Behind the political divide in America, there is also a religious divide. The split is not just between people who believe and people who do not; it is between those who see religious faith as society's foundation and those who see it as society's bane. So far, the debates on this subject have generated more heat than light, as both sides preach to the converted and talk at, not to, those who disagree. In the most recent volley in the faith wars, British pop star Elton John has said that if it were up to him, he would "ban religion completely" because it promotes anti gay bigotry and hate.
A look at recent best-selling books illustrates the divide. Ann Coulter's "Godless: The Church of Liberalism" excoriates liberals for being, well, godless. Bill O'Reilly's new tome, "Culture Warrior," urges traditionalists to combat the evil influence of the "secular-progressives." For the other side, there's "Letter to a Christian Nation" by philosopher Sam Harris, who calls all religion "obscene" and "utterly repellent," and "The God Delusion" by biologist Richard Dawkins, a tome whose title speaks for itself.
Both sides in the debate traffic in simplistic stereotypes. Anti religionists such as Harris assert that religion is dangerous because it has historically promoted violence and oppression -- and, in the form of Muslim extremism, continues to do so today. Yet the greatest atrocities of the 20th century were committed by totalitarian states armed with ideologies that were either explicitly atheist (communism) or non religious (Nazism). What's more, in the past and at present, religious fanaticism has often served as a vehicle and a cover for other tribal allegiances, such as nationalism.
Equally misguided, however, is the claim made by many champions of religion that secularists lack the will to combat evil because they are moral relativists who don't believe in good and evil anyway. Pat Tillman, the football player tragically killed by "friendly fire" in Afghanistan, was an atheist who joined the armed forces after Sept. 11 because he wanted to fight for his country against the barbarians who attacked it. Andrei Sakharov, a physicist and a secular humanist, stood up to the Soviet regime in the 1970s, at great risk to himself, in the name of human rights.
A religion, like any other set of beliefs, can be used for good or bad. In America, some people used the Bible to justify slavery, but Christians were also in the forefront of the battle to abolish it. Any passionately held belief, whether or not it includes God, can make some people intolerant, closed-minded, unwilling to look at facts that contradict their dogma, and hateful toward those who disagree.
It doesn't help that religion has become intertwined with politics. A recent column by film critic and pundit Michael Medved conflates attacks on religion with criticism of the political power of religious conservatives: Such books as "The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right" by Rabbi Michael Lerner, written from a religious point of view, are lumped together with Harris's anti religion screed. Meanwhile, conservative author Heather MacDonald, writing in USA Today, complains that "skeptical conservatives" feel marginalized in today's discourse. The new vogue for wearing one's faith on one's political sleeve is a prescription for religious strife.
Given the right's efforts to legislate explicitly religious values and to smuggle the pseudo-scientific religious doctrine of "intelligent design" into science classrooms, an anti religion backlash was probably inevitable. But attempts on the left to expunge all religion from the public square have contributed to the problem.
Each side in the faith wars is angry and afraid. Secularists see a creeping theocracy in attempts to outlaw same-sex unions, abortion, and stem cell research and to promote government funding for faith-based charities. Believers see assaults on their values everywhere from education to television and movies. Non religious Americans feel they are a beleaguered minority; in fact, more than half of Americans hold a negative view of people who don't believe in God. Religious Americans feel, also with some justification, that they are held in contempt by intellectual and cultural elites (remember Ted Turner's reference to Catholics as "Jesus freaks"?)
Unfortunately, the current polemics only reinforce these fears. Religious people see atheists who are hateful and intolerant toward faith, to the point of wanting to ban it; secularists see champions of religion who promote hostility toward non believers and wield religion as a political club. Under these circumstances, there is little prospect for dialogue or true understanding -- only for more shouting.