Letters to the editor

By
New Religions

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.

Degrees of Evil

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?

Baltic States

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.

Ojars Kalnins
Latvian Institute
Riga, Latvia

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.

The old arguments about Russia's military interests, its Near Abroad, its 5,800 nuclear warheads, and its human-rights violations are as obsolete as the Cold War itself.

All three Baltic states will enhance the security of other NATO members and will add value to the alliance. This has already been demonstrated by the Baltic countries' support of the NATO-U.S. anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan and repeated participation in peacekeeping missions in Macedonia, Kosovo, Georgia, Albania, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Baltic states are ready to join NATO, will enhance the alliance, and will be exceptionally strong supporters of all the democratic principles for which NATO stands.

Girts Valdis Kristovskis
Minister of Defense
Republic of Latvia
Riga, Latvia

I strongly disagree with Jeffrey Tayler's conclusion that the Baltic states should be denied admission to NATO. Using his criterion for membership, that each new member should enhance the security of the present members, the Baltics pass the test. They already earmark two percent of GNP for defense, which is more than many existing members do. They contribute peacekeeping troops under NATO command in Bosnia and Kosovo. They are doing their part in the war against global terrorism. Although the Baltic countries are not as large as many other NATO members, they are determined to share the burden of common defense and to play a constructive role in NATO. Despite the sentiments of unnamed Baltic Russians on which Tayler apparently based his conclusions, public-opinion polls conducted by independent organizations consistently show that a large majority of people in all three Baltic countries support NATO membership.

As for Russia, its President, Vladimir Putin, has said lately that sovereign countries have a right to select their alliances and that the Baltic countries' joining NATO would not constitute a threat to Russia. We should take him at his word.

S. Algimantas Gecys
Lithuanian-American Community, Inc.
Huntingdon Valley, Pa.

Jeffrey Tayler replies:

With all due respect to Ojars Kalnins, the Baltic countries were Soviet republics, if unwilling ones, and we have to face the demographic and strategic consequences of this. At issue is the security of the West.

Nowhere in my article do I suggest that Russia will "risk a major war by invading member states," as Kalnins implies. As I make clear, Baltic accession to NATO could set the stage for trouble with Russia, whose cooperation in security matters the West needs now more than ever. It would expose Russia to serious strategic risks: NATO would gain the potential to isolate the Kaliningrad military exclave and to deploy nuclear weapons within eighty-five miles of Saint Petersburg. I take Kalnins's farcical talk of Scandinavian Vikings as tacit, if unwitting, recognition of the incontrovertibility of these arguments. Furthermore, by admitting that Russia has been reluctant to cooperate with the Baltics, Kalnins, again unwittingly, supports my arguments by recognizing how sensitive Russians still are about territories they once ruled.

If concerns about Russian military interests and capabilities are "as obsolete as the Cold War itself," as Girts Valdis Kristovskis contends, then why are the Baltics pursuing NATO membership with such urgency? It is the Baltic Russians' perception of how they are being treated, not the opinions of the OSCE, that would constitute a problem for NATO should the Baltics join the alliance. I repeat: human-rights violations are still an issue for Russians living in Estonia and Latvia.

The last round of NATO expansion (along with NATO's war against Yugoslavia) helped to turn Russian popular sentiment against the West and to bring (the nationalist) Putin to power, so it would be shortsighted for NATO to take Putin's recent pro-Western policies as evidence of a permanent Russian swing toward the West. In any case, since Putin's election Russian suspicion of the West has shown no signs of abating among the military and other large segments of the population—partly because NATO may expand into the Baltics. S. Algimantas Gecys asks us to take Putin at his word, but the Baltics clearly do not; hence their desire to join NATO.

The Professors Profess

Richard A. Posner's critique of my performance as a public intellectual enters the realm of self-parody ("The Professors Profess," February Atlantic). Judge Posner published two hasty books—on the Clinton impeachment and on Bush v.Gore—yet he condemns me as "hyperactive" in taking public positions on the opposite side in each matter. Posner is well known for writing on any subject that he considers important—from sexuality to literary criticism—regardless of its relationship to his specialty of law and economics. Yet he condemns me for writing an essay on anti-terrorism because I am "writing far outside [my] field."

In making this charge, Posner does not mention that I have written several books and articles on the legal aspects of international relations and comparative government. Nor does he assess the expert opinion supporting my caution against making the war on terrorism into an overextended and crisis-driven campaign—for example, the fine study recently published by Paul Pillar for The Brookings Institution. Posner's effort to refute my argument is fact-free and suggests an ignorance of the specialist literature—a characteristic failing, he tells us, of other public intellectuals.

But he is wrong to despise the breed. The distinctive flaw of American public life is anti-intellectualism, not the dominance of public intellectuals. Our politics is much enriched by scholars who dare to write for a general public, though particular human beings will, of course, make mistakes. By seeking to silence all public intellectuals other than himself, Judge Posner is pandering to the anti-intellectual prejudices of the crowd.

Bruce Ackerman
Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science
Yale University
New Haven, Conn.

Richard Posner demonstrates his own thesis: brilliant academics and esteemed judges tend to make lousy arguments outside their fields of expertise. He pulls one sentence each from paragraphs written by Professors Eric Foner and Thomas Laqueur and then derides the two for the "blather" that he himself has created. Readers who bother to look up Foner's and Laqueur's words in the London Review of Books (October 4, 2001) will find that in context neither historian offered "obtuse, inconsequent, and insensitive" remarks. Rather, each argued that global and historical perspective might make for less blather from politicos and the news media.

Having ripped each sentence from context, Posner declares that as a matter of logic, absolutely nothing followed from either statement. Of course not. How many premises yield logical entailments without intermediate premises? The trick is obvious to every reader who realizes that Posner has discarded the author's other premises. Readers who have not read Foner's or Laqueur's remarks, on the other hand, might be bamboozled.

William Haltom
South Burlington, Vt.

Richard A. Posner replies:

The books of mine to which Professor Ackerman refers at the outset of his letter are full-length books published by respected academic presses (Harvard and Princeton respectively) after full academic review. They are not 800-word op-eds, or full-page ads containing palpable errors. I do not criticize academics for having broad interests; I wish more of them did. I criticize them for off-the-cuff commentary on matters about which they know nothing more than the average newspaper reader does.

William Haltom claims that the sentences I quoted from Professors Foner and Laqueur were taken out of context. He does not supply any of the missing context; and he could not. The rest of Foner's statement makes clear that he is indeed as frightened of Bush as he is of bin Laden. Laqueur derides the President for having said "that this peace-loving people has been attacked by 'evil' itself in a disaster without equal." He remarks that "the terrorists acts of victors are magically transformed" into "a heroic blow for righteousness" and intimates a comparison between John Brown and Osama bin Laden. He ends with the following sentence fragment: "Anything but stale rhetoric from John Wayne movies."

These statements by eminent academics should make us wonder about the accuracy of Ackerman's claim that "our politics is much enriched by scholars who dare to write for a general public."

Advice & Consent

Bernard Lewis ("What Went Wrong With Muslim Civilization?," January Atlantic) argues that "it is precisely the lack of freedom—freedom of the mind from constraint and indoctrination, to question and inquire and speak; freedom of the economy from corrupt and pervasive mismanagement; freedom of women from male oppression; freedom of citizens from tyranny—that underlies so many of the troubles of the Muslim world." Conversely, Western societies have become rich and politically stable and their citizens have been able to lead fuller and longer lives because they value these freedoms. Yet, as Lewis has often emphasized, during the Middle Ages Christendom was less free, less civilized, poorer, and far less tolerant of religious and intellectual diversity than Islam. So one should also ask, What went right with Western civilization? Why did the West begin to value freedom and to view extreme social, political, and economic inequality as undesirable? Part of the answer may be that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a new way of thinking about humankind and its place in the world arose to challenge the outlook of educated Europeans.

Ironically, Islam was the proximate source of this new way of thinking. From the ninth century onward Islamic scholars had preserved Greek mathematical and scientific works that had been "lost in the barbarous and for the most part uninterested West" (as Lewis wrote in The Middle East). In the sixteenth century some of these works began to appear in Europe in Latin translations (often of Arabic translations of the original Greek), enabling Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo to pick up the broken thread of Greek science. The scientific revolution in turn helped to launch the broader cultural revolution of which we in the West are the heirs.

In the West the culture war started by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo is almost over, though here and there—especially in the United States—rearguard actions are still being fought. Within the Muslim world it has hardly begun. At its core it is, I suggest, a conflict between two visions of truth—one hierarchical and authoritarian, in which revealed truths are constantly threatened by heresy and apostasy; the other democratic and tolerant, thriving on innovation and criticism, in which truths about the world and the human condition are always incomplete, always subject to revision and improvement. In science only one of these ways works, and this may be a source of hope. For although Muslim fundamentalists (like their Christian and Jewish counterparts) would like to take their followers back to the pre-modern world, most ordinary people, whatever their religious or ethnic loyalties, want the benefits of science-based technology and medicine. No society, however, can hope to enjoy the goods that religious fundamentalists would like their followers to forgo unless it supports a thriving scientific community. And although science is culture-neutral, flourishing as well in Japan as in California, it is not value-neutral. As European history shows, and as events in the Soviet Union and present-day China have borne out, its core values—anti-authoritarianism, openness to criticism, and the belief that reason and evidence are the surest guides to truth—are contagious. They also happen to be core values of modern secular democratic societies.

David Layzer
Donald H. Menzel Research Professor of Astrophysics
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/05/letters-to-the-editor/302493/