by Bruce S. Thornton
This holiday season we have pretty much been spared the usual peevish cranks campaigning against any public celebration of Christmas. The attacks on public crèches, school pageants, Christmas music, and even the greeting “Merry Christmas” have been few this year. Yet we shouldn’t think that this means we’ve turned a corner and the battle against Christmas has been won.
Those battles have always been skirmishes in the larger war against the presence of religion in the public square, a war which faith has been losing for several decades to the forces of radical secularization.
This struggle has little to do with frequency of churchgoing or the belief in God professed to pollsters, the usual evidence trotted out to claim that the United States is a religious nation. The secularists are content to let Christianity live on as a source of private therapeutic solace and comforting holiday rituals, one of many such options ranging from Wicca to Scientology. What the anti-religion battalions are aiming at is the eradication of religion from our public culture and political discourse.
The source of this animus is not some discovered scientific proof or progress in human knowledge. It is rather the Enlightenment prejudice that religion is a relic of our benighted past, an irrational superstition whose dark clouds have been dispersed by the light of science and reason. Religion lives on only because of the backwards masses too fearful or stupid to give up this “opiate” and face the reality of a godless world. To the secularists, as Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz put it, people of faith are “shamans or witch doctors from savage tribes whom one humors until one can dress them in trousers and send them to school.”
This view, of course, has always been a reflection of ideology, not fact or reason, an ideology that itself functions as a religion. The evangelical atheists like Richard Dawkins give the game away by the strident self-righteousness, proselytizing fervor, impatience with dissenting “infidels,” and metaphysical sleight-of-hand typical of the fundamentalist. They are devotees of the religion of materialist determinism, a faith predicated on the revealed metaphysical “truth” that all reality is material, and spiritual reality is a delusion, a left-over tribal or evolutionary adaptation that, like a vestigial organ, no longer serves any constructive purpose, and more often is the site of dangerous diseases in the body politic.
Worse yet for atheists, religion represents an alternative source of truth and authority that challenges the power of scientists and secular “rationalists.” Dawkins et al. are examples of Orwell’s “embittered atheist,” who don’t “so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike him.” And one reason they dislike him is they think they can do better than their rival.
The “separation of church and state” fundamentalists comprise a similar cult. Their apostles in the media howled with smug glee when Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell said that “separation of church and state” was nowhere in the Constitution. But of course she was right: the First Amendment prohibits the federal government from establishing a state religion, and guarantees freedom of worship. Later Supreme Court rulings fabricated the notion that religion was to be barred from the public square, an idea that would have horrified most of the Founders. Moreover, the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech extends to the religious, who have a right to contribute to political speech from the perspective of their faith.
Apart from being contrary to the Constitution, the effort to scrub religion from political discourse is fruitless and hypocritical. For one thing, much of the progressive ideology that fancies itself the product of enlightened reason is based on old myths and superstitions. For example, those who think religion should be kept out of our schools are all too happy to have the religion of environmentalism preached to kids on a daily basis, along with rituals like recycling, holy days like Earth Day, thundering “prophets” like Al Gore, and even the Apocalypse, now to be brought on by global warming caused by our demonic technology and wicked greed. Despite its pretense to being based on science, most of what goes on in environmental teaching reprises ancient myths like the Golden Age or Noble Savage, which demonize technology and cities and idealize primitive peoples who presumably lived in harmony with nature, an idea picked up by Romanticism with its “Satanic mills,” and exploited by Marxism in its complaints about industrial capitalism’s “alienation.”
Multiculturalism is another progressive article of faith promulgated in our public schools and politics. Rather than an accurate reading of history or the trade-offs and complexities of multi-ethnic coexistence, multiculturalism is a Manichean melodrama of evil Western oppressors and their innocent victims “of color.”
This faith has its own original sins (racism, imperialism, colonialism), rituals like penance (the white profession of guilt) and redemption (public reparations in the form of racial set-asides), and holy texts (minority victim-narratives and ethnic-cheerleading history). It has little to do with the complexities of history, or with a true appreciation of the West’s achievements, which include a freedom and prosperity luring millions of non-Western immigrants to risk their lives in order to live in this alleged sink of exploitation and oppression.
What these pseudo-religions show is that it is impossible to cleanse religion from public life, for the simple reason that humans have profound questions about life, and a thirst for meaning that science simply can’t fulfill. We have to have a narrative that gives us a purpose, explains who we are, provides a code for treating others, identifies good and evil, and separates the sheep from the goats.
Driving religion from the public square just means that some pseudo-religion — usually one less intellectually and morally coherent, or less well founded than most traditional faiths — will take its place. Worse yet, many of these substitutes have turned out to be political religions like communism or fascism, whose record of slaughter is far worse than the alleged crimes of Christianity.
The final absurdity, however, of this war against public religion is that all the rights and virtues that the secularist extols are unthinkable without a source and validation for them that are transcendent, above debate and challenge and the vagaries of time. Otherwise, they are mere local inventions, accidents of time and place with no hold over peoples from other times and places.
The very notion of human rights that people possess merely by virtue of being human loses its universal scope and prescriptive power if it is an accident of history, subject to historical change and suitable only for those people who developed such an idea. Indeed, isn’t that just what the Chinese or Muslim states tell us when we preach to them about human rights? Don’t they answer that such notions are specific to the West, fine for us but irrelevant, if not inimical, to their own unique cultural or religious contexts?
The war against religion reflects the moral and intellectual incoherence of the secularizing West that Nietzsche identified over a century ago. You have murdered God, he scolded, but you still rely on the virtues and morals created and enforced by religion, and that need to be discarded for mankind to achieve a life more fulfilling of our true natures. We who live on the other side of a century of slaughter, gulags, and genocide know what such a “transvaluation of all values” can lead to. Yet we still imagine that we can possess and promulgate goods like political freedom or human rights without a transcendent foundation for them, perpetuating the bad faith Nietzsche identified.
This, finally, is what is at stake in the war against religion: whether the goods we live by and cherish — the dignity of the individual, tolerance, or respect for life — will survive, or whether they all will be swept away by history, or succumb to the materialist logic that makes each of our unique collection of chemicals no more significant or important than those of monkeys or dinosaurs, like them the playthings of chance and force, without freedom or dignity or transcendent worth — always the precondition for the worst horrors humans have inflicted on one another. Driving Christmas into the private shadows is just another signpost on the road to that inhuman and inhumane world.
©2010 Bruce S. Thornton