In the Thanksgiving issue of “The Voice of Jewish Washington,” Rabbi Jonathan Singer did readers a great service by pointing out some absurdities in the secularist ideology of The Freedom From Religion Foundation. Then, by remarkable coincidence, the Seattle Times of Dec. 2 devoted a longish article in its “Local” section to the various doings of this group in Seattle as it bids us all to “imagine no religion!”
Something is definitely in the air! And fragrant it ain’t!
I first learned of this group back in the autumn when I encountered its full-page ad in the New York Times. The bold-faced invitation to “imagine a world free from religion” framed a panoramic image of the Twin Towers. The message was obvious: Religion is the exclusive source of all human evil. Eliminate religion, and the era of human perfection is ushered in.
Well, as a card-carrying historian of religion, I claim some familiarity with the history of atrocity committed in the name of God. Not a pretty picture. But in accepting the challenge to imagine “a world free from religion,” it turns out that history has done my imagining for me.
At the top of my list of worlds “free from religion,” I include, for starters:
Auschwitz (and its clones)
The Stalinist gulags
Note that neither is “imaginary.” So let’s pause for an historical observation or two before moving on.
When Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov announced to the waning 19th century that “If God does not exist, everything is permitted,” he wasn’t just whistling Dixie! Just two years after the appearance of The Brothers Karamazov, Nietzsche’s collection of aphorisms, The Gay Science, whistled a similar tune through the lips of an allegorical “madman,” who announced in the town square that “God is dead. And we have murdered Him!”
For Nietzsche, the death of God was a cultural fact, not an historical event. And the murderers of God were (for a change!) not religiously deluded Jews, but nominal Christians. They were the “Good Europeans” who believed themselves to have achieved the pinnacle of human cultural history. Their sentimental, patriotic Lutheranism (or Anglicanism, as the case may be) failed to reckon with a basic reality. Namely, the Christian God had been secularized to death by His own celebrants.
The Gospel of sin, repentance, and salvation had been replaced by another: Material prosperity for the “acquisitive classes” and a “cultural Protestantism” that confused European economic and political might with the “beneficent extension of the blessings of Christian civilization.”
Dostoevsky and Nietzsche were avant garde in foreseeing the cultural consequences of the secular transformation of Christianity. But, alas — mired in the 1880s, they could scarcely imagine the harvest a “world free from religion” would yield during the next century or so.
For one thing, genocide as a “solution” to the problem of “redundant populations.”
Sure, the God of medieval Christendom may have had His dark side, but He was morally complex. Commanding mayhem against His enemies from one side of His mouth, He also modeled ideas such as the infinite value of all human life, compassion, and human fellow-feeling. Catholic Bishops, after all, protected Jews from the mob at least as often as peasants penned them in burning synagogues!
But as God’s presence gradually receded from daily consciousness in the secular age, His clear set of restraints on mayhem began to fade as well. The absolute primacy of His Church, which could incorporate all humanity — at least in principle — into a single moral community, was replaced by restrictive communities such as the Race, the Nation, and the Party.
And, like the shark and other predators, the Race, the Nation, and the Party know only one reptilian moral maxim: “Eat or be eaten.”
Now, the first cultural item on the predatorial lunch menu is any source of moral value that transcends loyalty to the Race, Nation, or Party. Recall that the 20th century’s tradition of genocide began in a secular state, Turkey, which targeted Armenian Christians for annihilation only after Islam had been constitutionally domesticated. Nor were Auschwitz and the gulag, after all, invented by those who worshipped the Creator of Heaven and Earth as the ultimate guarantor of the moral law. They were conceived, rather, by those who had deposed Him and replaced Him with themselves.
So, go ahead — imagine a world free of religion. What comes to mind is a world, strangely enough, much like our own.
When the sages of the Freedom From Religion Foundation seize upon the image of the Twin Towers to symbolize their claim about religion, they reveal their ignorance of the source of modern nihilism. Before the 9/11 terrorists and the recent assassins of Mumbai were mass murderers, they were converts from secularist ideologies that privileged the Nation or the Party as moral absolutes and vehicles of political salvation.
The Islamicist veneer that praised their “martyrdom” is itself the child of the cynical moral relativism shaped in the very first instance by Western secularism itself. Where no moral law transcends the idolatrous worship of the Race, the Nation, or the Party, all things are truly permitted.
So my challenge to the good folks at the Freedom From Religion Foundation is this: “Imagine a world free of crimes committed, in God’s name, by twisted ideologues who stir the secularist absolutisms of modernity into maniacally wrong-headed readings of classical theologies, and cook up a witch’s brew of self-destructive hatred for the Enemy.” But that’s too complex for an ad, isn’t it?
So here’s my feel-good alternative. When the next single-passenger Prius speeds past me at rush hour in the HOV lane of I-5, sporting a bumper sticker commanding us to “Question Authority!”, I’ll just roll down my window, raise a Bronx salute, and cry out: “Sez who, Buddy!”