I saw a clip the other day of Bill Maher casually referring to Republicans as “a**holes.” That’s hardly news, and is in fact typical of the discourse-poisoning invective that caused Maher to be widely blamed by the mainstream media for the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. (Or maybe they didn’t blame him; I forget.) But when I pondered what causes Maher to be so contemptuously dismissive of a plurality of his fellow Americans, an unlikely suspect emerged: Maher’s religious beliefs.
Now ostensibly, Maher has no religious beliefs. He is a self-described apatheist, which means that he follows no religion and is disinterested in the existence or non-existence of a higher being. That is a personal choice that I will not criticize. But Maher’s apatheism has not stopped him from behaving like the religious fanatics that he so despises.
Maher embodies the worst traits that he ascribes to people of faith: He holds his left-wing views not with mere passion, which I could respect, but with downright certitude (if I may attempt to reclaim a word forever made icky by Anthony Weiner). He is therefore completely intolerant of those whose views differ from his own.
Maher’s attitudes mirror not those of the typical religious believer, but rather those of the extremist who is drawn to religion for all the wrong reasons. Since Maher believes in no higher being, his political ideology is left, by default, in the paramount position of importance that others reserve for their religion. His ideology has become his religion. And he attacks those who are heretics against his secular faith with a fervor that can only be described as religious.
I coined the term “secular fundamentalist” to describe people like Maher. Mr. Google now rudely informs me that others coined it first. I use the term to refer to those on the left who are largely secular (not necessarily atheist or apatheist) but who channel their pent-up “religious fanaticism” through their politics. I do not claim that this describes most people on the secular left. Nor do I deny that there are intolerant people on the right, but we already have the mainstream media to tell us that every day.
Secular fundamentalism fills an important void for those who have rejected religion but nonetheless harbor many of the worst instincts that cause certain people to embrace religion. Secular fundamentalism allows non-believers to experience the thrill of religious bigotry without having to put up with the nuisance of religion.
I’m not putting intolerance against conservatives on the same level as the severe historical racism and bigotry that African-Americans and others have endured. But the underlying elements of this ideological intolerance are identical to those of bigotry: the emotional need to feel superior to the “other”; the need to demonize, dehumanize and demean the “other” rather than accepting respectful disagreement; the mean-spirited smearing of entire groups based upon the actions of a few; the use of unfair judgments and double standards to maintain the myth that one’s group is inherently superior to others; and the complete absence of the self-honesty to acknowledge that all of this is going on.
While secular fundamentalists are scornful of all conservatives, there is a special place in Secular Hell for conservatives who happen to be African-American or female. The most visceral hatred is reserved for them. It is an article of secular fundamentalist faith that liberal/left ideology is the only acceptable worldview for African-Americans and women; those race traitors and gender traitors who dare to think independently must be made examples of, like runaway slaves.