Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

Katha Pollitt wonders why the left doesn't "savor this new, muscular secularism." That's easy. Because most leftists, be they Christian, Jewish (like myself), Muslim, Hindu, or atheist, don't like narrow-minded religious bigots. And that's exactly what these new professional atheists are.

When Richard Dawkins compares, as he has, raising a child within a religious tradition to child abuse, he shows himself as closed-minded as those who claim that only Christians (and usually a particular type of Christian) can be saved from Hell. His view of the human world is an extraordinarily limited one, unable to accept the good of Martin Luther King (he has credited the gains of the civil rights movement to secular institutions) or the evil of Stalin.

Lincoln Spector

Albany, CA

Sep 14 2007 - 6:17pm

Web Letter

I knew this column would elicit some of the defensiveness that is second nature to religious progressives, just as I knew some of their attacks would get personal, but I didn't anticipate this strange brew of ignorance and puerility. Most amusing was the numbskull who thought Katha Pollitt would ever refer to Christopher Hitchens as "brilliant"!

Really, folks. It's only been about five seconds since atheists were credited with having moral standards, while the checkered history of believers would make any honest person wonder whether creeds of any stripe are worth the bother.

After all, when push comes to shove, can one really say worthy efforts done out of religious belief would not have been done if the doers didn't believe? If the latter, then one has every right to suspect believers of back-handed cynicism. Moreover, one might well be justified in taking Dr. King, William Jennings Bryan and Gandhi down a notch or two. After all, Dr. King didn't seem to put much stock in that part of the marriage vows that reads "forsaking all others," did he? Gandhi? Clearly a mix of faith and rancor led him to suggest that the answer to the Holocaust was for Jews to go along with it or that capitulation to Nazi Germany was Britain's only moral option. And let's not forget Bryan, that friend of the working man, provided said working man was willing to forego telling schoolchildren about evolution through natural selection. Next to these clowns, Hitchens's alcoholic boorishness is more akin to telling it like it is and Pollitt's supposed intoleranct sanctimony is more akin to asking believers to keep it to themselves. Which is what atheists would do if Joe Lieberman would let us.

Douglas Presler

Minneapolis, MN

Sep 14 2007 - 5:51pm

Web Letter

One reason there are many atheists out there is because of the wrong belief that the Bible teaches eternal torment. The Bible does not teach eternal torment or suffering. Although the Bible does teach eternal punishment, that eternal punishment ultimately is not eternal torment.

No, I am not from some cult. I am a conservative Christian (Baptist) with a Bachelor's degree in theology/biology concentrations, and I encourage all to read my article "The Bible Vs. The Traditional View of Hell" at my website.

I explain how the Bible has been misinterpreted to teach eternal suffering and I explain, historically, how and why belief in eternal torment entered early into Christianity.

Babu G. Ranganathan

Boyertown, PA

Sep 12 2007 - 8:15pm

Web Letter

It's a mystery to me that Katha Pollitt can say there's no mystery behind the recent popularity of anti-religious writers and not mention September 11, 2001. The events of that day did more to discredit religion in general than a quarter-century of the follies of the American religious right. Pollitt's failure to note the strong anti-Islamic component of the atheist surge helps explain her difficulty in comprehending the progressive backlash. When authors like Harris and Hitchens seem to be spoiling for a final smackdown with Islam, progressives want no part of what looks like Bush's business. Leaving Islam aside, progressives seem to be uncomfortable with the almost authoritarian implications of current calls for the rule of reason. There's something postmodern or New-Agey that rebels when someone tells them that they can't believe in any old thing that makes them feel good or gives them hope or otherwise empowers them. Atheism or agnosticism itself isn't exactly unwelcome in the progressive big tent. What's mistrusted is a perceived proselytizing impulse to tell people they're wrong on matters that have little to do with building a political coalition. But as long as I'm not required to bow before idols in order to participate in a movement, I have no desire to smash any just to show off.

Kevin L. Gilbert

Albany, NY

Sep 10 2007 - 10:40pm

Web Letter

Distinctions need to be made here. Not all atheists are progressive and not all religious believers are conservative. Also, secularism means 'neutrality' regarding religious beliefs--not arrogant hostility towards them. Examples of the most successful and imaginative progressive leaders of the twentieth century were Gandhi, Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King--all profoundly religious.

There is no greater resource to the progressive movement than religion and spirituality. For were the pseudo-religious to ever truly understand actual scripture, they would by necessity convert to radical nonviolent pacifism and the ideals of social justice. Yet we progressives continue to maintain an outdated 1930s intellectual disdain towards religion as "the opium of the masses," as if scientism and rationalism can ever offer a coherent alternative.

An intellectualized material universe is, like outer space, a place we can visit but not a place where people can actually live their lives.Rationalism is necessary but not sufficient to meet the psychic needs of most human beings. Until American progressives wake up to the imaginative, even mythical, emotional power of religion and spirituality we will remain in the outer darkness of egg-headed political limbo, smug in our intelligence but utterly impotent in our influence on America's political discourse.

James Morley

Warwick, NY

Sep 7 2007 - 11:27am

Web Letter

I am a 65-year-old male who, when asked about his religion these days (which is very common question in the South), responds that I am an ethnic Jewish atheist. In my earlier years as an officer working at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, the question of my religion was asked indirectly--my friends would tell me that so and so asked them if I was a Jew. To my way of thinking these inquiries are gratuitous and sinister. I think that religion is personal and should remain that way.

I read all of the books on religion that you cite in your article, but have not yet finished Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell. I respect Dennett, but his book is not an easy read. I enjoyed Dawkin's book The God Delusion the most. These books came along at a wonderful time in the evolution of my religious thoughts. I would love to talk with Pollitt about the authors and my personal analysis of their thoughts re religion. But my primary purposes in writing is to express my dismay and discomfort with religion as represented and displayed by the Bush Administration and the religious pandering exhibited by presidential contenders from both parties.

For me it began with Bush's inauguration, when the clergy prayed to Jesus Christ as their savior, instead of choosing the more ecumenical term "God." I thought then, This man is not the representative of all the citizens of the US. In fact, I felt it in my heart. Little did I know how prescient this feeling was.

I agree with Sam Harris's thesis that religion will remain pernicious and harmful until moderately thinking religous people speak out against the more radical theocrats among their denominations. I don't have much hope, but perhaps with some encouragement from us we can galvanize people to confront the theocrats and maintain the US as a secular democracy.

Michael Weisberg

Gainesville, FL

Sep 6 2007 - 9:08pm

Web Letter

Democrats have always had an amazing ability to lose elections, but Katha Pollitt has come up with the best losing strategy of all time. The Democratic Party will become the party of atheists and agnostics. We will ridicule believers, especially Christians. Let's see: That should give us about ten to fifteen percent of the vote.

Ms. Pollitt is apparently blind to the fact that Progressivism started with William Jennings Bryan, a deeply religious Christian. Our heroes have tended to be deeply religious people like Franklin D. Roosevelt or Martin Luther King. Perhaps Pollitt also forgets that the anti-slavery movement began in churches or that former President Jimmy Carter is devoting his life to helping unfortunate people. Has she forgotten that Dennis Kucinich is a practicing Roman Catholic?

I know many progressives who work endlessly for social and economic justice as well as peace, precisely because they sense that following Jesus entails such efforts.

Does Pollitt want to drop out of the Democratic Party and weaken it by forming a new group intolerant of people of faith? Or does she want the Democratic Party to commit suicide?

Let's face it: Though it may not be true in her neighborhood, the progressive movement, nationwide, is made up mostly of Christians. We have many Jews, believers from other religions and a good number of atheists and agnostics, All are welcome as long as they don't insult those who work side by side with them to wards common goals. Religious faith or lack of it should not be a shibboleth in the Democratic Party, and--for better or worse--it is virtually impossible to win an election in this country without kissing babies and proclaiming one's faith.

Larry Gates

Portal, AZ

Sep 6 2007 - 8:05pm

Web Letter

Hey Katha, you get it completely ass-backwards.

Anyone with half a brain knows Hitchens is an alcoholic hack, Dennett is a reductionist who believes in nothing and the rest is better left unsaid. The truly untapped saviors of this country are the religious left--in all their peacock colors, in all their varied shades. Just because the Moral Majority has taken over the national debate on Jesus & such doesn't mean its counter-reaction--in terms of the so-called "secularists" you describe (ha, that's a good one)--has squat to offer. It doesn't.

Worse, people like Hitchens actually offer themselves up as some kind of insightful voice, as if being on the side of the Kurds from way back gives him some moral authority to speak on anything. Don't be fooled. You don't have the first clue what you're talking about. The untapped potential of the "secularists, atheists and agnostics"? Sure, there's that. Then there's God's blessed peacemakers who are actually going to get us out of this mess. I mean, really, who else is going to?

So a bunch of religious left don't go on your pathetic little boat cruise. For one thing, most of them have no money, they're too busy working for the greater good. For the other, they don't go on "boat cruises" in the middle of the Apocalypse while all the other ships are going down. They're out there working their asses off trying to save us all. Give credit where credit is due. If you think your ol' buddy Hitchens is onto something--and I can just imagine him and his buddy Rushdie throwing down another bottle of red and laughing at all "the relegi", you know, the way "inside elite pieces of garbage" always do...yeah, I'm sure that'll get you to the Promised Land.

Grow up Pollitt, you're better than that. You take on Sheehan--with the kindest and the most kid of gloves--and she spits on you. Life goes on. You spit on a 2,000-year-old movement of social justice and of bringing the Kingdom and Queendom of God to this earth to create Heaven for us all, every single one of us--Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, secularists, militarists, agnostics, atheists and everyone else under, above and in-between--and you unmask your ignorance for all to see: Look at me, I'm Katha Pollitt, and I believe in a man named Hitchens, 'cause he figured out God doesn't exist. You would probably say he's "brilliant." Good for you, Pollitt.

At that rate, when you do indeed come face to face with your maker one day, it will look at you with a benign countenance, taking pity on you, as God is nothing if not full of grace and compassion. You will catch your breath, stunned at the realization of your former beliefs. No worries, God is full of nothing but mercy as well, and your forgiveness will be swift and unconditional. You will have felt nothing like it ever before. You will wonder where you have been all these years, and when God tells you "in its bosom," all along, you will weep, and the next time you go on some pathetically insular boat cruise, you will wonder: "Could God really be so great that it has healed even me, despite everything I've seen, and everything I know."

I'll say it again, Pollitt: Grow up. God is in your heart whether you want it there or not. It's how you were born. If you don't know that by now, what have you been doing all this time?

And quit making it tougher for all the rest of us out here who have to battle every day with this right-wing lunatic version of Jesus you and everyone else in the media have allowed to be shoved down our throats almost to the point of no return. Thank the Lord almighty Jesus is infinitely bigger than any "majority" or any "morality" he has become tainted with. And, in your case, thank the Lord again that Jesus chews up "secularists, agnostics and atheists" for lunch--you know, over a little pita, and hummus, and some olives and some grapes--and by dinner is having them over for dinner, in order to make sure they don't miss out on the party.

Seriously, you've got to be kidding.

Peace to ya, as always.

Scott Olesen

San Diego, CA

Sep 6 2007 - 6:11pm

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.