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Our current war highlights the battle between religion and secular humanist principles--whatever those are.

Truisms and Consequences 

Our current war marks a battle between religion and secularist-humanist principles--whatever they are

As surely as it produces casualties, any war generates truisms, which tend to arrive in a dizzying cascade. In the early moments of the present conflict, a truism that catapulted straight from the White House press room onto the nation's op-ed pages held that the violence being enacted on the world stage was "not about religion." From the Bush administration's standpoint, such statements were strategic necessities in the effort to construct a coalition involving governments in the Islamic world. The basic sentiment also reflected the common-sensical understanding that religious beliefs can't possibly explain the crimes of Sept. 11, which essentially were acts of political terrorism. At the same time, however, another form of common sense urged that, at a deeper level, religion was at the root of this sudden outbreak of international hostilities.

It thus didn't take long for Truism No. 2 to emerge. A kind of opinion-mongers' corollary to the official policy, it stated that the conflict isn't about religion per se (ours vs. yours) but about extremist fundamentalism versus tolerant religious pluralism. Perhaps the most visible and influential statement of this position was Andrew Sullivan's aptly titled essay in The New York Times Magazine of Oct. 7, "This Is a Religious War," which was handily summarized by its subhead: "The Osama bin Ladens of the world--like the leaders of the Inquisition before and after them--demand that all embrace absolute faith. Individual faith and pluralism were the targets Sept. 11, and it was only the beginning of an epic battle."

Sullivan's argument also introduced and groomed Truism No. 3, which states that bin Laden-style extremism is inherently similar to, only far worse than, the twin totalitarian scourges we defeated in the last century, Nazism and Communism. Islamic fundamentalism, Sullivan writes,

...has a more powerful logic than either Stalin's or Hitler's Godless ideology, and it can serve as a focal point for all the other societies in the world, whose resentment of Western success and civilization comes more easily than the arduous task of accommodation to modernity. We have to somehow defeat this without defeating or even opposing a great religion that is nonetheless extremely inexperienced in the toleration of other ascendant and more powerful faiths. It is hard to underestimate the extreme delicacy and difficulty of this task.

It is likewise hard to underestimate the quantities of ethnocentric prejudice, bad faith and intellectual slovenliness enclosed in those sentences, and in Sullivan's article as a whole. No doubt, to tease out his subtler meanings it helps to know that Sullivan is an émigré from Britain (a species which exercises a perennially dubious impact on American journalism), a writer and editor who has played the role of in-house gay, Catholic conservative at liberal organs including The New Republic and the Times. To be honest, I find some of his writing extraordinarily clear-headed and valuably iconoclastic. At other times, he seems a mere apologist for various forms of power and orthodoxy.

His religious-wars piece puts a benignly "humanist" mask on some very debatable kneejerkism. To begin with, note the by-now-clichéd assumptions that rest on a kind of self-regaling cultural narcissism: the sense that the rest of the world must be stewing in "resentment of Western success" (how could they not envy our SUVs?); and that we of course represent the very apogee of "civilization." Far more self-serving, even bizarre, is the backhanded flattery directed at "a great religion" which somehow is "extremely inexperienced in the toleration of other ascendant and more powerful faiths."

The latter phrase might be considered simple slander were it not rendered risible by its source. Over the long course of history, Islam's record of religious tolerance is of course exemplary next to that of Mr. Sullivan's European Christianity, which, apart from a few decades in recent times, has barely taken a breather from its sectarian holocausts and worldwide slaughter of infidels. Also, what would those "other ascendant and more powerful faiths" be? By most measures, there's presently no faith more ascendant and powerful than Islam. Sullivan's discreet smear depends on slippery wording: The phrase only begins to make sense if you decouple the adjectives and see that he's distinguishing Islam from other faiths that are ascendant (Mormons? Bahais?) and others putatively more powerful (the writer's Catholicism, no doubt).

As a counter to Sullivan's arguments, let me offer an imaginary visual diagram that crucially revises Truism No. 3, which seems to me the core of his case. The world he describes might be depicted like so: We Americans are standing over here, while facing us, lined up like a row of expectant muggers, are Communism, Nazism and Islamic fundamentalism--bad guys all, differentiated only by the fact that each is worse than the one before.

Here is my alternative picture: We are standing in the middle; in front of us are the evil twins, Nazism and Communism; behind us is Islam, including its fundamentalists. The first thing to realize about this arrangement is that, to anyone looking from Islam's standpoint, we appear close to--if not identical with--the godless ones. Looking at the same pattern from our standpoint, meanwhile, suggests something radically novel about the present crisis in terms of our history: This is the first time since America's founding that we have been challenged, so to speak, from the direction of God.

Again, this is one, admittedly idiosyncratic way of looking at things, but I offer it for a couple of reasons. First, I think many Americans sense that there is an element of truth to it, and therefore are disturbed by it for reasons that are difficult to articulate. Second, I haven't seen this viewpoint presented anywhere in our media. Indeed, pieces like Sullivan's almost seem designed to pre-empt it.

No, I am not saying God is on their side. I am, though, saying that most of them are very definitely--though with varying degrees of fervency--on God's side, while our loyalties are obviously divided. Do we value our wealth and comfortable lifestyles more than God? To most Muslims, who can't reasonably aspire to such rewards, that isn't even a question. Do we value God or country more? To Muslims, nation-states are an evil concoction of latter-day Europe; the umma, the community of believers, is the only political entity that ultimately makes sense.

In fact, if we remove "fundamentalists" (and especially fanatical terrorists like bin Laden) from this picture, it helps us see that Islam's implicit critique of the West doesn't necessarily include many aspects of the West and individual Westerners. What does it include then? I think there's a hint in Sullivan's odd charge that Islam has not faced the "arduous task of accommodation to modernity." That makes modernity (which is to say, the science-based culture of the post-Enlightenment West) sound like a climate change, rather than something created by people--namely, us. And who says everyone must arduously accommodate themselves to it? Can it really be God who makes such a demand? Or is it certain elements of the West?

Coincidentally, in a Times op-ed piece of Nov. 2, best-selling author and international party hound Salman Rushdie thunders, "If terrorism is to be defeated, the world of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based. ... " And what would those principles be? Funny, they're not widely advertised.

One place to look is the Web site of the International Academy of Humanism (www.secularhumanism.org), where, among scores of similar documents, you can find the group's 1997 Declaration in Defense of Cloning and the Integrity of Scientific Research, which was signed not only by scientists but by novelist Kurt Vonnegut and academic heavyweights including philosophy profs W. V. Quine and Isaiah Berlin and sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson. The declaration states, "Humankind's rich repertoire of thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and hopes seems to arise from electrochemical brain processes, not from an immaterial soul that operates in ways no instrument can discover." Regarding the debate over cloning, the document asks, "[D]o advocates of supernatural or spiritual agendas have truly meaningful qualifications to contribute to that debate?" The answer suggested is, of course, negative.

In case the gists of those sentences aren't clear, the first is philosophical: It says that neither the human soul nor God exists, and that even the most immaterial of humanity's attributes and creations--ideas, art, faith--somehow have material causes. The second concerns political control: It says that only those who subscribe to this scientistic-materialist creed should have a say in the most important decisions concerning humanity's future.

To me, that creed is a form of extremism every bit as dotty as Islamic fundamentalism, only more aberrant and ultimately, I think, far more dangerous. It's aberrant because out of humanity's eons of time on earth, it represents the one very small instance when a certain group of people thought there were no spiritual or immaterial dimensions to human beings. (This aberrancy doesn't prove that such a view is wrong, but it does render it statistically suspect, at the very least.) The creed, indeed, is extremist even measured by the traditional definition of science, which keeps an open mind about questions beyond its current purview and doesn't arrogantly assume that everything in creation can be measured by this year's "instruments." And it is dangerous because, in attempting to divorce scientific development from morality, it overthrows spiritual concerns and democratic controls alike, delivering all power into the hands of a self-appointed Strangelovean elite answerable to no one but itself and its funders.

In the three-century unfolding of modernity based on secularist-humanist principles, to use Rushdie's terms, a great division has grown up between average people in the West and in the Islamic world. The reasons for that are complex, but surely chief among them is that citizens of the West participated in and benefited from the creation of modernity, while the same phenomenon hit people in the Islamic world mainly as exploitation and cultural intrusion.

Is the solution to this increasingly problematic and perilous division to extend the benefits of modernity to as many Islamic peoples as possible? No doubt that's one solution, or part of one. But what if the gap between the scientifically empowered and those who are not grows wider rather than narrower? And what if this creates or involves a chasm within the West itself, rather than simply between the West and "the rest."

Here's where the off-stage "debate" over cloning, alluded to above, serves as a chillingly instructive example. One of the debate's pro-cloning cheerleaders is Princeton cell biologist Lee Silver, author of Remaking Eden: How Cloning and Beyond Will Change the Human Family. Here's how his arguments were characterized by an opponent, Richard Hayes, coordinator of the Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies, in an interview last year:

Silver says that the genetic re-engineering of humanity ... will lead to greater social stratification and eventually to separate human species, the "GenRich" and the "Naturals." The GenRich will control the economy, the media and education, while the Naturals perform menial labor. Silver shrugs his shoulders at the fate of the unfortunate Naturals--who, he says, comprise 90% of the population--and then goes into overdrive celebrating the genetically enhanced intelligence, wisdom, and power of the GenRich.

You really have to catch your breath and realize what is going on here. The proponents of these new genetic technologies freely acknowledge that their use will lead to greater inequality ... not simply greater inequality along a continuum, but a profound and permanent segregation of humanity into genetic castes and eventually separate species. ... It ends in genocide, in one form or another.

Such is the dubious allure of a future engineered for us by a secular-humanist scientific elite. It's one thing that cautions that the God-enmeshed Islamic world doesn't just stand to learn from the West; certain essential lessons might run in the other direction as well. EndBlock

  • Our current war highlights the battle between religion and secular humanist principles--whatever those are.

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