Vapid public square

December 23rd, 2010
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‘Tis the season for fights over religion. Or so it seems. Whether it’s using the apparently inflammatory term “Merry Christmas”, bells ringing at Sally Ann collection boxes, or provocative atheist ad campaigns.

It was the latter that kicked off a flurry of pieces in the National Post and on their blog(s).  For readers who didn’t see it – I didn’t notice any Blogging Tory commentary – here’s a little re-cap (and forgive some oversimplification). Kelly McParland launched the first salvo with a piece questioning the advertizing atheists and wondering why they would care what believers believed, because they were as harmless as Maple Leafs fans. John Moore replied that proselytizers are more annoying than Leafs fans and it bloody well does matter what they believe because they “use ancient books to lecture and sometimes legislate people on how to live” and “stone a woman for being a rape victim”.

Moore’s piece prompted a couple of blogs by Charles Lewis under the theme of him not really caring what atheists think. This, perhaps due to its provocative headline alone, spurred an onslaught of over 800 nasty e-mails and a reply-blog by secularist Gary Reid. Described as a “communications officer” for the Canadian Secular Alliance – a group “dedicated to the separation of church and state” – he played the trump card in religious debates these days, stating that it was of course faith that caused “some folks to steal airplanes and fly them into big buildings”. Touché. Along the way he also equates belief in Communism with religious faith, ersatz religion maybe(?), and puts in a good word for the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror notwithstanding.

What I find most disappointing about this whole spat is the generally superficial, often sophomoric level of the debate. Few of the commentators, and a couple are actually getting paid to write this stuff, are punching above the intellectual weight of a junior high debating club. “The religious are harmless!” argues one; “No, they’re bad and annoying!” pouts the other. Really stirring stuff.

With fairness to Mr. Lewis, he evinces an understanding of some of the deeper intellectual arguments at play here, and some of the complexities that most of his opponents seem unaware of.  He partly echoes my point here, expressing disappointment that high profile antagonists in this fight, like Tony Blair, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, don’t really seem to be up to it. (N.B. As this was going to cyber-press, John Moore wrote (yet) another missive and, to his credit, upped his game. He even uses the word “tautology”.)

One of the underlying, important themes at work here is the question of the legitimacy of public policy based on explicitly religious grounds. Secularists and atheists would of course oppose this, unless where the secular “consensus” happens to coincide with the religious, as in the injunction against murder. That is murder of able-bodied adults, not the aged, infirm and …

What appears lost on most, if not all of these writers is that there has been a vigorous, deeply intellectual debate on the role of the religious in public life for at least the last 25 years, particularly in the United States. This was begun primarily by then Reverend Richard John Neuhaus’ book The Naked Public Square, where he argued passionately for the religious’ right to engage in spirited debate over public policy. The hard-line church-state separationists were, he felt. promoting a Trojan horse argument whose hidden agenda was to exclude faith-based policy from politics.

Readers of Neuhaus’ journal First Things will know that it has sponsored an ongoing debate over various related topics – albeit at a sometimes too-stratospheric intellectual level – over topics ranging from Intelligent Design to reproductive ethics and how the church should handle politicians who ignore their stated beliefs when making public policy.

I guess the unimpressive level of debate mentioned above underscores the rarity of figures like Fr. Neuhaus and even Ted Byfield, who could frame complex theology in ways that were understandable and relevant to political debate. Time was when Ted would expound at the back of Alberta Report on the religious underpinnings of Western law and jurisprudence and it would just make sense.

Which brings us to Lewis’ point that most atheists just don’t “get” religion. With general ignorance of church history and theology on the one side of the debate (which Moore strongly disputes), it’s hard to even find common ground for discussion. It’s like young, secular Euros going to the Louvre and wondering about what’s going on in all those old paintings. Why are there so many pictures of a pious looking woman holding a baby?

One thing I can take from this is to, in future, not let my Advent season be marred by the seemingly annual verbal strife and warfare. With that I’ll just wish all our readers, a peaceful, blessed, Merry Christmas!

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By John Weissenberger