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(Bill Grimshaw)
(Bill Grimshaw)

Neil Reynolds

Defending the faith, from infanticide to genocide Add to ...

The celebrated "new atheists" - foremost among them Christopher Hitchens ( God Is Not Great) and Richard Dawkins ( The God Delusion) - have led a boisterous charge against religious faith. Remarkably few defenders of faith, however, have effectively engaged them. In David Brog, the atheists meet a worthy protagonist.

Mr. Brog, in his In Defense of Faith: The Judeo-Christian Idea and the Struggle for Humanity, concedes that Christians have committed horrendous crimes in the name of theology but sets out to prove that Judeo-Christian beliefs gave the Western and, ultimately, entire world its most important spiritual value: an obligatory reverence for life.

Mr. Brog advances his argument in a series of historical vignettes. He introduces Tacitus, the Roman senator and historian, who (in his major work, Histories) describes the Jews as wicked, stubborn and lascivious and lists the Jewish beliefs he finds most revolting - especially, he says, the belief "that it is a deadly sin to kill an unwanted child." The Romans were "proud practitioners of infanticide." As were the Greeks. As were the other nations of the ancient world.

Mr. Brog juxtaposes this historical citation with a 20th-century judgment written by U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes on the compulsory sterilization of "defective" women. In Virginia in 1924, 18-year-old Carrie Buck gave birth to a child out of wedlock. The authorities determined that Buck was "feeble-minded" and ordered her sterilized. She appealed - all the way to the Supreme Court. Eight of the nine justices concurred with Holmes, who held that coercive sterilization was necessary "to prevent our being swamped with incompetence." Three generations of imbeciles in a single family, he wrote, were enough. (In a letter to a friend, he later castigated "the damn fools" who believe in "this hyper-ethereal respect for human life.") In fact, Buck's illegitimate child grew up to be a bright student.

From infanticide to genocide, Mr. Brog moves from one historical citation of evil to another, proceeding inexorably to the recognition that the Western concept of the sanctity of life, the most revolutionary idea in the Judeo-Christian tradition, can be irretrievably - and easily - lost. The sanctity of life, Mr. Brog argues, is not at all self-evident.

"Since the supreme value that we place on human life [is]learned from our culture, it can be challenged and replaced by less generous appraisals," Mr. Brog says. "Our values are not written on our hearts with indelible ink. They have been pencilled in. They are subject to being erased." The eugenics movement of the early 20th century was a mere step removed from the infanticide of Tacitus's Rome. Mr. Brog notes that it was only five years ago that China announced a crackdown on the drowning of female babies. He quotes Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer: "It may be worth remembering that our present absolute protection of the lives of infants is a distinctively Christian attitude rather than a universal ethical value."

A corporate lawyer in Washington, Mr. Brog is a Jew by birth and by faith. Yet, he works with Christian organizations, he says, and recognizes "a deep kinship between Judaism and Christianity." In theology, the two religions differ. In morality, "our two faiths are practically identical."

"We are brothers and sisters in faith because we agree on so many of the truly important things affecting our lives," he says. "The values and the beliefs that we cherish are under assault both at home and around the world." He describes, in detail, this assault - especially the one waged by people who assume that Judeo-Christian principles would survive the disappearance of Judaism and Christianity.

"It is tempting to assume that the morality at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition is easy and obvious," Mr. Brog says. "Yet such a view stands in sharp contrast to overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If the 20th century proved one thing, it is the rapidity with which a society's morality can shift and plummet. The experiments have already been conducted. The price has already been paid. We should at least have the decency to learn the lessons."

Mr. Brog's In Defense of Faith is not a study in comparative religion or a "proof" of God. It is, rather, a celebration of a particular spiritual experience that binds two of the world's great religions. Mr. Brog tells an inspiring story: of the power of moral suasion alone - however slowly, across the centuries - to reform a wicked world. Note his tale of the Christian bishop in Bulgaria (Metropolitan Kyril) who saved thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps by threatening to place his body across the railway tracks. This, after all, is surely the point: There's always a next train waiting to leave the station.

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