We must finally shut up Christians once and for all! It's the only reasonable course of action, no? The attackers who killed twelve people in downtown Paris last week did so in the name of their prophet Muhammad, who was the founder of Islam, which is a religion, as everyone knows. Well, think about it, Christianity is also a religion, as are Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism--so it only follows that it’s time to eradicate these “outmoded” belief systems. We must eradicate them now! They have no place in our modern secular world.
Yes, my title is intentionally extreme. It’s a caricature of what I see coming regularly from the pens of atheists and their followers. To tell the truth, in recent years a month doesn’t go by without me reading one or another article that begins bewailing some recent atrocity committed by extremist Muslims, only to morph quickly into an argument against religion in general, then more specifically into an argument against Christians and Christianity. Jeffrey Tayler’s January 9th piece in Salon, with its transparent title "We must stop deferring to religion; Laughable absurdities must be laughed at", performs this same old dishonest shuffle using the Charlie-Hebdo attack as fodder.
Tayler lists a series of recent terrorist atrocities and points the finger directly at Islam: "There are many other well-known examples [of such attacks]. The point is, Islam is implicated in all." But then, oddly, in the next paragraph, he proceeds to shift the whole weight of his argument:
Faced with this uncomfortable but persistently deadly reality, what should we and our politicians (and pundits) do? For starters, we need to cease granting religion--and not just Islam--an exemption from criticism. If we do not believe the fables foisted on us (without evidence) by the faithful, we need to say so, day in and day out, in mixed company, and especially in front of children (to thwart their later indoctrination). We must stop according religion unconditional respect, stop deferring to men (and mostly they are men) who happen to preface their names with the titles of reverend or rabbi or imam, and de-sanctify the sacred, in word and deed.Uh-huh. How did the argument shift suddenly from the serious problem of radical jihadism to the whole of humanity's religious culture? The answer is clear: it shifted on the dime of Tayler's personal hatred of religious people. (Never mind the lame misunderstanding of academic religious studies he reveals in his last line. Such lapses are typical of him, and characteristic of the New Atheism generally: they know virtually nothing about the subjects they harangue us on.)
Laughable absurdities--be they virgin births, parting seas, spontaneously burning bushes--deserve not oblique pardons (“We don’t have to take everything in the Bible literally”), but outspoken ridicule; courses in “religious studies” in campuses across the country might better be referred to as “lessons in harmful superstition, dangerous delusion, and volitional insanity.”
This bait-and-switch has become something of a rhetorical cliche on the part of Britain’s and America’s fanatical secularists. They use radical Islam as a stalking horse to go after their real target: the tens of millions of Catholics and Protestants who make up majorities in their own countries. And in the net they cast they manage to catch all the world's other religious people as well. It is both intellectually dishonest and, as David Robertson points out, cowardly. (NB: Though I agree with Robertson’s general argument, there are elements in the piece I don’t agree with.)
And so it is again. I already see them quickly co-opting the tragedy in Paris to argue that religious faith is “irrational” and “dangerous” in essence, and that prominent voices from faith communities must be aggressively pushed from the public sphere, must be ridiculed to the margins of society where they can finally be shut up.
Never mind that Christians have not been guilty of one suicide bombing or attack, or that Christians (Iraqi and Syrian Christians especially) along with moderate Muslims and Yezidis, have made up the great majority of ISIS’ and al Qaeda’s victims during these recent bloody years of conflict. No, the logic seems to be something like: The killers in Paris believed in God. Followers of other religions also believe in God. You do the math.
The absurdity of this kind of reductionism is no less annoying for being spread out over the several paragraphs of an article, as one typically sees in Slate, Salon and like publications. (The liberal press still features occasional dissenting pieces, it’s true, but the general trend is toward ever more bashing of religious people. Even Salman Rushdie allowed the Charlie Hebdo attack to lead him toward ill-considered words on the place of religion in culture.)
That modern Islam has a serious problem does not mean that religion itself is the problem. For one thing, religion is a universal human phenomenon; for another, our modern Western notions of individual liberty and human rights could never have been formulated without the Judeo-Christian base they arose upon.
Yes, that’s right. Balking about it or twisting up your face in a scowl won’t change history.
Do you want to see the first time in history that something like a concept of universal human rights was put into words? In fact it is in the Bible, in the New Testament, where the Apostle Paul writes:
In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. . . . There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 3:26;28)This text was written around 55 CE. It is an ancient text, but it offers us an uncannily contemporary-sounding vision of human dignity and equality. And that is no mere coincidence: in fact the New Testament is behind much that is greatest in our Western heritage. Here Paul’s recognition that God became unified with humanity in Jesus Christ leads him to a further recognition of the dignity of human being as such. So that every individual person, regardless of gender, race or social standing, is due a kind of absolute dignity. This biblical teaching is the root of what grew into our modern notions of inalienable rights, freedom of expression, a non-negotiable individual dignity. There’s a reason these concepts first developed in Western Europe. At the time of the Enlightenment and before, European civilization was Christian.
The men who gunned down twelve people last week in Paris did not recognize these rights. But that is no stain on the record of religion itself. It is rather the result of a twisted and radicalized movement that has arisen within the religion founded by Muhammad.
Many supporters of the New Atheism like to argue that “more people have been killed in the name of religion” than for any other cause. This claim is itself a cliche, and it is in fact untrue. That the claim has been repeatedly debunked by historians doesn’t seem to matter to the New Atheists however. They will make hay from whatever they can, and cliches have proven to be one of their most fertile fields. (To see some of the reasons the claim is untrue, one may consult, for instance, Karen Armstrong’s comments on her recent book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. I’m not going to repeat the various arguments here; in any case Armstrong is certainly not the only scholar to address the silliness of the old claim.)
But also: Even if the claim about religion and wars were true, it wouldn’t settle the issue. Because if we are to judge and condemn world religions by tallying up the numbers of people who have died at the hands of religious fanatics, then we must apply the same method to judging dogmatic secularists--aka today’s prominent atheists. What happens when committed secularists, people like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, take the reins of a culture?
To get an idea we may study what happens in societies that outlaw belief in God, that treat religious faith as a social aberration or failure of scientific reason. In fact we have several such societies that did precisely this, and their record is horrendous. Whether we look at the Soviet Union, communist China, or any of the other radically secular projects, we find literally millions of victims. In these societies religion is treated as a kind of mental illness or inveterate stupidity (the way Harris and Dawkins view it), and its adherents are brutalized en mass. Overly confident in its own “scientific” ideology of human “progress”, the cultural elite quickly becomes overseer of a vast gulag.
The answer to violence committed by religious fanatics is certainly not the imposition of a fanatical secularism. The problem with Dawkins, Harris and glib cheerleaders like Bill Maher, is that they are historically shallow. When they talk about history or society, they literally don’t know what they’re talking about. I refer to people like Harris and Maher as “liberal fundamentalists”--which is of course a contradiction in terms, a contradiction they should be ashamed of. Because our liberal Western societies are only liberal to the extent that they are pluralist; our liberal political orders recognize and regularly deal with deep incompatibilities of belief among citizens, which is what makes them valid as liberal communities to begin with. Religious beliefs are not merely among these variously held beliefs--no, in the case of Christianity they ethically underpin the whole project.
Against Harris, Dawkins, Maher and all their followers who would use the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo to attack religion in general, I would say: There is no feasible way to impose an ethical, one-size-fits-all atheist system on humanity and expect anything but dismal results. At the end of the day, lib-fundies (liberal fundamentalists) pose as great a danger to our Western societies as religious fanatics do--if not even more of a danger, since they naively claim to be fighting for the human rights enshrined in our constitutions. In fact they hardly understand the deep history of these rights.
Those who do not recognize, to begin with, what a fundamental and sacred mystery human being really is, are not qualified to be the central defenders of human rights.
And neither is the neo-liberal elite, whose speedy co-opting of the massacre in Paris is regrettable. To see the leaders of European capitalism holding up JE SUIS CHARLIE placards, as I likely will at today’s Paris rally, leaves a bad taste in the mouth, if only because the neo-liberal religion, namely the Free Market (blessed be Its name) bears much of the responsibility for the desperation that has led so many young people toward extremism. Among world leaders the only one I see who’s directly addressing the serious problems is Pope Francis.
In conclusion I would like to say one final word about Islam. Above I write that contemporary Islam “has a problem”. I think this is obviously true. But I do not want to be misunderstood. To say that Islam has a problem is not at all to say that Islam is itself a problem or that Muslims as such are a problem. No. I’m hopeful that over time, and with sufficient effort, the majority of Muslims will find the wisdom to counterbalance this fanatical movement that is now harming them even more than it is harming the rest of us. I’ve had Muslim friends, I’ve read Muslim books, and know that the Muslim tradition, going back to Muhammad’s time, is rich enough to find both good and bad in it. Just as, of course, my own Christian tradition has at times been mined in order to bring about great good--in order to show the Spirit at work in humanity--but at other times been misinterpreted in order to commit terrible acts.
The tragedy in Paris must not be co-opted to bash Europe’s Muslims or any other religious group. It should force us rather to look at the real causes of the despair now wracking so many young people, pushing them to leave behind what is good in their traditions and to take up instead the nihilistic banner of hatred and revenge.