Winter 2006, Vol. 8, No. 3

Symposium articles:

Barry A. Kosmin
Ariela Keysar:

A New Academic Enterprise

Susan Jacoby:
An American Tradition

Christopher Hitchens:
The View From the Beltway

Peter Steinfels:
Hard and Soft Secularism

Eileen Barker:
Mapping the Territory

David A. Hollinger:
An Alliance with Liberal Religion?

Michael Ruse:
Defusing the War Over Public Science


ISSSC website

Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture


The View from the Beltway
by Christopher Hitchens

I recently had a debate with that radio and TV religious host on the West Coast, Dennis Prager, in which he insisted that the meaning of the word secular was equivalent to the word atheist and I tried to un-persuade him of this, but you may notice that the word secularist has now crept into the vocabulary of the religious right, as if it were the moral equivalent of godlessness, and we all know where that can lead.

I think I was right in saying that the secularist is someone who takes seriously the letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, in which he assured them that their faith would be protected and that they would not be able to impose it upon anyone else. In other words, the guarantee of religious liberty in the United States, the right to practice religion, is enshrined in a secular Constitution. Only secularism can protect religious liberty, and it must also afford protection from religion, for those of us who wish to live our lives free from clerical interference, who believe that an ethical life can be led by an unbeliever, and who have noticed that unethical lives can be led by the devout. In other words, the corollary holds.

How's it going in Washington, D.C.? Well, how do I draw you a picture? During last summer's Supreme Court nomination sweepstakes, Senator Harry Reid, the newly selected Mormon head of the Democratic Party's rather indifferent senatorial membership, claimed the credit for proposing Harriet Miers, an evangelical mediocrity, to George Bush, a convert to Methodism from Jack Daniels.

Immediately after the appointment to that court of its fourth Catholic - and just before the nomination to the court of its fifth Catholic - John Roberts was asked before his confirmation hearings by Senator Durbin, a Catholic Democrat from Illinois, to say what he would do in the case that the law might require a ruling contrary to the teachings of his church. Judge Roberts said in such a case he would recuse himself. This quite plainly should have excluded him from consideration as a justice on the Supreme Court of the United States, because there is only one correct answer to that question, which is that the law and the Constitution ought to be the controlling authority in all cases.

The disclosure of Roberts's statement created such a row that when the hearings came up, huge advertisements were taken out by the godly in every newspaper known to me, as well as on television and radio, saying that if Judge Roberts was asked any question at all about his faith it would be deemed to be the application of a religious test for public office and thus a violation of the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

Nobody, nobody was willing to withstand this moral blackmail. The question was not again put to Judge Roberts, who sailed through without ever having to say what his position would be in the case of such a conflict. Since he must have thought that the question was coming, and is renowned for his legal and forensic skill, and had declared beforehand that he would recuse himself in such a case, he must believe that such a conflict could arise, and is perhaps inevitable. And, as we know, a number of questions that will be coming before the court, including the teachings of evolution and the right of a woman to determine the term of her pregnancy, do indeed have strong doctrinal implications.

Then, after that nomination was concluded, Ms. Miers was proposed to the bench and it was announced in advance that only her religion could be mentioned. A rather deft change, I thought, by the faithful. She was recommended precisely because of the simplicity of her faith - the extreme simplicity, I might add, of her evangelical faith, and perhaps because her faith is shared by other parts of the country that don't yet have a Supreme Court justice to their name.

Now in my opinion, if this means anything, it means that without wishing it, or voting for it, or having had the opportunity to consider it, we have in fact surreptitiously imported a religious test for public test for public office. In other words, you cannot be considered for the Supreme Court of the United States unless you do have a religion, and are willing to say what it is. But anyone who said that I believe that law and ethics can be derived from principles that are not divine, but are human could not possibly - no matter what their scholarship, no matter what their record of judicial probity - be considered.

That this should be happening in the most advanced country in the world at the opening of the 21st century seems to me some cause for alarm. Just as it seems alarming that one of the oldest and most discredited arguments about the origins of our species, and of the cosmos, namely, the argument from design - an argument that's been refuted repeatedly down the centuries - is now to be taught in our schools, as least on the President's recommendation, as long as it's prefixed with the word "intelligent."

Now it seems to me that the only intelligent thing that the design school has going for it is that it has got all of us to say, "Let's call it intelligent design." If we said we were going to teach "the argument from design," people would say, well, you can't teach it, because it's part of the study of philosophy. Knowing it as a fallacy is a part of your education. But to teach it as science?

I might add that every morning in Washington I look at my daily press and I always check to see if the two I take, the Washington Post and the New York Times, still offend me. And every day I begin with a gout of annoyance; it never fails. Yes, the New York Times still has that idiotic box on the front page saying, "All the news that's fit to print." What do they take us for? And yes, the Washington Post remembered to print the astrology column today. The Washington Post, in the nation's capital. Astrology.

But no one has suggested that astrology be taught alongside astronomy, so that people can make up their minds about the great debate between them. Or that alchemy and chemistry should be taught just so as to show how open-minded we are.

But the demand now is that garbage should be taught in the name of God, to children on the public purse. This seems to me an extraordinary terminus for us to have arrived at, with so little resistance to it. There is no voice raised, you see, in Congress, against this kind of thing.

When Michael Newdow won his case in California saying that the Pledge of Allegiance should be restored to the way that the framers had designed it, without the words "under God" in it, to bring back the Pledge to its original authentic meaning, you would have thought there would be some conservative support for returning it to its original intent. But instead, the whole Congress rose to recite the entire Pledge of Allegiance with the words "under God" in it, just to show there would be no fooling around. As far as they could, they would make sure that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was rendered meaningless in the pubic schools.

Now, you have to ask yourself, why is it that they want this stuff in the schools? Why don't they want lectures on intelligent design, say, on United Airlines? Why isn't there prayer in the trains? Could it be that they want the children, as early as they can get them, because without that, they wouldn't have much of a chance?

Well, if that's what they think, and I think one has to suspect it, then how is this different from state indoctrination in a one-party system or in a one-ideology state? I leave the question with you.

Nonetheless, and I'll close on this, there seems to be a very deep and frightening cultural crisis and ambiguity that runs right through all of our debates at present. One of the reasons why this argument has become so toxic is the following: We are in fact menaced, in my opinion, by all forms of monotheism, but at this present moment, almost certainly most by the ideology, the theory, and the practice of Islamic jihad. By which I mean, the attempt by Muslim fundamentalists to impose Islamic law first on the Muslim world, and then on the rest of the world. And to spread this idea by terrifying force and violence.

This, it seems to me, is the greatest challenge religion currently poses to us.

When I say we are going through a cultural crisis, it is because I have noticed, to my great depression and despair, that many of those who are willing to recognize their enemy, and indeed to combat it, are themselves people of faith. Whereas those who are people of reason and secularism are tepid, if not worse, about the necessity to fight and to win this war. And as long as this fatal ambiguity persists, as long as the best lack all conviction, you can count on the worst being full of passionate intensity. And I tremble to think what the outcome of that will be.





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