Politics & Policy

Attack and Counterattack

Religious considerations.

As a child I was indoctrinated with some basic precepts regarding life among other human beings. Don’t put your elbows on the dinner table. Don’t speak with your mouth full. Blow your nose into a handkerchief.

(I pause to notice how quaint that one seems now, when linen handkerchiefs have wellnigh vanished from the stores. I guard my ancient horde very jealously. For the benefit of younger readers, I should note that blowing one’s nose without benefit of a handkerchief, or any other accessory at all, was still current practice among the older generation of English people in my childhood, at any rate in the lower classes — my father, for example, when out of doors and not observed by polite adult society. Hence the joke, current in mainland China at least as late as 1986: What is it that a rich man carries around in his pocket but a poor man leaves lying in the street?)

Where was I? Oh, yes. Don’t sit while a lady is standing. (More quaintness!) Don’t stare. Don’t make excuses. Stand up for the Queen (i.e. when you hear the National Anthem played). Don’t impose. (If, for example, while walking on the street you should spot a famous person, it would be absolutely wrong to go up and introduce yourself. That would be imposing. As it was neatly and memorably explained to me by a schoolmaster: To steal another person’s time is even worse than stealing his stuff. Your victim can always hope to get more stuff, but our time on earth is strictly limited. In this age of email spammers, telephone solicitors, paparazzi, cellphone yappers, and million-page income tax codes, I guess this injunction also looks pretty quaint.)

And then: Don’t mock another man’s religion. That one is the subject of today’s column. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

A few days ago my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru posted to “The Corner” some lines out of an e-mail he’d received from one of his readers. Among the lines was this: “I am, however, an evangelical Christian. The Corner lately has not seemed a friendly place for folks like me. I’m used to attacks from the likes of Stuttaford and Derb, but …”

This jolted me. I don’t care to think of myself as a person who would attack evangelicals — not for their being evangelicals, anyway. If some particular evangelical is a proven and convicted forger, traitor, child molester, poisoner of wells, serial murderer, or loud and incessant user of cellphones in railroad carriages, I would have no compunctions about attacking him for that. Not for his religion, though. In fact, I have lost one paying client this past few months for my unwillingness to participate in their (as it seems to me) gratuitous and narrow-minded insulting of Islam.

Might I nonetheless be guilty of the charge laid upon me by Ramesh’s reader? Possibly. If I were told to swear a solemn and binding oath that I had never, ever put my elbows on the dinner table or imposed on a celebrity, I could not. We all have our occasional lapses from the high standards we set for ourselves. Our original and intractable natures now and then poke a curved claw or a scaly fin out through the shrink-wrap our parents applied so carefully.

I accordingly posted the following to “The Corner:” “Could someone please direct me to any post, column, or broadcast in which I have attacked evangelical Christians?”

This brought many responses to my inbox. A heartening number of them — roughly a fifth — came from evangelicals assuring me that I had never said anything they took amiss. One of these readers, however, pointed to my 2003 “metro-cons” column, saying that, while he himself did not find it objectionable, he thought others may have.

(In that column I tried to argue that conservatism, in common with most other large social phenomena, has an urban manifestation — subtle, cerebral, intellectual, tending towards decadence — and a rustic one — plain, active, instinctual, tending towards fanaticism — and that the two factions ought to strive to get along in pursuit of their common goals, and in hopes that their negative tendencies will cancel each other out.)

Sure enough, another e-mail came in citing that same column as proof of my contempt for evangelicals as ignorant rubes. Read the column for yourself to see if that is a fair construction.

A third faction — around ten percent — told me that declaring myself a non-Christian constituted an attack all by itself. This just seems to me a gross abuse of the English language. While I have been writing this, somewhere in the world — in the Sudan, or in Nigeria, or in Communist China, or North Korea, or in Iraq or Iran or Afghanistan or Pakistan — a person was beaten or killed for being Christian. That is an attack — one carried out, in fact, by people who believe, just as my inbox’s ten percent do, that my not sharing your faith is tantamount to an assault on that faith.

These were all minorities in the inbox, though. The bulk of respondents were evangelicals who had honestly felt offended on the many occasions when I have, yes, attacked the Creationist and Intelligent Design movements. This point of view was best expressed by a correspondent who said:

As for your attacks on Christianity, when you denigrate people who believe in Biblical creation, I take offense at that. Pretty sure you have mentioned the lack of intelligence of anyone who would believe that. To me, it takes more faith to believe your God-less theory of evolution than it [does] to accept that the earth was created in 6 days 6000 years ago. That’s what I believe, and I guarantee you [Mike] Huck[abee] believed that when he was a Baptist pastor.

I replied to this reader by pointing out that he still had not (and the same applies, by the way, to all the other emails in this majority of the inbox) quoted anything I had actually said. Well, he was up for it.

Without re-reading everything you’ve written (not to say it wouldn’t be fun — but I do have a life), the best I could come up with was the tone of this article: “The only answer you can get from a Creationist involves a conspiracy theory that makes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion look positively rational.” Not to say you’re attacking everyone who believes in Creationism, but comparing our “champions” to a bunch of crazy anti-Semites reminds me of a smelly hippie with a “Bushitler” sign.

I riposted — and I should say that the parts of these exchanges I’ve edited out contain nothing offensive: In fact we each, at some point, wished the other a Merry Christmas — as follows.

It’s news to me that an evangelical has to believe in crank pseudoscience …

To which he replied:

Disprove the Genesis creation account and 80 percent of the New Testament becomes irrelevant. Jesus had to die to redeem a world that fell into sin when Adam and Eve sinned in the garden. The entire NT plan of salvation is founded on Creationism. If the word “evangelical” is to mean anything, it has to include the “crank pseudoscience.”

Now, of course, lots of Christians don’t believe in the crank pseudoscience about the Earth being 6,000 years old, or even in the very-slightly-lesser crank pseudoscience of Intelligent Design, in which the Earth is way older than that, but is watched over by an invisible Designer who from time to time causes a new species to appear ex nihilo, accompanied I suppose by a puff of orange smoke. The pope, for example, whose Christian credentials are, I think, pretty unimpeachable, certainly does not believe the thing my correspondent believes, though he does seem to have an occasional weakness for the puff-of-smoke theory of the origin of species.

The pope, however, is not an evangelical, and my reader is, and so are the thirty or so of my readers who e-mailed in to agree with him. Apparently you can’t be an evangelical unless you believe in the 6,000-year business — or, at a pinch, the puff-of-smoke business.

Thus, if I attack Creationism or Intelligent Design — and I do, with relish and glee, every chance I get! — I am attacking evangelicals, aren’t I?

Well, yes, I guess I am. There is no avoiding the fact. If, at the core of your religious faith, there is an obviously preposterous belief about the physical world; and if I point out that it is preposterous, and that if you make it known that you believe preposterous things about the physical world, you may reasonably expect to be mocked; then I have attacked your faith. I don’t see any way around this. Guilty, yer Honor.

In mitigation, before sentencing, I plead only this: That there is offensive attack, and defensive attack.

If I were inspired to know everything that could be known about the surface of my dinner table (the one I keep my elbows well and truly off), and spent years scrutinizing it, tallying all the scratches and dents and stains, measuring and classifying them, seeking in the patterns of grain some clue to the nature and structure of the tree from which it was made; and if you then came along and told me that I was all wet, that my observations were illusions, my theories hogwash, my years of effort wasted, because the table had been described to perfection by an unknown scribe living in a desert cave three thousand years ago — if all that came about, then I am sorry to say I would tell you, probably rather brusquely, to go boil your head. I would attack you; and, to be perfectly frank about the matter, you would have had it coming.

The physical world — including the living things that inhabit it, and including even humanity ourselves — has been, and is being, scrutinized in just that way by men and women of science. There are millions of them and they have been at work for centuries, observing, measuring, classifying, comparing notes, forming discussion societies, arguing, presenting theories, discarding theories, slowly and painfully coming to broad agreement on this, and this, and this (though not yet on that, or that, or that).

In a free country, evangelicals are free to tell these truth-seekers, and those who follow their efforts, that they are all wet, and have been wasting their time. And the truth-seekers, and those of us who understand the truth-seekers’ motivations and methods, and marvel at their dedication, at their sheer hard work, and at the truths they so painstakingly uncover, are likewise free to tell evangelicals that while we (well, some of us) respect their spiritual quests, should they attempt sorties into the territory science has occupied and tamed with such arduous exertions, and sneer and scoff at our hard-won understandings, then they are attacking us, and should not be surprised if we stage a vigorous defense.

I, at any rate, shall continue to do so, without even the faint, passing twinge of guilt I feel when suddenly aware that my elbows are on the dinnertable.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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