The Distraction of Pettiness

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Today, the Houston Chronicle carried an editorial by Nora Gallagher that had originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. The article is titled "Enough of the cheap shots at Christianity" and subtitled, "Gratuitous barbs and criticisms meant to sting, and they do". The article presents itself as a both defense of Christianity against unfair criticism and as a call for a more enlightened approach to religion, for Christians to "examine our faith constantly in the light of human reason". But is it either of these? Or is it instead an attempt to scuttle debate about religion entirely?

At the beginning of the article, Ms. Gallagher starts out by raising some legitimate grievances about the reflexive and seemingly constant barrage against Christianity that seems de rigueur for a card-carrying leftist these days. Here are a few.

(1) [A] reviewer in The New York Times Book Review wrote that she "resents and fears Christianity not only for its sexism and incitement of violence but for its deadening effect on the imagination." This was a throwaway sentence, an assertion with nothing to back it up.

(2) [A woman, speaking of a visit to a Catholic high school, said,] "But can you believe this! They had crucifixes on the walls everywhere! I don't think I could stand seeing that every day!"

(3) Or this e-mail sent around after the November 2004 election: a U.S. map, with the red states marked "Jesusland." [numbers and bold added]
The second one really had me rolling my eyes. Only a liberal would go into shock at the sight of a crucifix (of all things) hanging on the wall of a Catholic high school. Shortly afterwards, however, things get more interesting when Gallagher attempts to dismiss two entire books as fashionable, gratuitous attacks on Christianity.
Recent books that are contemptuous of religion in general -- Sam Harris' The End of Faith and Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon -- compare the worst of Christianity with the best of reason. In Harris' book, we read about the medieval Catholic Church: the Inquisition, witch trials and burnings and, in our century, the "Christian theology responsible for the Holocaust." Dennett refers to people who share his antireligious views as "brights" [I do not use this term. --ed] who "have the lowest divorce rate in the United States," while "born-again Christians (have) the highest." Neither man mentions the way unfettered reason, in the form of science, presents us with conundrums like the atom bomb.
I have read Harris's book, but not Dennett's (and have no intention to). There are very many things wrong with Sam Harris's book (as I discuss here), first and foremost that it does not reject the fundamental approach to knowledge taken by religion. However, Harris does raise some serious questions about religion in his book that one cannot correctly dismiss as just another cultural tic of the left, like granola, patchouli, or feigned surprise about the use Christian symbols by Christians.

For example -- and this also gets us to the matter of the atom bomb very nicely, Harris made the following trenchant observation about religious faith.
Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God. ... There are two explanations for this: either we perfected our religious understanding of the world a millennium ago -- while our knowledge on all other fronts was hopelessly inchoate -- or religion, being the mere maintenance of dogma, is one area of discourse that does not admit of progress. [21-22]
It might be that reason -- and not faith -- gave us the atom bomb, whose original use saved countless American lives during a brutal war with Japan because it -- and not faith -- teaches us about the world. Technology like the atom bomb is indeed the product of man's mind, it is how we use it that makes a difference. If Ms. Gallagher is going to condemn the "unfettered use of reason" for producing an atom bomb, perhaps she should condemn reason altogether for allowing man, through its more "fettered" use, to invent the hammer and nails used to crucify her deity.

Of course, the "fetters" Ms Gallagher would impose are moral fetters. I don't know about her thoughts on carpentry supplies, but I would surmise that she would have rather not had the atom bomb invented in the first place, American lives saved or not. And if Gallagher is going to fault secular thinkers for failing to address the atom bomb -- if she is going to pretend that there is no reason in reason to be moral, it is fair to point out that she fails to mention the only modern secular thinker to propose a moral system based upon reason, Ayn Rand.

And now, going from justifiable indignation at constant leftists sniping about religion, to summarily dismissing the criticisms of two books as fashionable drivel, to blaming reason for the misuse of atomic weapons, Gallagher goes all the way on to a real tour de force of equivocation:
I call it secular fundamentalism -- one more example of the strict maintenance of doctrine, without actual experience of "the other," a bubble that actively screens out different points of view. What secular fundamentalists ignore is that ad hominem attacks on Christianity make permissible ad hominem attacks on any religion or philosophy. Who's next?
"Secular fundamentalism?" And this whopper is coming from a woman who apparently equates criticism of religion with gratuitous slams! The question, "Who's next?" just answered itself!

And then, after simply papering over any and all criticism of religion, Gallagher then apparently goes on the attack, herself! Note that after dismissing as without intellectual merit any criticism of religion, she claims to know why some criticize religion!
And yet when I search my heart and mind, I understand some of the resentment and rage that lie at the core of the callous remarks and anti-Christian books. Christianity has long been intertwined with the state, ever since the Roman Emperor Constantine made it his pet religion. It has always been the dominant religion in the United States, and it is now way too closely connected to the corridors of power. The "God" Congress prays to is a Christian God; so is the God in the Pledge of Allegiance and the one on our dollar bills. This is the God of the Christian right, the God of "values" politics. And it's even the God the Democrats want to wrap up faith in a new package in order to win elections.
She goes on with a call for -- and this is about as surprising as spotting a crucifix in a Catholic high school -- calls for Christians to sacrifice themselves to others. Interestingly, this call for sacrifice, which is completely consistent with the Christian morality, is held up as an example of the reformation of the Christian faith.
The connection between Christianity and political power is enough to make this believer hang her head. And yet, to attack this Christianity as all of Christianity is, of course, an error. It ignores the fact that medieval Christianity was reformed -- by Martin Luther and the Church of England, among others. But most of all, it neglects a history that includes someone such as the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who organized the Confessing Church to resist Nazi exclusion laws, joined the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and paid for it with his life.
Gallagher is partly right, but this is arguably worse than being completely wrong. Yes. Most non-Christians dislike the idea of being forced by the state to live according to Christian religious strictures just as much as (I hope) Christians would dislike being made to live under, say, Islamic law. Indeed, this willingness to separate church and state is an enormous benefit to the West and does, in fact, represent a great step forward for the Christian world. But this is not the same thing as sacrificing oneself to others. Nor is resisting the predations of a monster like Hitler necessarily self-sacrificial. Nor is self-sacrifice some incontestable moral ideal. (My regulars already know I am an advocate of rational egoism.)

But the fact that it is reformed does not make her religion in particular -- or religion as such -- exempt from criticism. What is wrong with a theocracy that makes separation of church and state a good thing? Might it have something to do with the fact that men, who hold certain beliefs for which they feel no need to argue, find the apparatus of the state a convenient tool to "defend" their faith from those who would not practice it if left to their own devices? And could it be that such men are wrong about something, and that forcing everyone else to live by their incorrect conclusions will lead to disaster?

And, more to the point, how does faith, "[b]elief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence", lead to knowledge of any kind? If, Ms. Gallagher, it can be bad for a state to impose a religion upon a people, might an individual be justifiably leery of guiding his life with principles accepted without "logical proof or material evidence"?

The notion of committing great sacrifices on such a basis makes me wonder: How does someone who relies on faith decide whether to oppose a Hitler or fly a plane into a building? There is certainly a rational case to be made for the former, but not for the latter.

To dismiss my concern as an ad hominem attack or a fashion statement as Gallagher does worries me even more. And I haven't even gotten around to asking why the calls for greater tolerance are being directed at Christians while Moslem fanatics are never once mentioned -- but Bush is rather symbolically criticized. Consider this paragraph.
If I think of costly grace, I remember the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks; the abolitionists; the Christians of Jubilee 2000 who successfully pressured Britain and the United States to forgive the developing world's crippling debt; the Quakers who protect and advise pacifists; the women and men who work daily in soup kitchens, for living-wage ordinances, against torture at Guantanamo Bay. None of us has done enough, and that is partly why so many people only know about the Christianity that cozies up to power.
Is this an attempt to convince Christian Republicans not to support the war effort, or capitalism? To shame leftists into accepting Jesus? Or both? And again, why does Gallagher ignore Islamic terrorism, the biggest story by far of men acting in accordance with their faith?



4-3-06: Added a clarification.

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