Secular Pundits: Don't Try This at Home

Secular Pundits: Don't Try This at Home

John Mallon

Since the 2004 election more and more left-wing pundits are commenting on religion in ways that betray their gross ignorance of the subject. The smug tone they employ indicates that they think they've thrown down the gauntlet when in fact all they've done is shown that they never took philosophy 101 and they don't know enough to ask the right questions. 

My field is theology and when I hear secular pundits make broad and frankly, dumb pronouncements on religion I want to say, "I'm a professional. Don't try this at home." 

Controversial comedian Bill Maher recently made such comments to MSNBC's Joe Scarborough. As WorldNetDaily reported Feb. 18, Maher said, "We are a nation that is unenlightened because of religion. I do believe that. I think that religion stops people from thinking. I think it justifies crazies. I think flying planes into a building was a faith-based initiative. I think religion is a neurological disorder. If you look at it logically, it's something that was drilled into your head when you were a small child. It certainly was drilled into mine at that age. And you really can't be responsible when you are a kid for what adults put into your head." 

Maher seems to be as ignorant of history as he is of religion. Otherwise he would know that the society and the rights he enjoys today are largely the result of Christianity. He would realize that whatever is great in Western civilization, including the rights he thinks threatened by Christianity were, if not invented by, then preserved by the Catholic Church. 

The author of the Magna Carta was a Catholic priest, the Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. The Catholic Church gave us the university and the hospital, and it was Catholic monks in monasteries that preserved the great works of antiquity and the classical period. Muslims also had a hand in this. Evidently, Maher has never encountered Thomas Aquinas or more recent authors like C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton. 

What if Maher had said "All Jews are cheap?" Why is saying religion is a neurological disorder any different? The Soviets used that pretense to arrest believers. What if some demented future Hitler or Stalin is taking his irresponsible statements seriously? Who is it that has really stopped thinking? 

But again, Maher's job description is "controversial comedian" so it's in his best business interest to make outrageous statements which attract publicity. 

More serious are the remarks made by William Thatcher Dowell in a March 8 Los Angeles Times op-ed, entitled, "Made-in-America Wahhabism: The Christian Right is our own Brand of Extremism." 

I'm never quite sure just who the "Christian Right" is, but it appears to include anyone who can say the Nicene Creed without their fingers crossed. 

Dowell finds the debate over the Ten Commandments in public buildings ironic because of the Second Commandment forbidding graven images, and because Scripture cites four different versions of the decalogue, with Catholic and Jewish versions thrown in for good measure. What is really ironic is that a critic of apparent "fundamentalism" would use a literalist fundamentalist technique of argumentation called "proof-texting" to attack his opponents. Apparently he is also going for the tired old cliché that if believers are not perfect they must be hypocrites. 

He gets his key point exactly backwards: "What [the current debate] is really about is an effort to assert a cultural point of view. It is part of a reaction against social change, an American counter-reformation of sorts against the way our society has been evolving. Those pushing to blur the boundaries between church and state feel that they are losing out — much as, in the Middle East, Islamic fundamentalists fear they are losing out to 'Western values.'" 

There is no comparison between present day American Christians and terrorists who fly airplanes into buildings. Nor are Christians trying to blur church-state boundaries. There is, however, a reaction against social change which Christians see as destructive to what Americans, including Maher and Dowell, hold dear. The effort is to preserve something extremely precious — our rights and freedom — not "resist change" out of blind fear. 

Though Maher and Dowell can't see it yet, Christians, among others, can see that the cheapening of human life evidenced in legal abortion, euthanasia, the destruction of human embryos, as benign as it may appear now, will inexorably, if unchecked, lead to tyranny. Someone will inevitably take it upon themselves to decide whose life is worthy of life. It is the greatest threat to human rights, freedom and dignity in centuries. This is not the "evolution" of society but its decline. 

And when the Ten Commandments are ultimately uprooted, not merely from the courthouse lawn, but from society altogether, what are they going to be replaced with? 

John Mallon is Contributing Editor to Inside the Vatican magazine.