Barry A. Kosmin
An American Tradition
The View From the Beltway
Hard and Soft Secularism
Mapping the Territory
David A. Hollinger:
An Alliance with Liberal Religion?
Defusing the War Over Public Science
Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture
The View from the Beltway
by Christopher Hitchens
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
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
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.