As Buddhas Fall (Editorial)

The Taliban are destroying Afghanistan's religious statuary, including an immense stone figure of Buddha carved into the side of a cliff sometime between the 3rd and 5th centuries. Much of the world, including many Islamic countries, has protested, but the Taliban have proceeded with their vandalism anyway. Afghanistan, you see, has a faith-based government.

As is often the case with the pathologically pious, there is no reasoning with the Taliban. Not even the New York Times, which editorially offered instruction in Muslim doctrine -- "Islam does not preach the destruction of objects sacred to other religions and cultures" -- could deter the devout once they understood what they had to do. "There is no place for statues in an Islamic country," said Qudratullah Jamal, the Taliban's information minister. Maybe he also canceled the Times.

It is always useful to see faith run amok, because it offers, well, religious instruction. We are now in an awfully pious period in our own country; to point out that intolerance and religion often go hand-in-hand can be a perilous undertaking. We are a churchy nation -- far more so than any other Western country. The Swedes, the Brits, even the Italians seldom go to church. Americans go regularly. Those nations have lower rates of violent crime and other social maladies, but so what? The efficacy of religion is considered proven, even if it is not.

I am appalled by the Taliban. But I can see no more reason to argue with them than with the Talibanic Pat Robertson, who warned the city of Orlando, Fla., that it would suffer some sort of natural catastrophe if it allowed a celebration of gay pride. I would not quibble, either, with William F. Buckley Jr., who wrote in his 1997 book, "Nearer My God," how the older Buckley children were summoned in 1938 to England, where their parents then lived, because as he later learned, their mother might die in childbirth. She had been warned, but had proceeded with her pregnancy anyway. It was her 11th. Such is faith.

Faith is all the rage. Government now embraces it. We have something of a state religion. It is the Church of You-Have-to-Believe-in-Something (conservative), although, God knows, if George W. Bush could have his way, it would be Christianity. (He once said that only Christians can get into heaven.) The president has announced his intention to share the government's largess with faith-based organizations. They must not, of course, use Uncle Sam's dollars to proselytize, but just how Washington will ensure that down in the basement of some church a little prayer will not be required before a little food is doled out is hard to see. Maybe more cops is the answer. More cops is our usual answer to any social problem anyway.

The government has faith in faith. For some reason, it's thought that religious organizations do a better job at, say, drug rehabilitation, than do secular ones. Only the proof of the proposition is lacking. Alcoholics Anonymous is cited, but the statistics are suspect. Not only does it have a high initial dropout rate, but just as likely it is peer pressure that works -- not submission to "a power greater than ourselves."

It is no different with other faith-based programs. The proof of their efficacy is often anecdotal but, as it turns out, also beyond any doubt. Most Americans (61 percent ) believe religion can solve almost any problem. Why even study the matter?

It just so happens that my mother worked for a Catholic hospital. It did great work. So I do not oppose government aiding faith-based institutions.

But the hospital practiced medicine while Bush, in his oft-cited heart, would have preferred it to practice faith as well. It's religion that got him to stop drinking, and it's the presumed power of religion that is really behind his initiative. "In the final analysis, there is no overcoming anything without faith," he once said. But in the final analysis, there can be no analysis about faith. You believe what you believe.

Within reason, I am for what works. So, by all means, let us proceed with Bush's initiative -- cautiously and with appropriate skepticism. But we should remember that one man's faith is another's heresy, that religion is sometimes a variant of madness and the cause, not the cure, of what ails much of the world. To point out these things does not, in itself, show hostility to religion -- Justice Scalia, take note -- but rather an immense awe of its power. Sometimes it can do wonders. Other times it can topple the mighty Buddhas of Afghanistan.