Why Secular Elites Ignore Religion

In the midst if another round of beheadings and similar Muslim atrocities, we continue to receive the typical government response focusing on jobs and improving the lives of young Muslim men as the primary solution to terrorism. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said recently, “Where there's a lack of governance, you've had young men attracted to this terrorist cause where there aren't other opportunities.” Certainly both the Bush and Obama administrations have been reluctant to refer to “Islamic” extremism, choosing instead to separate the violent Islamists from what George Bush called “the religion of peace.” Each had their reasons which may not be exactly the same.

But there is a deeper problem: It is the reluctance of secular elites to ascribe to any religion the cause of anything. For American historians, this shows up in assertions that Columbus was driven by greed not God and that the founding fathers were consumed by economic motives barely hidden under the cloak of religious freedom. This is sometimes called the" economic theory of history". But its origins are in the “genetic fallacy” originated by Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. The genetic fallacy states that religion is “nothing more than” something else. For Freud, religion is nothing more than “wish fulfillment,” the attempt by frightened people to create a kindly and tame heavenly being to watch over them. Never mind that the God of the Bible is not this kind of being. For Marx, religion is the “opium of the people,” a way for the downtrodden to drug themselves in response to the harsh economic realities of life. Never mind that the wealthy embrace religious belief as much as the hoi polloi. In any case, secular elites have embraced this ethos and run with it, closing their eyes and ears to any alternative explanation for events.

It is not too brash to say that “religion” is the one field that is frequently disallowed in serious discussion by the urban, bi-coastal crowd. For years the New York Times best-seller list would not contain any religious book. If you listened to NPR from 1970 to 1990, you would think that no one in America ever had a religious thought. Since that time, it appears that somebody woke up and sent an internal memo indicating that religion is now a legitimate subject for thinking people.

What causes this attitude? It may be that secular elites are so unfamiliar and uncomfortable with religious concepts, even if they are only discussed in a cultural context, that they simply eschew the subject altogether. But it is much worse than that. Many believe religion is at best simply about private feeling and at worst a deception hiding either weak or greedy motives. It certainly has no place in intellectual discussions, much less in debates about war, peace and civilization. In Bill Maher’s term, religion is “religulous.” In Christopher Hitchens phrase, “religion poisons everything.” But this attitude is nothing more than sweeping and unthinking prejudice which refuses to acknowledge that without Judeo-Christian values fought for long and hard in the West, we would not be enjoying the freedom we possess today. We are far more Christian than any of us knows.

Several years ago, I attended a reunion at my own elite liberal arts college. I attended two seminars, one on the Federalist papers and the other on European civilization. The professor leading the first gathering proceeded to assert the economic motive in our country’s founding, even when his pet theory was dim in the Federalist text, while refusing to discuss the role of religion. After the class was over, I confronted him about his prejudice. He laughed it off as if to say, “You got me.” In the second class, the professor asserted the influence of Greece and Rome on European thought and culture. When I asked him what he thought about Judeo-Christian influence over Europe, he replied, “I’ll have to think about that.” My question was, “Why had he not thought about it before?” On the same weekend, several people of varying backgrounds were gathered around the grave of a revered professor sharing heartfelt memories and reflections when one man blurted out, “This is not a religious event!”

The reality of the world is that many people are driven by far more than jobs and economic opportunity. Osama bin Laden and Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri did not start al Qaeda because they were poor, nor will their followers stop when they get jobs. As even Chris Matthews pointed out this week, the world will always be filled with angry, unemployed young men. Sure, let’s prevent them from flying to war zones and back without detection. But until we understand what really motivates them, namely their religion, we will not be living in reality. To pretend otherwise is to live in a state of dangerous denial.

Jay Haug is the Executive Director of Jacob's Well www.jacobswellhope.com

In the midst if another round of beheadings and similar Muslim atrocities, we continue to receive the typical government response focusing on jobs and improving the lives of young Muslim men as the primary solution to terrorism. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said recently, “Where there's a lack of governance, you've had young men attracted to this terrorist cause where there aren't other opportunities.” Certainly both the Bush and Obama administrations have been reluctant to refer to “Islamic” extremism, choosing instead to separate the violent Islamists from what George Bush called “the religion of peace.” Each had their reasons which may not be exactly the same.

But there is a deeper problem: It is the reluctance of secular elites to ascribe to any religion the cause of anything. For American historians, this shows up in assertions that Columbus was driven by greed not God and that the founding fathers were consumed by economic motives barely hidden under the cloak of religious freedom. This is sometimes called the" economic theory of history". But its origins are in the “genetic fallacy” originated by Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. The genetic fallacy states that religion is “nothing more than” something else. For Freud, religion is nothing more than “wish fulfillment,” the attempt by frightened people to create a kindly and tame heavenly being to watch over them. Never mind that the God of the Bible is not this kind of being. For Marx, religion is the “opium of the people,” a way for the downtrodden to drug themselves in response to the harsh economic realities of life. Never mind that the wealthy embrace religious belief as much as the hoi polloi. In any case, secular elites have embraced this ethos and run with it, closing their eyes and ears to any alternative explanation for events.

It is not too brash to say that “religion” is the one field that is frequently disallowed in serious discussion by the urban, bi-coastal crowd. For years the New York Times best-seller list would not contain any religious book. If you listened to NPR from 1970 to 1990, you would think that no one in America ever had a religious thought. Since that time, it appears that somebody woke up and sent an internal memo indicating that religion is now a legitimate subject for thinking people.

What causes this attitude? It may be that secular elites are so unfamiliar and uncomfortable with religious concepts, even if they are only discussed in a cultural context, that they simply eschew the subject altogether. But it is much worse than that. Many believe religion is at best simply about private feeling and at worst a deception hiding either weak or greedy motives. It certainly has no place in intellectual discussions, much less in debates about war, peace and civilization. In Bill Maher’s term, religion is “religulous.” In Christopher Hitchens phrase, “religion poisons everything.” But this attitude is nothing more than sweeping and unthinking prejudice which refuses to acknowledge that without Judeo-Christian values fought for long and hard in the West, we would not be enjoying the freedom we possess today. We are far more Christian than any of us knows.

Several years ago, I attended a reunion at my own elite liberal arts college. I attended two seminars, one on the Federalist papers and the other on European civilization. The professor leading the first gathering proceeded to assert the economic motive in our country’s founding, even when his pet theory was dim in the Federalist text, while refusing to discuss the role of religion. After the class was over, I confronted him about his prejudice. He laughed it off as if to say, “You got me.” In the second class, the professor asserted the influence of Greece and Rome on European thought and culture. When I asked him what he thought about Judeo-Christian influence over Europe, he replied, “I’ll have to think about that.” My question was, “Why had he not thought about it before?” On the same weekend, several people of varying backgrounds were gathered around the grave of a revered professor sharing heartfelt memories and reflections when one man blurted out, “This is not a religious event!”

The reality of the world is that many people are driven by far more than jobs and economic opportunity. Osama bin Laden and Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri did not start al Qaeda because they were poor, nor will their followers stop when they get jobs. As even Chris Matthews pointed out this week, the world will always be filled with angry, unemployed young men. Sure, let’s prevent them from flying to war zones and back without detection. But until we understand what really motivates them, namely their religion, we will not be living in reality. To pretend otherwise is to live in a state of dangerous denial.

Jay Haug is the Executive Director of Jacob's Well www.jacobswellhope.com