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God's Politics

Diana Butler BassLast Sunday’s New York Times reminded me that fundamentalism is, indeed, dangerous. What story underscored this point? Something about religion in the upcoming elections? Religious violence in the Middle East?

No, what caught my attention was the New York Times Book Review. Only two religion books made last week’s list: Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Both Harris and Dawkins attack Christianity, arguing that all religion is bad (not just that bad religion is bad) and that faith is a significant source of evil.

While Dawkins revives a scientific argument against the existence of God, Harris takes a slightly different tact. He argues that all forms of Christianity are intellectually, morally, and politically suspect—with “extremism” being the worst offender. He writes that, “Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured, and killed people in the name of God for centuries.” Accordingly, the best thing that could happen for civilization is the eradication of religion.

Many people are alarmed about the dangers of extremist religion, especially of the Religious Right—afraid of dogmatism, inquisitions, theocracy, and violence. I worry about crusades, pogroms, and terrorism as much as the next person. But I confess to a different worry: the effects of religious fundamentalism on religion.

Harris and Dawkins go to the heart of my concern. When bad religion becomes the primary way people define faith, the opposite result will not necessarily be good religion—the backlash is often no religion.

Modern atheism was birthed in the late seventeenth century. After a century of religious warfare following the Protestant Reformation, many Europeans opted out of faith. Instead of finding peace in God, they found peace by concluding that no God existed. The option proved comforting, and, for next century, European Christianity struggled to regain both intellectual credibility and popular support.

In the late nineteenth century, during America’s fundamentalist/modernist controversy, agnostic Robert Ingersoll made a career attacking Christianity. Ingersoll’s skepticism fuelled the rise of popular secularism, thus leading to a general decline of church membership in the early twentieth century.

History reveals that bad religion often results in no religion. That books like Harris’ and Dawkins’ should gain traction at this time should come as no surprise. Religious fundamentalism leads those of tender conscience, doubters, and freethinkers to view all people of faith as crazy extremists. Harris, for example, implies that the difference between suicide bombers and religious progressives is merely one of degree.

Thus, the beauty of faith—its compassion, mercy, and love—is obscured in a haze of extremism. In this chaotic age, the potential exists that a weary public will turn not to God’s goodness as a way through our problems but will turn away from God altogether. The bestseller status of both Harris and Dawkins should worry moderate and liberal Christians. The Religious Right has succeeded in resurrecting Christianity’s main intellectual competitor: atheism.

I have nothing against secularism or questioning faith, and I agree with Harris and Dawkins that Christians have done many horrendous things. Despite the fact that some Christians practice Christianity badly, I remain a Christian. Not a “crazy extremist” one, but one that tries to imitate Jesus and follow his teachings—and one who believes those teachings can create a more peaceable world. The greatest danger of religious fundamentalism, with its narrow intellectual and political vision, is not to American society, but to Christianity itself.

Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) is an independent scholar and author. Her new book is Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith, from Harper San Francisco.

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