The Persistence of Rubbish

December 30, 2010

Pilgrim religious freedom

This is the time of year when people often think about a new start, about changes that they would like to see happen in themselves or in the world around them.

One hope I have is that some day people will stop rewriting history and spouting nonsense about the alleged connection between religion and our cherished values, including our fundamental rights.  Sadly, I do not think that is going to happen anytime soon.  Not in 2011.  Maybe not in 2211. 

As 2010 draws to a close, I am reminded of the persistence of intellectual rubbish by a column written by Daniel Henninger that appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal, entitled “Popes, Atheists and Freedom.”  Most of the article is fairly uncontroversial, as Henninger justifiably laments the lack of religious freedom in many areas of the world, including China, and discusses the Vatican’s efforts, past and present, on behalf of religious freedom.  Henninger gives way too much credit to John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but leave that point aside.  It is the last paragraph of his article that is breathtaking in its assertions.  It is difficult to believe that so many false claims and such fallacious reasoning can be condensed within a few sentences.  Here is the paragraph:

“It has been odd in recent years to see prominent atheists make so much effort to diminish Judeo-Christian belief.  In the modern world, and certainly in the U.S. from the Pilgrims onward to the Bill of Rights, religious practice has been bound up in the idea—now the principle—of individual freedom. I don’t think secularist arguments alone for individual freedoms have sufficient strength and fiber to stand against their current opposition.  Benedict’s fight for freedom and that of recent Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo are the same.  Wojtyla and Walesa proved that once already.”

Huh? Where to begin in dissecting this nonsense? Well, first, I do not know any prominent atheist who has focused solely on Christian or Jewish beliefs. If anything, Sam Harris has been criticized for allegedly focusing too much on Islam. And there is no such thing as Judeo-Christian belief. “Judeo-Christianity” is an unstable amalgam creatively hammered together mainly by those who want to obscure the historical animosity among Christians and between Christians and Jews. I don’t think there were many “Judeo-Christians” among the numerous Christians who assisted in the Holocaust. 

But the real howler is the claim that from the Pilgrims onward, religious practice has been bound up with the idea of individual freedom. Really? Perhaps, instead of relying on Sarah Palin as a source, Henninger should consult some actual history books, where he will find discussion of the brutal intolerance of the Pilgrims and many others in colonial America. Roger Williams did not leave Massachusetts because he found the sailing better in Rhode Island. Individual freedom of conscience was decidedly not an idea that had much traction among most Christian clerics either in the 17th or the 18th centuries. It was an idea born of the Enlightenment—an intellectual movement that, fortunately, influenced many of our Founders. And since Henninger is so fond of the Vatican, he should refresh his recollection of when the Catholic Church first issued a statement unambiguously supporting individual religious freedom—it was 1965.

Henninger’s bald assertion that secularist arguments lack sufficient “fiber”—what we need to eat more multi-grain bread?—to stand against those who oppose religious freedom is unsupported by anything other than his own prejudice. In fact, it is religious arguments that lack a secure foundation. Ultimately, these arguments rest on religious authority, and the pronouncements of religious authority can change, and have changed, depending on who’s running the church, temple or mosque. I’d rather have my religious freedom be supported by the reasoning of a Jefferson than have it depend on the whims of a pope.

Maybe we are slowly becoming a more secular society, but Henninger’s impressive collection of misstatements is a reminder of how far we have to go in dispelling religious mythology and historical distortions. We need to continue our work—in 2011 and beyond.