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Commentary

Worshipers at the Secular Altar

June 17, 2004|David Klinghoffer | David Klinghoffer is a columnist for the Jewish Forward. His latest book is "The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism" (Doubleday, 2003).

Everyone knows that the place of religion in the public sphere is facing serious challenges. There is some confusion, however, about where those challenges come from. Is it from civil libertarians? Atheists? Actually, no. The larger answer to the question may surprise you.

Consider the Supreme Court's decision to overturn a ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that struck the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. Affecting 10 million schoolchildren in nine Western states, the 9th Circuit's ruling was rejected on a technicality: The Supreme Court felt that the California atheist, Michael Newdow, who brought the case lacked procedural standing to do so.

Or consider the battle over the official seal of Los Angeles County. The seal includes a tiny cross, over which the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to file suit. After the civil libertarians successfully intimidated the county supervisors -- who agreed to alter the seal -- more than 1,000 people rallied at the county's Hall of Administration to keep the cross on the seal. Other American cities and counties with crosses on their seals await suits or threats from the ACLU.

What we are observing here is not what it may appear to be -- a struggle of religion against no religion. It is instead a battle pitting one religion, broadly speaking, against another. On one side we have, primarily, the biblical faith of Jews and Christians. On the other side, secularism. If you object that secularism has no deity, remember that other recognized faiths, for example Zen Buddhism, likewise lack a belief in God.

What is a religion, then? Simply, a system of beliefs based on stories that explain where life comes from, what life means, and what we, as living beings, are supposed to be doing with our few allotted years. Judaism and Christianity have their sacred stories -- the biblical account of creation, followed by Noah's flood and on through the entire narrative of Scripture -- along with their codes of right conduct. For Jews and Christians, the meaning of human existence lies in communion with God in the context of eternal life.

For each element of Judeo-Christian faith, secularism has its counterpart. Like Christianity and Judaism, secularism promises eternal life -- well, long life, which is the central point of the most common strain of secular faith and which explains the pop-cultural focus on moral commandments having to do with physical health: Thou shalt not smoke. Thou shalt not get fat. Thou shalt fight global warming by taking the bus to work. Indeed, thou shalt vote for public subsidies for mass transit. In secularist doctrine, a fat person isn't merely unhealthy; he is a sinner in need of salvation. To address his situation, one secular gospel preaches the good news of the South Beach Diet, another that of the apostle Atkins.

There is a secular creation account -- evolution through random mutation and natural selection, a just-so story increasingly challenged by scientists. A few years ago the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank, took out advertisements in the New York Review of Books and the New Republic listing a hundred distinguished Darwin-doubting scholars, at institutions from Berkeley to MIT.

There is even a flood story, told in the new movie "The Day After Tomorrow," wherein a modern-day Noah (played by Dennis Quaid) warns of an impending inundation brought on by global warming. As in biblical tradition, his neighbors pay no attention and subsequently perish. At the film's end, a few survivors are picked up by helicopter from the tops of Manhattan skyscrapers, just as Noah and his family survive when their ark is cast up on the peak of Mt. Ararat.

It emerges that, in the controversies surrounding the Pledge of Allegiance and the L.A. County seal, what we're seeing is an unacknowledged interreligious civil war. Centuries ago in Europe and the Middle East, intolerant faiths sought to suppress one another, erasing symbols of their rivals wherever possible. Churches were converted to mosques, their crosses removed. Synagogues were converted into churches, their Jewish symbols effaced. Today the church of secularism agitates against its rival, the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the interest of honest debate, at the very least it would be of benefit to recognize secularism for what it is: an aggressive religion competing for converts, a faith lacking the candor to speak openly of its aims.

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