April 24, 2004

Is there anti-religious sentiment on the U.S. left?

The debate on the subject is getting hot and heavy in the blogosphere. Things all started a few days ago with an LA Times column about Air America radio that criticized the on-air hosts for ridiculing religion. The subject was picked up by (among others) Melanie at A Bump in the Beltway and Rev. Allen Brill at The Village Gate, who both broadened the discussion to deal with their perception that the US left as a whole tends to be hostile to religion of any sort — not just to the religious right. (You can find more details and links to all of the above in this earlier Pacific Views post.)

Yesterday, Atrios fired a broadside against this criticism:

In addition, I'm a bit fed up with people hand-wringing about anti-religious sentiment from "the Left." First of all, "the Left" which has any clout or power in this country is explicitly "pro-religion" to a degree which disturbs me. My retinas still burn with the image of the members of Congress on the steps of the Capitol screeching out "UNDER GOD" while performing the pledge of allegiance. Left-leaning people with strongly held religious views need to stop worrying about what some comedian says on some radio show and need to start worrying that the public faces of their religion are people who, if they had their way, would establish their own flavor of theocracy and revoke our right to worship as we please (or not at all).

I'm tired of liberalish Christians telling me it's my job to reach out to Christian moderates who feel that "the Left" is hostile to them. Screw that. It's time for liberalish Christians to tell their slightly more right-leaning brethren that those of us who fight to maintain the separation between Church and State do it to protect freedom of religion - not destroy it. It's time for moderate and liberal Catholics to take a stand against their Church's assault on Democratic (and only Democratic) politicians who deviate from doctrine.

I'm not hostile to religion. I'm hostile to those who cloak their hate in bigotry in religion. I'm hostile to those who want to impose their religion on me and everyone else. I'm hostile to those who have no understanding where their freedoms come from, and why they're important. I'm hostile to Christian Exceptionalists who believe that simply by being religious they're immune from all criticism.

Today, Melanie takes Atrios thoroughly to task:

I want to address directly Atrios's ill-informed, bigoted rant of last evening. For that's what it is. This piece of bloviation was clearly pointed at Allen Brill and myself for taking on an LAT critique of his new pet radio network. He de-legitimates the liberalism of progressive religious bloggers, treats us as a group (that's called bigotry) and, in his ignorance, accuses us of not taking on the Christian Right. He makes ad hominem attacks against people he refuses to name or link to, which marks him as a coward in my book. He derides us as "liberalish," when, in fact, my politics are considerably to the left of his. He sets up a straw man by accusing the Christian Left of not doing what it has, in fact been doing for decades.

This spectacular incidence of mis-information is as dumb as the Biblical literalism of the far right. It's intellectually bankrupt, since it offers nothing to counter the Christian Right other than "nya-nya." We of the Christian Left have the theological and exegetical tools to take on the Right on their own terms, and we've been doing it consistently, but Mr. Radio Big Shot isn't interested in facts. Why he thinks his irrational intolerance is somehow of a higher moral order than that of the fundies is beyond me. I don't just tolerate his atheism, I embrace it. I don't know what sort of imaginary discrimination this privileged white male thinks he has suffered, and, frankly, I don't care.

In this political season, much has been made about some survey somewhere which alleges that an atheist can't get elected dogcatcher in this country. Give me a break. An angry atheist like Atrios is unlikely to get elected to anything. An indifferent one, like Kevin Drum, would probably have a decent shot at the Orange County Council, if he were so inclined. I have no problem with people who are indifferent to religion, and would be happy to vote for anyone whose politics and values are similar to mine, provided that they didn't tell me that my core commitments are ridiculous to them, which is what Atrios just did.

His knee-jerk reaction, and that of a lot of his readers, comes out of a culture of grievance and entitlement that I, frankly, don't find particularly attractive. As to the central point that both Allen and I made, that religious and secular lefties need to make common cause and demonizing each other is a bad idea, Atrios is not just indifferent, but openly hostile. This is the attitude which will keep the Democratic Party a permanent minority. He seems to hold Liberal Christians like Allen and myself personally responsible for the excesses of the Christian Right. Right. Somehow it's our fault that the Liberal Christians can't get a place at the microphone. What the hell does he think our blogs are if not a place to redress some of the imbalance in the public conversation on religion and politics in this country?

And Allen Brill summarizes some of the reaction to Atrios and tries to defuse the anger getting into the discussion:

Atrios has such anger against Christians and Christianity created by whatever experience that it seems there is no way to defuse it. I've tried in e-mails to counter what seems to be his stereotype of a "Christian" by relating my love for "Yes," my enjoyment of a cold one, and tales of misspent youth. If he ever came around here, he'd find a lot of other Christians who don't fit his image of us either. But none of it has helped. In the end, he implies that we are pseudo-progressives, I suppose because we don't shed the foolishness of faith.

One has to admire Atrios and Kos. They've built the left side of the blogosphere into a more-than-equal counter to Reynolds and company. But if they continue to dominate conversation in the progressive blogosphere while holding to the attitudes that both have toward religion and specifically, Christianity, the potential of this medium to mobilize the Left and counter the corporate-controlled media will never be realized. It's not their being atheists or agnostics that's the problem. It's not that they bash the Christian Right. It's that they express and/or countenance such an intense hatred of religiosity in any form so that their sites will offend the overwhelming majority of the public and ultimately be an embarrassment to politicians who must seek votes from those 90% of Americans who consider themselves religious.

I wish I knew how to defuse all that anger. From the feedback I receive on this site, it seems that those who actually spend time here, even if they came full of justified anger and bitterness against Christianity and Christians, usually find something at The Village Gate/The Right Christians that counters their previous negative experiences. But one must take the risk of being exposed to the feared and the hated "Other" in order to be freed from stereotpyes.

As Kynn so eloquently tried to explain, there are Christians who strongly support separation of church and state. There are Christians who support the right of atheists and agnostics to participate fully in our democracy at any level in any role. There are Christians who do not believe that the Bible constitutes the only potential foundation for morality but read and appreciate John Rawls. There are Christians who love Franken's "Supply Side Jesus" and laugh even as it breaks our heart. There are GLBT Christians. There are black Christians and brown Christians and female Christians whose faith strenghthens them in their battle against oppression and persecution in this country. These Christians are not "liberalish." These Christians are not just a little to the left of Land and Mohler. They are every bit as genuine a part of the progressive movement as any disillioned ex-Catholic.

It's apparent that it will be impossible to defuse the anger of some. About all that can be said to them is what [Kevin] Drum [of Political Animal] tried to say earlier in the week in his reasonable way. Keep your anger and bitterness to yourself for the sake of the cause.

We're not going to say too much here ourselves, other than to note that Atrios (and many of the people who've commented on the current topic at various blogs) seems to have a problem distinguishing between believers in fundamentalist religion and any other sort of person of faith. And for some reason he seems to believe that progressive people of faith check their brains at the door when they embrace religion, and somehow become oblivious of the theocratic leanings of the religious right and incapable of confronting the theocrats when they try to descecularize government. Atrios should know better.

As we said before, this magpie is not particularly religious. (In fact, we're willing to match our agnosticism up against that of Atrios any day of the week.) But we've seen again and again how the good political work done by progressive people of faith rests directly upon their spiritual beliefs, and how those beliefs require social justice for people of all faiths (or lack of faith). Their good work comes because of their faith, not despite it. Deriding these people for their faith, or failing to differentiate between their religious views and those of the fundamentalist right serves no one except those who would see us all in chains.

More: Add to the debate Susan's no-holds-barred post at Suburban Guerrilla:

People have belief systems, lots of 'em. And some of the secular ones have strong parallels to fundamentalist Christians. For example: If you go to a good school and earn academic credentials, you will get a good job, buy a nice house and have financial security.

Like fundies, they've bought into an idea that doesn't require much independent thought or individual trailblazing. They've chosen a track dictated by their beliefs, they've bought a ticket for that train, and off they go. Also like the fundies, they believe (economic) salvation waits at the end of their journey. Like them, they feel superior to anyone who doesn't subscribe to their beliefs. The only difference I can see is that they believe in heaven on earth, instead of "heaven" heaven.

The point Atrios makes (and it's a valid one) is that his tolerance stops where religion imposes its beliefs into the political realm. (Although Martin Luther King Jr. might beg to differ.)

But we're shooting ourselves in the foot when we treat Christians as a monolithic voting bloc; they're not. [...]

It pisses me off when, to indulge their own egos, people act like we have plenty of votes to spare. We don't. And if you can't be bothered to make common cause with people who are mostly leaning our way because you need to satisfy your own sense of superiority, then you're nothing but a rank political amateur. You're no different from the people who vote for Ralph Nader because they're so "pure."

It just makes you a naive little bitch for the right wing.

Bend over, boy, and squeal like a pig.

Posted by Magpie at April 24, 2004 08:49 PM | Faith | Technorati links |

I'm guilty. I see the religious right as a real and perhaps the greatest threat to this secular republic. They really do want to turn the US into a theocracy. Unfortunately anyone who strictly follows the creed of their Abrahamic faith must do the same.
Organized religion has historically been used as a tool to cement political power. The Romans established Christianity as the State Religion and Christianity gave legitimacy to Kings and tyrants for centuries. The American Revolution was about breaking the yoke of Christianity.
I do distrust organized religion and wonder if you can be a "liberal Christian" and really be a Christian. There are some who have tried like Teilhard de Chardin and more recently Bishop John Shelby Spong, but they have been critisized by their church.

Posted by: Ron In Portland at April 25, 2004 01:56 AM

The whole "religious right" thing is US specific and this whole thing looks even more odd to non-Americans.

Posted by: DavidByron at April 25, 2004 06:01 AM

I'm guilty. I see the religious right as a real and perhaps the greatest threat to this secular republic. They really do want to turn the US into a theocracy.

You're right. They ARE a huge threat.

I do distrust organized religion and wonder if you can be a "liberal Christian" and really be a Christian.

Don't buy into the propaganda of the Christian Right. They don't want you to believe that liberal Christians are anything other than a contradiction.

The truth is, though, they're the ones who don't make any sense. They are the abberation. As DavidByron notes, this is a uniquely AMERICAN style of religious perversion, and the Christian Left are allies of the Secular Left in fighting it.


Posted by: Kynn Bartlett at April 25, 2004 07:29 AM

Ron, I second Kynn. You shouldn't mix up the institution of the church with the faith of an individual.

Posted by: natasha at April 25, 2004 10:02 AM

I'm sorry, but I can sympathize with Atrios completely. If a person like myself has serious problems with religion itself, or religious tests for office, that does not make us "bigots" or "angry". Calling someone "angry" and suggesting that anger disqualifies their opinion altogether is a low attack and completely nonsensical. Why not be angry if there's something to be angry about?

Posted by: Amanda at April 25, 2004 11:45 PM

amanda, yes, exactly. it's nice to see more atheists standing up and making themselves heard. over the years i've been quiet too, perhaps liberal christians - the majority of liberals i remind people yet again - might spare us a few seconds of thought.

Posted by: kevin lyda at April 26, 2004 11:11 AM

Can progressives craft a message that appeals to Christians and other faith-based voters? Check out my imaginary Kerry speech on faith-based liberalism at:


Posted by: rick freedman at April 28, 2004 09:41 AM