Bias Against Religion? Are You Kidding?

TRB OP-ED, COMMENTARY

August 30, 1993|By TRB

Recently I was reading somewhere or other [about] an Italian curio dealer who attempted to sell a 17th-century crucifix to J.P. Morgan. [I]nside it was concealed a stiletto. What a perfect symbol of the Christian religion. --George Orwell

Washington. -- No op-ed page in America would publish those words today, except (as here) when cited with obvious irony and/or attributed to a secular saint like Orwell. The words are actually from an Orwell notebook and were not published while he was alive. But Orwell wrote often attacking not just organized religion but religious belief itself:

''In theory it is still possible to be an orthodox religious believer without being intellectually crippled . . . ; but it is far from easy, and in practice books by orthodox believers usually show the same cramped, blinkered outlook as books by orthodox Stalinists or others who are mentally unfree. The . . . Christian churches still demand assent to doctrines which no one seriously believes in. The most obvious case is the immortality of the soul. . . .''

In America, this kind of talk has completely disappeared from the public discourse. Believers predominate and non-believers either pretend otherwise or keep quiet about it. There is a vast unacknowledged church composed of those who believe in religion rather than (or at least more than) believing in God. But the noisy village atheist, the missionary of unbelief, is a virtually extinct social type. From the evidence of American public debate, you would guess that the premise of the existence of God is as undisputed as the premise of the existence of gravity.

For this reason, I am honestly bewildered by the frequent complaint that American culture is hostile to religion. That has been a familiar theme of conservatives and neocons over recent years. And it is the burden of ''The Culture of Disbelief,'' an interesting and well received new book by Yale Law professor Stephen Carter, a liberal.

To be sure, the Supreme Court has made a mess of the Constitution's anathema on the ''Establishment'' of religion, and pTC officials sometimes get carried way in protecting the secularism of public institutions. But are ''Americans [who] take their religion seriously'' consigned ''to the lunatic fringe,'' as Mr. Carter would have it? Are those who ''pray regularly'' forced to keep it a ''shameful secret''? Not in any America I recognize.

One problem here is of proportion. Professor Carter's very first example of the alleged ''culture of disbelief'' is that a national magazine published a cover story on prayer and ''a disgruntled reader'' wrote in to complain that ''so much space had been dedicated to such nonsense.'' As evidence of the state of our culture, surely a magazine cover story outweighs a single objecting letter from a reader.

Likewise, Mr. Carter complains that when Hillary Clinton wore a cross to some public event, ''one television commentator'' asked whether this was appropriate. C'mon. These days, with TV talking heads by the dozens, any view expressed by just ''one commentator'' is by definition pretty marginal.

Another problem is to mistake vigorous disagreement for bias. Mr. Carter writes, ''One good way to end a conversation -- or start an argument -- is to tell a group of well-educated professionals that you hold a political position . . . because it is required by your understanding of God's will.''

Well, yes: if someone asserts that his position is based, not on reason or logic, but on ''God's will,'' that may be right or wrong but it does make further discussion fairly pointless. And how ought people to respond to an assertion of ''God's will''? If ending the conversation is out, and so is starting an argument, this leaves nodding assent as the only permissible option.

Professor Carter is right to note that the culture treats oddball religions with a mockery it would never apply to the mainstream faiths. The beliefs and practices of a ''cult'' like the Moonies, he argues, are not inherently weirder than those of the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, if a non-believer were to make that very point -- or to dismiss, Orwell-style, the Virgin Birth or the doctrine of transubstantiation -- that would be taken as anti-religious bias. It is the free ride enjoyed by, say, the rules of Kosher -- not the ridicule of the Rev. Mr. Moon's mass marriages -- that indicates the culture's true attitude toward religious belief.

Some of those who complain of American culture's alleged contempt for religious belief are the same people who, in other contexts, complain about the politics of victimization. Blacks, women, homosexuals are accused of claiming victimhood as a way of getting special favors from society.

These critics see an epidemic of victimhood spreading, through cultural developments like the self-help movement, to infect an ever-expanding share of the population. And perhaps they're right. Because what could be more absurd than religious believers -- 90-plus percent of the population, embracing precepts no politician would dare to challenge -- succumbing to the romance of victimhood?

Does anybody really think it's harder to stand up in public, in 1993 America, and say ''I believe in God,'' than it is to stand up and say, ''I don't''?

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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