Last week, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote a column titled "Secular Europe's Merits," in which he explained why he prefers the secularism of Europe to the religiosity of America.
To his credit (other New York Times columnists do not generally agree to debate anything they write -- Paul Krugman, for example, has refused to discuss his new book on liberalism with me), Cohen agreed to come on my show, and proved to be a charming guest.
A distinguished foreign correspondent for Reuters and the International Herald Tribune, Cohen nevertheless betrayed what I believe is endemic to those who favor Europe's secularism to America's religiosity -- emotion rather than reason.
Here are some of the points from his opinion piece followed by my responses.
Cohen: "The Continent has paid a heavy price in blood for religious fervor and decided some time ago, as a French king put it, that 'Paris is well worth a Mass.'"
There is no doubt that Western Europe abandoned religion and opted for secularism largely because of the blood spilled in religious wars, just as it abandoned nationalism because of all the blood it spilled in the name of nationalism during World War I.
However, Cohen and others who argue for a secular society ignore the even heavier price in blood Europe has paid for secular fervor. Secular fervor, i.e., communism and Nazism, slaughtered, tortured and enslaved more people in 50 years than all Europe's religious wars did in the course of centuries.
This point is so obvious, and so devastating to the pro-secularists, that you wonder how they deal with it. But having debated secularists for decades, I predicted Cohen's response virtually word for word on my radio show the day before I spoke with him. He labeled communism and Nazism "religions."
This response completely avoids the issue. Communism and Nazism were indeed religion-like in their hold on people, but they were completely secular movements and doctrines. Moreover, communism was violently anti-religious, and Nazism affirmed pre-Christian -- what we tend to call "pagan" -- values and beliefs.
In fact, the emergence of communism and Nazism in an increasingly secular Europe is one of the most powerful arguments for the need for Judeo-Christian religions. Europe's two secular totalitarian systems perfectly illustrate what G.K. Chesterton predicted a hundred years ago: "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing -- they believe in anything."
Cohen: "The U.S. culture wars have produced . . . 'the injection of religion into politics in a very overt way.'"
Cohen gives no examples, and though this charge is constantly repeated by many on the left, I have yet to figure out what exactly these critics mean. Do they mean, for example, that those who deem abortion immoral and wish to ban it (except to save the mother's life or in the cases of incest or rape) have injected religion into politics? If so, why is this objectionable?
What are those who derive their values from religion supposed to do -- stay out of the political process? Are only those who derive their values from secular sources or their own hearts allowed to attempt to influence the political process? It seems that this is precisely what Cohen and other secularists argue. But they are not even consistent here. I recall no secularist who protested that those, like the Rev. Martin Luther King, who used religion to fight for black equality "injected religion into politics in a very overt way."
The leftist argument against religious Americans' "injection of religion into politics" is merely its way of trying to keep only the secular and religious left in the political arena -- and the religious right, primarily evangelical Christians, out.
Cohen: "Much too overt for Europeans, whose alarm at George W. Bush's presidency has been fed by his allusions to divine guidance -- 'the hand of a just and faithful God' in shaping events, or his trust in 'the ways of Providence.'"
Cohen and his fellow Europeans sound paranoid here. President Bush has invoked God less than most presidents in American history, and the examples Cohen offers are thoroughly innocuous.
Cohen: "Such beliefs seem to remove decision-making from the realm of the rational at the very moment when the West's enemy acts in the name of fanatical theocracy."
At least in my lifetime, it is the secular left that has embraced far more irrationality than the religious right. It was people on the secular left, not anyone on the religious right, who found Marxism, one of the most irrational doctrines in history, rational. It was only on the secular left that people morally equated the United States and the Soviet Union. It was secular leftists, not religious Jews or Christians, who believed the irrational nonsense that men and women were basically the same.
It is overwhelmingly among the secular (and religious) left that people have bought into the myriad irrational hysterias of my lifetime -- without zero population growth humanity will begin to starve, huge mortality rates in America from heterosexual AIDS, mass death caused by secondhand smoke, and now destruction of the planet by man-induced global warming. It is extremely revealing that with regard to global warming scenarios of man-induced doom, the world's most powerful religious figure, Pope Benedict XVI, has just warned against accepting political dogma in the guise of science. We'll see who turns out to be more rational on this issue -- the secular left or the religious right. I bet everything on the religious.
There is no question but that most religious people have irrational religious views. However, as I wrote in my last column, theology and values are not the same. I am convinced that the human being is programmed to believe in the non-rational. The healthy religious confine their irrationality to their theologies and are quite rational on social issues. On the other hand, vast numbers of secular people in the West have done the very opposite -- rejected irrational religiosity and affirmed irrational social beliefs.