This morning I was reading this article by Christopher Hitchens about the never-ending mosque controversy. And it occurred to me how this controversy and the larger one of the role of Islam in American life has created this very odd alliance of convenience — or perhaps better to say, shared viewpoint — between religious fundamentalists and radical secularism.
Now, ‘radical secularism’ has the sound of a right-wing swear word. So let me explain what I mean. And the people who I’m thinking of are Hitchens, who I’m sure would embrace the label and Sam Harris. Whether or not we’re believers, most people who see themselves as having a secular outlook have what I think of as a benign, intentional inattention to the details of other people’s religious faith. We believe that religiosity is inherently personal, not bound by rationality, and in general, as long as people are good citizens and not trying to impose their views on others, we don’t look too closely or apply much scrutiny to the inner dimensions of their belief. This actually comes pretty close to what I think of as pluralism.So, for instance, Mormons believe some stuff that seems pretty far out there to me. Frankly, though, your garden variety Christianity posits some stuff that seems pretty far out there too. There was this guy who was human like you and me. But he was also that transcendent God who existed before the universe and time and is omniscient and omnipotent. Those are facts that are certainly outside my lived experience, to put it mildly. And this isn’t even getting into the varieties of belief that posit that at some time in the not too distant future God will destroy the world as we know it and set up a new Amusement Park world for the folks who picked the right Church to belong to and an eternity of fire for everyone else who didn’t choose right. That’s a pretty dramatic way of looking at the world. And it’s a little hard for me to think I’m living in the same world as someone who believes that. But again, some things are better not to dwell on. Many of us, I think, whether we say so or not, cast a veil of intentional inattention over the beliefs of others. Because that’s how our society works best.
So back to “radical secularists.” Both Hitchens and Harris have what I would call and active contempt for religion and religious believers. And it leads them to a very hostile view of Islam based not only on the actions of some Muslims but the beliefs of many more. But as both freely state, they’re only slightly less hostile, if at all, to Christianity and Judaism and pretty much every other religion. Indeed, in Hitchens’ piece he rails against crazy Mormons and what he calls the ‘disgusting’ practices of certain Orthodox Jews. It’s not that these guys hate Islam. They hate all religion. It’s just that in this current historical moment they find Islam particularly objectionable.
I always try to keep front and center in my mind that there are a good number of Muslims around the world who believe their religion is at war with the West and particularly with the United States. And a non-trivial number of them have taken that to heart and planned or executed various kinds of attacks on the US or against US citizens or soldiers abroad. And to some increasing degree — based on arrests and foiled plots — a very small but growing number of Muslims living in the US seem open to the seduction of terrorism. No amount of analogies to abortion bombers or Tim McVeigh can get you around this reality. A lot of people try; but that’s silly. Indeed, my views on the mosque controversy and the whole debate about Islam isn’t notwithstanding these facts but in good measure because of them. It’s not just our values and Constitution that require that we practice tolerance. It’s actually, at least as far as I can see it, obviously in our self-interest to do so.
Vandalizing the construction site of a new Mosque in Tennessee ain’t going to do jack to brush back whatever sleeper cell is planning an attack right now in Los Angeles. And the same is unquestionably the case for organizing another ‘we hate Muslims’ rally down at Ground Zero. This just seems so obviously the case to me that I don’t even see how you can debate it. However, I can very much see how a pervasive climate of hostility to Islam in the US can up the population of angry Muslim youth who are open to the seduction of violence and terrorism. So quite apart from what our values mandate, our interests seem to point in the same direction.
And I’m suspicious of this odd confluence of interest — radical religion and radical secularism — that seems to leave little room to the sort of accepting pluralism that I think our society is based on.