May 22, 2013
Troy Jollimore on the God Debate
Posted on Apr 2, 2009
Sadly, there are many who cannot tell the difference. It would be nice if the existence, somewhere out there, of eccentrics holding irrational, even crazy beliefs for no good reason at all was something we could simply laugh off or otherwise ignore. (I put aside the legitimizing effect of the acceptance of faith-based epistemological standards on the larger culture of intellectual relativism—the “I watch Fox News because it won’t trouble me with evidence contradicting my views” phenomenon—not because this has not been horrifically harmful, but because I do not have the space to treat it adequately.) If building huge and horrifically ugly churches, buying and selling utterly tacky religious paraphernalia and encouraging people to make Christian rock and Kirk Cameron movies were the worst things these eccentrics did, my fellow skeptics and I would be willing to grit our teeth and look the other way.
The problem, of course, is that some of these eccentrics go further, insisting on trying to prevent American students from becoming educated, or passing laws to prevent homosexuals from getting married, or hijacking planes and flying them into buildings. And if the view of the typical moderate religious believer about faith is correct—I mean the sort of moderate believer who may oppose some or even all of these oppressive and violent acts—it is hard to see exactly what is wrong with these people’s actions. For they, too, have faith that what they are doing is correct and approved by God, and faith, on this view, justifies itself. Flying a plane into a building isn’t easy; you have to have quite a bit of faith in order to bring yourself to do it.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge are of course well aware of this, and it is not surprising that they devote considerable portions of their book to trying to convince their readers that religion is not as conservative, intolerant or dangerous as many skeptics have taken it to be. Yet their own evidence often speaks against the reassuring conclusions they want to draw. “The proportion of Americans who believe that Islam promotes violence against non-Muslims has more than doubled over the past six years,” they write—and go on to decry this trend, as if this change in attitudes were inexplicable. Perhaps they have forgotten what they themselves wrote a mere 20 pages earlier:
“Still, it is interesting how many Muslims, especially young Muslims, want to reorder European society to accommodate their preferences. A 1997 survey of twelve hundred young Turkish Germans discovered that about a third of them said they believed that Islam should come to power in every country in the world, Europe included, and that using violence against nonbelievers was perfectly justified if it served the greater Islamic good.”
Surveys of Muslim university students in Britain produced nearly identical numbers. And this is in Western Europe, where one might expect, in general, less extreme attitudes. It is not only Americans, then, who believe that Islam promotes violence; it appears that belief is also held by a very substantial portion of Islam’s adherents.
The authors are no more convincing when they turn their sights to the U.S. in order to argue that George W. Bush’s presidency has been unfairly maligned as theocratic and irresponsibly religious by skeptics on the left. For such people, they write, “the gap between ‘rational’ European politics and ‘faith-driven’ American politics loomed larger” under Bush “than it ever had under Bush, Sr.” But this gap, they go on to argue, is “overplayed in the short term.” Why think this? Because “the degree to which Bush actually adopted policies for purely religious reasons is exaggerated.” The Iraq war, for instance, was not undertaken primarily for religious reasons: “American foreign policy […] has been a jumble of traditions and contradictions.”
So much is true, but how does this excuse the faith-based constituency that put Bush into office? Bush was clearly a poor choice to occupy the highest office in the land, and he owed his ascension to the support of American evangelicals, who, as “perhaps the most anti-intellectual religious group in America,” weren’t nearly as concerned as they ought to have been about his lack of knowledge, or of speaking or thinking ability, or his tendency to make decisions based on gut feeling, or his belief that he was literally carrying out God’s will. Whether or not Bush himself believed it, the official reason for invading Iraq—the notoriously nonexistent WMDs—was accepted by a credulous public mostly on the basis of trust in the president, whom many Americans regarded as “one of us.” (As Micklethwait and Wooldridge admit, “Evangelicals clung to Bush’s original justifications for the war in Iraq […] long after most other people had abandoned them.”) Whether or not it was initiated for explicitly religious reasons, then, is essentially irrelevant: The Iraq war happened, and was for a very long time supported by the American public, precisely because those in a large segment of that public were encouraged by their religions to allow their faith commitments and counter-intellectual sentiments to determine their voting behavior and political judgments. In America, as we should all know by now, there is no clean distinction between people’s religious feelings and their patriotic political ones.
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