Mitchell Cohen in Dissent
Question: Is the debate on “the New Atheism” important for leftwing intellectuals in the U.S.?
M.C: I think this debate raises some poignant challenges to the left both in the U.S. and around the world. (The new religious aggressiveness is not just an American phenomenon). The left everywhere ought to be identified with both tolerance (this has not always been so) and with critical intelligence—the latter often means challenging religious precepts, ambitions and institutionalized power. The hard thing is to balance the tolerance and the criticism, to insist on pluralism but not to allow religion to privilege itself in the public realm. The left should always want people to think for themselves, but this cannot mean “you must be secular like me” since it also should not mean “you must be religious like me.”
Religion is a fairly broad category and leftists need to make distinctions among different types of religious behavior and religious commitments just as they would insist that “there are leftists and there are leftists.” After all, there are “leftists” who want a freer, more egalitarian world and there are Stalinists (or people who are still trapped within Stalinist mental structures, even if only implicitly). And there are religious leftists and liberals who are allies and comrades of secular leftists. While I am thoroughly secular, I know many religious people who are fine, thoughtful people—and I know many secularists who have been able to justify in left-wing language either mass murder, terror or religious fanaticism. These things are “objectively” anti-imperialist, you know, especially when they come from the Mideast. I have heard people—Americans and Europeans—throw fits about Bush’s religiosity all while they always “understand” Hezbollah or Hamas.