The Politics of God

By Namit Arora | Dec 2007 | Comments

Perhaps all that unites feminists today is their goal of making the world a better place for women. Approaches diverge from there: from hard-liners, who see all men as complicit in oppressing women, to moderates, who seek incremental changes by working with men. They rarely see eye-to-eye: the former call the latter anti-feminist sell-outs; the latter see the former as extremists damaging to the cause, etc.

Ayasofyainside The analogy is not exact but a similar dynamic exists in atheist discourse today. In response to 9/11 and the alarming role of evangelical Christianity in US politics, a host of loud atheistic voices have emerged. Most belong to concerned citizens driven by their secular ideals. But they seem united only by their goal of curbing religion in public life; in their approaches, they too range from hard-line to moderate. The former see most religion as noxious, worth getting rid of like the plague; the latter see it as a universal instance of non-rational human nature, and only seek to reform and contain its moral excesses. 

Which stripe of atheists do we side with? We can evaluate them based on results (an amorphous exercise). More often, we evaluate them via their assumptions, analysis, and claims. A part of our answer, as always, comes from subjective and often sub-conscious factors: our culture, experiences, psychological makeup. Another part derives from the understanding we consciously gain about the beast -- religion in this case -- relying on a calm analysis of all relevant data available to us, from biology, history, anthropology, etc.

Understanding religion as practiced by the masses is a prerequisite for a sensible response to it. No science can yet prove that without an agreed-upon purpose or goal, secular values are objectively superior to religious ones (same can be said of the values of individualism and capitalism). With different goals, other values become superior. Secular values are a subjective choice some of us have made, a choice we need to convince others of -- others are not obligated to follow us. We need to sell our ideas, and as with all selling, it helps to understand our "target customers." Corporations do this rather well. They understand that pomposity, railing at target customers, and calling them irrational or stupid for patronizing a competing product is a sure way to go out of business!

What does religion provide some of us that is so hard to give up? Are some of us innately less predisposed to religiosity (I became an atheist at 13, without any sophisticated reasons)? What is the lure of fundamentalism? Why is it growing now, and why in the richest, most scientifically advanced nation on the planet? What is the link between fundamentalism and terrorism? What drives educated Muslims to blow themselves up, something they didn't do until a few years ago? Why is their ire directed against a nation that swears by another Abrahamic faith, rather than godless China? Is there a correlation between global capitalism and rising religiosity? What ingredients in a recipe can maximize the odds of turning children into responsible, secular adults? What kinds of reforming efforts have worked best in the history of religion? Etc.

Needless to say, people with significant insights are few and far between -- clarity of thought remains counter-cultural in every culture. It is one thing to be a fearless critic, another to be right or wise. Far easier to succumb to easy answers and to hysterically rage at all those who disappoint us so gravely (those "enemies of reason"?). Hardly the best way to show we're not like them.

One writer I've liked for years is Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University. He has written a book called The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West. Here is a teaser from a long excerpt that should be required reading for everyone interested in religion and politics:

A little more than two centuries ago we began to believe that the West was on a one-way track toward modern secular democracy and that other societies, once placed on that track, would inevitably follow. Though this has not happened, we still maintain our implicit faith in a modernizing process and blame delays on extenuating circumstances like poverty or colonialism. This assumption shapes the way we see political theology, especially in its Islamic form as an atavism requiring psychological or sociological analysis but not serious intellectual engagement. Islamists, even if they are learned professionals, appear to us primarily as frustrated, irrational representatives of frustrated, irrational societies, nothing more. We live, so to speak, on the other shore. When we observe those on the opposite bank, we are puzzled, since we have only a distant memory of what it was like to think as they do. We all face the same questions of political existence, yet their way of answering them has become alien to us. On one shore, political institutions are conceived in terms of divine authority and spiritual redemption; on the other they are not. And that, as Robert Frost might have put it, makes all the difference.

More here. (Read a book review here.)


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