There is much to commend in the reasonable approach offered by Mr. Padgett. He rightly scours the Florida Family Association for putting together a boycott of the Lowe's chain, in response to their willingness to advertise on a Muslim theme reality television show.
Undoubtedly, there is a "Muslim problem" on the global stage today. That cannot be denied, when we witness how the vast majority of terrorist acts and civil wars are perpetrated by Muslims - often against one another, as well as in pursuit of a Jihadist mentality against Israel and the West. It is simply not accurate, in the contemporary context, to equate Islam with Christianity, Judaism, and most Western ideologies. In recent history, the only Western ideologies which may be comparable - if only in their shared willingness to rationalize wholesale violence against civilians - are communism and fascism, the perverse, secular behemoths of the twentieth century that led to the slaughter of tens of millions of people around the globe. Al Quada, Hezbollah, Muslim Brotherhood, the regimes in Palestine and Iran - all of these owe a debt to the bloody visions and tactics of the communistic and fascistic totalitarians of the past century, even more so than to the sometimes ambiguous interpretations of verses in the Koran.
Nevertheless, if we may learn anything from the history of global empires, even the most backward of sub-cultures will conform over time to the economic, political, and cultural mainstays of the dominant culture, if given the chance to do so. Islam in the West need not be an exception. Yes, there are recalcitrant Jihadists who will never conform. They must be rooted out and defeated. Still, there are many of the Islamic faith and culture who, if given the opportunity, can and will become in time more Westernized - valuing our educational openness, entrepreneurial spiritedness, even popular culture and style. If there are a bunch of young Muslims who, in their own manner, want to emulate the Kardashians on a reality television show, then we should be celebrating their willingness to frolic in what is more inane about our own culture. Let them value our Madonna over their Imams. Yes, our culture is base - a result of our abandonment of our own Christian heritage; but at least we are not now chopping off the heads of women who purportedly engage in witchcraft or recruiting boys and girls to be suicide bombers in popular discos. We should boycott any and all firms shown to be doing business in contravention of our own sanctions with the tyrannical Mullahs in Iran. We should not be boycotting Lowe's for advertising on a reality television show - especially one that features young Muslims adapting to our Western culture. To do so is simply self-defeating, short sighted, and bigoted.
Mr. Padgett goes on to remark that groups like the Florida Family Association give atheist fundamentalists like the late Christopher Hitchens ample fodder to go after all religions and religious spokesmen. It is true that whenever religious groups or personalities are shown to be behaving badly in the name of their own religious predilections, they make it all too easy to smear everyone else. Think of how the atheist fundamentalists of our own day make recourse to the Crusades (though, as I have articulated elsewhere, the First Crusade is largely misunderstood and often wrongly castigated as an act of aggression by Western Christendom, when in fact the Crusaders then were attempting to break a Muslim blockade imposed for many years against them), the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trails, the Doomsday Cults, the Televangelist Rip Off Artists, etc. Still, when I observe closely what most of the atheist fundamentalists actually say in their purported "defenses" of reason, I note that they cannot but find fault with religions and religiously motivated people, even when those religions or personalities are of the most tolerant sort. They argue that the very idea of God - even the tolerant, benevolent, kumbayah "God" that prevails in much of mainline Protestantism today - is a fantasy crutch, one used by weaker people to preclude "reason" and "individual responsibility" from dictating how these people are going to live out their own lives. For the atheists, any idea of "God" is a direct impediment to intellectual and moral maturity - a set of training wheels that in fact leads the bicycle astray, even when it is being used as it is meant to be used. No amount of groveling by religious groups or personalities is going to dissuade the atheist fundamentalists from their war against the very idea of God.
Thus, even as I agree with Mr. Padgett that religions and religious personalities should be exemplars of love - that they should emulate Mother Theresa more than the Florida Family Association - I disagree that, even if done, then that is going to make any difference whatsoever in what self-important, intemperate, blow hards of the Christopher Hitchens variety are going to say about religion. When the fool, for whatever reason, finally lowers his sword, the fool on the other side simply sees an opportunity to go in for the final thrust. He does not return surrender for surrender. If Mr. Padgett honestly thinks that lowering the decibels on the organized religion side of the aisle is going to affect what the intellectual anarchists on the other side say or do, then he is a naive child, one just waiting to be crushed by the artful polemics of those who would silence the voice of religious thought in our public life.
I castigate Mr. Padgett here as a child, because he seems very willing to base his fundamental conception of reality on a sheer fantasy. He writes:
"Yes, Christians believe that Jesus' nativity was a virgin birth and that He rose from the dead on Easter. But if you were to show most Christians incontrovertible scientific proof that those miracles did not occur, they would shrug - because their faith means more to them than that. Because, in the end, what they have faith in is the power of the story. In Evelyn Waugh's novel, Brideshead Revisited, an agnostic says to his Catholic friend: "You can't truly believe it all...I mean about Christmas, and the star, and the three kings, and the ox and the ass." "Oh, yes, I believe that; it's a lovely idea." "But you can't believe things just because they're a lovely idea." "But I do. That is how I believe."
First, it should be noted here that there is no such thing as an "incontrovertible" scientific proof of any phenomenon. As we are learning now on the quantum physic level of observation, what may have seemed for centuries to be among the settled laws of nature in fact often are not how they appear. The deeper we dig into nature, the more we shall doubt our prior statements of fact. Science does not provide any answers, so much as encourage more penetrating questions. Indeed, this gnawing uncertainty may be inevitable, given how the very foundation of the natural order is more akin to indefinite waves, than defined particles. Thus, Mr. Padgett raises here a scenario that is not able to be realized, especially with respect to miracles, which of their nature are unrepeatable suspensions of the normal processes of nature. As miracles do not lend themselves to the scientific method, not in the sense of being incapable of observation, but in the sense of being unrepeatable within a controlled environment, they cannot be proven - or unproven - in a scientific manner.
Even if we admit the possibility of "incontrovertible" scientific proofs, I note that Mr. Padgett places a higher priority on the scientific method, than on the possibility of a miraculous, divine intercession. He says that, if there is "incontrovertible" proof that the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection never happened, then Christians would be happy enough just to believe in the "story" - in other words to hold onto the fable of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection - so as to keep hold on the idea that good will always win out over evil. He does not say that, if there is such an "incontrovertible" proof, then Christians will rely in faith on the possibility of divine miracles, which do not lend themselves to the scientific method, but which nevertheless are historical events. For Mr. Padgett, historical events are scientifically verifiable, or at least are possibly so; if "incontrovertibly" shown not to be so, then they are not historical but merely useful fables. The implication is that miraculous events, which of their own nature may be shown "incontrovertibly" not to fall within the scientific method (if we assume, for the sake of argument, that there are such things as "incontrovertible" scientific proofs), are not historical events at all.
A child may believe in Santa Claus. He may believe in the little munchkins who inhabit the Land of Oz. These are fables; but he may believe in them and hopefully learn some valuable life lessons from them. As Saint Paul reminds us, we who are adults put away "childish things." We want to base our lives - and our most sincere and meaningful hopes - on what we believe to be possible in history. Otherwise, we become philosophical deconstructionists, or just plain mad - recognizing in the end that there is not much difference between the two. If we want to remain sane, then we are not likely to put much confidence in the long run in a Christian faith that has been premised entirely on a unhistorical "story." Or, if we choose to base our lives on fables, then we are likely to base it on a religious fable that is much more "user friendly" than the Christian faith - one without the ideas of Original Sin, or of Christ Jesus dying on the Cross for our redemption, or of the necessity to be baptized into the Body of Christ in order to go to the Father. Instead, if it is all an elaborate fable anyway, then we are more inclined to believe in a kumbayah variety - one that sees man as his own divinity, or which never calls to question the moral probity of any of our "lifestyle choices," or which never claims to be the exclusive path to God. If the Christian faith is unhistorical, then it is not likely to claim much adherence, which is a primary reason, incidentally, why Saint Peter, in his first sermon after Pentecost, argues that proving the historicity of the Resurrection will prove to be their greatest stumbling block as preachers - and yet also be their most important witness.
The idea that Christianity may be reduced to a "story" - one as childishly basic as the truism that good triumphs over evil - is in keeping with the modernist view in much of mainline Protestantism and liberal Roman Catholicism. For centuries, the more "enlightened" theologians and preachers have argued that the divine miracles recounted in the Bible cannot be accepted seriously as historical. Therefore, if the Christian faith is going to remain relevant for modern men, it must be recognized as unhistorical (or at least the miraculous components must be so characterized) and reduced to its fundamental moral lessons - be tolerant of ones neighbors, offer care for the less fortunate, turn the other cheek, and so forth. In other words, like a fable provided for children, it must be seen as an elaborate "story" meant to remind us to be good, honest, caring people. If some other "story" proves better in reminding us of those moral lessons, then we are free - indeed encouraged - to adapt that "story" into the Christian one, or to adopt it as an alternative altogether. Christ Jesus as in fact the literal, historical God on Earth, let alone as the redemption for our sins with and by whom we are able to go to the Father, falls by the wayside.
If Christianity is really no more than an elaborate "story," then it is no match for the atheist fundamentalists, who at least claim to base their teachings on what may be scientifically verified or shown to be conducive to human reason. Mr. Padgett is right to denounce bigoted Christians who give the faith a bad name; but, he does so in such a way as to admit that real, historical truths will be championed by atheists. As for his own Christian faith, he has relegated it to the arena of bedtime stories, a harmless fable among many others in which we may choose to indulge.