Religion, madness and secular paranoia

Posted: Oct 04, 2006 12:01 AM
Religion, madness and secular paranoia

Why would a major corporation invest big money in a gratuitous insult of millions of potential customers who, according to the company’s own figures, represent a clear majority of the American public?

That’s the obvious question raised by a splashy full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times that appeared on September 24th under the attention-grabbing headline:


Along with a vaguely familiar but unmistakably menacing image of a looming, slightly askew church steeple, the layout asked: “Ready to challenge religious dogma? Read LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION by Sam Harris…The courageous new book that arms all rational Americans with powerful arguments against their opponents on the Christian right.”

At the bottom of the page, the ad features a series of statistics clearly meant to alert the reader to a growing peril and to force all “rational Americans” to protect themselves by buying the new book. “DID YOU KNOW,” the text explains, “44% of Americans think Christ will return in the next 50 years….73% of Americans believe in the existence of Hell * More than 50% of Americans have a “negative” or “highly negative” view of people who don’t believe in God * 70% think it important for presidential candidates to be ‘strongly religious.’”

This hugely expensive book promotion (such a prominently placed full page in the New York Times often costs more than $100,000) goes out of its way to assault and insult people of faith, drawing a clear dividing line between the “rational Americans” it hopes to reach and the benighted masses who believe in God, the importance of religious belief, or even the existence of hell. You might expect this sort of partisan, opinionated declaration of non-faith from some activist group like “Move” or “People for the American Way” or even the American Civil Liberties Union. But the ad came from Alfred A. Knopf, one of the world’s most distinguished publishing imprints and a prominent segment of the mighty Random House empire, which also releases the work of prominent conservatives including (through its Crown Forum division) Ann Coulter, Fred Barnes and me.

Of course, one could explain their full page ad equating religion with madness as a smart, hard-headed business decision, cunningly designed to connect a new book with its atheistically-inclined audience and “Letter to a Christian Nation” is, indeed, riding high on national bestseller lists. Nevertheless, the uncompromising language employed in the text expresses such obvious contempt for religious believers as to suggest a deep-seated distaste and resentment that go well beyond commercial calculation. For instance, in advertising the explosive Ann Coulter bestseller “Godless,” Random House never placed an ad describing: “The courageous new book that arms all decent, patriotic, God-fearing Americans with powerful arguments against their opponents on the Satanic, atheist left.”

Moreover, the fanfare for the Sam Harris book (including a spirited debate on the Michael Medved show) followed similar backing by the publishing industry and major media for a seemingly unending parade of similarly themed books, including, “The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right,” “Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America,” “Jesus is Not a Republican: The Religious Right’s War on America,” “With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America,” “With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy and Democracy in George W. Bush’s White House,” “The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us,” “Why the Christian Right is Wrong,” “Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternative Version of American History,” “An Outline of the Bible: Why the Religious Right Can’t Call Itself Christian,” “The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege,” “American Theocracy: The Perils and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money,” “Hijacking of the Christian Church: Voices of the Religious Right,” and many, many more.

Think of all the innocent and beautiful trees cleared from the landscape and pulped into paper to feed this raging epidemic of major book releases meant to indict and expose Christian conservatives! On the Keith Olbermann “Countdown” show on MSNBC, the shrill leftist Chris Hedges announced his own forthcoming project: “American Fascist: The Coming of a Theocratic Dictatorship in the United States.”

In order to cash in and surf to shore on this trendy publishing tidal wave, it may be time to write: “Christian Killers and Cannibals: How the Religious Right Plans to Burn Your Homes, Rape Your Women and Eat Your Babies.” This attention-getting title counts as only slightly more ridiculous and more extreme than many others proudly published by major corporations. Sam Harris, for instance, suggests that “eradicating” religion represents an urgent priority that should engage the efforts of all good people—a moral necessity comparable to the abolition of slavery. “I would be the first to admit that the prospects for eradicating religion in our time do not seem good,” he writes on page 87 or “Letter to a Christian Nation.” “Still, the same could have been said about efforts to abolish slavery at the end of the eighteenth century….The truth is, some of your most cherished beliefs are as embarrassing as those that sent the last slave ship sailing to America as late as 1859 (the same year that Darwin published The Origin of Species).”

Meanwhile, the ecstatically positive reviews that greeted the alarmist documentary film “Jesus Camp” (which explicitly compares an enthusiastic Christian summer program for kids to a terrorist training ground) show the genuine horror of religious revival that pervades much of the secular establishment. In reviewing the film for the New York Times, a horrified Stephen Holden unambiguously equated young Evangelical believers to Communist mass murderers. “It wasn’t so long ago that another puritanical youth army, Mao Zedong’s Red Guards, turned the world’s most populous country inside out,” he wrote. “Nowadays, the possibility of a right-wing Christian American version of what happened in China no longer seems entirely far-fetched.”

The most surprising aspect of the current vogue for Christian-bashing hysteria involves the timing: after many years of growth and progress, religious conservatives have suffered recent reverses. The once mighty “Moral Majority,” “Christian Coalition” and other influential organizations are either disbanded or irrelevant. Conservative Christians failed spectacularly in their attempts to spare the life of the stricken Terri Schiavo, fell far short of achieving the needed Congressional majorities for a Marriage Protection Amendment, have lost a series of high profile court cases on Intelligent Design, and face daunting odds in efforts to block governmental funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research. None of the GOP frontrunners for 2008 has been embraced by the Evangelical community and most of them (McCain, Giuliani, and Romney because of his Mormon faith) are anathema to many Christian conservatives. When it comes to incidents of violence or intimidation by conservative Christians (who are regularly, shamefully compared to the Taliban or Al Qaeda), the perpetrators of such universally denounced, long-ago attacks against abortion providers are currently rotting in jail (where they belong). When secularists try to insist that all religions, not just Islam, display a dangerous violent streak, it’s deeply revealing that they indict Christianity by reaching back five hundred years (to the Spanish Inquisition) or a thousand years (to the Crusades). It’s no exaggeration to say that Muslim extremists around the world committed many, many more violent attacks in the last week than have Christian conservatives in the last ten years.

Why, then, the blatant loathing of Christian believers in so many books and columns and manifestos from non-believers on the left? None of the volumes decrying Christian influence suggest that religious families engage in violence more frequently than atheists, or unravel the fabric of society through criminality, selfishness or greed. When I’ve interviewed the authors on my radio show, they freely admit that they’d be pleased to live next door to an Evangelical, or even a Fundamentalist household, because such people are likely to be law-abiding, hard-working, neighborly, stable and considerate. This contradiction demonstrates the irrational essence of the hatred and fear of a group of citizens who do more than their share at feeing the hungry, housing the homeless, keeping families together, educating their children, serving in the military, giving to charity, maintaining their homes, nursing the sick, promoting adoption and building vibrant communities. What, exactly, do conservative Christians do that in any way harms or damages their non-Christian neighbors?

In answering that question, critics of the “Religious Right” always come back to issues of political influence and their groundless fears of some future, Orwellian, dictatorial, theocracy. These alarmists consistently ignore the actual agenda of even the most ambitious Christian conservatives who express no desire to install a new, religiously inflexible form of government, but merely wish to return to the more hospitable attitude to public expressions of faith that flourished in this nation until the 1960’s. Yes, religious activists want to roll back some of the controversial secularist “advances” of the last fifty years – denying abortion on demand and giving states greater leeway in regulating termination of pregnancy, clearly limiting marriage to one man and one woman, allowing non-sectarian prayer in schools, and permitting public displays of crosses, the ten commandments, and nativity scenes. These do not constitute radical alterations of America’s Constitutional separation of church-and-state: as recently as 1955, the nation clearly exemplified all the accommodations to faith desired by religious conservatives for the future. Did the recital of a non-sectarian prayer after the pledge of allegiance in public school classrooms some fifty years ago constitute the essence of theocratic tyranny? Did minority religions find themselves relentlessly persecuted because local service clubs installed nativity scenes in public parks?

Those who believe that religious conservatives want to impose a nightmare of intolerance and oppression on those who disagree with them must classify the nation’s heroic past, from its founding through the landmark school-prayer cases of 1961, as representative of a similar nightmare. It’s secularists and leftists who seek to alter the long-term essence of this deeply religious, majority Christian country (as Sam Harris, for one, freely acknowledges), rather than believing fanatics who want to remake the nation as an alien, unrecognizable theocracy.

Why, then, the current paranoia over the often exaggerated prominence and power of religious conservatives? In “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Sam Harris unwittingly provides the answer. Addressing his believing fellow citizens, he dramatically declaims: “If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself. You understand this. At least half of the American population understands this. So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.”

Mr. Harris, in other words, seems to worry that people assume he’s bound for damnation and an eternity of regret because in one tiny corner of his mind, at least, he fears they may be right. In the argument he describes, it’s not possible that Christian believers are “really going to lose.” If Mr. Harris is right about humanity and materialism, then there will be no sense of regret or despair if religious people fail to reach heaven after death. If we are, indeed, just spiritless chemicals and soulless matter, then we won’t be around in any sense to feel remorse over a life wasted in prayer, religious fellowship, love of family and good deeds. When he suggests that one side is “really going to lose” he can only have his own side in mind.

It’s the contemporary version of the famous “bargain” of Blaise Pascal, the French scientist and Catholic religious philosopher who died in 1662. When asked how he would react if he discovered at the end of life that his firm belief in God proved unjustified, he suggested that he would still have gained the enormous benefit of having lived as if God existed – and would feel no regret at all. If, on the other hand, non-believers like Sam Harris ultimately discover that the Almighty lives, and has been judging them all along, then, in the words of the great theologian Ricky Riccardo, “they got a whole lot of es-plainin’ to do.”

That’s why even the most benign, loving Biblically based religious ideas seem so threatening to non-believers. The more that people of faith develop confidence, sophistication and intellectual influence, the more that those on the other side nurse the dark, clammy, cold, intolerable fear that these theists just may be right about God and eternity. When polemics and newspaper ads seek to “arm” so-called “rational Americans with powerful arguments,” it’s not that they need defense against rampaging Christians with pitchforks and torches. They ultimately seek protection against creeping, subversive doubts about their own unbelief.

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