October 31, 2004
4 books that examine the place of faith in public life
By James McManus.
Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism
By Susan Jacoby
Metroplitan/Holt, 417 Pages, $27.50
The Serenity Prayer
By Elisabeth Sifton
Norton, 367 pages, $26.95
The President of Good and Evil
By Peter Singer
Dutton, 288 pages, $24.95, $14 paper
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
By Sam Harris
Norton, 336 pages, $24.95
“I’ve prayed about this,” George W. Bush likes to say, often in response to tough, complex policy questions. Several recent books make it clear that Bush’s heavenward petitions could inspire Americans to revisit their glorious past.
In “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism,” Susan Jacoby reminds us that ours is the first and only country to adopt a Constitution specifically excluding mention of a higher power, and how successful it has been as a civic blueprint ever since. “Although the pace of change in customary religious arrangements seemed glacial to those members of the revolutionary generation most committed to Enlightenment values,” she writes, “what is striking from a twenty-first-century perspective is the speed with which many Americans came to support a freedom of thought and religious practice that overturned millennia of religious authoritarianism.”
Jacoby explains the importance of Abraham Lincoln’s reading of Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason” and Constantin Volney’s “The Ruins,” an Enlightenment masterwork that Thomas Jefferson translated. She reminds us that Lincoln’s law partner testified that his own agnosticism was the result of Lincoln’s persuasion. Yet American schoolchildren are seldom taught that Jefferson and Lincoln were unbelievers, or that Jefferson took a razor blade and cut out all the passages of the New Testament that he found offensive to reason or common sense, leaving him with a fairly abbreviated volume.
In lucid, witty prose, Jacoby traces the role of freethinkers in some of our greatest social revolutions, including abolition, labor law, civil rights for women and minorities, and the gradual acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution. During the last 20 years, conservative Christians have thwarted the teaching of science and unleashed a wrecking ball on the wall of separation between church and state. Since 9/11, Jacoby says, our secular tradition “has been further denigrated by unremitting political propaganda equating patriotism with religious faith.” By the end of her book, she has shown us that freethinkers are as American as church steeples, flags, televangelists, or apple pie—and possibly quite a bit more so.
In “The Serenity Prayer,” Elisabeth Sifton, daughter of the great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), explores the historical tensions surrounding her father’s famous plea for personal and civic equilibrium: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Sifton, a distinguished New York editor publishing the first book of her own, traces the prayer’s origin to the summer services in a village church in 1943, revealing it to be a lapidary expression of what might be called Christian realism. Drawing on her memories of her father and her readings of his books, letters, sermons and prayers, she chronicles his frustration with religious leaders who refused to confront fascist politics. And she finds it tartly ironic that postwar German writers misattributed the “Serenity Prayer” to an 18th Century Swabian Pietist. In subsequent decades, Niebuhr stood up to the anti-communist hysteria of McCarthy-era America, the totalitarian government of the Soviet Union, and the nuclear-weapons programs of both countries.
A luminous memoir of Sifton’s childhood gradually becomes a meditation on the power of prayer in morally compromised, unstable times. The man she called “Pa” found allies in every corner of the cultural landscape, and his daughter is especially good at explaining the appeal of what might be called his radical centrism—how it cut across traditional class, color, gender and religious lines in much the same ecumenical spirit as his contemporary, Pope John XXIII (1881-1963), a spirit the current pope has crankily disposed of.
Sifton’s loving portrait of perhaps the greatest theologian of his time will help us to see what is possible when open-minded leaders, as opposed to zealous fundamentalists or hawkish plutocrats, shape the conscience of their civilization. Reinhold Niebuhr took faith and the Bible quite seriously, though not in the ” `absolutely literal way some Biblicists take it and kill the spirit by the letter,’ ” as he put it prophetically.
More than any of his predecessors, President Bush speaks in absolutist, black-and-white terms. In “The President of Good and Evil,” Princeton University bioethicist Peter Singer asks whether Bush actually lives up to the “core values” he touts so persistently. In case after case, Singer exposes the ethical confusion and moral failure of the Bush administration.
But in contrast to the polarizing rants of Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky, Singer’s 20th book elevates the level of our political discourse. Fair-minded and quietly passionate, Singer examines the president’s ethics on justice and opportunity, civil liberties, religion, America as world citizen, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, America as policeman, as well as the president’s personal ethics. He points out that a “pro-life” ideology didn’t keep Bush from signing 152 death warrants in Texas, far more than any American governor in the 20th Century, on the grounds that “it saves other people’s lives.” (It doesn’t, of course, as state-by-state before-and-after comparisons make abundantly clear.) Nor did life’s sacredness keep the president from unleashing “shock and awe” on the Iraqi population and preemptively waging a war in Iraq that, whatever its justification, has taken the lives of many thousands of civilians and more than 1,000
American soldiers. Singer writes:
“Bush’s concern for the lives of innocent people on death row, and for innocent men, women, and children in Afghanistan and Iraq falls far short of his concern with protecting embryos that might be used for stem-cell research. On any sensible scale, this is a bizarre set of priorities.”
It has been more than two decades since Jonathan Schell argued in “The Fate of the Earth” that nuclear proliferation required that we give up the system of nation-states, an idea echoed in 1992 by Michael Ondaatje’s great novel “The English Patient.” Now, in “The End of Faith,” a young philosopher named Sam Harris makes the least modest proposal of all, maintaining that weapons of mass destruction require humans to give up, or grow out of, religion. Rationality and science need to replace faith altogether, Harris says, and as soon as possible. Citing repulsive (but often hilarious) chapter and verse, he makes plain how one holy book after another guarantees paradise to believers and damnation to everyone else. Most religious texts are often murderous, calling for the sword for unbelievers, and stoning or amputation for social infractions. In other contexts we might deplore this as hate literature.
Even more against the grain of what most people believe, Harris makes the case that religious moderation and respect for other faiths are what allow the extremists to flourish:
“By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. . . .
“To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world—to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish—is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness.”
He acknowledges that ethical behavior, community support and spiritual experience can derive from religious practice; drawing on insights from neuroscience, philosophy, Eastern mysticism and plain common sense, however, he demonstrates that religion is unnecessary to encourage them. He also quotes Gallup Poll findings that nearly half of Americans “take a literalist view of creation (40 percent believe that God has guided creation over the course of millions of years). This means that 120 million of us place the big bang 2,500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer. . . . A survey of Hindus, Muslims, and Jews around the world would surely yield similar results, revealing that we, as a species, have grown almost perfectly intoxicated by our myths.”
To go with a pointed sense of humor, Harris has the courage to call the basic texts of all major religions extraordinary anthologies of violence and vengeance, celestial decrees that infidels must die. Passages of the Koran prove to many millions of believers that they should kill themselves murdering as many fellow humans as possible, in the name of Allah the Merciful. Christian apocalypticists willing to risk a nuclear conflagration in the Middle East for the sake of expediting the second coming of Christ also believe in the holiness of their cause. In Harris’ view, such fundamentalists aren’t distorting their faith but taking their religion seriously. “We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom, or in the literal truth of the book of Revelation . . . because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.” He singles out Islam as the most dangerous threat in this century, comparing it, point by gruesome point, to the Christian Inquisitions. Relying on the work of Bernard Lewis and other scholars, Harris shows how resistant Islamic theocracies have been to the secularizing influences that have liberalized Western religiosity since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and he gives little reason to be optimistic about the Islamic world voluntarily changing course.
What about Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and other atheist mass murderers? Harris encourages us to think of communism and fascism as religion-like cults, making the case that intolerance is the sine qua non of every authoritarian regime. We should deplore the religious fanaticism of suicide bombers and the secular totalitarians equally.
Many of us will see the liberal Christianity of Niebuhr as a step toward more temperate faithfulness, a sense of God that can work hand in hand with Singer’s enlightened ethics as well as Jacoby’s secular ideal. A few of us will even imagine these beautiful ways of thinking as necessary baby steps toward Harris’ vision of humankind released altogether from religious credulity. Indeed, we have plenty of models of balance and wisdom to go on: Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Walt Whitman. W.E.B. Du Bois. Clarence Darrow. Emma Goldman. Hugo Black. Reinhold Niebuhr. To take the most telling example from Jacoby’s book, we can watch how a wartime Republican president struggled to reconcile his civic and spiritual responsibilities while thinking about the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862:
“I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will. . . . I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me. . . . These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain, physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right.”
And he did.
James McManus, author of “Going to the Sun” and “Positively Fifth Street,” is completing “Physical: Being the Last-Minute Notes of a Mortal American.”