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Religious Right On Crutches, II
Mutilating God, Genitals and the Enlightenment

"... the voices of the many African women and girls who value the practice..."

Richard Shweder is a professor of comparative literature and human development at the University of Chicago—and from the looks of it, an Allan Bloom acolyte. This is a professor who devotes great energy and verve to defending genital mutilation, because (as a paper he presented in 2003 has it) “the harmful practice claim has been highly exaggerated and that many of the representations in the advocacy literature and the popular press are nearly as fanciful as they are nightmarish.” And: “[P]erhaps it is time for those who care about the accuracy of cultural representations in public policy debates to insist that the voices of the many African women and girls who value the practice be heard and acknowledged; and time to insist, as well, that when it comes to preemptive strikes against other peoples [sic.] cultural customs, there should be no free ride through the international court of critical reason [sic.].” I quote these passages by means of introduction to his way with Big Ideas that aim to shock and awe, though Shweder is not much for style, just the prose equivalent of blunt force trauma.

On November 27, The Times ran a column by Shweder titled “Atheists Agonistes.” So back to his New York Times column. He argues that while there’s nothing like speaking piously about God to “bring a certain type of dinner party to a halt,” the atheists have been on the defensive lately, publishing book after book defending their Darwinian, no-God views. He’s curious as to why, but quickly provides the answer his straw man is begging for: “… the popularity of the current counterattack on religion cloaks a renewed and intense anxiety within secular society that it is not the story of religion but rather the story of the Enlightenment that may be more illusory than real.” From there he goes to define the Enlightenment in one of the most obtuse, unenlightened ways I’ve read, even from people with Ph.D. next to their name (three letters that usually absolve the bearer in a “they-know-not-what-they-do sort of way for their obtuseness: they’re only serving academia’s lords of footnotes and crepuscule). Here’s the bony paragraph in all its glorious assumptions:

As people opened their eyes, religion (equated with ignorance and superstition) gave way to science (equated with fact and reason). Parochialism and tribal allegiances gave way to ecumenism, cosmopolitanism and individualism. Top-down command systems gave way to the separation of church from state, of politics from science. The story provides a blueprint for how to remake and better the world in the image and interests of the West’s secular elites.

The Enlightenment separated politics from science? Someone at the Times copy desk must have been asleep. But let that one pass. Note that Shweder doesn’t make the distinction between “faith” and “religion,” a distinction very much made by the Enlightenment’s anti-clerical philosophers, for good reason: what they say as “religion” was by the 17 th and 18 th centuries a heist of faith in power’s, not Christ’s (or God’s), name. Religion had indeed become nothing more than superstition and a tool to enforce ignorance on the masses, a perpetual retardant that had as its fuel, lure and seduction none other than God. Voltaire, never an atheist (he considered atheism dull and an affront to intelligence) and his cohorts (only some of whom, like Diderot and Helvetius, were atheists) wanted superstition, not God, crushed. They succeeded only to the extent that some institutions, and a few governments, finally leaped free of their old shackles. Nietzsche’s beautiful delusions to the contrary, God never died. Shweder of course whitewashes over the differences and subtleties to turn the entire Enlightenment into a one-dimensional orgy of atheism and “rationalism” that led straight to the 20 th century’s cataclysms. No wonder, then, that, as Shweder describes it, “Even some children within the enclave are retreating from the Enlightenment in their quest for a spiritual revival […] If religion is a delusion, it is a delusion with a future, which it may be hazardous for us to deny. A shared conception of the soul, the sacred and transcendental values may be a prerequisite for any viable society.”

The problem with this apocryphal story is that “a shared conception of the soul” was never denied by the Enlightenment, but a shackled conception of the soul was: and that brings us back to the first part of my story. The distaste that public displays of religion and “pious” discussions of God provoke in “a certain type of dinner party” has to do with the narrow-minded and tendentious ways God has been co-opted to the Religious Right’s regressive crusades. There is no “shared conception of the soul” in much of the evangelical agenda. Au contraire. Dissenters are cast out like heathens. As heathens. “Religion,” in the religious right’s interpretation, is a nastily defined, brutishly aimed tool of subjugation to an exclusive, not inclusive, creed, or at best a punishingly conditional creed based on—yes—imbecilic superstitions and outdated bigotries such as the right’s obsession with gays and gay marriage. Enlightenment aren’t anathema to religion, or at least to faith: they’re the basis of tolerance, compassion, rational understanding that accommodates pluralism (including atheism). If the enlightened are “so conspicuously up in arms these days,” as Shweder has it, it’s because the medievalists are making such an effective come-back. Faith, in their book, is made synonymous with religion (a nifty confluence that serves their cause), but it’s a an inquisitorial faith, not a spiritual one.

The split between enlightened and regressive voices is finally showing up even within the ranks of the religious right. Rev. Joel Hunter is the split’s chief exhibit when he says, “I’m really over this whole polarization thing.” Richard Shweder, who so ably co-opts the language of “toleration” and “being slower to judge others”—the very language he uses to justify genital mutilation—unwittingly illustrates just why and how the religious right’s pernicious ways have been so effective, why they have to be exposed for the backward, if seductive, cloak they are, why the Enlightenment is, more than ever, the shield against the bull. The Enlightenment is in retreat, to be sure. But that’s often because good will and sincere tolerance has taken the “people of faith” at their word instead of addressing them on their own terms, challenging their frocked up duplicity. No agonists here. Just clear eyes. That’s why there’s more to Joel Hunter’s firing, and his response to it, than an internecine cat-fight between fallen collars. The Religious Right’s rich trove of wrongs is finally coming undone.

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