Selective fear of religion
I would like to criticize Islam much more than I do publicly, but I'm afraid for my life if I do.
So says "West Wing" producer Lawrence O'Donnell in an interview on Hugh Hewitt's radio show. This revealing statement occurred while O'Donnell attempted to explain his rather over-the-top attack on Mitt Romney's Mormonism.

Roger L. Simon examines O'Donnell fear of not speaking out (and its pervasiveness in the arts):

O'Donnell's kind of fear is all around us. We have it among artists who censor themselves and journalists who are afraid to speak out. These people have buried their traditional liberal values under a veneer of false tolerance and trendy cultural relativism and essentially turned liberalism on its head.

O'Donnell is no longer a liberal in the sense I understood it growing up. In fact, he runs away from defending the basic cannon of liberalism without which it cannot exist - free speech. A true liberal is a man like Flemming Rose who had the courage to defend that freedom against the onslaught of opposition to the publication of the Danish cartoons. Where was O'Donnell on that? Quivering in his corner, worrying whether he will be shot? Where was O'Donnell (a man of the entertainment industry, no less) when director Theo Van Gogh was stabbed to death by an Islamist on the streets of Amsterdam for making a film critical of Islam? Busy attacking George Bush, I imagine. The courage of Rose and Van Gogh (and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq and Wafa Sultan, etc.) is paying O'Donnell's check from the McLaughlin Group in a very real sense. He owes them all a commission.

What intrigues me is why so many of those who are afraid to criticize Islam are nonetheless quite fearless when it comes to other religions.

It's easy to dismiss this as cowardly hypocrisy, as selective religious bigotry, or as anti-Western bias, which of course a lot of it is.

But I think another dimension is post-9/11 denial. This is not ordinary denial, as it's closely related to the fiercely anti-war people whose hatred toward Bush is often characterized as "Bush Derangement Syndrome." Before 9/11, there was plenty of hypocrisy, and religious bigotry, plenty of anti-Western bias, and plenty of cowards, but they generally did not hesitate to criticize Islam. Feminists in Berkeley used to demonstrate against the veil.

Yet the fact, is, this "fear" of criticizing Islam is comparatively recent, and closely related to 9/11. The tenets of Christianity -- even over-the-top fundamentalist zealotry -- has not changed since 9/11, nor has Mormonism. But Western religions are attacked as never before. I think they're substitute targets.

I have criticized Christian zealotry in a number of posts. But as I've tried to make clear, there is no moral equivalency between Christian zealots and Islamic zealots:

Obviously, I'm a lot more familiar with Christianity than I am fundamentalist Islam. And while I find radical Christian zealots annoying, experience tells me that they are nowhere near as dangerous as radical Muslim zealots. True, there are a few Army of God types who do occasionally murder abortionists and "sodomites" in the name of Christianity, but usually, the worst thing Christian fundamentalists do is spout nutty theories. Telling me that Hurricane Katrina was "God's punishment" for "sodomy" is a lot less threatening than executing sodomites -- to say nothing of thousands of Americans. There is simply no comparison.
What I'm wondering is, what rational person would think that Christian fundamentalists are more dangerous than Islamic fanatics? Fear might offer a partial explanation of why criticism of the latter would suddenly be avoided entirely after 9/11. But what explains the sharp increase -- in tone and volume -- of attacks on Western religions? If we assume the attackers are more afraid now of radical Islam than they were before 9/11, this would explain the reluctance to criticize Islam. But fear of radical Islam does not explain the upsurge in attacks on Western religion, unless the fearful classes are involved in projection.

But what is rational about projecting a fear of Islam into a fear of Christianity? That's like saying Bush is scarier than bin Laden.

Even atheists -- who by their own logic ought to condemn all religion equally -- often become highly selective when the conversation turns to fundamentalist Christianity vis-a-vis fundamentalist Islam. Very odd, because atheists are freely tolerated in the West, while under Islam..... well, this comes from the Wiki entry on persecution of atheists:

Non-believers--atheists--under Islam do not have "the right to life". Apostasy in Iran is punishable by death.
But Christianity is worse?

I guess this is not a rational process.

UPDATE: My thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link, and the thoughtful observations. If it is better to be feared than loved, then Islam is better than Christianity, as it is more feared.

But if we add to that the paradox that "you always hurt the one you love," it gets even more complicated, because in the ordinary course of things, the "one you love" also loves you. And in theory at least, Christianity is built on love. Which means that those who hurt Christians are supposed to be loved by them in return.

To love without being feared (and without even being loved reciprocally) would almost seem to make Christianity a no-win.

I might be wrong about this, and I make no claim of being a Christian theologian, but it strikes me that hating people whose religion charges them with loving you in return is a fairly risk free venture. (Little wonder that "radical" artists feel free to do things like submerge crucifixes in urine and toss excrement at images of the Virgin Mary, but would never dare mess with the Koran or Mohammad.)

Comments welcome.

posted by Eric on 12.17.07 at 09:54 AM


These hypocrits remind me of Orwell's famous essay in which he argued that pacifism is, in effect, pro-fascist.

pst314   ·  December 17, 2007 9:05 PM

"But Western religions are attacked as never before. I think they're substitute targets."

You sure hit the nail on the head!

1389   ·  December 17, 2007 9:15 PM

"What I'm wondering is, what rational person would think that Christian fundamentalists are more dangerous than Islamic fanatics? Fear might offer a partial explanation of why criticism of the latter would suddenly be avoided entirely after 9/11. But what explains the sharp increase -- in tone and volume -- of attacks on Western religions?"

It’s easy to explain if you follow the tenants of the BDS catechism.

1.) You need to fear Bush’s neo-con exploitation of fear more than the Islamic threat itself.

2.) Bush’s neo-con war has actually increased the threat posed by Islam.

3.) Bush’s neo-con war is predicated on his Christianist ideology, which along with Zionism forms the neo-con axis.

edh   ·  December 17, 2007 9:15 PM

Excellent article.
As a conservative Christian white male, I am the target of a lot of rage from the haters on the left. They are too blinded by their own fear to see the real danger.

tyree   ·  December 17, 2007 9:22 PM

Criticizing Christians instead of the far more terrifying Islamists is like Al Qaeda targeting helpless women and children instead of the deadly American military. Oops! Did I just compare the BDS-afflicted with Al Qaeda? My bad!

Steve Yuen   ·  December 17, 2007 9:25 PM


That'd be Orwell's "Reflections on Gandhi".

edh   ·  December 17, 2007 9:31 PM

Here is my explanation:

Islamists hate the west and Christians. Leftists fear the Islamists do not speak out against them for fear of their lives. In order to gain favor with the Islamists the left attacks the west and Christians.

The leftists hope that the Islamists will abide by the old saying that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Roger   ·  December 17, 2007 9:47 PM

O'Donnell's fear is reasonable. Just ask Theo van Gogh.

tyree gets it. I see a similarity between what he says ("... like Al Qaeda targeting helpless women and children instead of the deadly American military") and what someone pointed out recently on another blog:

Relfecting on the recent shooting at the church, the other blogger said something like, "small wonder that our crazies who want to go out and shoot people never seem to want to attack police stations, rifle ranges, or army bases. They go where they're pretty sure nobody has any guns."

So pst314's "substitute targets" are the ones who aren't likely to fight back.

The only way to help stop this is to fight back. Do what Michael Savage is doing: sue the bastards. I'm no fan of Savage's, but this time, he's right. As long as we (O'Donnell and everybody else) have a "warning light" go on in our heads whenever we start to talk about the downside of Islam, we are in fact under their thumbs.

ZZMike   ·  December 17, 2007 9:57 PM

Secularists attack Christianity because Christianity is their competitor in the West. Most people do not know that the public school system started in the late 1800s very explictly as an attempt to drive Christianity out of the education of children, and they succeeded. They socialized this huge activity that had been entirely in the private sphere, then got it purged of religion under the doctrine of separation of church and state. It was the grossest violation of the establishment clause imaginable (establishing a state religion of secularism), and they got away with it.

This is also why Europe, when it wanted to import labor, imported Muslims from the third world instead of Christians. The ruling majorities regarded Christians as their enemies. Thus Muslims were preferred because they weren't Christian, and did not pose a threat to their domestic majorities (they thought).

In the U.S. the population is divided. Half are Christian friendly, half hate Christianity, and the antipathy is especially pronounced precisely because the balance in this country is so close.

Alec   ·  December 17, 2007 10:19 PM

"I guess this is not a rational process."

"You cannot reason someone out of a position he was never reasoned into." Jonathan Swift

Donald Sensing   ·  December 17, 2007 10:39 PM

Even atheists -- who by their own logic ought to condemn all religion equally

Why so?

As an atheist, I can assure you, my critique of Islam differs rather considerably from that of Jainism, Buddhism or say, the Amish.

I see Islam as a vile, totalitarian, intolerant, imperial, political system that also happens to be a religion; an especially nasty one at that. One that directly leads to conflict.

Buddhism, Jainism and the Amish are generally peaceful religions.

In fact, remove the supernatural detritus from Buddhism - and one is left with what I consider to be a most noble philosophy and methodology of 'mind posture'.

Nick (South Africa)   ·  December 17, 2007 11:05 PM

I agree with your premise, but please get your facts straight. If what you are calling "fundamental Christianity" are those who take the biblical record seriously and would classify themselves as evangelicals, then you can no longer call it a Western religion. Evangelicals comprise some 500 million people world-wide and they are predominately in the Africa and Asia now, not the West.

STG   ·  December 17, 2007 11:10 PM

The escalation of leftist rhetoric against Christianity is part denial, part obsequiousness. Deep down they think that if they turn against the Christians, maybe the Muslims won't hurt them.

Brian   ·  December 17, 2007 11:34 PM

ZZMike's comment is astute. I would only add that secularism has been built on the Rousseauian fantasy that nature will be a haven of reason and goodwill once the landscape is purged of Christianity; what these folks never realize is that reason cannot survive without the transcendent. Supernature abhors a vacuum. Man cannot survive long in a sea of nihilism; he will find God or he will invent a surrogate, be it the Party or the Volk or the Environment or Science or Sex or the Ummah, and the one chosen will become his new pole star around which his moral universe turns.

craig   ·  December 17, 2007 11:45 PM

Thanks for the comments. The note about hurting the one you love/who loves you is argued by theologians as Christianity's potent weapon.

Leroy Hurt   ·  December 18, 2007 12:02 AM

As an atheist, I'd like to single out Islam as the worst of the world's major religions. It is the only one whose founder spread it by the sword and encouraged it to be further spread by the sword. It is uniquely bathed in blood.

How uniquely? We can see that the bloodiest deeds committed in the name of Christianity were all perpetrated by those in the closest contact with and strongest influence from Muslims.

The Crusades? Originally launched to defend Christian Byzantium from Muslim conquest; fought entirely on land that was seized from Christians by jihad.

Conquest of the Aztecs and Incas? Committed by the Spanish in the fifty years following the final defeat of the Muslims in Spain, after centuries of Muslim rule.

The Spanish Inquisition? The same as above.

The Thirty Years War? Launched by Spain (of course) and Austria (which bordered the Ottoman Empire and was dynastically linked to Spain).

In all the history of the world up to 632 AD, there is not a single recorded case of a war of conquest launched for the purpose of conversion. Oh, there were plenty of wars justified on the grounds that divine entities had willed it; but (for example) the Hebrew invasion of Canaan was not aimed at converting the Canaanites. And there were plenty of efforts by empires to convert their subjects, in order to improve imperial cohesion, but that was never an initial goal of conquest, and was usually undertaken because the difference in religion was making the empire hard to govern.

No. The first guy who can be unequivocally charged with implementing the idea to wage war to convert the infidel was Mohammed. The degree to which other religions have followed his lead consistently correlated with how much the followers of those religions were influenced by Muslims. Islam was the first religion of war, and Mohammed is the most blood-stained villain in history.

Atheist   ·  December 18, 2007 12:27 AM

I am shortening this post and leaving out links, as the previous link-filled post got sent to the Recycle Bin.

As, an agnostic, I find the equating of Christian fundamentalists with Islamists to be an ignorant and insulting one. Here is one for those who compare Jihadists with abortion clinic bombers.

Seven people have been murdered by anti-abortion people in the last 30 years, and none since 1998.

Check out what Al Gore said in the New Yorker in 2004 when he equated Christian and Muslim fundamentalists.

“ Gore’s mouth tightened. A Southern Baptist, he, too, had declared himself born again, but he clearly had disdain for Bush’s public kind of faith. “It’s a particular kind of religiosity,” he said. “It’s the American version of the same fundamentalist impulse that we see in Saudi Arabia, in Kashmir, in religions around the world: Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim. They all have certain features in common.”

Compare this with what he said when in Saudi Arabia in 2006.

“Former Vice President Al Gore told a mainly Saudi audience on Sunday that the U.S. government committed "terrible abuses" against Arabs after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and that most Americans did not support such treatment.
Gore said Arabs had been "indiscriminately rounded up" and held in "unforgivable" conditions.”
He denounces Christian fundamentalists when in Nashville, and panders to the Saudis when in Saudi Arabia. Talk about speaking truth to power!
Leaving out link so posting will not get thrown away.

Gringo   ·  December 18, 2007 12:35 AM

Let's get one thing clear. Secularism is not a religion. I'm tired of that straw man.

Brett   ·  December 18, 2007 8:50 AM

As an atheist, I'll put in my two cents.
I agree in principle with Donald Sensing.
Some religions are worse than others.
Think of Jubal Harshaw talking about Fosterites. Some religions are admirable and decent and good, some aren't.

I think that all have an equal chance of being correct (how do you place odds on something like that?), but I also think that some are worse than others.

Veeshir   ·  December 18, 2007 8:51 AM

I think that you are giving too much credit. Cowardice alone can explain all of what we see today in western societies as concerns both the unwillingness to criticize islam, and to hyper-criticize Christianity. If cowards realize that Christians are likely to oppose islamic radicals, then they know that the actions of unhindered Christians may raise their chances of getting hurt. Thus making Christians (and neocons) feel as though they have no moral basis to oppose islam makes the leftist cowards feel a bit safer. Cowardice is overpowering; one of the strongest "feelings" of them all.
Remember Occam's razor.

Diggs   ·  December 18, 2007 9:04 AM

Don't single out the Muslims.

I'd like to criticize the Jews openly, but even relatively benign remarks would see my career ruined.

Muslims will at least debate you.

poorbutfree   ·  December 18, 2007 9:46 AM

For clarification, it seems the name of a comment's author appears after the comment. I say this as I'm sure neither Rev. Sensing nor Nick (South Africa) wish any confusion concerning who is the atheist.

submandave   ·  December 18, 2007 10:27 AM

Okay, color me stupid, I knew that he was a Rev.
My point stands even if I was agreeing with the wrong guy.

Veeshir   ·  December 18, 2007 10:31 AM

It looks to me like

"I would like to criticize Islam much more than I do publicly, but I'm afraid for my life if I do."

is a pretty damn strong criticism of Islam. I disdain Christianity, but despise Islam. It's become fashionable to say you can't judge a 'whole religion' by the actions of a 'few' of its members, but, why not? If the best a religion can do is produce a moral structure equivalent to other beliefs, while, at worst, producing homophobia, misogyny and terrorism, why NOT judge it on that basis?

bob puharic   ·  December 18, 2007 11:18 AM

I'm quite tired of idiots equating atheism/left. I am ardently atheist and I am a conservative. And to address another idiot -- no, you do not need supernatural origins to define and uphold moral convictions.

I obviously agree with no religions, but I certainly hold Islam in the lowest regard. All religions acted primitive when they were primitive. Only Islam holds on to primitiveness with tooth and nail -- literally. It is not so much that the bulk condone, it is that they do not condemn. That is what betrays their overall position.

Oligonicella   ·  December 18, 2007 12:18 PM

Recently I watched the CNN/Christiane Amanpour documentary on the dangers posed by religious extremists. In one scene she was talking to a member of a Christian group called "Teen Mania", or something like that, which teaches kids about Christianity and has them adhere to a standard of conduct (including showing up at rallies and demonstrations; I didn't see anything more radical than that). At one point, one of the teenagers told Ms. Amanpour that the girls had to wear knee-length skirts at Teen Mania meetings. Ms. Amanpour looked shocked and asked "But, isn't that what the Taliban does?"
Now, the obvious answers to this question are "Well, the Taliban applies their rules to everyone it meets, not just muslims" and/or "Teen Mania doesn't shoot you if you wear pants".
I can't tell if Ms. Amanpour was genuinely shocked that this organization had a dress code (I'm surprised she didn't do a special on little league baseball, which also has a dress code), but she definitely wanted to be shocked by it. I think that much of the double-standard of the left comes from a desire to exaggerate the danger posed by Christian evangelicals, to make their opposition to it look much more courageous; there is also, I think, a kind of power-worship at work here, growing out of the belief that militant Islam might well be the wave of the future and it would be wise to get on its good side.

johnbrown   ·  December 18, 2007 1:03 PM

poorbutfree your career has now been ruined because you THOUGHT about criticizing Jews.


I imagine you will be once that thing in your mouth spews.

anon   ·  December 18, 2007 4:06 PM

"atheism is not a religion"

Why is this a strawman ?

It's not. At best you can say it's a name for a collection of religions/ideologies (among which very, very, very bad ones like nazism and communism).

In fact I can't find a single ideology under the "atheist" section that seems both humane and not stupid. And certainly atheists online seem to be just as hate filled as the muslims.

In fact the only people I find to be reasonable, and still nice when disagreeing are Christians, or at best agnostics (and on the believing side). This is true both online and in real life. Of course muslims are uniquely bad and hateful, but there really are lots of atheists not far behind.

Tom   ·  December 18, 2007 6:34 PM

I don't know whether to laugh or cry about how some posters make up false facts to support their nonsense. Alec above asserts of Europe that "The ruling majorities regarded Christians as their enemies." In fact, several European countries have Christian state religions. Many others (for example, Germany) have mandatory religious education in the public schools.

One result of this mandatory instruction appears to be that 90% of the kids stop going to church as soon as they get out of school. If I wasn't a Christian, I'd wish that the pro-school prayer people would get all their wishes, with the result that church attendance would collapse in the U.S. The separation of church and state is the best thing that ever happened for religion in the U.S., but too many religious people are too ignorant to know it.

Seeker   ·  December 18, 2007 8:24 PM

Islam has managed to make artists who criticize Christianity completely irrelevant.

Here's a big yawn for "The Handmaiden's Tale":


Salman Rushdie has his own Fatwah. That's the real deal. Artists who criticize Christianity are just pathetic wannabes.

Laika's Last Woof   ·  December 19, 2007 5:38 AM

Get the quote right, tom.

Brett   ·  December 19, 2007 7:58 AM

Secularism is not a religion because it makes no claims to be speaking for the highest authority or from a higher state of being, for which no evidence is supplied.

So yeah, to call secularism a religion is a straw man which attempts to erase the distinction between philosophy--which attempts to work from reliable evidence, and religion, which does not.

This is not to deny the crimes of some atheists. That fact in no way proves any religion to be true. Seeing as the majority are religious, keep in mind that most crimes are committed by believers. If your argument mandates my doubting my secular views, that little fact should at least rattle your smug superstition.

By the way, secularism and atheism are not synonyms.

Brett   ·  December 19, 2007 8:08 AM

"I would like to criticize Islam much more than I do publicly, but I'm afraid for my life if I do."

That, my friend, is all the MORE reason to criticize Islam...their religion doesn't seem able to compete in the "marketplace of ideas" or of faiths, if you will, ...that is, it doesn't seem to attract based on its own merits (with some exceptions like Cat Stevens, who was already a bit strange). If a religion can only maintain it's adherents with death threats for the able-minded, and promises of 72 virgins for the weak-minded, there's something fundamentally wrong with it.

doug in Colorado   ·  December 19, 2007 11:14 AM

1. Whenever State and Church mix, State wins. Most of the moribund European state churches were created by the state in order to control the church, and not the other way round. (See Elizabeth I, Queen). In most cases the state explicitly asserts control over church doctrine.

Of course, popular fear has always run in the other direction. At times it has been justified. The power vacuum left in the wake of the fallen Roman Empire led the Church (as the only remaining coherent social institution) to assume political functions which it could not without assuming the inevitable corruptions of state.

2. Secularism by itself lacks the positive metaphysical claims to be a religion. But because it lacks them, it is unstable.

Once people figure out (and they always do) that their society's epistemological understanding of truth and morality were swept out with the old gods, it is only a matter of time until a new metaphysics of epistemology and authority must be imported. Otherwise the society is literally ungovernable -- there is no basis upon which to enact laws, judge disputes, or keep order other than the law of the jungle. That is why secularism must inevitably morph into a new religion.

3. Atheists' crimes do not render religion true, any more than Christians' crimes render it false. Christians expect sin, especially their own sins. (Chesterton called sin "the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.") What the crimes of both groups do is put paid to the idea that Rousseau's noble savages existed or ever could exist even if "the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest".

craig   ·  December 19, 2007 11:15 AM

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