An uphill battle


The AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll has written an article about the recent spate of books that are hostile to religion by such militantly atheist authors as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. Unfortunately, it appears to me that her article mischaracterizes the issues at stake, by equating "believers" with the Religious Right--as if they were one and the same thing. There is no mention whatsoever in her article of the existence of moderate or progressive Christians.

For example, in order to illustrate how important faith is in American politics, she writes:

Signs of believers' political and cultural might abound.

Religious challenges to teaching evolution are still having an impact, 80 years after the infamous Scopes "Monkey" trial. The dramatic growth in homeschooling and private Christian schools is raising questions about the future of public education. Religious leaders have succeeded in putting some limits on stem-cell research.

And the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a national ban on a procedure critics call "partial-birth abortion" — the first federal curbs on an abortion procedure in a generation — came after decades of religious lobbying for conservative justices.

"It sort of dawned on the secular establishment that they might lose here," said Wilson, who is debating Hitchens on and has written the book "Letter from a Christian Citizen" in response to Harris. "All of this is happening precisely because there's a significant force that they have to deal with."

I'm sorry, but these are not signs of believers' political and cultural might in US politics. They are signs of the political and cultural might of one segment of believers. A politically powerful segment, to be sure, but still just a segment. There is simply no inherent relationship between being a "believer" and being anti-science (which is to say, anti-evolution). Nor is there any inherent correlation between being pro-science and being "secular". One can easily be a strong proponent of evolution and not be a part of the so-called "secular establishment". Believers have a whole range of views on such subjects as stem cell research and abortion. But her article makes no such distinctions. She simplistically treats all believers as if they were part of the Religious Right, without qualification, exception, or explanation.

This is the kind of problem that religious progressives are up against. The identification of religious faith with the Religious Right is so ingrained in many people's minds that even a major wire service's religion writer takes it for granted--and she of all people should know her subject matter better than that. This is, of course, what fundamentalists would have us believe--that "Christian" means their kind of Christian. Unfortunately, the anti-religion bigotry of these militant atheists plays right into this stereotype, and thus both sides of this battle end up sharing many of the same assumptions about what religion is necessarily about. And the rest of us are left out in the cold.


rev katie m ladd said...

Thanks for your post. It does indeed seem as though the word "religious" is almost necessarily followed by "right" just as "Jesus" is followed by "Christ". It's time for us to take back religion from being the tool of one group and reposition it as the way for many. Between the volume produced by the competing fundamentalisms of atheism and Christianity, it's hard to find a forum for the rest of us!

Ruth said...

I share your concern. A friend of mine who is an atheist was stunned and shocked to hear that I, aChristian, do not think that Jesus was really born in a stable and visted by shepherds and wise men. (Funnily enough, she was left feeling quite sad that the nativity might not be true - which is interesting given her atheism). It's tiresome and frustrating to say the least that we can't have a proper, mainstream intellectual debate about Christianity. The anti-intellectuals have highjacked the topic.

WordK said...

I frequently get the same feeling when I read articles or sections of books that are critiquing religion -- there's no nuance. I've been resisting my sister's encouragement to end Harris's End of Faith, even more so after reading one section -- which was actually critiquing nonviolence as immoral -- and thinking this man doesn't quite fully understand what he's talking about. It wasn't that the concern he raised had no merit against his understanding of nonviolence, but I don't think he actually understood the idea of direct action as used by progressive believers on many religious tradition and had confused nonviolence with standing by and doing nothing.