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Out to Get Religion

Two noted academics survey September 11 and decide that faith is the great evil.

12:00 AM, Sep 17, 2002 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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RELIGION IS THE PROBLEM: So say two celebrity professors--Steven Pinker and Simon Schama--opining on the 9/11 anniversary. Islamist fanatics with a murderous hatred of the West, they imply or say outright, pose no greater threat to peace than religious believers generally. To do justice to these pedigreed thinkers' pronouncements, it is necessary to quote them.

"But let me go back to the question of whether seeing morality as a product of the brain licenses amorality," urges Steven Pinker, evolutionary psychologist and MIT professor, at the end of an interview in the October 2 issue of Reason magazine. "In practice, it is less dangerous than the idea that morality is ultimately vested in the commands of a religious authority. Nine/eleven is only the most recent example of a case where morality derived from religion leads to horrible atrocities."

Pinker has gone way out on a limb with this purportedly empirical claim, that godless morality is "less dangerous" than morality grounded in religion. Can the twentieth century really have escaped his notice? Whatever the crimes traceable to "religious authority," can Pinker have failed to register that Nazi paganism and Marxist atheism "in practice" produced quite a few deaths? The Holocaust, the Gulag, the Chinese famine, the killing fields of Kampuchea--corpse for corpse, in the last hundred years, the godless brain-based moralities take it away.

But let us shrink from any such vulgar body count. The fair-minded empiricist, surveying history's panorama of conquests and reconquests, in the name of God and in the name of godless "isms," its martyrdoms and forced conversions, its tribal massacres and senseless genocides, reaches a conclusion rather different from Pinker's: It's as if the potential for atrocities were present in every time and place--as if it actually resided deep within the human heart. It's something so dark and persistent you'd almost be tempted to call it by a name like "sin."

Pinker, of course, has no time for such inherited notions. With his faith in the "brain," he has shown a bold willingness to help dismantle the old biblical taboos, such as the sanctity of human life. He made a splash a few years back with an article in the New York Times Sunday magazine respectfully noting some philosophers' view that killing newborns "should not be classified as murder."

Simon Schama shares Pinker's enlightened impatience: "religious revelation . . . is the problem," he explains, specifically including "Judaic and Christian as well as Muslim" faiths. The brilliant historian of the French Revolution, a professor of history and art history at Columbia University, must have thought he was slumming and could get away with anything when he wrote about the September 11 anniversary for a British newspaper audience. In any case, he produced an astoundingly glib and sloppy and disingenuous critique of "oligarchic America" one year after the World Trade Center attacks. He manages to align George Bush with "militant theocracy"; to cast American pluralism as a strictly "secular" phenomenon; to make religion and liberty enemies, instead of the most intimate allies, as they are in the American tradition. (Has he ever read the First Amendment?)

This confusion leads Schama into such elephantine blunders as the claim that the abolitionists of the 19th century were driven by a spirit of "secular voluntarism and philanthropy." So determined is his revulsion at religion--matched only by his need to praise Democrats--that he makes even the pious Jimmy Carter out to have built houses for the poor from a "social patriotism" at odds with religious faith.

Schama should stick to the French Revolution. At least in his great book "Citizens," he owns up to the close link between the revolutionaries' program of de-Christianization and the "unconscionable slaughters" of the Terror. Writing of the bloody suppression of the Vendee revolt, Schama admits: "The exterminations practiced there were, in fact, the logical outcome of an ideology that progressively dehumanized its adversaries and that had become incapable of seeing any middle ground between total triumph and utter eclipse."

Sure enough, to achieve such dehumanization, you'd pretty much have to sweep out of the way any dogmatic idea that human life is sacred because God made man in His own image. Yes, indeed, that revealed truth would have to go.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.