Religiosity and peaceful coexistence:

Robert Reich writes, in The American Prospect:

The great conflict of the 21st century will not be between the West and terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic, not a belief. The true battle will be between modern civilization and anti-modernists; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe their allegiance and identity to a higher authority; between those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is mere preparation for an existence beyond life; between those who believe in science, reason, and logic and those who believe that truth is revealed through Scripture and religious dogma. Terrorism will disrupt and destroy lives. But terrorism itself is not the greatest danger we face.

Ramesh Ponnuru (National Review Online) criticizes this on the merits, and also points out that people who adopt Reich’s perspective may make more enemies than they need:

One can believe in the political “primacy of the individual,” the obligation of all people to answer to God, and the wrongness of any governmental attempt to make them answer to Him, all at the same time. But if our choice is between the primacy of individuals and the primacy of God — if, that is, we are to choose between individual human beings and God — then the vast majority of traditional religious believers would have to choose God. . . . That would be the case for plenty of believers who are not sure what they think about abortion law, or want a higher minimum wage. All of us, for Reich, are the enemy.

Here’s a tentative thought: As a nonreligious person myself, I can certainly understand some of Reich’s arguments in theory. There is, in theory, a vast gulf in worldview between those who believe in a vast range of important things for which there’s basically no empirical evidence — life after death, the existence of a God who has mandated that we follow this or that book, Scriptural miracles, and so on — and those who demand evidence before having such beliefs.

But in practice, this theoretical gulf seems to have far less impact on the sorts of things that matter in society — respect for human rights, the maintenance of structures needed for material economic progress, and even development of science — than one might think. Nonreligious and scientifically minded people have benefited tremendously from a system of civil liberties that was in large measure created and defended by religious people. The most advanced economy in the world exists in a country (the U.S.) that’s probably the most religious of the major Western democracies. Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal did both science and theology, and other scientists have done the same (though I understand that religious belief is considerably less common among American scientists today).

More broadly, most of the principles of liberty, democracy, economic organization, and most of the scientific knowledge that we value — and that Robert Reich probably values as well, though he may disagree in some measure as to economic organization — were developed in a pervasively Christian culture, one in which most people believed in allegiance to a higher authority and at least the great importance of a future life. Perhaps these principles would have been developed more effectively or quickly if the culture had been less religious or less devout, or perhaps not. But this fact should at least give us nonreligious people pause before we focus too much on the epistemological or philosophical gulf between us and the religious.

Finally, the history of the 20th century shows us that some faults that were thought by some to be religious — fanaticism, religious intolerance, totalitarianism produced by an all-encompassing worldview — are actually faults of humans generally. Atheist Communism has much in common with the Spanish Inquisition.

It seems to me that nonreligious people (especially in America) should be happy about this coincidence of interests and, in many ways, of views between the nonreligious and the religious. Since we’re in the minority, it’s good that we can make common cause with the majority — a true “battle” with them will not be pretty. Even if the battle is defined as the nonreligious plus those whose religion is mostly spirituality and morality, with little concern about a higher power or a future life, the battle would be mighty nasty.

Now perhaps the relatively peaceful coexistence in the West of the deeply religious, the deeply secular, and the people in between is a thing of the past. Perhaps in the 21st century the real philosophical gulf that he describes must yield a battle. But I doubt it. And I particularly think that before the secular badmouth the religious too much (and vice versa) they should consider how many valuable aspects of Western Civilization were created by the deeply religious — and how much we all might continue to benefit from the work of those with whom we strongly disagree on philosophical matters.

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