With thousands of devout Muslims protesting the enforced Muslimization of their government in Egypt, and since thousands of sincere Christians refused Tea Party pressure to Christianize our government, I need to think about whether I am actually opposed to organised religion, as I’ve always thought I was, or only to the church meddling with the state — to religion claiming control over practical decisions and intellectual realms that, since the Enlightenment, have been taken out of its control.
Voltaire’s untranslatable and invaluable slogan, écrasez l’infâme! — stamp out the abomination! — didn’t refer to religion, as militant atheists would like it to. It referred to policies and activities of the Catholic Church. His passionate hatred of the Church’s interference with free thought didn’t keep him from being a deist, or from accepting the last rites of the church he was born in. L’infâme is not religion but the misuse of religion, religion made into control, degraded from power-to into power-over. L’infâme is the meddling priest and priesthood, the church that declares itself a holy supergovernment above political government, claiming mindless obedience from the individual consciences which are the essential element of a state evolving towards democracy and freedom.
The United States Constitution does not mention God. The only blessings it invokes are those of Liberty. This nation was not conceived “under God.” The men who wrote the Constitution generally acknowledged the value of religion in its own sphere as a powerful force in maintaining community and a guide to spiritual practice, sometimes to moral choice, but firmly maintained the distinction between the religious and the political domains and asserted its necessity in the First Amendment.
Efforts to blur that clarity by permitting or demanding intrusion of prayer and invocation of God into the doings of the government have grown a great deal in the last sixty years. The drive to make America a Christian state have been strengthened by right-wing identification with fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, seeing religion not as a freely chosen community of thought and practice but as unquestioning compliance with priestly teaching and command, sets up religion as the opponent of any community or government except that of its priesthood and the politicians who serve them.
There is no way such an all-or-nothing hierocratic rule can work with democracy. This is the tragedy of Israel, and may yet be that of Egypt.
A church that controls the army and police is enormously powerful. But any fundamentalist priesthood can bully and frighten even the reasonable majority of church members into accepting fanatical extremism, traditionally by keeping half the congregation, women, ignorant and disempowered; by threatening and carrying out punishment for disobedience and heresy; and by activating and harping on sectarian prejudices and hatred.
Unfortunately — and this is what is troubling my conscience now — they can also rely on the prejudices of members of different sects or other religions, and of the non-religious, to supply the scorn and contempt that binds any group into a community full of hatred and self-righteousness, ready to turn self-defense into blind aggression.
An ingroup depends on outsiders to maintain it. There’s no Us without Them, whether we declare them, or they declare us, to be the outsiders.
Israelis who support Netanyahu, the extreme wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the reactionary-religious American movement currently represented by the Tea Party, all act on the self-generated conviction that theirs is the only valid religion and that it must guide political action. But their fanaticism is also a product of liberal prejudice, which too often lumps all Jews together, or all Muslims together, or all Christians together. To identify the many peaceable believers with the few dangerous fanatics is to think as a militant — Us eternally against Them — and so deny any compromise, any hope of peaceful coexistence, let alone democratic collaboration.
It behooves free thinkers to refuse to let the aggressive misuse of religion prejudice our minds against any and all religion. The best answer to the people who want to force us into divisive sectarianism may still be the steadfast silence of the Constitution.
17 December 2012
For an editorial detailing the increasing religiosity of American political discourse, see “The God Glut,” by Frank Bruni, at the New York Times.
In this piece, Bruni doesn’t mention that practising Catholics form a majority of the Supreme Court, at least two of whom (Scalia and Thomas) are members of the highly secretive, extremely reactionary Catholic society Opus Dei (Sotomayor couldn’t be if she wanted to, since Opus Dei, “the work of God,” excludes women). To what extent are such justices influenced by the dogmatic policies of the Vatican? Should justices be expected to state the issues on which they consider their church a higher moral authority than the law and to recuse themselves from judging such issues? Is anyone asking that question? Religious bias in any judge in any court should be the subject of attention and protest. Voltaire, we need you. We need you in the media. Now.