the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2002 November 21


R. Tayyip Erdogan is an impressive politician. The former mayor of Istanbul took a party that was technically an infant and secured an absolute majority in the parliament of Turkey, something that rarely happens in a parliamentary democracy, even more rarely in one with as dynamic a party history as Turkey has. Most of the established parties failed to reach the ten percent threshold for representation in parliament, and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party will be joined by only one other. Erdogan was the country’s most popular politician going into the poll; he is the undisputed winner coming out of it.

But Tayyip Erdogan is not Turkey’s new prime minister, or even a member of parliament. He was ineligible for this election because of a criminal conviction. His crime was publicly reading a religious poem, deemed seditious by the forcible secular order in Turkey, a state that while democratic in daily administration is oligarchic at the sovereign level. The true power in Turkey is the military. In 1997 it forced the resignation of Necmettin Erbakan, the leading Islamist politician at the time and the duly-elected prime minister. Erbakan was likewise ineligible during this election. His party is no more, at least nominally; it was banned, as were several other attempts to have a genuine Islamist political party in Turkey. Erdogan’s own party was nearly banned before the election. But after every proscription by the military-secular state, a new religious party is formed with a different name and the same supporters. So Erdogan’s party was only technically an infant. In real terms it was the old man of Turkish politics, older by far than Mustafa Kemal’s imposed secularism. Every voter in Turkey recognized the party for what it was. And they chose it over all others.

The main conservative party throughout most of Europe is Christian Democrat, religious even in name. The main conservative party in the United States is controlled by Christian fundamentalists. These parties are frequently in government. The leading party of the ruling coalition in India is Hindu, and evolved from a fundamentalist-revivalist movement, existing in opposition to the evangelical religions active in India, historically meaning Islam and increasingly including Christianity. There is a line in northern Africa marking the limit of Islamic influence; in every state through which the line passes, religion is central to political affiliation. And after Pakistan aided in the destruction of the theocratic state in Afghanistan, religious parties in Pakistan surged in popularity, demanding to lead any governing coalition. Politics, to name just one field, is never free from religion.

A close ally in the stewardship, one with whom I rarely disagree, debated with me recently the matter of religion in another field, medicine. At issue were physicians who would prescribe birth control for married patients, but not for unmarried patients, being religiously unwilling to encourage the sin of extramarital sex. My friend, who is in public health, believes that such a religious judgement has no place in the practice of medicine, that the physical care of the patient is being jeopardized by irrelevant personal considerations, equivalent to racial or sexual bias. I pointed out that the physicians in question believed they were acting in the best interests of their patients (mortally speaking, anyway), and that medicine is a humanitarian field where the personal values of the practitioners have always provided the inspiration. Of course I agreed with her that women (and men) should have access to birth control on demand, both for reasons of personal freedom and for reasons of population control. But my concern was that asking physicians to set aside their personal convictions in the treatment of their patients would be a step backwards, given the importance of ethics and integrity in a field like medicine, with the power of life and death. I think my friend and I instead have a responsibility to persuade these physicians in free debate of the wrongness of their thinking. We need a little evangelism of our own.

‘Evangelism’ comes from a Greek expression often rendered “good news”. The good news came to me long ago, when I was undergoing the Roman Catholic sacrament of Confirmation, a rite of passage in which the young believer officially adopts the Christian religion as an adult (I was fourteen at the time). As a matter of formality, I think, I was instructed to carefully consider whether I wanted to join the church, whether I shared its tenets. I don’t believe the question had ever suggested itself to me before. At about that time, I heard, through popular culture, the atheist’s skeptical question about God: how can a being who is all good, all wise, and all powerful allow suffering to exist in the world? For a time, I feared for my soul, as I doubted God enough to earn damnation but not enough to be nonchalant about the prospect. And then, shortly after my doubt-filled Confirmation, my doubts ascended. And one by one, over the course of years, my traditional beliefs fell to the power of reason and truth, so that I no longer believe much of anything that was taught to me as a child.

This really was good news. The heavenly heralds of my cosmology announced to me my liberation from my former masters. I had been enslaved to tradition and doctrine. The clouds parted, the truth shone on me, and I knew that I need not fear the wrath of any power for daring to think and doubt. I needn’t say, though I will, that without the protection of unquestioning faith, the control of the dominion would be much less. The dominion will certainly never rule me by anything but force.

Why shouldn’t everyone be so free? Obviously, weakening the ability of the dominion to rule would be in direct service of our ideals. But we are hamstrung by our very ideology of tolerance, by our philosophy of doubt. Moral relativism hurts us here; but there is also the fidelity to truth that prevents us from presenting a very complicated world in black and white, as the conservatives do. For instance, to be intellectually honest I must call myself an agnostic as well as an atheist. Some atheists consider this cowardly; but to do otherwise would be to say that I know there is no god. I don’t know. I only know that I don’t have sufficient reason to believe there is. To go from that point to absolute certainty is a logical mistake of blind faith, the very thing I am trying to change.

When I was younger there was nothing wrong with being a liberal. We who were liberals were proud of it, and conservatives were forced to debate us on the issues. In the present, our politics is such that ‘conservative’ is a boast, while ‘liberal’ is an admission. Nancy Pelosi admits to being a liberal, while denying this as a liability. George Bush boasts of being a conservative, while claiming this as an asset. This peculiar rhetorical imbalance began in 1988, when the liberal presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, Michael Dukakis, refused to acknowledge his ideology. The race, he said, should be about competence, as though we were merely selecting a manager with no policy influence. His opponent, George Bush the elder, was therefore able to accuse him of being a liberal. In the applicable logic, since Dukakis wasn’t willing to claim the label, he must have had something to hide. Ergo, liberalism is a bad thing.

Dukakis, not coincidentally, also ducked on the issue of religion. He was originally thought to be an atheist, and there was no reason to believe he ever went to church; but as his campaign became more serious, and he began angling to win centrist voters, his Greek Orthodox roots were rediscovered. And so, in my first election, a candidate who shared my political beliefs, and possibly my religious beliefs, pretended not to, acceded to the idea that atheism and even liberalism were shameful. Had George Bush called me a liberal, I would have needed only a two-word reply: “Yes. So?” Dukakis’s failure to defend the ideals at the center of my life was devastating; it cost my vote, of course, but also cost my respect for the country and its possibilities. And Bush won anyway.

I think we lose something significant if we fall to debating the process. Michael Dukakis told the voters that he would be a good administrator. He ought to have told them that his convictions would protect civil liberties and promote economic fairness. My friend in medicine tells her colleagues that they should subordinate their personal beliefs to the patient’s wishes. She ought to tell them that there is nothing wrong with extramarital sex, and that birth control prevents both abortion and overpopulation. The secular faction of United States politics argues that religion should be kept out of government. It ought to argue that this religion should be kept out of government, that the electorate should reject the fundamentalist agenda of abortion restrictions, school prayer, public funding of parochial schools, the drug war, and discrimination against gays.

“... And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” So say the Christians, quoting their own scripture. I’m inclined to agree. But their attitude towards scripture reveals a love not for truth, but for tradition. If any faith has discovered the truth, then surely that truth will hold up in the light of reason. And if God created humans with the capacity to think, He surely must have expected us to do so. While I believe there is a rationalist ideal, I will also accept progress in moderation, like a Catholic who uses birth control, or a theist who rejects organized religion. We must establish the principle of reason as the basis for understanding, and then engage on the specific issues. The Turkish model of a secular society is doomed to failure. We will never overcome the power of religion by convincing its believers of its insignificance. Religion is by its nature a basic and central form of belief. We might, in time, overcome the power of religion by convincing its believers of its errors. Religion claims to be without error. That is an easy claim to dispute.

The highest-ranking judge in Alabama installed a five-thousand-pound granite copy of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse. A federal district judge told him to remove the monument, referring, of course, to the establishment clause in the First Amendment. While I don’t want the Ten Commandments posted in a government building, my thinking on the matter is more along these lines: the magistrate in question believes that a man walked up a mountain, had a conversation with the creator of the universe, and returned with two divinely-engraved stone tablets. It’s not his piety that worries me; it’s his judgement.


Original version


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