Republic October 14,
King Kong who put the fear of God in me, when I was 8 or 9 years old. Blessed
with irreligious parents and excused from attending Sunday school or weekly
services, I had relatively little contact with imaginary, omnipotent authority
figures until the Million Dollar Movie brought King Kong to our living room TV.
Tyrannical and invincible (I never found his capture and enslavement
believable), he awakened my superstitions. Watching Kong terrorize the locals, I
imagined being prey to an irrational, supernatural brute whom I could never
outrun or outsmart. I couldn't argue with him, so my only hope was to grovel and
propitiate him with sacrifices. Looking nothing like Fay Wray, I doubted I could
charm him; besides, his love was as arbitrary and unpredictable as his wrath.
For the next several years, like the natives in the movie, I clung to rituals
aimed at keeping him at bay. (I can only analyze my rituals with hindsight; at
the time, I was immersed in them unthinkingly.) Instead of human sacrifices, I
offered him neatness, a perfectly ordered room. Every night before going to bed,
I straightened all the stuff on my desk and bureau, arranged my stuffed animals
in rectangular tableaus and made sure all doors and drawers were tightly shut. I
started at one end of the room and worked my way around, counterclockwise; when
I finished, I started all over again, checking and rechecking my work three,
four or five times.
Going to bed became an ordeal. I hated my rituals; they were tedious and time-
consuming and very embarrassing. I knew they were stupid and always kept them
secret until, eventually, I grew out of them. I still harbor superstitions, of
course, but with less shame and more humor; I find them considerably less
If I were to mock religious belief as childish, if I were to suggest that
worshiping a supernatural deity, convinced that it cares about your welfare, is
like worrying about monsters in the closet who find you tasty enough to eat, if
I were to describe God as our creation, likening him to a mechanical gorilla,
I'd violate the norms of civility and religious correctness. I'd be excoriated
as an example of the cynical, liberal elite responsible for America's moral
decline. I'd be pitied for my spiritual blindness; some people would try to
enlighten and convert me. I'd receive hate mail. Atheists generate about as much
sympathy as pedophiles. But, while pedophilia may at least be characterized as a
disease, atheism is a choice, a willful rejection of beliefs to which vast
majorities of people cling.
Yet conventional wisdom holds that we suffer from an excess of secularism.
Virtuecrats from Hillary Clinton to William Bennett to Patrick Buchanan blame
America's moral decay on our lack of religious belief. "The great malady of
the 20th century" is "`loss of soul,'" best-selling author Thomas
Moore declares, complaining that "we don't believe in the soul." Of
course, if that were true, there'd be no buyers for his books. In fact, almost
all Americans (95 percent) profess belief in God or some universal spirit,
according to a 1994 survey by U.S. News and World Report. Seventy-six percent
imagine God as a heavenly father who actually pays attention to their prayers.
Gallup reports that 44 percent believe in the biblical account of creation and
that 36 percent of all Americans describe themselves as "born-again."
Adherence to mainstream religions is supplemented by experimentation with an
eclectic collection of New Age beliefs and practices. Roughly half of all
Catholics and Protestants surveyed by Gallup in 1991 believed in ESP; nearly as
many believed in psychic healing. Fifty-three percent of Catholics and 40
percent of Protestants professed belief in UFOs, and about one-quarter put their
faith in astrology. Nearly one-third of all American teenagers believe in
reincarnation. Once I heard Shirley MacLaine explain the principles of
reincarnation on the "Donahue" show. "Can you come back as a
bird?" one woman asked. "No," MacLaine replied, secure in her
convictions. "You only come back as a higher life form." No one asked
her how she knew.
In this climate--with belief in guardian angels and creationism becoming
commonplace--making fun of religion is as risky as burning a flag in an American
Legion hall. But, by admitting that they're fighting a winning battle, advocates
of renewed religiosity would lose the benefits of appearing besieged. Like
liberal rights organizations that attract more money when conservative
authoritarians are in power, religious groups inspire more believers when
secularism is said to hold sway. So editors at The Wall Street Journal protest
an "ardent hostility toward religion" in this country, claiming that
religious people are "suspect." When forced by facts to acknowledge
that God enjoys unshakable, non-partisan, majoritarian support, religion's
proselytizers charge that our country is nonetheless controlled by liberal
intellectual elites who disdain religious belief and have denied it a respected
Educated professionals tend to be embarrassed by belief, Yale Law Professor
Stephen Carter opined in The Culture of Disbelief, a best-selling complaint
about the fabled denigration of religion in public life. Carter acknowledges
that belief is widespread but argues that it has been trivialized by the
rationalist biases of elites and their insistence on keeping religion out of the
public sphere. Carter's thesis is echoed regularly by conservative commentators.
Another recent Wall Street Journal editorial asserted that religious
indoctrination is one of the most effective forms of drug treatment and wondered
at the "prejudice against religion by much of our judicial and media
elites." Newt Gingrich has attacked the "secular, anti-religious view
of the left."
No evidence is adduced to substantiate these charges of liberal irreligiosity
run rampant. No faithless liberals are named, no influential periodicals or
articles cited--perhaps because they're chimeras. Review the list of prominent
left-of-center opinion makers and public intellectuals. Who among them mocks
religion? Several have gained or increased their prominence partly through their
embrace of belief. Harvard Professor Cornel West is a part-time preacher;
Michael Lerner came into public view as Hillary Clinton's guru; Gloria Steinem
greatly expanded her mainstream appeal by writing about spirituality. Bill
Moyers, who introduced New Age holy men Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly to the
American public, regularly pays homage to faith in traditional and alternative
forms in television specials. Popular spirituality authors, like Thomas Moore,
are regarded as public intellectuals in spite or because of their pontifications
about faith. Even secular political theorists, preoccupied with civic virtue,
are overly solicitous of religion and religious communities.
The supposedly liberal, mainstream press offers unprecedented coverage of
religion, taking pains not to offend the faithful. An op-ed piece on popular
spirituality that I wrote for The New York Times this past summer was carefully
cleansed by my editors of any irreverence toward established religion (although
I was invited to mock New Age). I was not allowed to observe that, while Hillary
Clinton was criticized for conversing with Eleanor Roosevelt, millions of
Americans regularly talk to Jesus, long deceased, and that many people believe
that God talks to them, unbidden. Nor was I permitted to point out that, to an
atheist, the sacraments are as silly as a sťance. These remarks and others were
excised because they were deemed "offensive."
Indeed, what's striking about American intellectuals today, liberal and
conservative alike, is not their Voltairean skepticism but their deference to
belief and their utter failure to criticize, much less satirize, America's
romance with God. They've abandoned the tradition of caustic secularism that
once provided refuge for the faithless: people "are all insane," Mark
Twain remarked in Letters from the Earth. "Man is a marvelous curiosity ...
he thinks he is the Creator's pet ... he even believes the Creator loves him;
has a passion for him; sits up nights to admire him; yes and watch over him and
keep him out of trouble. He prays to him and thinks He listens. Isn't it a
quaint idea." No prominent liberal thinker writes like that anymore.
Religion is "so absurd that it comes close to imbecility," H.L.
Mencken declared in Treatise on the Gods. "The priest, realistically
considered, is the most immoral of men, for he is always willing to sacrifice
every other sort of good to the one good of his arcanum--the vague body of
mysteries that he calls the truth."
Mencken was equally scornful of the organized church: "Since the early
days, [it] has thrown itself violently against every effort to liberate the body
and mind of man. It has been, at all times and everywhere, the habitual and
incorrigible defender of bad governments, bad laws, bad social theories, bad
institutions. It was, for centuries, an apologist for slavery, as it was an
apologist for the divine right of kings." Mencken was not entirely
unsympathetic to the wishful thinking behind virtually all religion--the belief
that we needn't die, that the universe isn't arbitrary and indifferent to our
plight, that we are governed by a supernatural being whom we might induce to
favor us. Still, while a staunch defender of the right to say or think virtually
anything, he singled out as "the most curious social convention of the
great age in which we live" the notion that religious opinions themselves
(not just the right to harbor them) "should be respected." Name one
widely published intellectual today who would dare to write that.
Mencken would have been deeply dismayed by contemporary public policy
discussions: left and right, they are suffused with piety. The rise of virtue
talk--which generally takes the form of communitarianism on the left and
nostalgia for Victorianism on the right--has resulted in a striking re-
moralization of public policy debates. Today, it's rare to hear a non- normative
analysis of social problems, one that doesn't focus on failings of individual
character or collective virtue: discussions of structural unemployment have
given way to jeremiads about the work ethic; approaches to juvenile crime focus
on the amorality of America's youth, not the harsh deprivations that shape them.
Among academic and media elites, as well as politicians, there is considerable
agreement that social pathologies such as crime, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy
and chronic welfare dependency are, at least in part, symptomatic of spiritual
malaise--loss of faith in God or a more generalized anomie. (Some blame TV.) Try
to imagine an avowed atheist running successfully for public office; it's hard
enough for politicians to oppose prayer in school.
Today, proposals for silent school prayer promise to bring spirituality into the
classroom, avoiding religious sectarianism. "Spirituality," a term
frequently used to describe the vaguest intimations of supernatural realities,
is popularly considered a mark of virtue and is as hostile to atheism as
religious belief. Spirituality, after all, is simply religion
deinstitutionalized and shorn of any exclusionary doctrines. In a pluralistic
marketplace, it has considerable appeal. Spirituality embraces traditional
religious and New Age practices, as well as forays into pop psychology and a
devotion to capitalism. Exercises in self-esteem and recovery from various
addictions are presented as spiritual endeavors by codependency experts ranging
from John Bradshaw to Gloria Steinem. The generation of wealth is spiritualized
by best-selling personal development gurus such as Deepak Chopra, author of The
Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, which offers "the ability to create
unlimited wealth with effortless ease." (Some sixty years ago, Napoleon
Hill's best-selling Think and Grow Rich made readers a similar promise.)
Spirituality discourages you from passing judgment on any of these endeavors:
it's egalitarian, ranking no one religion over another, and doesn't require
people to choose between faiths. You can claim to be a spiritual person without
professing loyalty to a particular dogma or even understanding it. Spirituality
makes no intellectual demands on you; all it requires is a general belief in
immaterialism (which can be used to increase your material possessions.
In our supposedly secular culture, atheists, like Madelyn Murray O'Hare, are
demonized more than renegade believers, like Jimmy Swaggart. Indeed, popular
Christian theology suggests that repentant sinners on their way to Heaven will
look down upon ethical atheists bound for Hell. Popular spirituality authors,
who tend to deny the existence of Hell, and evil, suggest that atheists and
other skeptics are doomed to spiritual stasis (the worst fate they can imagine).
You might pity such faithless souls, but you wouldn't trust them.
You might not even extend equal rights to them. America's pluralistic ideal does
not protect atheism; public support for different belief systems is matched by
intolerance of disbelief. According to surveys published in the early 1980s,
before today's pre-millennial religious revivalism, nearly 70 percent of all
Americans agreed that the freedom to worship "applies to all religious
groups, regardless of how extreme their beliefs are"; but only 26 percent
agreed that the freedom of atheists to make fun of God and religion "should
be legally protected no matter who might be offended." Seventy-one percent
held that atheists "who preach against God and religion" should not be
permitted to use civic auditoriums. Intolerance for atheism was stronger even
than intolerance of homosexuality.
Like heterosexuality, faith in immaterial realities is popularly considered
essential to individual morality. When politicians proclaim their belief in God,
regardless of their religion, they are signaling their trustworthiness and
adherence to traditional moral codes of behavior, as well as their humility.
Belief in God levels human hierarchies while offering infallible systems of
right and wrong. By declaring your belief, you imply that an omnipotent,
omniscient (and benign) force is the source of your values and ideas. You
appropriate the rightness of divinity.
It's not surprising that belief makes so many people sanctimonious. Whether or
not it makes them good is impossible to know. Considering its history, you can
safely call organized religion a mixed blessing. Apart from its obvious
atrocities--the Crusades or the Salem witch trials--religion is a fount of
quotidian oppressions, as anyone who's ever lost a job because of sexual
orientation might attest. Of course, religion has been a force of liberation, as
well. The civil rights movement demonstrated Christianity's power to inspire and
maintain a struggle against injustice. Today, churches provide moral leadership
in the fight to maintain social welfare programs, and in recent history, whether
opposing Star Wars or providing sanctuary to Salvadoran refugees, church leaders
have lent their moral authority to war resistance. Over time, the clergy may
have opposed as many wars as they started.
It is as difficult to try to quantify the effect of organized religion on human
welfare as it is to generalize about the character, behavior and beliefs of all
religious people. Religion is probably less a source for good or evil in people
than a vehicle for them. "Religion is only good for good people," Mary
McCarthy wrote, in the days when liberal intellectuals may have deserved a
reputation for skepticism.
It's equally difficult to generalize about the character of non-believers.
Indeed, the disdain for self righteousness that atheism and agnosticism tend to
encourage make them particularly difficult to defend. How do you make the case
for not believing in God without falling into the pit of moral certainty
squirming with believers? You can't accurately claim that atheists are
particularly virtuous or intelligent or even courageous: some are just resigned
to their existential terrors.
Of course, whether or not atheists are in general better or worse citizens than
believers, neither the formation of individual character nor religious belief is
the business of government. Government is neither competent nor empowered to
ease our existential anxieties; its jurisdiction is the material world of
hardship and injustice. It can and should make life a little more fair, and, in
order to do so, it necessarily enforces some majoritarian notions of moral
behavior--outlawing discrimination, for example, or a range of violent assaults.
But, in a state that respects individual privacy, law can only address bad
behavior, not bad thoughts, and cannot require adherence to what are considered
good thoughts--like love of God. Government can help make people comfortable,
ensuring access to health care, housing, education and the workplace. But
government cannot make people good.
Champions of more religion in public life are hard put to reconcile the
prevailing mistrust of government's ability to manage mundane human affairs--
like material poverty--with the demand that it address metaphysical problems,
like poverty of spirit. It is becoming increasingly popular to argue, for
example, that welfare recipients should be deprived of government largess for
their own good, to defeat the "culture of dependency," while
middle-class believers receive government subsidies (vouchers) to finance the
private, religious education of their kids.
Even those "judicial elites" scorned by Wall Street Journal editorial
writers for their hostility to religion are increasingly apt to favor state
support for private religious activities. In a remarkable recent decision,
Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the Supreme Court held that private
religious groups are entitled to direct public funding. Rosenberger involved a
Christian student newspaper at the University of Virginia that was denied
funding provided to other student groups because of its religiosity. A state-run
institution, the university is subject to the First Amendment strictures imposed
on any governmental entity. Reflecting obvious concern about state entanglement
in the exercise of religion, the school's funding guidelines prohibited the
distribution of student activities funds to religious groups. The guidelines did
not discriminate against any particular religion or viewpoint; funds were
withheld from any group that "primarily promotes or manifests a particular
belief in or about a deity or an ultimate reality." The student paper at
issue in the case was actively engaged in proselytizing.
Arguing that the University of Virginia had an obligation to pay for the
publication of this paper, as it paid for other student activities, editors of
the newspaper, Wide Awake, sued the school and ultimately prevailed in the
Supreme Court, which, like other "elitist" institutions, has become
more protective of religion than concerned about its establishment by the state.
In a five to four decision, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court held
that the denial of funding to Wide Awake constituted "viewpoint
discrimination." Religion was not "excluded as a subject matter"
from fundable student discussions, the Court observed; instead funding
guidelines excluded discussions of secular issues shaped by "student
journalistic efforts with religious editorial viewpoints."
It is one of the ironies of the church/state debate that the equation of
Christianity (and other sects) with worldly ideologies, such as Marxism,
supply-side economics, theories of white supremacy, agnosticism or feminism, has
been championed by the religious right. Those inclined to worship, who believe
that their sect offers access to Heaven, are the last people you'd expect to
argue that religion is just another product vying for shelf space in the
marketplace, entitled to the same treatment as its competitors. You wouldn't
expect critics of secularism to suggest that devout Christians are merely
additional claimants of individual rights: religion is more often extolled by
virtuecrats as an antidote to untrammeled individualism. But new Christian
advocacy groups, modeled after advocacy groups on the left, are increasingly
portraying practicing Christians as citizens oppressed by secularism and are
seeking judicial protection. The American Center for Law and Justice (aclj),
founded by Pat Robertson, is one of the leaders in this movement, borrowing not
just most of the acronym but the tactics of the American Civil Liberties Union
in a fight for religious "rights."
It's worth noting that, in this battle over rights, science--religion's frequent
nemesis--is often reduced to a mere viewpoint as well. Evolution is just a
"theory," or point of view, fundamentalist champions of creationism
assert; they demand equal time for the teaching of "creation science,"
which is described as an alternative theory, or viewpoint, about the origin of
the universe. "If evolution is true, then it has nothing to fear from some
other theory being taught," one Tennessee state senator declared, using
liberal faith in the open marketplace of ideas to rationalize the teaching of
So far, the Supreme Court has rejected this view of creationism as an
alternative scientific theory, and intellectual elites who are hostile to
secularism but who champion religion's role in public life generally oppose the
teaching of "creation science"; they are likely to ground their
opposition in creationism's dubious scientific credibility, not its religiosity.
Stephen Carter argues that the religious motivations of creationists are
irrelevant; the religious underpinnings of laws prohibiting murder do not
invalidate them, he observes.
Carter is right to suggest that legislation is often based in religion (which
makes you wonder why he complains about secularism). You'd be hard-pressed to
find a period in American history when majoritarian religious beliefs did not
influence law and custom. From the nineteenth century through the twentieth,
anti-vice campaigns--against alcohol, pornography and extramarital or premarital
sex--have been overtly religious, fueled by sectarian notions of sin. Domestic
relations laws long reflected particular religious ideas about gender roles
(which some believe are divinely ordained). But religion's impact on law is
usually recognized and deemed problematic only in cases involving minority
religious views: Christian ideas about marriage are incorporated into law while
the Mormon practice of polygamy is prohibited.
I 'm not suggesting that religious people should confine their beliefs to the
home or that religion, like sex, does not belong in the street. The First
Amendment does not give you a right to fornicate in public, but it does protect
your right to preach. Secularists are often wrongly accused of trying to purge
religious ideals from public discourse. We simply want to deny them public
sponsorship. Religious beliefs are essentially private prerogatives, which means
that individuals are free to invoke them in conducting their public lives--and
that public officials are not empowered to endorse or adopt them. How could our
opinions about political issues not be influenced by our personal ideals?
Obviously, people carry their faith in God, Satan, crystals or UFOs into town
meetings, community organizations and voting booths. Obviously, a core belief in
the supernatural is not severable from beliefs about the natural world and the
social order. It is the inevitable effect of religion on public policy that
makes it a matter of public concern. Advocates of religiosity extol the virtues
or moral habits that religion is supposed to instill in us. But we should be
equally concerned with the intellectual habits it discourages.
Religions, of course, have their own demanding intellectual traditions, as
Jesuits and Talmudic scholars might attest. Smart people do believe in Gods and
devote themselves to uncovering Their truths. But, in its less rigorous, popular
forms, religion is about as intellectually challenging as the average self-help
book. (Like personal development literature, mass market books about
spirituality and religion celebrate emotionalism and denigrate reason. They
elevate the "truths" of myths and parables over empiricism.) In its
more authoritarian forms, religion punishes questioning and rewards gullibility.
Faith is not a function of stupidity but a frequent cause of it.
The magical thinking encouraged by any belief in the supernatural, combined with
the vilification of rationality and skepticism, is more conducive to conspiracy
theories than it is to productive political debate. Conspiratorial thinking
abounds during this period of spiritual and religious revivalism. And, if only
small minorities of Americans ascribe to the most outrageous theories in
circulation these days--that a cabal of Jewish bankers run the world, that aids
was invented in a laboratory by a mad white scientist intent on racial
genocide--consider the number who take at face value claims that Satanists are
conspiring to abuse America's children. According to a 1994 survey by Redbook,
70 percent of Americans believed in the existence of Satanic cults engaged in
ritual abuse; nearly one-third believed that the FBI and local police were
purposefully ignoring their crimes. (They would probably not be convinced by a
recent FBI report finding no evidence to substantiate widespread rumors of
Satanic abuse.) As Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker report in Satan's Silence,
these beliefs infect public life in the form of baseless prosecutions and
convictions. If religion engenders civic virtue, by imparting "good"
values, it also encourages public hysteria by sanctifying bad thinking.
Skepticism about claims of abuse involving Satanism or recovered memories would
serve the public interest, not to mention the interests of those wrongly
accused, much more than eagerness to believe and avenge all self-proclaimed
victims. Skepticism is essential to criminal justice: guilt is supposed to be
proven, not assumed. Skepticism, even cynicism, should play an equally important
role in political campaigns, particularly today, when it is in such disrepute.
Politicians have learned to accuse anyone who questions or opposes them of
"cynicism," a popular term of opprobrium associated with spiritual
stasis or soullessness. If "cynic" is a synonym for
"critic," it's a label any thoughtful person might embrace, even at
the risk of damnation.
This is not an apology for generalized mistrust of government. Blind mistrust
merely mirrors blind faith and makes people equally gullible. Would a resurgence
of skepticism and rationality make us smarter? Not exactly, but it would balance
supernaturalism and the habit of belief with respect for empirical realities,
which should influence the formulation of public policy more than faith.
Rationalism would be an antidote to prejudice, which is, after all, a form of
faith. Think, to cite one example, of people whose unreasoned faith in the moral
degeneracy of homosexuals leads them to accept unquestioningly the claim that
gay teachers are likely to molest their students. Faith denies facts, and that
is not always a virtue.
New Republic 1996
Wendy Kaminer is a Public Policy Fellow at Radcliffe College and author most
recently of True Love Waits: Essays and Criticism (Addison Wesley).