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David Brooks' sanctimonious piffle: Sad trees die for gauzy, Hallmark-card nonsense

Brooks on ISIS, religion is apologetic twaddle that misstates the dangers of fundamentalism. Let's go line by line


Jeffrey Tayler
November 22, 2015 3:58PM (UTC)

Rebutting the sanctimonious emissions of New York Times' columnist David Brooks can resemble a particularly exasperating match of Whack-A-Mole: they just keep on popping up, trying the patience of rationalists, giving (unintended) succor to the (faith-deranged) foes of humanity and confirming the approach of rationalists who, wearied, have renounced confronting the religious and have resigned themselves to just letting believers die off, as the data suggest they should. After all, in the United States, as has already happened across much of Europe, rejection of the supernatural continues its unstoppable expansion, with religion's demise promising the sunniest pastures mankind has ever known. Why bother arguing with a dwindling number of pious diehards?

However, we atheists should not relent, but press our advantage, and remain ready at all times to slip the bodkin of reason into the still-beating heart of faith and twist it vigorously. If the death rattle will follow soon enough, the patient's lingering on is costly and, at the very least, highly irritating.

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Hence, we should not desist from shredding the missives still shamelessly penned by the faith-deranged. Brooks' column of Nov. 17, "Finding Peace Within the Holy Texts," offends rationalist sensitivities by its very title. "Holy Texts" are very much fighting words. "Holy" reeks of the supernatural, of course; and in any case, one man's "holy" text is another's heretical, brimstone-worthy screed. Title aside, though, Brooks launches into an apologetic, misguided and clueless column with an opening line seemingly addressed to survivors of a shipwreck just rescued from a 40-year stay on a desert island.

"It's easy to think that ISIS is some sort of evil, medieval cancer that somehow has resurfaced in the modern world. The rest of us are pursuing happiness, and here comes this fundamentalist anachronism spreading death."

ISIS may be of recent provenance, but surely all those now blithely "pursuing happiness" remember a "temperate and nearly cloudless" yet wrenchingly tragic September morning in New York and Washington, D.C., some 14 years ago, when the "medieval cancer" in question entered the lives of most of us. Wait, in fact, we were pursuing happiness when the 1993 World Trade Center bombing occurred. For that matter, we were pursuing happiness when the 1979 Iranian Revolution brought the Ayatollah Khomenei to power in Teheran. And our parents were pursuing their happiness when a disgruntled fundamentalist, Sayyid Qutb, was composing a seminal work about the evils of the heathen United States and plotting to assassinate the secularist Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s. Distant ancestors of ours were also pursuing their happiness when one Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab was originating the back-to-the-true-Islam movement in the Arabian Peninsula in the mid-18th century. So as it turns out, the "medieval cancer" of which Brooks writes should be new to pretty much no one at all, except, as noted, shipwreck survivors. "Fundamentalism," in any event, is no bizarre anachronism, but a timeless danger lurking within each of the Abrahamic creeds' "holy texts." More on that below, though.

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Brooks takes as the subject of his essay the book "Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence," by the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The rabbi, says Brooks, warns us that ISIS is no anomaly, and that we should expect, thanks to demographic trends favoring abundantly procreating believers, a century of "desecularization and religious conflicts." Brooks makes no mention of polls by the Pew Research Center and other organizations documenting the "rise of the nones," but Rabbi Sacks is no doubt right if he has in mind, as he must, high birth rates not in the United States, but in (faith-saturated) Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The dilemma we face, though, according to Brooks, is that "Humans are ... meaning-seeking animals," but "the secular substitutes for religion — nationalism, racism and political ideology — have all led to disaster."  Fundamentalist Islam, therefore, exercises a pull on us lost sheep, with terrorism the outcome. Is the problem the jihadist ideology imbuing the Islamic canon, or the calls for violence therein against unbelievers? No, rather, Brooks informs us of the perils of "groupishness," clumsy jargon indicating religion's potential to veer off into "pathological dualism, a mentality that divides the world between those who are unimpeachably good and those who are irredeemably bad." The resulting "altruistic evil" presents us with such instances as the terrorist assaults of Nov. 13 in Paris.

Forgive me if I dump the jargon and describe religion not as "groupish," but as "divisive." The three Abrahamic faiths are divisive in the extreme, with calls to follow one amounting to exhortations to exclude and vilify the others. Judaism and Islam offer us the most outrageous examples of this. The Lord of the Old Testament in particular frequently busied Himself with beaming commands down to Israelites to murder and pillage their "unchosen" neighbors.

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Salvation, for Brooks (and Sacks), lies not in "secular thought or moral relativism," or in dumping faith altogether, but "for religious people" to effect "mental shifts" and "reinterpret Holy texts." A bumper dose of the dog that bit you, in other words. The aim: a "Theology of the Other: a complex biblical understanding of how to see God's face in strangers."

This is gauzy, highfalutin piffle that ignores the murderous rage to which the Good Lord incites his dupes with such sickening regularity every time they espy the wrong god in the faces of those surrounding them.  Theology — that is, the meticulous study of baseless fables about a nonexistent supernatural tyrant and his purported instructions to us earthlings — should serve as nothing other than a source for bills of indictment for the faith-deranged, or possibly a sort of supplementary DSM-5 that helps mental health professionals diagnose the varieties of quasi-psychotic disorders characterizing religious faith and its observance. To end religious violence, the last thing we need, in short, is more theology. A great deal more humanism is in order.

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Then the following statement ensues: "The great religions are based on love, and they satisfy the human need for community." I have to admit to pausing at this line. Was Brooks, forked-tongue-in-cheek, trolling us? Or writing verbiage of such surpassing cluelessness in an attempt to induce a bout of apoplexy and disable his detractors? Religion is based on love? Who could possibly take seriously this Hallmark-card treacle, which is, basically, a by-product of New-Age faith-mongering designed to stem the outflow, from temples across the land, of wised-up parishioners who found rather off-putting the propensity of priests and pastors to rant about hellfire to their "sinful" flocks, all the while dipping their hands into their tax-exempt coffers and helping themselves to the succulent pleasures of the flesh, including, but not limited to, the rear parts of their altar boys? This is the kind of "need" we can all do without "satisfying." A sense of belonging to a community is neither positive nor negative in itself; what counts is what the unifying aspirations ultimately aim to achieve.

Then comes this gem: "Love of one scripture can make it hard to enter sympathetically into the minds of those who embrace another." Well, that's one way of putting it. Put more straightforwardly, devotion to one "holy" book may well lead to persecuting or even slaughtering the adherents of another. ISIS is only the most recent example. For centuries, Catholic inquisitors inflicted a shocking array of tortures on "secret" Jews and Muslims; and some seven decades back, Hitler drew on widespread anti-Semitism, propagated for millennia by the Catholic Church, to commit the worst atrocities in history. The poison of sectarianism affects even those worshipping the same "holy" books. The Catholic-Protestant divide, the Sunni-Shia schism and so on attest to that.

Following this comes a misty, mind-numbing exegesis of love and justice we can skip, except to note that religiously inspired jurisprudence (which includes the ghastly collection of laws, strictures, and prohibitions inscribed in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, as well as the niceties of Sharia) does not and cannot meet the needs of Western society today.

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In the course of his exegesis, Brooks brings up "covenantal communities" and peoples being "vulnerable strangers in a strange land." He here appears to be referring to the Exodus into Egypt. Well, archeologists — and Israeli archeologists at that — have exposed the Exodus as a myth. It never took place.

Brooks then tells us that scripture enjoins us to "pursue sanctification, which involves struggle and sometimes conquering your selfish instincts." This seems to be a throwaway line, opaque, banal and meaningless. Further generic God-blather follows, as well as a Brooksian attempt at waxing poetic that smacks of a pathology typically lauded among the religious — "God frequently appears ... in the voice of a stranger." Those faith-addled souls hearing voices are in no position to offer guidance to the rest of us, but should, rather, seek relief from antipsychotic pharmaceuticals.

"Sacks' greatest contribution," says Brooks, "is to point out that the answer to religious violence is probably going to be found within religion itself .... within these ancient texts." Sachs, via Brooks, tells us, by way of conclusion, that "Abraham had no empire, no miracles, and no army — just a different example of how to believe, think and live."

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Except that there is no proof Abraham actually existed. If biblical legend is correct, however, he was a philanderer who helped himself to his wife's female servant and came close to knifing his long-awaited son. Suffice it to say that we can do without his "way of living."

Now let no one construe the above words as meant to dissuade anyone from reading the Old or New Testament or the Quran. The first two should be studied (preferably in the King James Version) as background texts necessary for understanding Western culture, and in particular literature. There are more reasons than ever nowadays for immersing oneself in the Quran — not the least of which is to deprive Islamist apologists of the ignorance on which they count when excusing, say, ISIS as something "non-Islamic."

The danger comes from reading these texts as historical documents, as possessing "truths" that came to man as the product of revelation — the vilest, most improbable notion around. Just pause and consider revelation for a moment. Why would the Lord have chosen to disclose His plan for humanity only to those storied few, and so long ago? Why would he not "reveal" Himself to each one of us? Or at the very least, issue an updated edition of his "holy" texts, perhaps in digital format with hyperlinks to make following their mad plot twists and often crazed characters easier? Seriously, though, the real problem is that those revering "scripture" as something more than of this world can and often do veer into fundamentalism. The Abrahamic canon lends itself to literalist readings, with the tragic outcomes we know so well. The answer to religious violence lies not "within these ancient texts," but in dumping religion.

No "sacred" truth exists; there is only epistemologically sound, verifiable truth and its counter, falsehood.  Either a proposition is true or it is not. Either there is a god or there is not. There exists no sound, objective evidence that there is. We therefore conclude that there is no god, which means all religious texts positing his existence are wrong, and whatever value they have is merely cultural, anthropological or otherwise accidental. All dogmas arising from these texts, thus, deserve to be evaluated rationally and without prejudice, on the basis of the ideas they contain. This means that Brooks' hallowed "scriptures" merit no more a priori respect than Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" or Georges Bataille's gross chronicle of incest or Sarah Jessica Parker's musings in "Sex and the City" or Justin Bieber's Twitter feed.

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"Ruin the sacred truths!" might well be our (Andrew-Marvell- and Harold-Bloom-inspired) motto. In short, regard nothing as sacred, shun the word "holy." Question everything, especially authority deriving from ancient texts. Rely above all on your faculty of reason. Do what the religious don't do and think for yourself.

I'll now return to Brooks' initial statement about the primacy of meaning for us humans. He may be onto something here. For thousands of years, faith has served as a crutch for the vast majority of our fellows. But with religion doing so much harm across the globe today, we need to denounce it and help others learn to stand tall on their own without it, facing both the fact of our finitude — we die at death, with no afterlife awaiting us — and the all-encompassing utter meaninglessness of our cosmos. Our sun, some five billion years hence, will explode into a nova, incinerating whatever life remains on earth. Our universe will continue its expansion until it peters out in heat death. Nothing will be left of us or of the world we cherish.

There is a good deal of mystery and solace, if cold solace, to be had in contemplating our plight as life forms on Earth. Shared recognition of our common fate, shorn of bronze-era delusions and fairy tales, should foster true, well-grounded solidarity, without the multitudinous distractions and evils attending the false doctrines of religion.

Pace David Brooks, we need to ruin, not revere, the "sacred" truths, and do so boldly. Better (more secular) times lie just ahead. You can count on that.

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Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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