I made this comment via email [17 September 2001] about Falwell and Robertson's blaming the 9/11 terrorist attack on "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians [...] the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America:"
After last week's tragedies, I didn't think anything could shock me...until the U.S. version of the Taliban made their "moral" pronouncements.
I received this response [18 September 2001]:
I do believe that the secularization of America has contributed to our societal problems in many ways not yet fully understood. But the terrorist attacks of last Tuesday were not related to our internal problems, and to suggest that we 'deserve' what happened is outrageous.
There will be many who will try to use this atrocity as proof that they were right about their religious views, or their political views, or whatever. Those people must be ignored, but what they say must be remembered so that when the smoke clears we can hold them accountable.
I responded in slightly more detail [18 September 2001]:
What bothers me most about comments like theirs (aside from how many people agree with them) is that ignorance and hatred are often overlooked in our country when cloaked in the dominant religions. Imagine the furor that would result if a Hindu or Muslim group (or an atheist one!) spouted crap like this on TV...but (some) Christians can get away with it. An idiot like Louis Farrakhan would need police protection just to show his face in public, but Robertson and Falwell are still on the air - just like every other day.
About secularization: our transition from a primarily Judeo-Christian population to a more eclectic one hasn't been trouble-free, but our diversity is ultimately more a strength than a weakness. The ideals of our founders have done - and will continue to do - a far better job holding our nation together than any religious mythology ever could.
My gripe is that the zealots' desires for an American theocracy are excused and eventually forgotten. The accountability, somehow, never happens. That said, I would note that this tragedy has brought forth most people's best inclinations. Seeing other people at their worst, preaching the doctrine of blame-your-neighbor, is more jarring than usual by comparison.
to which I received this response [19 September 2001]:
This country was founded on, and became great by adhering to, Judeo-Christian principles. We "transition" away from those principles at our peril.
If I wanted to offend as many people as possible, and at the same time make sure that very few of them would listen to me with an open mind, I would sprinkle my conversations with phrases like "religious mythology".
I have found that, percentage wise, intolerance seems to be spread pretty evenly amongst people of all faiths and those of no faith. I believe that intolerance is a true enemy of civilized society.
As usual, I spent some time contemplating these words before formulating a detailed response. Clarity and brevity were at cross-purposes, so it is a lengthy reply:
As far as Falwell, Robertson, and "holding them accountable" for their comments: I predicted at the time that they would get away with it, and - surprise! - after some lame denials/apologies their blame-America-first rants were largely excused. If they expect to be taken seriously as socio-political commentators, then they shouldn't fault others for accurately reporting their statements.
This is Falwell whining that reports of his exact words were somehow "out of context:"
"Despite the impression some may have from news reports today, I hold no one other than the terrorists and the people and nations who have enabled and harbored them responsible for Tuesday's attacks on this nation. I sincerely regret that comments I made during a long theological discussion on a Christian television program yesterday were taken out of their context and reported, and that my thoughts -- reduced to sound bites -- have detracted from the spirit of this day of mourning."
Here is Falwell implying that his assignment of blame would be acceptable at another time, and calling his baseless attacks "theological convictions:"
"...I singled out for blame certain groups of Americans. This was insensitive, uncalled for at the time, and unnecessary as part of the commentary on this destruction. [...] I obviously did not state my theological convictions very well and I stated them at a bad time."
This is the text of Robertson's "retraction." It is odd that his initial reaction to Falwell's statement, which he had allegedly "not fully understood," was to immediately respond, "Well, I totally concur."
"Rev. Falwell...uttered a political statement of blame directed at certain segments of the population that was severe and harsh in tone, and, frankly, not fully understood by the three hosts of The 700 Club who were watching Rev. Falwell on a monitor. It was this brief interchange with Rev. Falwell that was picked up by People For The American Way, who for approximately the past fifteen years have taped every single telecast of The 700 Club and unfortunately take statements out of context and spin them to the press for their own political ends. Rev. Falwell has issued a pointed clarification of his statement, and Dr. Robertson said on Fox News' The Edge that he considered the remarks 'totally inappropriate.'"
To my knowledge, only Diane Sawyer called Falwell on the inappropriateness of his remarks:
SAWYER: "Because you've said things like this before. Pagans, abortionists, secularists, the ACLU, gays, all these lists of people. I want to know, do you believe that they provoke the wrath of God, that they--that they endanger America? "
[Some dissembling follows before Falwell grudgingly admits...]
FALWELL: "I do not believe they endanger America. I misspoke totally and entirely."
Later in the interview, Falwell referred to his original comment as a "stupid statement." (I suspect that he only started apologizing because clips of his anti-freedom rant were circulating on the Internet.)
Falwell has a long history of being on the wrong side of social progress. In 1963, he spoke against civil rights, declaring that, "it should be considered civil wrongs rather than civil rights" and labeling it "a terrible violation of human and private-property rights." His "civil wrongs" rhetoric is now usually targeted toward gays and non-fundamentalists, but I don't want his hatred of our precious freedoms in the wake of 9/11 to disappear down the memory hole again.
I'm not being facetious when I say this, but I'm curious about what you mean by America's adherence to "Judeo-Christian principles." The principles I see as most important to our nation are all secular ones: a representative government with limited and separated powers, a recognition of inalienable rights specifically protected by statute, and separation of church and state. To the best of my knowledge, none of these has a religious origin.
A truly Christian nation couldn't have rebelled against England, since the Bible teaches obedience to authority instead of dissent. Beyond just the "render unto Caesar" remark (Luke 20:25), there are several others: Paul's declaration that "the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation" (Romans 13:1-2), his order to rebellious Cretans "to be subject to principalities and powers, and to obey magistrates" (Titus 3:1), and his exhortation to "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right." (I Peter 2:13-14).
I also wonder how you see "secularization" contributing to social problems. I'm well aware that televangelists and their ilk view the lack of ideological conformity as a frightening prospect, but - following the lead of none other than Thomas Jefferson - I have never considered a religiously pluralistic nation to be a threatening concept. He said it most succinctly when commenting that, "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
We apparently disagree about the proper height and permeability of the wall of separation between church and state. Jefferson, in his usual eloquence, provided the best justification for separation that I've seen:
"It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. [...] Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the earth." [Notes on Virginia]
Some of the rhetoric I've read (such as calling the elimination of mandated school prayer "kicking God out of school," as if an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent deity would be deterred by statute) is truly incredible, as is Robertson's errant opinion that the separation of church and state is "a lie of the left."
Religious pluralism (or secularization, if you prefer) is, of course, not a recent issue: In an attempt to give some kind of official recognition to Christianity, some assemblymen tried to insert an acknowledgment of "Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion" into Jefferson's Virginia Bill for Religious Freedom. Jefferson himself remarked that this effort "was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination."
In much the same vein, Lincoln dismissed The National Reform Association's proposed 'Christian nation' amendment to the Constitution. A supposed atonement for the Civil War, which - shades of Falwell - they viewed as God's wrath at our secular Constitution, the proposal would have added the words "humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, [and] His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government" to the Constitution's preamble. Congress ignored the proposal for nine years and the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives rejected it, noting that our nation was founded:
"to be the home of the oppressed of all nations of the earth, whether Christian or pagan, and in full realization of the dangers which the union between church and state had imposed upon so many nations of the Old World, [our country's founders decided] with great unanimity that it was inexpedient to put anything into the Constitution or frame of government which might be construed to be a reference to any religious creed or doctrine."
My use of the word "transition" merely referred to the naturally changing religious makeup of our citizenry, and not to some orchestrated process. I've read some books on the alleged "secular humanist conspiracy," but found them - to put it charitably - as overblown and unconvincing as the screeds from the black helicopter/ZOG crowd. I often go out of my way to investigate opinions with which I disagree, having long believed that an open mind necessitates that one pay greater attention to contrary ideas. As Francis Bacon wrote in his Essays, "Read not to contradict and confute; not to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider."
How does one disagree with something without taking the chance at "offending" others' sensibilities? What may come across as needlessly confrontational - perhaps from my writing too many letters to the editor, where being brief and confrontational is desirable - is simply my refusal to give silent consent to things (such as freedom-hating televangelists) that I see as anathema to civil discourse.
For "offensive" opinions, I don't have to look any further than Jefferson and Paine for inspiration. Jefferson called much of the Bible "a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications," referred to some of the sayings attributed to Jesus "so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture," called Christianity "the most perverted system that ever shone on man" and "our particular superstition" which was without "one redeeming feature" and--like all other religions--was "founded upon fables and mythologies." He even wrote to John Adams that "the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." That sort of honesty, if made public, would likely offend more people today than in his own time. Due to the past century of fundamentalism, Jefferson (and probably Madison as well) would be unelectable to national office today. When Jefferson wrote a letter referring to Christianity as "loaded...with absurdities and incomprehensibilities," though, he ended it with the admonition:
"Not wishing to give offence to those who differ from me in opinion, nor to be implicated in a theological controversy, I have to pray that this letter may not get into print, and to assure you of my great respect and good will." [to John Davis, 18 Jan 1824]
Thomas Paine, far less concerned with public acceptance, wrote of the Christian religion:
"The story, so far as relates to the supernatural part, has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it. [...] ...the Christian Mythologists, calling themselves the Christian Church, have erected their fable, which, for absurdity and extravagance, is not exceeded by anything that is to be found in the mythology of the ancients." [The Age of Reason, Part 1 Section 2]
With no public image to protect, I don't feel the need to pretend that I agree with orthodox opinion. To make my writing palatable to everyone, I would have to mirror the preconceptions and prejudices of Christian fundamentalism; this would put me in an untenable position, for it is precisely those things with which I disagree. Why would I bother putting pen to paper at all if the end result would merely reinforce the systemic problems of the religiously correct mass-media echo chamber?
Religious correctness--unwarranted deference to religious opinions merely because they are religious--is no less dangerous to free speech and open inquiry than political correctness, and receives far less scrutiny. Much like modern liberals, atheists still endure slanders of Marxism/communism/socialism (as if economics and politics were inseparable) and immorality/amorality (as if religion and morality were synonymous). I'm also fed up with all the lies about liberals being "useful idiots," the "enemy within," treasonous, slanderous, at war against liberty, assaulting America, hating America and causing "American decline," but that's a topic I've addressed before.
As far as the "intolerance" of atheists [see note below], I have honestly seen none worth noting - although lack of deference may sometimes be perceived as intolerance. Any actual intolerance of our nation's growing non-religious minority, while no less offensive and improper than its opposite, doesn't harm the religious majority. The majority's intolerance, however, is manifested in the diminution of civil equality and the cheapening of our national promise of liberty and justice for all.
It should be remembered that state-sanctioned discrimination against atheists was still codified in law until the Torcaso v. Watkins decision in 1961. Closer to today, a Catholic schoolteacher in Delaware was recently fired for daring to voice a pro-choice opinion in public. Imagine the converse: a public school teacher fired for espousing pro-life opinions on her own time. The outrage - selective, as always - would be deafening, especially if civil rights groups (like the much-maligned ACLU) weren't around to fight for minority opinions.
update (4/24/07 @ 2:00pm):
A series of studies, published as Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers (by Bruce E. Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer), demonstrates the quite uneven distribution of intolerance:
Agnostics almost always had the lowest scores on dogmatism, zealotry, and religious prejudice; and atheists usually placed second, while the inactive believers usually scored higher than any of the nonbelievers, and the high fundamentalists towered over everyone. (p. 122)
Nonbelievers, including the atheists, usually proved less dogmatic, less zealous, less authoritarian, and less prejudiced than any of the believer groups, even the relatively low-scoring inactive believers. (p. 128)