Based on (Friend of the Gormogons) Jonathan Last’s rave review, I picked up Mary Eberstadt’s It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom & its Enemies. I recommend it.
I’m a little less overwhelmed than Jonathan was, however, for a reason I’ll get to. But first, here’s the book. The central argument is that the decades-old “culture war” is not actually, as it’s usually presented, the forces of secularism against those of religion, but rather a battle of two competing religions. The crux of the book appears here. Go read it. It’s worth your time.
Ok, got that? So, yeah, one can cavil if we’re dealing with a religion, a metaphysic, an ethic, or an ethos (“I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude…”), but yes, like Marxism, Socialism, Nazism, whatever, we’re dealing with a pseudo-religion that provides its adherents with a pretty comprehensive moral system. Let’s call them Venerists for short. (She doesn’t, but I will.)
Most of Eberstadt’s short book documents in great anecdotal detail how the mindset of Venerism has gradually become utterly hostile to orthodox Christian belief, and the difficulties this presents in American society today, for the Venerists as well as their targets.
Her primary analogy is to past moral panics that resulted in persecution—the Salem Witch Trials, McCarthyism, the Satanic day-care panic of the ’80s, etc. Her final chapter asks “What is to be done?” and her main counsel is patience, as all of the above burned themselves out, often with public regrets by those involved.
That’s where I think she’s fairly grievously wrong, if her persuasive analysis of Venerism as a religion is correct. Witch trials aren’t religious conflicts, they’re social phenomena couched in moral-religious terms. Religious conflict is something altogether worse.
As the village atheists among us like to point out, religions are often bad at tolerating competing religions because they’re making mutually exclusive truth claims. And indeed, the closer the religions the more hostile the conflicts often are. Take Sunnism and Shi‘ism, for example, or the competing Christian groups who burned Germany to the ground for a hundred years or so in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The solution to religious conflict within a society is religious pluralism along the lines that evolved, particularly in the English-speaking world, particularly in British North America, beginning with Maryland’s Act Concerning Religion of 1649 and evolving into the U.S. Constitution of 1789’s First Amendment and its Establishment Clause.
Here’s the problem. Venerists do not believe—and in my opinion likely cannot be persuaded—that they are acting out of a religious impulse. Indeed, they are often rabidly “anti-religion” in their own minds, believing themselves to possess a superior moral sense derived from something like pure reason. And given that under the Constitution, they probably in fact do not count as a religious group (however metaphysical their convictions are), they therefore cannot fall afoul over the Establishment Clause. You see where I’m going with this.
Consequently, as they seem to be doing (thanks, Justice “Meaning of Existence” Kennedy, Justice “It’s [Not] A Tax” Roberts, and crew), they are in fact establishing Venerism as the official state cult of America, and they will use the full might of the state to suppress dissenters (who are vile, wicked heretics leading souls to perdition—excuse me, “hate”). They will offer no quarter, because error has no rights. Or in today’s cant, “Because hate speech does not deserve to be heard.”
So, while I hope and pray that Eberstadt’s conclusion is correct, that we’re in the midst of a panic that will burn out and self-correct at the hands of conscientious liberals, my real worry is that we find ourselves in the middle of a genuine religious conflict, and our enemies have the sovereign behind them. It is a very dangerous place to be, and I think we (and Hobby Lobby, and the Little Sisters of the Poor) find ourselves arguing less from our rights as equal citizens than for tolerance—not in the modern celebratory-affirmation sense, but in the old suffer-the-despised-to-live sense—as recusants from the new dispensation.
UPDATE: She’s probably as pessimistic as I am. I stand corrected!
Don’t ask impertinent questions like that jackass Adept Lu.