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Query: Can an atheist or agnostic commentator discuss any aspect of religion for more than thirty seconds without referring to religious people as imbeciles, extremists, mental deficients, fascists, enemies of the common good, crypto-Nazis, conjure men, irrationalists, pedophiles, bearers of false consciousness, authoritarian despots, and so forth? Is that possible?
First, some basic definitions. Politically speaking, American secularism is made up of two overlapping, albeit distinct, constituencies. The first is comprised of the aforementioned nonbelievers whose best-selling spokespersons are fast becoming the soccer hooligans of reasoned public discourse. The second is much larger and much quieter. It encompasses religious Americans who favor strict Church/State Separation (this they share with the nonbelievers).
Nonbelievers of late have been churning out loud, unsubtle, anti-religious manifestos. The world would be a better place, they all seem to suggest, if religion and all of its associated personnel were simply to disappear. In this regards the new nonbelievers seem stuck in the ‘90s—and by this I mean the 1890s. This calls attention to one glaring problem with atheism and agnosticism today: it lacks new ideas. The movement abounds in polemicists, but has not produced a thinker of real substance since perhaps the days of Jean-Paul Sartre.
A second problem is that contemporary nonbelief lacks any discernible political dynamism, not to mention power. Here they could learn much from their arch nemesis, the Evangelicals. The latter, with their grass roots organizations, Beltway alliances, pressure groups, D.C. lobbyists and internet manifestos are the model of an efficient (and somewhat frightening) political juggernaut. Celebrities of nonbelief can call Evangelical Christians imbeciles as much as they want. But If imbecility is measured by the metric of political power, then the accusation is misdirected.
The Faith and Values Industry, for its part, has not done much to make secularism more interesting. For the past decade or so, only the most snarling and extreme variants of atheist and agnostic thought have been featured in Book Review sections, Op-Ed pages, and magazines of opinion. Sticking it to the Pope, taking on Islam in its entirety, or ridiculing Bible-carrying Christians has become the admission ticket for those nonbelievers craving media attention.
This is not, I wish to stress, part of some vast Left- or Right-wing conspiracy. Rather, secularism as a social, cultural, historical, and even theological project remains one of the least understood and most highly charged subjects of our time. Few institutions of higher education seem interested in studying the issue (though see the work of The Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College) and the media outlets simply follow the bestseller lists in an effort to give this perspective its just hearing.
Nonbelief will not become any less dull or predictable if it keeps wrapping stale criticisms of religion in more incendiary packaging. Fresh criticisms of religion in incendiary packaging are always welcome (I think of the preposterously creative, thoughtful and troubling fiction of writers such as Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth, and Michel Houellebecq). Even more useful for lifting secularism out of its rut would be self-criticism. This would be the first step toward re-animating a worthy, though presently moribund, intellectual and aesthetic tradition.
By Jacques Berlinerblau |
July 16, 2007; 8:48 AM ET
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