Fundamentally, There's More Than One Side

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Below is an excerpt from "On Faith," an Internet feature sponsored by The Washington Post and Newsweek. Each week, more than 50 figures from the world of faith engage in a conversation about an aspect of religion. This week, the panel members were asked: "Best-selling atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote: 'Religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.' Why is he right or wrong?"

Christopher Hitchens and his fellow secular fundamentalists -- Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, et al. -- are having a field day. And who can blame them? Terrorists claim the mantle of God in peddling their destruction. Girls and young women undergo genital mutilation for "religious" reasons. The government in the United States is headed by a man who claims to be called by God -- and whose administration will very likely be remembered as the most morally bankrupt in U.S. history.

No wonder Hitchens is in high dudgeon.

But one of the characteristics of fundamentalism everywhere, including the secular fundamentalism that Hitchens articulates, is an unrelentingly dualistic view of the world -- good versus bad, black versus white -- a refusal to see nuances and ambiguities. Have people who claim to be religious engaged in unseemly behavior? Of course they have. But people of faith have also been responsible for much good in the world: poverty relief, feeding the hungry, marching for civil rights or against war.

-- Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest; Ann Whitney Olin professor of American religious history, Barnard College; visiting professor, Yale Divinity School.

To read the complete essay and see more "On Faith" online commentary, hosted by Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn, go to

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