Persecution Today: Atheists are the New Jews

Truly, humanity has come a long way. In the early Muslim states, when economic or military woes beset the empire, the state’s stance on Judaism (and its Jewish subjects) went from a surprising level of egalitarianism to outright persecution, beheadings, you name it. Europe was no better. All levels of society, from villager to Bishop, blamed the evils of the day (war, plague, economic collapse) on Jews, Muslims, and anyone who didn’t toe the particular religious line. It was a bad way to live: persecution and scapegoating dignify neither the persecuting majority, nor the persecuted minority.

Since those days, the world has seen where the road of persecution leads, and it’s not happy. After the horrors borne from hate of the twentieth century, you would have thought that the world learned its lesson: you would be wrong. A new editorial by Dan Henninger in the Wall Street Journal proves that the lesson is, at most, half-learned: rather than taking from the dark periods of human history an acknowledgment that persecution and scapegoating are themselves wrong, we’re apparently still comfortable to run with that idea, and only shift our targets.  Oh, didn’t you hear? America’s current economic crisis is not a result of complex and multi-layered factors. It’s actually quite simple: atheists and secularists did it.

It has been my view that the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous. That danger flashed red in the fall into subprime personal behavior by borrowers and bankers, who after all are just people. Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions.

The point for a healthy society of commerce and politics is not that religion saves, but that it keeps most of the players inside the chalk lines. We are erasing the chalk lines.

Apparently, conservatives are all for personal responsibility, until blaming society gives them a chance to stigmatize unpopular elements on the left.



Henninger’s willingness to myopically oversimplify global trends to a narrow culture war blame-game is nothing short of shocking: I expect this type of idiocy out of Human Events on a bad day, and from Phyllis Schlafly ever day, but the Journal? Are we finally seeing Murdoch’s influence creeping in on the Times? At the risk of sounding too much like Olbermann, Henninger should resign; his “article” is unscholarly and needlessly inflammatory, and the Journal shouldn’t be either.

While the article isn’t really worth a merit’s debate, I’ll do Henninger the courtesy of meeting his arguments partially on substance: the “social decay” narrative he’s invoking is as old as civilization, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. Ever since Livy and Plutarch, reactionary forces have invoked the notion of chronological primitivism – “things were better back then, when we stuck by tradition!” – to argue against progress, both social and physical. It’s never told the whole story, and Henninger’s iteration is no better. I can concede quite happily that, for some, religion does keep individuals within “the chalk lines”: for even fewer, perhaps, it’s sadly the only force capable of checking wanton criminality. But religion has just as often allowed irrational actors to draw “chalk lines” to justify actions clearly contrary to any notion of objective morality: kill the Jews, enslave the blacks, burn the witches, stone the gays, sack Constantinople. At worst, then, religion is an excuse to ignore the “chalk lines” inherent in the human condition. But even at best, religion is incomplete as a moral code to bind an entire civilization together. No society has ever been stable because of its religiosity – arguing to the contrary either misstates and romanticizes history, or reduces to a “No True Scotsman” fallacy (“well, they weren’t religious enough to be truly stable”). A healthy society should inculcate a sense of civic responsibility independent of individual, subjective, private beliefs while supplementing a strong objective moral code with laws and regulations to check the outliers. Henninger’s solution and resort to the blame-game does neither.

Perhaps the saddest thing about Henninger’s article, though, is that it admits of no remedy other than “kill the secularists.” If that’s the best solution that we as a country can think of, then perhaps we’re in worse shape than I thought.

Leave a comment

  1. Hurrah for being both!

    The article is, to put it charitably, weird. A conservative is saying that we should have been able to trust to human decency to ensure that the freedom afforded certain individuals under our system would not be abused. Really? And the root cause of the financial crisis was a few individuals in positions of power failing to behave as they should?

    It’s comical. The notion that you can’t trust people to use power altruistically is absolutely central to conservative distrust of big government and collectivism. Enthusiasm for capitalism is built on the idea that free markets create social goods from man’s greed.

    But he goes farther than even defenders of communism (the “it would have worked if men were angels” crowd) are willing to go. He’s actually saying that men -can- be good enough to avoid the kind of thing that just happened, merely by being a bit more religious, which requires that he ignore almost the entirety of history.

  2. You’ve also got to love the leftover Civil War resentment, blaming things on Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern baptists.

  3. That just hurt to read.

  4. The underlying fallacy here is (one that comes up often) that one cannot have morals without religion.

    And remember, most of the immoral people in this country call themselves Christians, not atheists.

  5. […] to at least one op-ed writer in the WSJ, even the economic collapse is the fault of secularists: Persecution Today: Atheists are the New Jews […]


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