Blogs > Cliopatria > Fighting for G_d ...

Aug 11, 2004 12:29 pm

Fighting for G_d ...

Wretchard at Belmont Club is a new addition to Cliopatria's blogroll. I often disagree with his voice of the American Right, but he is thoughtful and writes very well. Wretchard's recent post,"But What If We Win?" argues that the struggle against terrorism and the intifada will be won. Then, however, he challenges Karen Armstrong and Sam Harris about what the struggle is about.
Yet before anyone reserves a bottle of champagne against the day, British historian Karen Armstrong warns that we may have been fighting for the wrong side or at least for a cause we never fully understood. In their own perverted way, Armstrong argues, the Al Qaeda have been fighting to assert the existence of God in world that has forgotten Him.
So what is fundamentalism? Fundamentalism represents a kind of revolt or rebellion against the secular hegemony of the modern world. Fundamentalists typically want to see God, or religion, reflected more centrally in public life. They want to drag religion from the sidelines, to which it's been relegated in a secular culture, and back to center stage.
If so, the victory discernable as a thin line on the horizon really represents the final triumph of secularism over the last religion. And, while Armstrong has publicly said many foolish things, this particular accusation at least deserves serious examination, not in the least because other writers, like Sam Harris affirm it from an opposite point of view. The Amazon review of Harris' book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason summarizes his thesis as follows:
Harris offers a vivid historical tour of mankind's willingness to suspend reason in favor of religious beliefs, even when those beliefs are used to justify harmful behavior and sometimes heinous crimes. He asserts that in the shadow of weapons of mass destruction, we can no longer tolerate views that pit one true god against another. Most controversially, he argues that we cannot afford moderate lip service to religion—an accommodation that only blinds us to the real perils of fundamentalism.
Harris claims that if we seriously subscribe to God in any form we will eventually wind up settling accounts with WMDs; hence we must abolish God. Armstrong asserts that unless we accept all gods, any religion left out will eventually resort to weapons of mass destruction."Now more and more small groups will have the capability of destruction that were formerly the prerogative of the nation-state ... The way we're going -- and Britain is just as culpable as the United States -- we're alienating Muslims who were initially horrified by Sept. 11 and we're strengthening al-Qaeda, which has definitely been strengthened by the Iraq war and its awful aftermath." She argues that we should simply recognize that many people"just want to be more religious in some way or another."

The cure to religious extremism, according to these arguments, is a choice of two elixirs: believing in nothing particular or classifying all religious belief as madness. Yet on closer examination both these arguments are so close to each other that despite apparent differences they are virtually identical. Both require the abolition of belief as the price of survival, the latter by maintaining there is nothing worth arguing over and the former asserting there is nothing to argue about.

That will be good news to those who feel that the Global War on Terror is really about making the world safe for homosexuals, metrosexuals, MTV and the United Nations: that it is really about using the US Armed Forces to impose the"End of History" on 8th century holdouts; that its function is to restart the music that inconveniently stopped on September 11. But there is another possibility: that fundamentalism is created by the very vacuity Karen Armstrong recommends. Camus in The Rebel believed that man could find the courage to live under a dark heaven swept clean of stars. But then he was Camus: he uncharacteristically forgot that in that vast night false beacons would almost instantly spring up, the sort that Vladimir Ilich Lenin, anticipating Sam Harris, lit to the destruction of millions. In one thing Armstrong is almost certainly correct: Islamic fundamentalism is twinned to relativism of the West. In one thing she is almost certainly wrong: that its antidote is even more relativism.

It would be absurd to conclude that the war on terror is waged to make the world safe for nihilism. That would almost equal Robert Fisk's declaration, upon being beaten by a Muslim mob that"if I had been them, I would have attacked me." For where the mind can find no purchase it must ground its postulates in the simplest of things.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
We fight in the end not to disbelieve but for the right to believe again -- and trust that we may find our way.
If Wretchard interprets Armstrong and Harris correctly, he certainly is right to recognize that Armstrong's religious and Harris's secular perspectives hold much in common. Both require an abandonment of monotheistic absolutisms. I'm inclined to think that he misinterprets Armstrong because she believes that the G_d of Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad is one lord, differently apprehended. I'm inclined to think that Wretchard is also wrong in his conclusion. If the fight is worthy, it must be a struggle for the freedom to disbelieve, as well as to believe. That is neither nihilism nor vacuity. It is freedom.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 8/11/2004

My father once said to me--in a business context--that it's hard to deal with someone who knows that he is going to heaven, and you're not.

Those religions that allow for such a combination of certainty and superiority--a superiority that transcends this world and the bounds of time--strike me as particularly prone to inflicting tyranny in the name of God.

In saying that, I do not deny the other sources, religious and secular, of tyranny. Nor do I suggest that religions which combine a concept of hell with the possibility of knowing whether one person or another is bound for Hell have no positive quality.

But in encouraging true friendship and equality between peoples of different belief, such religious views pose a problem.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/11/2004

You make a large request with that last phrase! But, you are forgiven.

milton j. rosenberg - 8/11/2004

Un-religion, anti-religion and non-belief we shall also always have with us. The claim from certain religionists that various muddle-headed forms of "new-agism," "scientism," or even atheism are, in fact, religion-in-disguise is merely a motivated weakening of the lexical boundries of the word "religion" itself. My real and simple point is that the religious proclivity is there and will not ever go away unless or until we become another species. The further and obvious point is that that proclivity will always dispose those who experience it to accepting one or another creedal tradition; or else to elaborate a new one or follow a new one as elaborated by such religious "geniuses" as Paul, Mohammed,
Luther or, forgive me, L.Ron Hubbard.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/11/2004

Professor Rosenberg, I tend to agree with you, but are you referring specifically to the argument that Sam Harris makes? Surely you don't deny the reality of un-religion or anti-religion or non-belief in the modern world. Or, would you be one of those who is inclined to find a sub-text of religious belief in modern secularity?

milton j. rosenberg - 8/11/2004

I presume to intrude upon this discussion to register only one point: Jesus said "The poor you shall always have with you." He may, in the very long run, have been wrong--but so far he remains accurate. He might just as well have added that "religion" too was and would remain eternal in human experience. There is surely something (or many things) about the human condition that makes the search for, and acceptance of, some representation of transcendent presence appealing and, for many, essential to their managing to tolerate existence itself. Granting that religiousness varies accross time and space; and granting that religions rise, fall and adaptively alter, there can be no serious possibility of an end to religion. And if this is so some aspects of the preceding discussion are fancifully hypothetical but lack either historical or predeictive referentiality.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/11/2004

However tangible good will may be, we do seem determined to have blown it at multiple points.

Richard Henry Morgan - 8/11/2004

True, good will is often only recognized once it is lost -- which is distinct from saying it is tangible, by evidence, before its loss, or that it generated great benefit, or even that it existed at all). The psychological line from horrified to good will is not at all straight, and is the thinnest of reeds on which to base a policy. I don't think their horror was sufficient to counteract their distrust for our support (or tolerance) of corrupt and antidemocratic regimes (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc.) and our support of Israel. Turning horror (a transient state) into lasting good will seems to me like chasing a chimera. Good will may be paplable, but are the benefits we received from it significant? I'm not sure. How long do you think the "good will" generated by their horror would survive in the face of our continuing support for Israel? I think you can count it in days, in double digits.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/11/2004

Richard, Of course, the interpretation of John Brown is, in part, a function of changing perspectives influenced by many things other than the primary sources. "Revisionism," the necessary task of the historian.
"Good will" is a quite palpable benefit -- often recognized only once you have abused, trivialized or frittered it away. We "must accept all gods" is, of course, not a direct quotation of Armstrong, but of Wretchard and one which, I think, misinterprets Armstrong.

Richard Henry Morgan - 8/11/2004

I'm reminded by this of the changing views on John Brown. When I was in grad school, we were bombarded with the thesis, on equivocal grounds, that Brown was an out-and-out nutcase. Or was he, like the Loyalists, simply the equivalent of a premature antifascist? The question of faith and rationality come up again and again.

As for Armstrong and the cliche that we have alienated Muslims that were horrified by 9/11, I ask simply, what tangible benefit did we acquire from their horror? And what evidence does she really have that al Qaeda is strengthened? I don't think her confused endorsement of relativism -- I don't even know how to go about interpreting "we must accept all gods" -- does her well either. The Muslim phenomenon, which has an attenuated separation of church and state, is particularly susceptible to periodic revolts, often couched in religious terms, and nearly as often in direct contradiction to the religion -- I wouldn't call that fundamentalism, but opportunism.