Although I agree with Toby Lester ("Oh, Gods!," February Atlantic) that reports of the death of religion are greatly exaggerated, I am concerned about his dismissal of cult critics as ignorant and intolerant. He is turning a blind eye to the very real dangers of cults here and around the world.
Lester depends for his information on a particular group of "clubby" academics who purport to be experts on "new religious movements." They promote their careers by claiming that these movements are essentially benign, arguing that to question any religion violates fundamental human rights. Their willingness to ignore the dangers posed by destructive religious movements has real and negative consequences, contributing to a climate of unquestioning acceptance of any group that calls itself a religion.
Herbert L. Rosedale
Bonita Springs, Fla.
Toby Lester replies:
Herbert Rosedale has mischaracterized my article. I did not dismiss "cult critics" (his term, not mine) as either "ignorant" or "intolerant" (again, his terms). In fact, I deliberately avoided getting into the cult-anti-cult debate at all, because as far as I can tell, it inevitably boils down to unprovable judgments about what is true religion and what is not. Are some new religious movements less than savory? Of course, and we should watch out for them. But a major point I tried to make was that just about every new religious movement—including those that today have hundreds of millions of members—was initially dismissed as socially deviant. What interests me about the scholars of new religious movements is that they try to study what new movements are like, not whether the movements are socially acceptable.
According to Ron Rosenbaum ("Degrees of Evil," February Atlantic), to credit Osama bin Laden with a belief in the rightness of his actions is, in effect, to excuse him of committing anything worse than "a well-meaning religious mistake." Rosenbaum gets it backward. Bin Laden's fanatical belief in the rightness of his actions lies at the very heart of his wickedness, because it blinds him to the moral reality of his victims.
Rosenbaum's view yields the comforting implication that we need only label bin Laden evil in order to guarantee that we don't share his wickedness, since we thereby show that we believe ourselves to be in the right, so that we can at worst be guilty of a well-meaning mistake. But if we apply this label with a fanaticism equal to his, we risk joining him in moral blindness.
J. David Velleman
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Ron Rosenbaum replies:
I'm tempted to say that J. David Velleman's "belief in the rightness of" his position, to use his words, "blinds him to the ... reality" of what I wrote. I neither seek nor find "comfort" in using evil as a label. What I sought to do in my essay was demystify a widely used label and examine the range of behaviors and mindsets to which it is applied. In addition, Mr. Velleman seems to suggest that all strongly held beliefs are necessarily deplorable fanaticism. Does this include the strongly held belief that mass murder is wrong, whatever you call it?
Jeffrey Tayler's weak case in "The Next Threat to NATO" (February Atlantic) is based on an anachronistic understanding of the geopolitical situation in Europe. His claim that "if NATO expands to include the Baltic states, it risks acquiring a flash point for tension with Russia" suggests that Russia is likelier to take hostile action against Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia if they are members of NATO than if they are not. Does he really believe that Russia will risk a major war by invading member states? Leaving the Baltic states outside the alliance is much likelier to lead to military mischief.
Tayler erroneously refers to the Baltic states as "once Soviet republics" and as part of the Russian "Near Abroad." They are sovereign countries that were militarily occupied by the USSR from 1940 to 1991. Tayler's acceptance of an alleged need for a Russian Near Abroad is a Cold War anachronism that encourages Russian imperialism while ignoring the realities in the Eurasian continent.
He asserts that Baltic membership in NATO would pose "unsettling strategic risks for Russia." What risks? That a hostile Sweden or Denmark would invade Russia through the Baltic states? The Vikings ceased to be a threat to Novgorod centuries ago. With China to the east and Islamic fundamentalism to the south, Russia's northwestern borders with Estonia and Latvia are the most stable and least vulnerable borders it has. By extending its border with NATO, Russia increases its zone of secure, reliable, democratic neighbors.
Whereas Russia has been reluctant to expand cooperation and constructive ties with the Baltic states, it is pursuing such a policy with NATO. The conclusion is obvious. To improve relations with Russia, the Baltics need to join NATO.
If Jeffrey Tayler's article opposing the Baltic states' membership in NATO represents the strongest case to be made against NATO enlargement, my confidence that Latvia will soon join the alliance has been increased. Most experts now acknowledge that the Baltic states are moving rapidly toward fulfilling all NATO-membership requirements, and will make dependable members of this important alliance. Baltic membership will not only provide security to the Baltic states but also enhance the common security of NATO members, especially those in the Baltic Sea region. Tayler's article offers a narrow, one-sided view of the real situation in the Baltic states and misrepresents the social situation inside Latvia in particular. His allegations of discrimination against Russian residents of Latvia have already been discounted by international human-rights organizations. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe recently closed its missions in Latvia and Estonia, further undercutting Tayler's misinformed arguments.