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Mirror of Ignorance
 

Many of us are quite used to deriding our religious and political foes as ignoramuses. We are confident, even to the point of complacency, that, if they weren’t so damn stupid, they would at once agree with us. But two can and do play this game. There are twin, clashing Armies of the Night. Ascribing bullheadedness or stupidity to one’s opponents is a convenient excuse not to have to try to see their viewpoint. And yet, if one has tried to see it from both sides, especially if one has actually advocated both sides at different times, there may still be room to posit the motivation of ignorance. One may be in a better position to see what is missing from the opposite viewpoint, and what that missing factor blinds us to. Religion is dangerous when it makes a virtue of ignorance. You’ll remember how Nietzsche defined “faith” as “not wanting to know the truth.” But it is about as dangerous to be ignorant about religion, especially if one has a tin ear for it, a failure to catch the signal at all, an inability to see why it means anything to anyone.

It pains me to see this mirror of ignorance held up on national TV news analysis. The newscasters have at last been forced to see that religion is some kind of factor even in “secular” news, e.g., of the Middle East, or in medical ethics. They never seemed to want to admit even that much before, but now they have to. But here comes the portcullis of ignorance, descending fast! Whenever opinions on such matters are required, the news producers trot out capering shamans like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. The choice of such spokesmen reveals both an ignorance and a disdain for religion on the part of the media. On the one hand, insofar as they are actually seeking some resource person to shed light on an issue, they have gone to the wrong place. It’s like asking the hate-monger Farrakhan to give the Sufi viewpoint. Televangelists are lost in murky medievalism.

On the other hand, if one wanted to minimize religion by giving airtime to self-made straw-men, why, propping up Falwell and Robertson would be just the tactic! It’s called “the Walter Kaufman Syndrome,” named after the brilliant and polemical Princeton religion professor who wrote books like The Faith of a Heretic (one of my favorites, I admit!). The Syndrome is the tendency to oversimplify one’s choices by making all religion appear to be extremist and obscurantist and thus repellant to the honest intellectual. If he can be made to see the choices as between Pat Robertson and Alan Dershowitz, he’ll go with Dershowitz every time. “See, viewers? If this is religion, and, trust us, it is, you don’t want it, right?”

But today’s world stage offers far worse examples of religious bigotry and obscurantism than Robertson and Falwell. And I don’t just mean the B-list of TV evangelist/con-men like the unspeakable Benny Hinn, Charles Stanley, and Peter Popov. I’m thinking of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, an Islamo-Fascist devil who denies the Holocaust ever happened but says he’d like to make it a reality. This lunatic is motivated by religion. He is a Twelver Shi’ite who avidly expects the imminent advent of the Mahdi, or Hidden Imam, the Islamic Messiah descended from Ali, to usher in a worldwide Islamic theocracy. His plan is to hasten the Mahdi’s coming by painting a red carpet for him in the blood of his enemies. Nor is he alone. Take a look at the savagery of Hamas and other Muslims in reaction to a mere cartoon depicting Muhammad. They will brook no criticism, either in Muslim lands or in European ones where Muslims have moved. Here is not so much an impending clash of civilizations as a clash between civilization and religious savagery.

But in the Liberal West it has become Politically Incorrect to admit this. Instead, everything is supposed to boil down to the colonial-economic dominance by America of everyone else. That is supposed to be the reason Jihadis strap bombs to themselves and light the fuse. What a peculiar analysis! Your enemy claims he is motivated by zeal for Allah, but the Western Liberal knows better and tells him, “No, you’re not! It’s the fault of Capitalism, etc.” This is not only insulting and patronizing to the fanatics, but it only reinforces their stereotype (a justified one) of American intelligentsia as deaf to religion. It means nothing to the American Media elite, so it can mean nothing to anyone else. Muslims must be kidding when they say it does, right? But, as Sam Harris observes, Secularists are way too quick to ascribe secular motives like their own to Islamo-Fascists. If political and economic suppression were really the catalyst for suicide bomberism, why do we not see Tibetans setting themselves off like fireworks in Beijing? No, these people hold a very different doctrine than Muslims, and there are very different practical applications of the doctrine they do hold. Religion matters; it’s not just a mask for something else. But Secular Liberals think it is, because they are utterly incapable of understanding either its nature or appeal. To use an unflattering analogy, it’s like Judge Cashman of Vermont thinking he can rehabilitate a child-molester. He just doesn’t appreciate the kind of quirk in question.

This, I guess, is why you have the astonishing spectacle of Secular Humanists failing to get on board in a fight against what ought to be their biggest boogeyman: militant religion! They think religion is a fake, a fraud, a ghost, and therefore they treat it like a paper tiger, a toothless lion, believing the “real” issues are elsewhere. As Levinas would say, they cannot meet or understand the Other in his Otherness. “Come on, Ahmed, you must be just like me, and I’m going to insist on treating you that way!”
An exception is made, of course, when vilifying religion will serve as a convenient short-cut for vilifying political enemies. It is one of the hallmarks of religious ignorance among Secular Liberals that they cannot see the difference between George W. Bush’s mild Methodism and Pat Robertson’s fundamentalist lunacy. Bush is no Christian Reconstructionist trying to replace the U.S. Constitution with the Old Testament. He does not predicate U.S. Middle Eastern policy on Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth as a President Robertson (God forbid!) would. Then you would have a real-live Greg Stillson, like in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone: “This missiles are flying—Hallelujah!” You would have an American counterpart to the Islamo-Fascist ruler of Iran. And you don’t. But religion is all the same to the media elites.

A Humanist pal of mine does everything he can to dump on religion, and he is an interesting case: unlike many of us, he has no painful religious past against which he is busy taking revenge. He never even saw the point of religion. To him, the meaning of life is playing basketball. I am just the opposite: given my past I cannot help take the power of religion quite seriously. It is basketball I cannot fathom. What on earth is the attraction? Obviously there is one, but I utterly lack the wherewithal to detect it. But that doesn’t matter. I am neither engaged in a crusade to discredit basketball nor am I worrying about a militant country of fanatical basketball fans with nuclear weapons pointing at non-sports fans!

The Humanist tin ear for religion is especially ironic given their aping of some of the most objectionable aspects of religion. For one thing, there is the proclivity to sign on for the wildest conspiracy theories, especially in connection with the hated George W. Bush. The belief that he hacked computers and stole both elections mimics the weird rationalizations of Roswell cranks and Kennedy assassination revisionists. Their paranoia is documented by the same sort of infinitely regressing off-brand information sources and self-referential underground media.

And we mustn’t forget the notorious atheist/humanist fissiparousness: they have certainly proved to the world that you don’t need God to be able to despise and bicker bitterly with your closest ideological relatives! “Oh the Humanists hate the Atheists, and the Atheists hate the other Atheists…” Religion has no copyright on schismatic infighting, that’s for sure!

Maybe it all comes down to the instinct that we must be ready to fight fire with fire, as if ignorance, even studied ignorance, were a powerful weapon in the war of ideas, and we grow afraid seeing the other side wielding it. We are tempted to wield it ourselves. But we must not. It is a doomsday weapon that cannot but backfire.

So says Zarathustra

Robert M. Price
February 2006

 

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