“I’m with Mr. Rooney on this one,” Mr. Bates said. “I can’t understand what that guy was thinking.”
Mr. Magundi asked to borrow the newspaper and turned to the article in question. “Well,” he said, “dismissing the first remark, which is standard 9/11 conspiracy nonsense, what did this unhinged football player say?” He pointed to the newspaper.
“Here’s one: ‘I believe in God. I believe we’re ALL his children. And I believe HE is the ONE and ONLY judge.’
“And this one: ‘Those who judge others, will also be judged themselves.’
“And then there’s this one: ‘For those of you who said you want to see Bin Laden burn in hell … I ask how would God feel about your heart?’
“All of this is not only the most unobjectionably orthodox Christian doctrine, but in fact a very clear and straightforward statement of it. Yet we call it ‘hard to explain or even comprehend.’ Now, I’m not usually a dogmatic pacifist, because I think the world is too complicated to make hard and fast rules about most things. But my best theological argument for pacifism is this: that war makes a simple statement of Christian moral principles incomprehensible to people who call themselves Christians. War is a mind-altering drug: when you make your best theological arguments for a ‘just war,’ I must always suspect that, no matter how clever you are, it’s really the drug speaking. And when you say you can’t comprehend a statement like ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged,’ I know you’ve become a helpless addict.”
“But we have to do something to clamp down on fundamentalism, don’t we?” I said.
“I think we need to think of fundamentalism—Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Maoist or whatever—as something like coal gas or tornadoes,” Mr. Magundi replied. “It’s a force that exists. It shouldn’t blow up or blow down and kill a bunch of innocent people, but it will given half a chance. There’s no use saying there shouldn’t be tornadoes in Oklahoma; there are, and that’s life, and we just have to make the best of it. We have to build our houses with shelters so that the tornadoes will blow over without killing us. And when they do blow over, we have to be ready to pick up the rubble and shrug and say, ‘Well, that’s the way it goes.’ In the future we may be able to mitigate the force of the weather, and we may be able to mitigate the force of fundamentalism. But I have a suspicion that, if we try, we’ll botch both jobs terribly, and make a bigger mess than the one we were trying to clean up.”
“I don’t think I could vote for a politician who said he was an atheist,” I said.
“I’d choose a declared atheist over any opponent,” Mr. Magundi replied. “Politicians lie: it’s their habit, perhaps even their nature. Any ordinary politician will say what he needs to say to get himself elected. Why should I believe a politician who says he’s a faithful Christian any more than I believe one who says he’ll balance the budget? But a politician who declares himself an atheist knows that his declaration will cost him countless votes, and gain him virtually nothing. He proves by his statement that there’s at least one lie he won’t tell—that there’s at least one principle that’s more important to him than getting elected. For him alone, there really is concrete evidence of honesty: he says he’s an atheist, and, by God, I believe him.”
“I think the French have got the right idea for once,” Mr. Bates said. “If those people want to live in our Western society, they have to share our values.”
Everyone instinctively turned to see how Mr. Magundi would respond, but for a moment he seemed pensive. At last, when he spoke, he seemed to be picking his words more carefully than usual.
“If, hypothetically, I were a Muslim fundamentalist demagogue who wanted to convince my followers that the so-called Western democracies were the enemies of freedom, it would be hard for me to concoct a lie that would suit my cause better than the simple truth of the anti-veil persecution in France. The full weight of the French penal system is being brought down on women who have literally done nothing wrong. It’s not possible to come up with a starker case of doing nothing wrong. These women could wear abbreviated shorts and cut-off T-shirts with offensive slogans on them, and no one would dare to object; but they incur a fine if their clothes are too modest. They’re being punished, not for being offensive in any way, but for not being offensive enough. I’ll agree that they practice the virtue of modesty to an excessive degree, but I refuse to admit modesty as a vice. And if you have a mind for history, can you look at this persecution without thinking of the Christian martyrs in Rome? The pagan Romans punished Christians for refusing to share Roman values. How did that work out for them?”
“I guess he’s what they call a New Atheist,” I said. “He thinks God is dead, and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of us figure that out.”
“He’s not a real atheist at all,” Mr. Magundi replied. “If he really believed God was dead, he wouldn’t spend so much effort trying to kill him. I prefer an honest, old-fashioned atheist who’s comfortable in his convictions.”
“But he’s right when he says that just about all the persecution in the world comes from religions,” I said. “I’m not an atheist myself, but I have to admit he has a point there.”
“He can say that only because most Americans can’t remember anything before last week,” Mr. Magundi replied. “The whole history of the twentieth century was a history of the persecution of religion by brutal institutional atheism. The persecutors saw themselves as the light overcoming the darkness of religion; but if Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, and Hitler are the light, then I’d rather sit in the dark. If, since the fall of the Soviet empire, religion has come back in a persecuting mood, that is of course deplorable. But to say that there are no atheist persecutions demonstrates such an appalling ignorance of history that I really don’t know how to reply. Persecution is not a religious phenomenon, and it is not an anti-religious phenomenon. It is a human phenomenon; and perhaps we could even say that it is a pre-human phenomenon, one that we share with all animals that live in social groups. Religion may provide the excuse for persecution, or atheism may provide it. But it is only the excuse. What we want is not to persecute atheists, or to persecute Jews, or to persecute Buddhists, or to persecute Christians, but simply to persecute someone.”
“But why do they put him in prison?” asked Brielle, the art student. “He’s, like, the most famous filmmaker they have.”
Mr. Magundi was prepared with an answer, as always. “Fanaticism attacks, with the inevitability of a law of nature, whatever is most splendid in its own culture. The Puritans destroyed English drama because it was the wonder of the world; the Calvinists smashed the treasures of medieval art because they were treasures; the Nazis expelled the artists and scientists who threatened to make Germany really glorious; the Khmer Rouge massacred intellectuals because they were intelligent; the Taliban sent the army to bomb the most famous works of art in Afghanistan because they were famous.
“We usually look at these incidents as collateral damage in the fanatics’ struggle for power, but we are wrong. The whole goal of the fanatic is this kind of destruction. The world is evil, says the fanatic; therefore whatever in the world is outstanding must be outstandingly evil. The Puritans destroyed English drama not in spite of Shakespeare, but because of Shakespeare. The Fascists beat Toscanini because he dared to defy the Duce, but more because he dared to be Toscanini. Wherever fanatics have power, they turn it first against whatever is great and beautiful, because it must be punished for finding greatness and beauty and light outside the dark prison of fanaticism.”