Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Prager vs. "Secularism"

Award winning blogger Gus van Horn writes today that
Ann Coulter, when she attempts to pretend that there is no such thing as a "religious right", will sometimes cite hit counts from Lexis-Nexis searches for "religious right" in left-wing media reports. I wonder what a similar search of "secular left" among her own writings (or those of other conservatives) would yield. As I have pointed out here before, "secular" and "leftist" do not mean the same thing, but conservatives are working overtime to make you think they do.
Dennis Prager is certainly one of these conservatives. In his new column entitled Secular Europe or Religious America, there is a continuous, frustrating missing of essentials with regard to the issues involved. It seems that Prager, being a religious person, regards the presence or absence of religion as the primary factor in any historical event or social change, even when the evidence shows that this is not the case. For example, Prager writes:
There is no doubt that Western Europe abandoned religion and opted for secularism largely because of the blood spilled in religious wars, just as it abandoned nationalism because of all the blood it spilled in the name of nationalism during World War I.

However, Cohen and others who argue for a secular society ignore the even heavier price in blood Europe has paid for secular fervor. Secular fervor, i.e., communism and Nazism, slaughtered, tortured and enslaved more people in 50 years than all Europe's religious wars did in the course of centuries.
Is the essential point about communism and Nazism that they were both secular systems? Is that what led to the death of millions? That's what Prager wants you to believe here. Religion is a minor killer in comparison to the secular killers. Prager continues:
This point is so obvious, and so devastating to the pro-secularists, that you wonder how they deal with it. But having debated secularists for decades, I predicted Cohen's response virtually word for word on my radio show the day before I spoke with him. He labeled communism and Nazism "religions."

This response completely avoids the issue. Communism and Nazism were indeed religion-like in their hold on people, but they were completely secular movements and doctrines. Moreover, communism was violently anti-religious, and Nazism affirmed pre-Christian -- what we tend to call "pagan" -- values and beliefs.
I would agree that strictly, communism and Nazism were not religions. However, it is also clear as Prager admits, that they had much in common with religions. To term something as "pagan" is not deny its religiosity, merely its connection to monotheism. But leaving that aside, how do we know it was not the religion-like elements within these two movements, perhaps in conjunction with other factors, that are the cause of the greatly increased deaths that resulted when they came into power? In fact, it was exactly the religion-like elements of mysticism, altruism, combined with collectivism and the fact that these totalitarian regimes were able to rely on the capitalist technological base that had been absent when religious regimes had previously ruled Europe, that led to the mass murders. Numerous otherwise religious Germans supported the Nazis (as Paul Johnson documents in his History of Christianity) and the similarity of many elements of Communist doctrine to Christianity is not at all unknown. Stalin, in fact, studied for the priesthood.

I would not deny that these totalitarian regimes were worse than anything Europe had seen during the Middle Ages. However, they were worse because they were more irrational and collectivist not because they happen to be secular. It is not at all inconceivable that a similarly irrational and collectivist religious regime would commit similar atrocities. Certainly, the Islamic regimes today seem to aspire to such a goal.


Burgess Laughlin said...

Your theme, that Prager is not essentializing, is on target, I think. I have two points to suggest:

1. I wonder how Prager would define "religion"? My own, rough definition is that it is a type of worldview. That is the genus. By worldview, I mean a system of ideas that explain (1) the basic nature of the world(s) in which one lives; (2) man's own basic nature; and (3) what man should do to obtain the ultimate reward (happiness, salvation, or whatever). Thus, the three branches are metaphysics (theology, in part); theory of man (including epistemology); and ethics.

What distinguishes a religion from the other type of worldview, philosophy, is the means one uses to create it: mysticism (revelation, divinely inspired readings of sacred texts, etc.) for religion and reason for philosophy.

2. A more appropriate comparison historically would involve the Thirty-Years War in Europe, 1618-1648, in which a major part of the population of Central Europe may have died as a result of fighting between religious people.

Gideon said...

Thank you for your comments.

With respect to your first point, yes, I have heard Prager make comments to that effect. He once talked about how happy he is to have a systematic view of the world that guides him in evaluating specific events. Furthermore, much of his commentary of the last 20 or so years has tried to argue for the superiority of a religious world view to any secular world view.

He is one of many who claim that without God there is no morality. In fact, he goes further. He has argued that the reason for the various irrationalities in the Universities is the absence of religion. So he thinks there is a role for both reason and faith. Faith as the ultimate source of ethics and reason for, apparently, everything else. He would consider philosophy important and good but only to the extent that it is restrained by religion.

With respect to your second point, Prager and others would dismiss such a comparison by pointing to the total number of people killed, which is much greater during the 20th century. But I think your point is valid. If one is interested in comparisons of devastation, the comparison ought to be per capita and should take into account, as I hinted at in my post, the difference in technological capabilities between time periods.

However, even supposing that after that comparison Christianity is found to be considerably less murderous than Communism or Nazism, what would that prove? I always think of a comparison between a murderer and mass murderer. Just because the mass murderer has killed more people, does that mean you ought to be friends with the murderer? It seems to me there ought to be other people to be friends with. And with respect to the issue at hand, there are more choices than just religion and collectivism, which is what fundamentally responsible for the 20th mass murders, not so-called "secularism."

Wolfgang said...

German soldiers from 1934 on should die not without god. Look at the Hitler oath (Service oath for soldiers of the armed forces):

I swear by God this sacred oath that I shall render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich and people, supreme commander of the armed forces, and that I shall at all times be ready, as a brave soldier, to give my life for this oath.

Burgess Laughlin said...

If I understand his point correctly, Wolfgang brings up a crucial issue: To what extent was the Nazi Reich religious (either Christian or pagan or both) vs. secular (if that means nonreligious)?

Of course, history is messy. Any actual individual or private organization or regime can be a mixture of the two elements. Two questions would then arise:
1. Was the Reich, as the Nazis intended it to be, religious or not?
2. More importantly, which principle of Nazism would any major modern religion disagree with? Emotionalism? Obedience to authority? Collectivism? Altruism?

Gideon said...

Prager writes that:
Communism and Nazism were indeed religion-like in their hold on people, but they were completely secular movements and doctrines. I certainly think Wolfgang's helpful quote casts some doubt on the supposed "completely secular" nature of Nazism.

Burgess brings up a good point about mixed nature of the institutions involved. Let me attempt to answer the questions he suggests.

1. Was the Reich, as the Nazis intended it to be, religious or not?
To the best of my understanding, Nazism, with its values, and rituals, was ultimately intended to replace the regular Christian religions that existed in Germany. Yet, numerous German Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, and Christian leaders supported the Nazis with only limited exceptions(as documented in Paul Johnson's History of Christianity). Also, I get the sense that while Communism was openly antagonistic to religion and Christianity in particular, Nazism, while ultimately equally hostile to the Churches, was generally willing to live with them so long as they obeyed the directives of the Fuehrer.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how a Christianity that supposedly preaches love and "turning the other cheek" is compatible with the rather warlike doctrine of Nazism. It is much easier to see the similarities to the pre-Christian warlike pagan religions.

2. More importantly, which principle of Nazism would any major modern religion disagree with? Emotionalism? Obedience to authority? Collectivism? Altruism? Here, I think, we have the crux of the matter. It is quite clear the Christianity, to take the most relevant religion, would endorse all of these, though different sects might disagree on which takes priority.