Just when we thought we’d heard the limit of hysteria over the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, the Paper of Record reminds us that hysteria has no bounds … at least, no editorial bounds. The New York Times knew enough to carry Timothy Egan’s screed against religion on a Saturday, where fewer readers would notice it, but the sheer hilarity of Egan’s conclusion qualifies it for an award of some kind.
Most of the column consists of a dull recitation of arguments that all religious believers have heard throughout their lifetimes, which is that religion is the ultimate reason for all warfare — the 20th century experience to the contrary. Even some of the conflicts which Egan points out in his column are less about actual religious differences and more about tribalism, the current Gaza war in particular, and especially the “troubles” in Ireland which had much more to do with nationalism than with religion. Egan even reaches for the Boko Haram example, which implies some sort of equivalence between terrorism and religious faith in general that insults a vast number of believers all over the world. In essence, it’s just a more literate version of this argument.
Egan spends most of his time insisting that the world’s miseries can be reduced to simple blame on religious differences, including … the lack of an enforceable mandate for bosses to supply supposedly free birth control to their employees. Chalk it all up, Egan wrote, to “this summer of a violent God”:
The problem is that people of faith often become fanatics of faith. Reason and force are useless against aspiring martyrs.
In the United States, God is on the currency. By brilliant design, though, he is not mentioned in the Constitution. The founders were explicit: This country would never formally align God with one political party, or allow someone to use religion to ignore civil laws. At least that was the intent. In this summer of the violent God, five justices on the Supreme Court seem to feel otherwise.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with this nonsense. The founders never envisioned political parties at all, and the Constitution explicitly forbids the establishment of a state religion, a practice that had caused two centuries of dissension and conflict in England since Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church. That’s the only “explicit” treatment of religion, except for the mention of the Creator in the Declaration of Independence, in the two foundational documents of the United States. Moreover, the First Amendment doesn’t force religious believers to obey any law Congress passes; it forbids Congress from passing laws that intrude on free religious expression, and not just “worship.” If anything, the founders envisioned a nation which would be as free of mandates and regulations as possible in order to make sure that intrusion would be unthinkable rather than part of a debate about legitimate state interests.
But ignorance of American civics is really the least of Egan’s intellectual sins. Equating the limited Hobby Lobby decision with Boko Haram and ISIS is so vapid, so knee-jerk, and so downright ignorant and insulting that it’s a wonder anyone published it, let alone the New York Times. Ramesh Ponnuru skewers the “relentlessly stupid” argument itself:
Egan packs a lot of misunderstandings into a few words. The founders were not “explicit” about either of the propositions Egan claims they were; neither proposition follows from the fact that the Constitution does not mention God; even if either did, it would be implicit rather than explicit; and the justices did not “formally align God with one political party.”
My colleague at The Week, Damon Linker, drives to the heart of Egan’s intellectual failure with biting sarcasm. After exploring the possibilities of columns in this open letter to NYT’s editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal about how all neocons are Nazis and all liberals are Stalinists, Damon offers to write the ultimate New York Times column in the Egan ouevre:
All of history’s wars have been started and prosecuted by human beings. These wars have produced incalculable human suffering and well over 100 million human deaths (not to mention the pain experienced by other species and damage to the ecosystem as a whole). Perhaps we’d all be better off if we put ourselves out of our misery.
That’s right: maybe mass suicide is the way to a better world.
Some will say that this is a cure far worse than the disease. But is that really true? We’re all fated to die anyway. So what’s the difference in bringing on the inevitable a few years early? Just think of all the human and non-human suffering it could help us to avoid. And really, isn’t any less radical proposal to improve the world likely to be merely cosmetic?
Only mass suicide gets to the heart of the matter. Humanity is the problem, so humanity must be the solution.
I understand if you want to pass on this. I admit it maybe goes just a little too far. Though I must say, after reading Egan on religion, I’m hard-pressed to say precisely where my proposal crosses a line.
It’s a modest proposal, one might say in the sarcasm business. Be sure to read it all.