Anti-clericalism and religious prejudice

Glenn Reynolds makes a rhetorical move which is often made but seems to me to embody a logical mistake: conflating hostility toward a religious movement or an institutional religious body with hostility to its members as individuals. It seems to me that only the latter, or the former where it implies the latter, ought to be called, and condemned as, “religious prejudice.”

It’s perfectly possible, though sometimes tricky in practice, to hate and fear a religious organization without hating or fearing its members, or wishing them ill in any way.

One case where the distinction becomes clear is the Church of Scientology. There’s good reason to believe that the Church itself is a fundamentally a criminal enterprise, of which individual Scientologists (and others) are the victims. Prosecuting the leadership of Scientology doesn’t strike me as an exercise of religious prejudice. However, various attempts in Germany to keep Scientologists out of public jobs strike me as much more problematic.

Similarly, one of the ways the institutional Catholic Church in America has deflected criticism regarding both its politics and the participation of much of its hierarchy in a massive cover-up of child sexual abuse is to claim that any attack on the church is a throwback to the anti-Catholic prejudice that used to be so strong in this country and in Britain. (The Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights has been the main practitioner of that trick.) But there’s no reason not to regard both the possible prosecution of Cardinal Law and the ascension to Ivy League university presidencies of practicing Catholics as twin indicators of progress toward a more just society, and I am aware of no evidence of the Church’s current travails translating into prejudice against individual Catholics.

In the instance Glenn cites, Atrios refers to the Washington Times, which is owned by the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, as the “Moonie Times.”

On the one hand, I’m no fan of that locution, because “Moonie” is certainly an offensive epithet aimed at the Rev. Mr. Moon’s followers. (If Catholic Church owned a Washington newspaper it would be obviously offensive to refer to it as the “Papist News.”) On the other, it’s certainly fair to remind people that the semi-official newspaper of Republican Washington is owned by a foreigner who holds lunatic religious opinions, has apocalyptic political plans and ties of unknown strength to a foreign intelligence agency, and who is also a convicted felon.

But though the word itself is a slur, Atrios has said nothing, to my knowledge, against Unification Church members, as opposed to the church’s leaders. So it seems rather rough for Glenn to be comparing Atrios’s hostility to the Washington Times to hostility (such as the hostility Glenn himself has often expressed) toward the people he calls “radical Muslims.”

Sometimes it is actually the case that the followers of some relgious movement do in fact repressent threats to others, as witness the terms “Assassin” and “Thug.” There are certainly mosques in which hatred of the kaffirs is preached, and out of which people organize to put that hatred into practice.

But the attribution of bad character to individuals because of their religous commitments largely deserves the bad name it got during the Wars of Religion, and I think the caution about making that attribution, so often dismissed as “political correctness,” is a socially useful caution. Both fundamentalist Protestants and atheists face a certain amount of social and employment discrimination because others consider those beliefs to be signs of moral deficiency; that seems to me regrettable. The existence of such individually-damaging religious prejudice makes it more important not to apply that label to attacks on religious institutions or leaders.

[Glenn’s specific point that Atrios misstated his own connection to the Washington Times is a stronger one, and I think he’s entitled to a retraction. But I take it that Atrios’s point was that someone could march in an A.N.S.W.E.R.-organized rally without identifying with its goals, just as one could write a column for a Moon-owned newspaper without identifying with Mr. Moon’s projects.

[Perhaps one could distinguish in the following way: the writer of an op-ed gets to express his own opinions, subject to editing; a participant in a march winds up, more or less, endorsing the views put out by the march organizers, and providing an audience for the speakers chosen by those organizers. If, as has been reported of A.N.S.W.E.R.-organized rallies, the microphones are open to Israel-bashing but not to the defense of Israel, then everyone attending the march winds up giving, will he nill he, an endorsement to the anti-Israeli view.]

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: