Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More on the God wars

Over the last two years or so, a number of books have appeared by fairly high-brow writers and academics, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, that have challenged religious orthodoxy. These are not books merely critical of radical Islam, the Christian Right in the United States, the Orthodox settler movement in Israel or any other particular politically engaged religious movement. They take issue with religion as a belief system, and conclude that religion is nothing more than a dangerous -- very dangerous -- fairy tale for adults. I have read the books by Dawkins, Harris and Dennett, and Hitchens' book I've read in bits and pieces on Slate and other sites on the Internet. None of the authors pulls punches. They all believe that religion does far more harm than good in the world, and simply cannot fathom why people continue to place faith and believe in doctrines, stories, fables and rules that ask for unconditional acceptance and, as a matter of presupposition, refuse to subject themselves to empirical examination or the forces of reason. Dawkins and Hitchens are unapologetically harsh in their characterization of religion and its followers, while Harris and Dennett are less so, but still equally mystified by why anyone continues to take religion seriously. Personally, I feel the world would be a lot better off without the suffocating force of religion on so many aspects of our culture, social arrangements and politics, and that isn't even getting into the bizarre relationship between religion and human sexuality. Americans, for the most part, wince at the idea of the genital mutilation of young girls commonly practiced in 28 African countries and several in Asia and the Middle East. The justification given by these regimes for such a vulgar practice -- one that most Americans find repulsive -- is rooted in religion and culture. The purpose, of course, is to deny young girls their sexuality, and simply make them vassals for reproduction and the sexual needs of men. Did you know, however, that the only form of sex education funded by the United States government is abstinence education? That's right. Here we are in 2007, and Congress, at the president's behest, does not allocate money for sex education beyond "just say no." This is not public policy based on the social and natural sciences. This is public policy rooted in a religious fantasy that denies the power of human sexuality.

Yet, I do understand the appeal of religion for many people. Humans are social animals, and we all have a need for companionship, community, support and moral direction. If religion provides those essential human needs for individuals, then fine. I get the relationship between ethnicity and religion. I am Jewish but not at all religious. My atheism is not something I discovered only recently or in my early adulthood; it is, rather, a lifelong position. I have never believed in God, not even when the Braves won the World Series in 1995, when I won front row seats to see Yes in 1979 or after I learned about slavery, the Holocaust, religious slaughter and the Trail of Tears or after King and Kennedy were shot months apart from each other before I was eight years old. An all-knowing, intervening, metaphysical force ordering the universe never made sense to me. The idea that God created the world and then endowed humans with the capacities of reason and deliberation to run it never made sense to me. I was never a good enough science student to understand the Big Bang theory or the intricacies of Darwinian evolution. But the idea that something called "God" did all this never registered. I understand the need for people to believe there is something bigger out there sorting out the human condition. I understand the longing that many individuals have for some spiritual undercurrent to give meaning to the daily tasks of life focused on survival. I understand why some people pray for a "miracle" when their own life or that of a loved one is at stake. Who really wants to accept that we are fundamentally on our own in this world, supported only by people who we hope share the qualities of compassion, love and justice that most people want to believe describe themselves as well as others?

American politics has so sullied religion -- and never more so than right now -- that whatever patience I have had for the "good" side of religion, the side that discourages war and believes in universal health care, the side that believes we should fund children's health programs, pre-natal care and support women who face difficult reproductive choices or the side that wants to bridge the racial, ethnic and cultural divides in this country, is gone. So I was surprised when I actually decided to read reviews of two new books on our contemporary God wars in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review. John DiIulio, a former adviser to President Bush who helped him design and promote the "faith-based" initiatives that were such an important part of his 2000 presidential campaign and pre 9.11 focus, has just written "A Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America's Faith-Based Future," a book that extols the virtues of allowing churches, synagogues and other religious bodies to receive government funding to supplement their social missions. DiIulio made headlines a few years back when he quit the Bush White House, disgusted by the disconnect between the religious rhetoric coming from administration officials and the paltry interest they showed in getting various programs funded and off the ground. Forget the complete lack of empirical data that showed religion did a better job of delivering social services than secular providers. I disagreed then with the whole idea that funding religious social services was constitutional. If providing direct funding for churches to rehabilitate alcohol and drug addicts through religiously-based programs doesn't violate the Establishment Clause, then nothing does. But the bulletproof protection that religion enjoys from public criticism prevented any meaningful discussion of the constitutional dimension of the "faith-based" initiatives. DiIulio discovered that the Bush people didn't care much about constitutional niceties or whether these programs would even work. They simply wanted to pay off an important constituency in the Republican party -- conservative Christians who wanted federal dollars to underwrite their programs and Catholics that the Republicans were attempting to woo from the Democrats. There really wasn't much more to it than that, as another key adviser, David Kuo, from the early days of the Bush White House would later write in his memoir on his experience trying promote "faith-based" programs. DiIulio is apparently still animated by the belief that religion can and should play a key role in addressing social policy concerns, even though, as he acknowledges, there is no evidence that it does the job very well. Why then should it partner with federal, state and local government?

Charles Taylor, a philosophy professor at McGill University in Montreal, has a different concern, apparently, in "A Secular Age." Taylor believes our "modern" preoccupation with science, democracy and the forces of reason to order an unruly world have pushed religion to the sidelines. All I can conclude is that Taylor needs to take a little closer look at life, particularly political life, south of the 49th parallel. Taylor is certainly free to believe that his own life lacks meaning without God, but he shouldn't punish the rest of us who feel that God's followers need to dial it back in American public life. Americans currently devote an wildly disproportionate share of time to debating the moral component of abortion, same-sex marriage, something bizarrely called "homosexual" conduct," medical marijuana use and many more issues that operate at the margins of daily life, while feigning little concern for corrupt lending practices, Manichean trade agreements and business practices, or our "valued" relationships with such democratic nations as China, a country that compels abortion to limit family size and enthusiastically embraces child labor and Saudi Arabia, a country that punishes women who fall victim to sexual assault and rape by lashing them in public. But China's children make cool stuff for our children and the Saudis keep our Range Rovers and Hummers zipping back and forth to the mall. So why get bogged down in the details? Taylor believes that, first, we need more religion -- the right kind, of course, which is socially and politically repressive -- and, second, "secularists" need to stop picking on religion.

Hmmmm . . . I think religion has the upper hand on the "secularists" right now. Perhaps Taylor should take a little bit closer look at the "I Love Jesus" contest being waged right now among the presidential candidates in both parties.

Or he might want to send the Texas Education Agency a big, colorful FTD bouquet for firing the state's head science curriculum adviser, Christine Comer, two weeks ago after she committed the unspeakable offense of forwarding an announcement about a local lecture being given by a philosophy professor who testified against teaching "creationism" in Delaware public schools last year. Taylor should feel even better about yesterday's news coming out of Texas, namely that a state advisory group has approved a request by a "creation college" for state funding to teach the absolutely idiotic notion that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit created the world in six days, and that all mankind descends from Adam and Eve. This "college," the Institute for Creation Research in Dallas, then wants to send its graduates into the Texas public schools so that students can get "both sides" of the "various theories" explaining the origins of mankind.

There are no "both sides" to this issue. "Creationism" is simply fabrication and distorted belief, a desperate effort to teach religion to the masses. And there's a place for that, just like there was a place for people who believed that the Walrus was Paul or that he was just plain dead. Or that the astronauts never really went to the moon, that space aliens are being held somewhere in Roswell, New Mexico or that George W. Bush really won the 2000 election without cheating.

God can't favor capital punishment and support its opposition. God can't support reproductive choice for women and compel them to have children against their will, even if they were raped. God can't oppose war and support torture. God can't look kindly on a National League that plays real baseball and an American League that uses the designated hitter. Only people can make these choices. And sooner or later people are going to have to take responsibility for the God they created, and not the other way around.

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