Goldberg makes clear, these are not nice people. Their easygoing demeanor masks deep and virulent hatreds and crusading zeal. They are self-righteous and confident to a degree that is possible only for those who have achieved the sublime certainty and clarity of the fanatic.

Although she spent a lot of time with her subjects, Goldberg admits that she never really understood them. Small wonder. To Goldberg, or to anyone who has absorbed the secular, liberal ideas and rational ideals derived from the Enlightenment, the fundamentalists will be largely incomprehensible. They live in a universe that they have created, a universe separate from and parallel to the one that the rest of us live in. The hippies’ counterculture of the sixties was nothing compared to the fundamentalist counterculture of today. Megachurches have now become communities within the community, complete with coffee shops, gyms, bookstores, and boutiques. Public schools, those dens of iniquity where evolution and secular humanism are inculcated, can be avoided altogether, and children can be home-schooled with a curriculum based on “Christian” values. When they reach college age, there are institutions like Regent University and Patrick Henry College. When they finish college, they can marry another fundamentalist and settle into a sterile McMansion neighborhood populated by like-minded folk. In short, a fundamentalist can now go practically from cradle to grave without having to be exposed to conflicting ideas or having to learn to live with people different from themselves.

Goldberg details the particular obsessions of fundamentalists, like their fascination for abstinence and chastity programs, their continued evolution-bashing, and, of course, their particular bugaboo, gays and lesbians. I have a cartoon on my office door of a pompadoured, Bible-flailing character at the pulpit haranguing his flock about the “vile abomination” of two men clasped together in the “animal heat of unnatural lust.” Out in the congregation, one pew-sitter whispers to another, “Yeah, you’re right. He’s definitely gay.” You would think that after the Ted Haggard and Larry Craig episodes, there would be at least some self-consciousness about expressions of homophobia, but imperviousness to shame or irony is part of the zealot thing.

The religious right has had some notable political successes, as when, in 2004, numerous states passed propositions outlawing gay marriages and civil unions. But, as Goldberg notes, the immediate danger posed by fundamentalist activism is cultural, not political. Their impact on particular issues, like gay rights, abortion, or stem cell research, is less deleterious than the subversion of rationality itself, which has been achieved to an alarming extent. The difference I have observed in my own lifetime is remarkable: I entered school in the immediate post-Sputnik era and grew up in a society where respect for science was automatic. The majority of people might have had a hard time distinguishing between a proton and a protein, but there was a pervasive sense that when it came to matters of fact there was no higher authority than the consensus of scientific communities. Perhaps we were too deferential; some shady characters like Werner von Braun were practically idolized.

Today, by contrast, scientific conclusions, even the best established, are routinely undermined and derided. Even the mainstream media feel that they have to offer “balance” on scientific issues by giving equal time to cranks and crackpots. Antiscience propaganda, promulgated by the religious right through its mouthpieces in the right-wing punditocracy, has radically politicized scientific issues. Instead of deference scientists whose research opposes right-wing dogma can now expect to be censored, denied funding, pilloried in the right-wing media, or subjected to Congressional investigation. Here in my neighborhood, at NASA, a Bush Administration-appointed lackey and scientific ignoramus at one time had the power to censor the wording of NASA scientists when they said things that he judged uncongenial to the Bush base. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently reported that Dr. Julie Gerberding, Director of the Centers for Disease Control, was called to testify before Congress on the health effects of global warming, but found her comments censored by the Office of Management and Budget, which is run by politically-appointed “Brownies” (And they’re doing a heckuva job!).

In the 1990’s, many academics, myself included, were worried about the attack on scientific rationality issuing from the postmodernist left. But the real danger to science comes from the right, as it always has. Of course, fundamentalist antipathy to evolution has been recognized for generations, but, as Chris Mooney showed in his 2005 book The Republican War on Science, and as Goldberg confirms, antievolutionism is only the tip of the iceberg. When the FDA’s Reproductive Health Advisory Committee voted 23-4, on solid scientific grounds, to make the “morning after” pill available without a prescription, hysterical abstinence advocates shrieked that this would make adolescents have more sex. As Goldberg notes (p. 151), the FDA already had a host of independent studies denying that canard, but in another exercise of politics over science, the FDA shamefully rejected the panel’s advice and refused to allow emergency contraception to be sold over the counter.

The Lancet, the leading British medical journal, just reported extensive studies of the incidence of abortion worldwide. The findings, by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute, show unequivocally that abortion rates are lowest in countries that have safe, legal abortion and where women have ready access to contraception. The evidence for the connection between the availability of reliable contraception and the incidence of abortions is simply undeniable, yet, of course, zealots will deny it. What do you do when the evidence shows that if you really want to decrease the number of abortions, you should make sure that abortion safe and legal, make family planning a routine practice, and make contraception widely and easily available? You do what you always do when reality mugs your dogma: You deny the evidence, vilify and disparage those who present it, and get your media pundits and think tanks to start churning out lies and disinformation. It also helps to troll the backwaters of academe to find lonely Ph.D. contrarians and outliers whose endorsements will add “scientific” credentials to your denial,

Truth, of course, is the first casualty of war, and the Christian Nationalists most definitely think that they are at war with a secular, liberal elite and its Enlightenment values. In the 1950’s it was “Kill a Commie for Christ,” now it is “Lie for the Love of the Lord.” It is remarkable how many of these “good Christians” are incredibly cool and fluent liars, as, taking one example out of many, when they continue to spread the baseless allegation that having an abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. Maybe, though, they aren’t really lying, but simply assuming a completely different conception of truth and how it is acquired. Sometimes comedians are more insightful than philosophers, and maybe Stephen Colbert is right when he says that the epistemic ideal of the far right is not truth, but “truthiness.” Truthiness is not an objective representation of reality, but is what you believe when your heart or your gut tells you it must be so. It is a kind of belief that is felt with a level of conviction that mere logic and evidence can never impart.

It is never more evident that fundamentalists are living in a parallel reality where reason has no place than when they are indulging in their bizarre apocalyptic “left behind” fantasies. These beliefs are so very strange, that outsiders may be excused if they are left wondering how any featherless biped could possibly be induced to hold them. Many Christian fundamentalists advocate an eschatology called “premillenial dispensationalism.” According to this scenario, sometime in the near future (nobody knows exactly when, but soon) the “rapture” will occur and all “faithful” Christians (and innocent babies) will be removed from the world. There will follow the period of the “tribulation” when the Antichrist emerges, and apocalyptic war in Israel will result in the violent deaths of most of the world’s Jews. Then Christ will return in glory, the Antichrist will be cast down, and there will be a thousand-year reign of peace and love. For the many millions of premillenialists this scenario is not metaphor; they really believe it. Further, it is not just harmless and silly fantasy, like New Agers going on about their past lives, but has issued in an aggressive “Christian Zionist” movement that is trying to influence Middle Eastern policy. My only criticism of Goldberg’s book is that I wish she had included more about these alarming goings-on.

But are Goldberg’s warnings alarming, or merely alarmist? Many sophisticated readers might concede that the Christian Nationalists are every bit as extreme and bizarre as Goldberg indicates, but then ask “So what?” Anyone who follows the news knows that the religious right is not having it all their way. The world is not their oyster. Most obviously, two of the movement’s old lions, Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy, have recently “gone to their rewards.” Goldberg herself in the epilogue to her book notes that many of the remaining fundamentalist icons have recently had hard falls. Tom DeLay is indicted and out of Congress. Roy Moore’s run for governor of Alabama came to a sudden stop when was clobbered in the GOP primary. Ralph Reed, former boy wonder of the Christian Coalition, was tarred in the Jack Abramoff scandal and couldn’t even get elected lieutenant governor in Georgia. South Dakotans spanked the religious right hard when they rejected a ballot initiative that would have banned nearly all abortions. Mainstream Republicans may be turning against the religious extremists. Former House Majority Leader and hidebound conservative Dick Armey recently blasted James Dobson’s Focus on the Family as “nasty bullies,” and “a gang of thugs (quoted on p. 212).” Liberal columnist Ellen Goodman recently noted dissension in the ranks of conservative Christians and opined that the religious right, as a coherent political movement, is showing signs of rigor mortis. So, why get alarmed with a movement that is noisy and obnoxious but apparently going nowhere?

The death of the religious right has been proclaimed many times before. Like any political movement, it has its ups and downs. Temporary defeats do not dismay them. How could they be dismayed when the Lord is on their side? They are motivated, they are organized, they are well funded, and they are absolutely certain that the future is theirs. They are not going away, and we ignore them at our peril. Goldberg has therefore done us the sort of service that Frank Capra did; she has given us a beautifully crafted statement of why we fight. Of course, in the Second World War the fascists were in Germany, Italy, and Japan. Now they may be just down the road at your local megachurch, but the battle is the same: the conflict between a vision of human society as open, tolerant, and guided by scientific rationality and one of a society that is dominated by an authoritarian, exclusionist, superstitious ideology.

bookmark_borderIs secularism morally irrelevant? (Or worse?)

Back in the days of the European Enlightenment, sentiments like Denis Diderot’s “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest” rang true. Hotheaded and dangerously violent, yes, but I can sympathize. Get rid of the bloodsucking ruling class and their ideological enablers. You can see why opposition to organized religion once could be part a desire for broad-based social liberation. Secularism could once be an important part of standing up for the interests of the many against the oppressing few.

Later on, Marxism inherited this Enlightenment impulse. Especially outside the industrialized West, critiques of God and the local religion had (and have) a left wing flavor. Just recently, a secular Muslim acquaintance passed on “Why I am an Atheist,” a 1931 article by Shaheed Bhagat Singh, well-known as an Indian nationalist struggling aginst the British. It’s basically a Marxian version of the classic Enlightenment moral case against supernaturalism.

Ah, but we know what happened to Marxism. Criticizing the evils of capitalism and the religions that support a conservative social order is one thing, coming up with a new order that does better is another. Marxism was too often a substitute for religion that inherited all sorts messianism, fantasies of remaking human nature, and delusions of being a science of human societies.

But what happens after the early Enlightenment, after Marxism? These days, the whole notion of critiques of religion being tied to freedom for the many has to be a bad joke. If anything, non-fundamentalist religion is one of the few sources of opposition to a very secular politics of world-devouring greed. The religious, precisely because they believe in otherworldly values, can at least imagine trying to live differently.

Consider this. If you were to rephrase Diderot’s sentiments for today, would you really pick on religious figures? Yes, the Pope is an obnoxious bastard who, together with the hierarchy in the Vatican, condemns millions to misery with a principled opposition to people having sex for fun. Yes, you can find many a Muslim preacher ready to take half the world to the fire in his quest for religious purity. But can we really, with all honesty, say that a sentiment like “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest” is relevant today?

How about “People will never be free until the last corporate CEO is strangled with the entrails of the last Chicago School economist?” I mean, aren’t they the plunderers and ideological enablers of today? Aren’t we living in a time when ruling elites immiserate vast populations and devastate the environment in the name of good old-fashioned secular progress? Isn’t free-market fanaticism and overconfidence about economic “science” a distinctly Enlightenment form of lunacy, no less crazy than high-church Marxism? Are the usual preoccupations of secularists such as myself—natural science, free speech, separation of religion and politics—even relevant?

I don’t honestly know. But I am getting increasingly disillusioned with my own attitudes lately. I have spent a good stretch of my career thinking about science and pseudoscience, and trying to counter varieties of creationism. I have been involved with atmospheric physics, watching how the industrial civilization I enjoy has been screwing with the atmosphere with wild abandon. I have spent time on strange questions in physics which no one really cares about and likely won’t lead to anything. But in all this time, I wonder if the real lunatics I should have been concerned about had impeccably secular ideologies, if the more important pseudoscientists resided in business school buildings close to my offices.

bookmark_borderProgress? What progress?

I threw a party last night to welcome a new colleague to our physics department, and later in the night, I found myself talking about science and religion with him. (Not entirely uncommon when you get some food and wine into a bunch of science-types.)

If I understood correctly (keep in mind the wine), he was arguing that questions about origins (the universe, life etc.) were especially profound, and that how we answer such questions were bound to have significant societal consequences. As science made progress, answers that invoked the supernatural lost ground. Indeed, my impression was that he thought that with the advance of science, more fundamentalist religiosity retreated. He gave the example of India, where he comes from. As an older, mature civilization, he thought that India did not resist science the way many American creationists do. Compared to hundreds of years ago when Indian people were much more inclined to take their supernatural creation myths literally, they are, he suggested, at least more ambiguous about such matters now.

Perhaps. I don’t know enough about India, certainly. But I’m inclined to be more skeptical about such narratives of progress. And I’m especially cautious about attributing declines in fundamentalist attitudes (when such a decline exists) to the advancement of science. It doesn’t ring true according to what I know about the history and sociology relevant to science and religion questions. For example, even sociologists who continue to defend versions of the classic secularization thesis in regard to Western Europe say that science is way down in the list of factors contributing to the erosion of organized religiosity. Furthermore, I’m dubious that people used to be more fundamentalist. India, for one thing, has seen a flourishing Hindu fundamentalist movement in the last generation. And it’s very difficult to look at a long sweep of history and discern a overall trend away from strong religiosity behind the ups and downs of events.

This, though, brings up another question for me. How much are secular people, particularly those of us who are impressed with the undeniable progress within modern science, committed to notions of accompanying social progress?

The notion of social and moral progress as part of an Enlightenment package together with advancing knowledge seems pretty common. It’s my political heritage, even though I have grown more cynical with age. Many of the best-known critics of religion take such a view. Richard Dawkins, for example, argues that the current zeitgeist supports a more humane morality compared to times when religious faith was stronger. He doesn’t try to explain why in detail, but it seems pretty clear that he thinks there’s a line of moral progress that goes back at least to the European Enlightenment. Sentiments like those of my Indian colleague, that scientific progress is inevitably linked to social progress, are very common, I would guess, among nonbelievers of all stripes.

But then, there is also a thoroughly secular tradition of skepticism about claims of progress. For example, one of my favorite political thinkers is John Gray, whom I always enjoy reading even if I don’t always agree. In his latest book, Black Mass: Apocalytic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Gray forcefully argues against Enlightenment notions of political progress. He charges these with being secular versions of messianic monotheism, and with being associated with utopian political schemes that have imposed vast devastation on humanity. Gray sees communism, Nazism, and the recent bout of free-market fundamentalism we have been suffering through, as genuine expressions of Enlightenment ideas of progress and utopia, rather than as distortions of the Enlightenment. He makes an interesting case, well worth reading for secularists.

If such critiques have substance, and I am inclined to think that at least in part they do, there is a serious challenge here to nonbelievers and critics of religion. If we think of ourselves as not just indulging in an intellectual exercise of trying to figure out what is true, but also trying to offer a better alternative for living our lives together, we might want to be more careful about the utopian tendencies in our own Enlightenment tradition. We might, especially if we see supernatural beliefs as a deeply ingrained part of human nature, concentrate more on figuring out how to live with that and sustain a naturalist subculture, rather than indulging in what might be a dangerous fantasy of eliminating superstition.

Political thought is not my strongest suit, and I feel myself pulled in many directions when I try and understand the debate over progress. I think, however, that it’s important. Even people such as myself, who like to emphasize scientific matters and prefer not to make sweeping claims about social progress, cannot escape the debate. After all, science as an institution is not isolated from wider social concerns; at the least, we have to justify our existence. I’d like to say that scientific and social progress are closely linked, and that criticizing religion has a role in improving our world. But I’m also not entirely sure I can defend this as part of a serious argument. I suspect myself of wishful thinking. But then, maybe that is also an after-effect of the wine.

bookmark_borderSo, what’s the point?

I expect that everyone who gets involved in science and religion debates from a skeptical point of view occasionally asks themselves what the point of all this effort is. After all, religion is one of those areas in life where it’s notoriously difficult to either say something really new or to change anyone’s mind. To get through to many believers, the hurdle is not so much to present an argument as to persuade them that reasons and evidence are relevant in the first place. And that persuasion will not happen as a result of arguments, naturally.

It’s not true that arguing about supernatural claims is completely useless. Personally, I get a lot of fun out of it, and I learn a good deal about things that fascinate me. There are other people who are interested in this sort of thing, and within that community, you can hope to advance the debate, and maybe get somewhere.

But outside of a fairly small intellectual community, well, what we say about science and religion might not often have much of a point. I even wonder if whatever skeptical conclusions we might reach from a scientific point of view are not necessarily even all that relevant to nonbelievers in general. After all, if you’re ineffective in reaching many people, you’re also not of much use to people who oppose the social role of supernatural belief. If you dislike religion for moral and political reasons, you want something that works to reduce the influence of faith. Arguments that might have purchase only after someone agrees that reason and evidence is relevant don’t do the job.

This doesn’t bother me. But I suspect it might be a source of tension between science-minded nonbelievers who are not interested in moral critiques of religion, and those who think that religion is first and foremost morally dubious.

bookmark_borderAn Illusion of Harmony review

The Brunei Times has a review of my critique of Muslim attitudes toward science, An Illusion of Harmony.

The review is interesting. Not because it has any substance; it consists largely of invective. But it’s an interesting example of what those of us who want to be critical of Islam face. Even when you avoid going on an Islam-bashing expedition, it’s very hard to get devout Muslims to pay attention to what you’re actually saying.

bookmark_borderTed Rall on pandering to the religious

Ted Rall, the cartoonist and opinion writer, has an interesting piece out called “Onward Christian Panderers.”

It’s mostly complaints about politicans sucking up to the Christian Right—nothing unfamiliar, though well-expressed. It’s worth mentioning, however, that while Rall might not be a great fan of organized religon, he is a theist. We should notice how many, from liberal religionists to the “spiritual but not religious,” are just as pissed off at religious politics as the average atheist. Moreover, Rall explicitly defends the rights of nonbelievers:

Between 10 and 14 percent of Americans are atheists. Devoting a “moment of silence” in schools sends a message to their children: you and your parents are out of step with American society.

If people want to believe in God, the Great Pumpkin, or a Jesus who lives in Missouri, that’s up to them. But religion has no place in the public life of a democracy. None.

bookmark_borderHitchens, apparently, is bleeding insane

PZ Myers reports on his experiences at the Freedom From Religion Convention, including a lengthy description of Christopher Hitchens’s talk, where Hitchens apparently goes of the deep end and gives full rein to his revenge fantasies against Muslims.

Great. With Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, we get two prominent and articulate spokespeople for godlessness who responded to 9/11 with bigotry against Muslims. Hell, that’s half the public face of atheism in English-speaking circles, these days. Both seem incapable of distinguishing between fanatics and ordinary boring Muslims, both like to whip up quasi-nationalist panic under the name of Enlightenment values, and both make pronouncements with the invincible confidence born of ignorance of what they so readily demonize.

It’s hard to avoid the thought that Harris and Hitchens endorse the kind of violence implict in a war against Islam. This is, it seems, a war they would really like, though they do their cheerleading under the guise of asking us to wake up to a war that Muslims have already started. I wonder how they get away with this, especially since an important element of their polemic against religion is the charge that faith is irredemeably mixed up with violence.

bookmark_borderMitchell Cohen on “The New Atheism”

There’s an interesting interview with political scientist Mitchell Cohen in the leftist magazine Dissent.

One of Cohen’s virtues is that he refrains from discussing the “New Atheists” in terms of the media stereotype of the angry atheist. He also displays a critical attitude toward political Islam that is refreshing in leftish circles. Heh, he even slams the cheap anti-Darwinism that some leftists indulge in.

Being leftwardly inclined myself, I figure I should applaud such outbreaks of sanity.

bookmark_borderVideo for Ontario talks on science and Islam

The Centre for Inquiry Ontario has made a video of the talk I gave on “Science and Religion in Islam” on October 3 at Ryerson University in Toronto, plus the Q & A, and Q & A’s after I gave a similar talk in other institutions. It’s pretty dark and the slides are not very visible, so until the Q & A starts, it’s not great visually. If you want to follow the PowerPoint slides along with the talk, you can get them from my web site as well.

bookmark_borderFreedom to criticize

Sam Harris and Salman Rushdie have an important op-ed in the LA Times, “Ayaan Hirsi Ali: abandoned to fanatics.”

In fact, I’d add this: Ayaan Hirsi Ali gets a lot of accusations that her critique of Islam is not sophisticated enough, that she oversimplifies things, or that her tactics do not really help the Muslim women she speaks for. She gets flak for being inflammatory and unnecessarily insulting to a world religion. In some contexts such criticisms might need to be debated; I expect some of them are at least in part correct. But in the present situation, when she’s operating under serious death threats because she dared offend some Muslim fanatics, all this is irrelevant. And I find the hemming and hawing I hear, especially from more left wing political circles, very disturbing. Hell, I take it personally. What kind of intellectual life can we sustain if people can be shouted down or be forced to live in fear because they insulted someone’s religion?

While I’m on this sort of rant, what the hell is it with Westerners becoming so protective of other people’s religious and nationalist sensitivities? It’s not only touching Islam that can get you into trouble; these days in the US making noises about the apartheid-like policies of Israel is also becoming a sure way to get your tenure denied or your speaking engagements canceled. OK, I’m cynical enough to suspect that modern populations are all too easily inclined towards forms of fascism. But at least if it’s their own hypernationalism or foaming at the mouth in service of their own superstitions, then that’s easier to understand. What is this with enforcing the fanaticism of others?