‘Twas ever thus

There’s definitely been a bump up in aggressively anti-religious agitation in the years since September 11. If you look back though there’s been no real change in the beliefs of those who consider themselves entitled to determine the order of our public life. Here, for example, is the terminally prominent and mainstream Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. in the November 22, 1995 Wall Street Journal:

“Most of the killing taking place around the world has been caused by religious conflict … Unrebuked and unchecked, fundamentalists of all faiths will continue to believe that they are serving God by mayhem and murder … more than a third of American adults claim that God speaks to them directly. Am I alone in finding this a scary statistic?”

Professor Schlesinger’s statements were, of course, bosh. In the last century most killing was motivated by plain old-fashioned national interest, or by secular ideologies that emphasized concerns like science, progress, and human will and struggle. More recent large-scale violence—the Rwanda killings, the wars in the Congo, Darfur, Balkans and Persian Gulf—seem far more ethnic and nationalistic than religious, with a touch of messianic liberalism in the current Iraq war, even though religion has sometimes been involved as an aspect of cultural or national identity. And when specifically religious concerns do lead directly to war it always seems to be the Muslims who are involved. Blaming what extremist Muslims do on “religion” seems to me rather like blaming Pol Pot on “political engagement.”

Saying religion as such is violent is stupid in any event. Violence and oppression are perpetual possibilities. No matter what there will always be some official understanding of man, the world, morality and so on that says that the guys in control have the right to be in control and use deadly force to keep themselves there, and that the rest of us should obey them and be willing to put our own skins at risk in their support. The question is not whether such views will exist but how they can be moderated and kept rational. The anti-religious view is that they will be more reasonable and lead to fewer problems if they don’t have to justified with respect to authorities higher than human will and desire. What conceivable reason is there to think that’s so? Does experience lend it any support whatever? To my mind the fact prominent academics like Schlesinger favor that view is less a sign of its validity than a sign it suits their class self-interest as experts.

Leave a Comment