"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Doffing the mask

Religious believers—especially those in universities, and those whose faith influences their politics—are complaining more and more that the "tolerance" and "diversity" which are shibboleths of secular liberalism are not extended to them. Typically, such complaints have been dismissed by their targets as whiny, self-serving, political posturing. And sometimes that is what they are. But I think we'll see fewer and fewer dismissals of that sort in the years ahead. The mask is coming off.

Howard Dean's bigoted attack on Christian influence in the Republican Party is only the tip of a steadily forming iceberg. Today I came across a book review of Sam Harris's recently published The End of Faith. Not having read the book itself, I can only quote it second-hand and shall not engage Harris's arguments themselves unless somebody who has the book puts one to me. But consider these choice tidbits:

"There is no more evidence to justify a belief in the literal existence of Yahweh or Satan than there was to keep Zeus perched upon his mountain throne or Poseidon churning the sea ... we as a species have grown perfectly intoxicated by our myths."

"How can any person presume to know that this is the way the universe works? Because it says so in our holy books. How do we know that our holy books are free from error? Because the books themselves say so. Epistemological black holes of this sort are fast draining the light from our world."

"Given the link between belief and action, it is clear that we can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene" [emphasis added].

"It is time we recognized that all reasonable men and women have a common enemy. It is an enemy so near to us and so deceptive, that we keep its counsel even as it threatens to destroy the very possibility of human happiness. Our enemy is nothing other than faith itself."

The above statements appear in a book by a graduate student in neuroscience who majored in philosophy in college—the ideal profile for an acolyte of secular liberal orthodoxy. That seems to be why, even though they're not exactly solomonic judgments from a seasoned specialist, the book is being taken quite seriously in academic and literary circles, where secular liberalism is indeed orthodoxy. The almost uniformly positive reception it's getting in those circles suggests that the pretense of tolerance is wearing thin in what were once bastions of humane values. As that process accelerates, the battle lines in "the culture wars" will be ever more sharply drawn and contested, whereupon intellectuals and professionals who also happen to be religous believers will be effectively locked out of élite institutions.

I cringe at the thought of what the effect on popular discourse will be. In Europe, believers have been thrust to the sidelines by "hate-speech laws" and the overweening secularism of the EU. The difference between America and Europe, though, is that in the former the bulk of the population is on the side of the angels. It's going to be very interesting indeed.

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