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Ralph Peters: It’s Secularism vs. Faith

John on February 5, 2006 at 3:36 pm

I’ve been banging a drum here for the last several days since I wrote this post. Essentially my point has been simple. The cartoon war is not simply the West vs. Islam. It is that to some extent, but it’s also — as more and more people seem to be saying — secularism vs. religion. Not Islam. Religion.

I’ve pointed out numerous commenters (Reuters, Mark Steyn, Matthew Parris) who have touched on this theme, but today I discovered a piece which really nails it. [HT: Belmont Club].

I don’t know anything about Ralph Peters but his piece in The Weekly Standard is essentially a conservative secularist’s view of the Cartoon Conflict.

We write off the suicide bomber as a criminal, a wanton butcher, a terrorist. Yet, within his spiritual universe, he’s more heroic than the American soldier who throws himself atop a grenade to spare his comrades: He isn’t merely protecting other men, but defending his god…

Islamist terrorists, to cite the immediate example, would do anything to win. Our enemies act on ecstatic revelations from their god. We act on the advice of lawyers. It is astonishing that we have managed to hold the line as well as we have.

The terrorist is part of a seperate “spiritual universe.” And note especially the clarifying phrase in the second paragraph, “to cite the immediate example.” In other words, Islamic suicide bombers aren’t a unique expression of religious zeal, they are just an instance of this type of thing. Peters indictment becomes broader as it goes on:

The hallmark of our age is the failure of belief systems and a subsequent flight back to primitive fundamentalism–and the phenomenon isn’t limited to the Middle East. Faith revived is running roughshod over science and civilization. Secular societies appear increasingly fragmented, if not fragile. The angry gods are back. And they will not be defeated with cruise missiles or computer codes.

Again to bleed the text of its hysteria, it comes down to this: This is a battle between secularism and fundamentalism. It’s faith vs. science and civilization. “Secular societies” are crumbling.

One of the most consistently disheartening experiences an adult can have today is to listen to the endless attempts by our intellectuals and intelligence professionals to explain religious terrorism in clinical terms, assigning rational motives to men who have moved irrevocably beyond reason. We suffer under layers of intellectual asymmetries that hinder us from an intuitive recognition of our enemies.

Not so subtle premises: Intellectuals are secularists. Religious terrorists (not Islamic terrorists?) are beyond reason.

On average, the “experts” to whom we are conditioned to listen have a secular mentality (even if they go to church or synagogue from habit). And it is a very rare secular mind that can comprehend religious passion–it’s like asking a blind man to describe the colors of fire. One suspects that our own fiercest believers are best equipped to penetrate the mentality–the souls–of our Islamist enemies, although those believers may not be as articulate as the secular intellectuals who anxiously dismiss all possibilities that lie outside their theoretical constructs.

Church and synagogue attendence is a passionless ritual. Real religious passion is something the secular mind can not begin to comprehend. And who are “our own fiercest believers”? Whoever they are, faith has rendered them too feeble minded to convey themselves appropriately to secular adults.

He who has never experienced a soul-shaking glimpse of the divine inevitably explains religion-driven suicide bombers in terms of a lack of economic opportunity or social humiliation. But the enemies we face are burning with belief, on fire with their vision of an immanent, angry god.

Again, though he has only used Islamic examples, the language is general. The immanent, angry god seems to contain the memory of Jonathan Edwards from a long ago college lit. class.

All of our technologies and comforting theories are confounded by the strength of the soul ablaze with faith. Our struggle with Islamist terror (other religious terrors may haunt our descendants) has almost nothing to do with our actions in the Middle East. It’s about a failing civilization’s embrace of a furious god.

Peters finally says what he’s been hinting at. It’s Islam now. Tomorrow it’ll be another one because the real problem is the failure of secularism.

The hermetic universe of the Islamist terrorist is immune to our reality (if not to our bullets), but our intellectuals appear equally incapable of accepting the religious extremist’s reality.

Peters is laying out what the sides in this conflict are. Not clear enough yet?

Again, our intelligentsia falls woefully short. The most secularized element of our society–educated to avoid faith (or, at the very least, to shun enthusiastic, vigorous, proud, and public faith)–our professional thinkers have lost any sense of a literal paradise beyond the grave. But our enemies enjoy a faith as vivid as did our ancestors, for whom devils lurked in the undergrowth and paradise was an idealized representation of that which mortals knew. We are taught that we should never underestimate our enemies–yet, we underestimate the power of his faith, his most potent weapon.

Nor should we assume that Islamist extremists will remain the only god-haunted terrorists attacking established orders. This century may prove to be one of multi-sided struggles over the interpretation of god’s will, between believers and unbelievers, between the varieties of the faithful, between monotheists and polytheists, between master faiths and secessionist movements, between the hollow worshippers of science and those swollen with the ecstasy of belief.

Smart people, who shun faith, vs. primitives whose faith is a weapon. Now having described the “religious” terrorists, Peters goes on to describe the other side in the current conflict:

The global media may skew secular, but that doesn’t protect them against alternative forms of faith. Europeans, for example, have discarded a belief in God as beneath their sophistication–yet they still need a Satan to explain their own failures, just as their ancestors required devils to explain why the milk soured or the herd sickened. Today, America has replaced the horned, cloven-footed Lucifer of Europe’s past; behind their smug assumption of superiority, contemporary Europeans are as superstitious and irrational as any of their ancestors: They simply believe in other demons…

Despite their outward differences, intellectuals are the logical allies of Islamist extremists–who are equally opposed to social progress and mass freedom [Ed: Like Denmark...]. Of course, the terrorists have the comfort of religious faith, while the global intelligentsia, faced with the death of Marxism and the triumph of capitalism, has only its rage.

Human beings are hard-wired for faith. Deprived of a god, they seek an alternative creed. For a time, nationalism, socialism, Marxism, and a number of other-isms appeared to have a chance of working–as long as secular intellectuals rejected the evidence of Stalin’s crimes or Mao’s savagery (much as they overlook the brutalities of Islamist terrorists today). The intellectuals who staff the global media experienced the American-made destruction of their secular belief systems, slowly during the Cold War, then jarringly from 1989 to 1991. The experience has been as disorienting and infuriating to them as if we had proved to Muslim fanatics that their god does not exist…

[T]he brotherhood of Islamist terrorists and the tribe of global intellectuals who dominate the media are the two groups who feel the most fury toward America. The terrorists dream of a paradise beyond the grave; intellectuals fantasized about utopias on earth. Neither can stomach the practical success of the American way of life, with its insistence on individual performance and its resistance to unearned privilege. For the Islamists, America’s power threatens the promises of their faith. For world-intellectuals, America is the murderer of their most precious fantasies.

Is it any wonder that these two superficially different groups have drifted into collusion?

Peters sees it as a perverse kind of collusion, and he may be right. In light of the current conflict, a more obvious choice would be collision. In any case, those are precisely the sides, media secularists vs. jihadists. And if those were the only choices, we might be right to choose the Danes as the lesser of two evils. But as Peters — his ignorance of the intellectual history of faith aside — points out, there is a third way.

Buy American.

Update: My friend Scott at Magic Statistics notes this piece from the London Times titled Christianity is the Faith Under Real Attack. The author, Jasper Gerard, writes:

Jack Straw grovels like a spaniel, even though the cartoons have not been printed here. He argues Islam should not be insulted as no “open season” exists on Christianity. Er, foreign secretary, have you never been to a Gilbert and George exhibition? Their latest offering is Sonofagod Pictures — Was Jesus Heterosexual?. Christ is subjected to sniggers normally endured only by Mark Oaten

An open season is indeed what we have on Christianity. The Virgin Mary depicted as a crack whore? “How dreary,” we would sigh, “not again.” Jesus on the cross enjoying a nice spot of S&M? Too tame to win the Turner Prize. Another G&G masterpiece carries the inscription “God Loves F******!”. Yet even artists whose shtick is to shock would never lampoon God’s Islamic oppo.

[The Jihadists] realise that the West’s real religion is rationalism: all beliefs, even faiths, should be open to reasoned attack.

How long before one of the atheist’s big guns starts using the jihadists’ rampage as an excuse to bash Christians? Not long, I suspect.

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