You have asked me to apologize to your friend, who called Islam evil, for calling her ignorant and bigoted. And you have threatened to block me on Facebook if I don’t do so.
I have no intention of apologizing and instead I’m going to explain why I think you need to apologize for betraying the best in the religious tradition of which you claim to be so proud. If you don’t like what I have to say and you block me, that’s fine. I frankly think I’ve learned all anyone can from reading you.
Let me take a moment to explain how I look at the political, moral, and religious traditions that animate our country.
I grew up in an orthodox Jewish synagogue, though I moved away from orthodoxy pretty soon after my Bar Mitzvah. I’ve spent most of the last forty years studying the history of political and moral philosophy and that, of course, includes religious philosophy. I’ve taught the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an over many years and have read and taught not only contemporary commentaries on them but the biblical interpretations and theology of the great Christian, Jewish, and Muslim philosophers from Augustine to Al-Farabi to Maimonides to Aquinas to Luther and Calvin. And I’ve studied the intellectual and political and social sources of Islamic radicalism.
Like many people brought up and knowledgeable about the history of biblical religion, which to my mind, includes Islam, but also aware of the evidence of critical history and the implications of modern natural science, I long ago stopped believing in the literal truth of any of the Holy Books. Unlike some people with this background, I remain inspired by the core of the teaching found in those books. However, I’ve come to recognize that in each of the biblical religions there are two competing understandings of the role and place of biblical religion in our lives.
One of those understandings, I believe, contains a set of important universal truths, truths that are found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but are also available to those who study the non-biblical philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and Kant. The core of the teaching found in these works is the golden rule and the commandment to love one another. In their own way these works teach us that we are all made in the image of God: We are rational and self-conscious beings who, in virtue of our unique nature, deserve the respect of all. And, as the Enlightenment built on this tradition, we came to understand that respecting others not only means being tolerant of our differences and working peacefully to resolve our disagreements but also granting each of us certain fundamental civil and political rights. On that view, the role of government is limited to serving secular this-worldly ends.
The core of biblical thought also teaches us to respect ourselves and become the kind of people who care and are able to serve not just our personal goals or our families, but our people, our country, and ultimately all of mankind, giving each one of these larger communities their due as fits our unique talents and vocation.
Those of us who follow this teaching may remain attached, by sentiment and out of concern for our own people, to the religious tradition within which we grew up. But we know that each of the biblical traditions and secular philosophies combine universal truths with particular claims to a unique revelation or teaching that goes beyond reason. And each of those traditions gives us only a partial truth. So we remain determined not only to learn from all of these religious and secular traditions but to eschew any claim that one is superior to another.
This universal religion enjoins peace but it doesn’t tell us to avoid war at all costs, especially when going to war is necessary to serve the fundamental moral truths we uphold. But it does tell us only to fight when necessary and against those who seek to harm us, to make peace when we can, and, most importantly, to fight only for the universal ideals that all our traditions share. It teaches us not to respond to hatred and evil in a way that encourages them. And it warns us not to be partisan or self-seeking under the guise of serving universal goals. Indeed, we are taught that the evil that too often makes our world chaotic is not only done by people who abjure all of these traditions but also by those who act in their name while serving the interests of one people, one country, one group, and one party rather than all human kind.
Those are the religious ideals I deeply believe in, the ideals that represent the best that is found in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions and, also, in the secular political and moral philosophy of liberalism as well.
But there is another set of religious ideas that comes out of the three biblical traditions. This second approach to biblical religion sets one religion or one sect of one religion above others and claim that only it knows the absolute truth and the way of God. This second approach to biblical religion holds that government has authority not only to protect our bodies but to save our souls, which means giving priority to one set of teachings and, in some cases, to banning all others. And since those who work within this second tradition often teach that there is a fundamental conflict between the partisans of light—who accept the one true religion—and the partisans of darkness—that is, all others, those ideas can even justify the harshest and most violent actions to oppress those who practice religions other than the “true” one.
Every biblical religion—Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Shiite, and Sunni, has clerics and teachers who defend this second kind of biblical thought. And there are secular variants of this kind of thought, Marxism-Leninism and Fascism, that make the same claim to absolute truth and then justify oppression and violence in its name.
I’ve spend most of my life trying to understand, defend philosophically, and teach the first tradition that comes from biblical religion, Greek philosophy and the Enlightenment. And even when I’ve been engaged in political activism, I’ve worked within that tradition, while trying as best I can—and no doubt sometimes failing—not to see my political opponents as children of darkness.
So when I see people, like your friend, make claims about the evil of Islam and the innocence of any Christian tradition or practice, my instinct is to explain, as best I can, given my knowledge of history, philosophy, and religion, why she is mistaken. Even though we have much to fear from Islamic radicalism, I believe we should try to understand where that form of thought and practice comes from and that we can best do that by understanding how similar, radically intolerant, and violent forms of thought and practice have grown up in Christianity and Judaism and in the secular Western cultures they helped create. As I pointed out more than once, understanding the sources of Islamic radicalism does not mean excusing or failing to combat the evil done in its name. But it might mean combatting that evil in a way that is both more effective and in keeping with the best in our own tradition.
When you friend responds to me by saying I’m mistaken and an apologist for Islamic radicalism then I think I’m entirely within my rights to tell her she is both ignorant and a bigot, because that is what she is. That she then responds with thinly veiled anti-Semitism only proves my point.
So I’m not going to apologize to her, or to your claim that I am anti-Catholic. (And considering how much of my philosophical work draws on Catholic political and social thought, that is a bizarre criticism.) Instead, I’m going to make clear, again, that I was not criticizing Catholicism two weeks ago when I called you out for preaching a fundamentalism that draws on the second, intolerant tradition of biblical thought. I was criticizing you.
For you Christine are, no less than the Islamic fundamentalists, a sectarian teacher of hate. Every column I’ve read of yours in the last three months has one purposes and one purpose only, to teach some Americans to hate other Americans. When Bill Cosby is accused of abusing women, your response is to tell us how often women lie about being raped and to encourage those who love Cosby to hate the liberals who put these women up to lying. When two black men are killed by police officers under questionable circumstances, your response is to encourage those who defend the police to hate liberals for raising questions about those deaths. When two police officers are brutally murdered, you call on Americans to hate the liberals who you, insanely, blame for their deaths. When Charlie Hebdo is attacked by terrorists in Paris, your response to is call on Americans to hate not only Islam but the Americans who call that hate into question.
My problem with you is not that you disagree with liberals. Sometimes I do as well. It’s that you don’t really make arguments and present evidence that are aimed to convince those with whom you disagree. You aren’t really interested in changing minds. Instead, your whole approach as a columnist is to poke and prod readers who agree with you, stoking their anger, and then directing it at liberals. You goal is to paint those who disagree with you and those readers as fundamentally different, and as agents of evil. You don’t offer arguments but excommunications. You dehumanize whose views you oppose. Is it any wonder that the readers who like you most are those whose bigotry you support and encourage and sometime even create?
And you do this in a moment when we should stand united. Think of it: at a time when we need our wits about us to figure out how to respond more effectively to the terrible threat of Islamic radicalism, when Americans need to come together and think clearly and talk honestly about the dangers we face and how to meet them, your most important concern is to try to divide us ever more deeply.
The sectarian, partisan, fundamentalist version of Christianity you espouse is based, like all sectarian, partisan, fundamentalist versions of biblical religion, on fear and hatred for others. The fundamentalists win by ratcheting up the hatred and directing it at their enemies. American traditions may make you cautious about claiming absolute knowledge and the superiority of your own sect. But your constant effort to teach us to hate one another and to damn all thought but your own—and your sly attacks on the present Pope who is the most effective contemporary spokesperson for the best in the tradition of biblical religion—makes your alliance with fundamentalism crystal clear.
And no wonder you are so insistent that the hands of Christians are clean because you yourself operate in the authoritarian, anti-liberal, anti-humanist, intolerant tradition of de Maistre, Franco, Father Coughlin, Joe McCarthy, and Pat Buchanan. It’s no surprise you don’t want to talk about that tradition. And, of course, the other Catholic tradition, that of Dorothy Day and Pope Francis and so many others who embraced progressive social ideals, is one that you have nothing to do with.
So, no Christine, I’m not going to apologize to you or your friends. I’m going to condemn both of you for being exemplars of the worst in every biblical religion including your own.