Thank you for Eyal Press’s nuanced and deeply informed “In God’s Country” [Nov. 20]. As a longtime Nation subscriber, I’ve always been grateful for your solidly grounded progressive perspectives, but I’ve cringed when religion was discussed in your pages. The writers tended to express a secular worldview unfortunately lacking in understanding of the complexities of religious faith in relation to sociopolitical behavior. I hope this essay signals a change at The Nation on that score.
Much thanks to Eyal Press for his thoughtful article on religion in America, showing complexities within the church often overlooked by the media. While focus groups and the mainstream media search for the ever elusive and blandly centrist “values voter,” people of all different faiths are serving the homeless in soup kitchens, running substance-abuse-recovery programs and marching against the Iraq War. If the Democrats run a proactive and hopeful agenda–one that demonstrates the moral values of peace and compassion–people will show up in 2008 in much greater numbers than this past month.
Jesus was killed in large part for preaching against the Roman Empire–a fact ignored by those invoking God in the service of US interests. Many of us pray and work for a day when the church will be a font of resistance to US military hegemony and free-market globalization. Thank you for paying attention to people of faith fighting the good fight.
Sojourners/Call to Renewal
I suppose someone had to write a “progressives are religious too” piece before election day. Eyal Press did a capable job until he drew a closing argument right out of the religious-right playbook. There has been “no shortage of secular people who have propagated murderous ideas,” Press wrote. “Hitler hardly mentioned God, and Pol Pot, Stalin and Mao never mentioned God at all”–classic misstatements.
Yes, twentieth-century Communism was atheistic. But it’s well recognized that it functioned as an alternative religion, with dogmatic claims about the dictatorship of the proletariat standing in for the afterlife, five-year plans standing in for sacraments, and so on. If anything, the example of Communism proves Sam Harris’s case against religion: the psychological mechanisms that deep faith energizes are so dangerous, they can do great harm even when evoked in a political, rather than supernatural, cause.
Press’s claim about Hitler is simply wrong. Throughout his career Hitler returned to the themes of his Catholicism and his view that he was doing God’s work. “I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so,” he told Gen. Gerhart Engel in 1941. In a 1944 speech Hitler said, “I am a pious man and believe that whoever fights bravely in defense of the natural laws framed by God and never capitulates will never be deserted by the lawgiver.” There are many more examples. True, Hitler planned ultimately to syncretize Christianity with pagan elements from Germanic folklore. That might make him a bad Christian or a conflicted pagan–but never a secularist.
Progressive people of faith should resist the temptation to shovel blame for Nazism and Communism onto the nonreligious. Nazism was shot through with Catholicism, Lutheranism and paganism; Communism was an alternative religion in and of itself. They are cautionary examples of the horror that misapplied faith, not unbelief, can engender.
Editor, Free Inquiry
The Council for Secular Humanism
Eyal Press debunks many of the stereotypical notions of religious people in America. Unfortunately, he also resorts to poor arguments and cheap shots. Sam Harris is a “secular fundamentalist” only in the sense that he strictly adheres to the principles of reason. Perhaps some Upper West Side liberals would object to Harris’s criticisms of Islam, but his position that Muslims’ beliefs are as preposterous as Christians’ is consistent (and should serve to debunk a stereotype about secular liberals that Press seems to want to perpetuate). Harris also addresses those same fallacious arguments that Press invokes about the religiously inspired civil rights movement, or the nonreligiously inspired movements of Nazism and Stalinism. The impulse to fight for social justice is hardly dependent on religion, and the movements of Hitler and Stalin, while not religious, were equally dogmatic and based on a dangerous cult of personality.
For a “secular” person like myself, it is not a matter of wanting to stereotype religious people, or laugh at them, or see them as my enemy. Yet it is often the agenda of religion and the religious that I find myself to be greatly at odds with. I thoroughly object to law and public policy being based on anything other than reason. I am appalled at the wars fought over conflicting religious beliefs. I am infuriated at discrimination justified by “revealed truth.” Religion should be a private matter, strictly separated from the political and legal realms.
ROBERT S. KING
Eyal Press’s excellent article gives a good picture of our modern zeitgeist. Those of us in the most despised minority–atheists–view what is happening with great concern. Thus, it seems too bad that Press critiques Sam Harris’s writing as he does. Harris, in a superb, lucid way, shows us what is happening to us and how we should react. His book’s title, Letter to a Christian Nation, is not misleading, as Press says. Nor is it addressed to people “who want to get a good laugh at the expense of those silly enough to believe in God.” Harris is showing everyone the irrationality of supernatural belief and the harm it engenders. He explains how belief in a “God” has caused–and is causing–much suffering.
Press takes umbrage at Harris’s calling followers of Islam “utterly deranged by their religious faith.” All movements for good have been driven by passion, says Press, citing the abolition of slavery, feminism, etc. Furthermore, have not some of the most notorious and cruel dictators been atheistic? This is true, of course. But I submit that the fanaticism fueled by religious belief is different from the enthusiasm for good causes. The latter is focused on victims and is not concerned with trying to please a stern (unseen) deity. It is not geared to a quivering subservience to a higher power. It is trying to rectify human ills and should not be compared to the “deranged” followers of any god. Harris’s writing is thoughtful and entertaining. And it is necessary, given the world’s ugly enmities and bewildering violence.
ABIGAIL ANN MARTIN
My daddy was a Baptist preacher, and in the parlance of our tradition, I “got saved” in the Truett Memorial Baptist Church in Hayesville, North Carolina, in 1959. Randall Balmer celebrates the great George Truett in Thy Kingdom Come, reviewed with several other books by Eyal Press. My good friend Balmer–he has twice been the Dotson Nelson lecturer at the Baptist Samford University in Birmingham–holds Karl Rove’s operative in the SBC, Richard Land, up to the plumb line of Truett and finds Land woefully wanting.
Thank you, Eyal Press, for this great take on the current state of religion and politics in our American experiment. I have linked the story on an active progressive Baptist discussion board to see how it plays here in Alabama and the region.
Jamaica Plain, Mass.
I agree with Eyal Press’s conclusion that members of the secular left should avoid confining themselves to a “small sect of like-minded believers.” Admittedly, as a secular humanist, I’d tend to place myself in the holier-than-thou (well, maybe not “holier”) Sam Harris camp, which wonders how it is that religious faith persists in the twenty-first century. But it does. And if humanists have any prayer (oops, chance) of seeing change in a world in which often cataclysmic decisions and actions are inspired by ancient texts (and where it is generally presumed that, in order to be a moral person, one must profess belief in God), then we must find a way to bridge that yawning gap. As one step in that direction, shouldn’t we challenge ourselves to create as many opportunities as we can–both formal and informal–to sit together with people of faith, speak from the heart and really listen to one another? Who knows what miracle might happen?
New York City
My thanks to readers for your thoughtful letters. Tom Flynn has found a convenient way to blame religion for all forms of cruelty. If it’s a country like Iran or, say, Jewish settlers in the West Bank, we can point to the Koran or the Talmud. If it’s North Korea or Cambodia under Pol Pot, we can point to the similarities between these officially atheistic regimes and Islam, Judaism or Christianity. To the extent a belief system becomes dogmatic, the responsibility automatically falls on religion–even when those who espouse the beliefs openly denounce religion. Doesn’t it make more sense to acknowledge that dangerous messianic creeds can come in a variety of forms, including secular ones?
I’m every bit as infuriated by discrimination that is justified by “revealed truth” as Robert S. King is. But I’m no less disturbed by discrimination grounded in racist pseudoscience or plain old ignorance. King is surely right that the impulse to fight for social justice “is hardly dependent on religion.” But the fact is that religion has often inspired people in America to battle injustice and fight for admirable causes (the most recent example being the protests on behalf of illegal immigrants), while “reason” has not infrequently been invoked to justify prejudice and discriminatory practices. I suspect King’s main objection is to the agenda of the religious right, not to all people of faith, a distinction that is played down by Sam Harris. I, for one, find it hard to comprehend why secularists who value tolerance find it objectionable when right-wing preachers dismiss all nonbelievers as immoral but not when writers like Harris disparage all believers as deranged.
MIDDLE CLASS: ENDANGERED SPECIES
Oak Park, Calif.
Re: Barbara Ehrenreich and Tamara Draut’s “Downsized but Not Out” [Nov. 6]. My wife and I feel lucky to be employed, but we don’t feel secure. As with many people (both white- and blue-collar), our paychecks haven’t kept up with the cost of living, and my employer recently froze my pension. What’s next? Every man and woman for themselves? Ehrenreich and Draut’s new organization, United Professionals (UP), offers hope, direction, advocacy and a growing network of people who are all in the same boat: middle-class and struggling to survive. After reading their editorial about the rapid downward slide of the middle class and the many former professionals trapped in jobs that neither utilize their talents nor pay them a decent wage, I went online and joined UP. I urge anyone concerned about the future of the middle class to do the same.
1 VOTE 2 VOTES, RED VOTE BLUE VOTE
A correction for Christopher Hayes’s “The New Democratic Populism” [Dec. 4]: CAFTA passed by two votes, not one.