Chaotic Reflections On Heresy

The USSR, America, North Korea, China

February 9, 2006

I find myself wondering why the ruling classes of America are so grindingly antagonistic to religion. I understand having no interest in religion. I do not understand the animosity.

One might say, “The world’s religions are so many, so internally inconsistent and contradictory of each other, and so dependent on assertions which seem to me not to be factual, that I cannot believe any of them.” The position is neither unreasonable nor rabid. One holding it might go about his affairs, leaving others to believe as they chose. He might respect the faith of others without sharing it, might regard religions as harmless and colorful folklore, might indeed regard them as socially beneficent.

In the Unites States, though, we see something very different: an aggressive hostility to religion, a desire to extirpate it and, though no one quite says this, to punish its practitioners. A curious witch-hunt continues in which people seem to look for any trace of religion so that they can root it out. I would call it vengeful, except that I do not know for what it might be revenge.

Why? The explanations given do not make sense. A store whose sign says “Merry Christmas” is a threat to nothing, just as a nativity scene can offend only one who is looking very hard for something to offend him. The stridency of the evolutionists seems overblown, since a mention of the theory of intelligent design in the high schools would hardly lead to the closing of departments of biochemistry.

The notion that the Ten Commandments on the wall of a courthouse will lead to an established religion is palpable nonsense. Constitutional piety doesn’t wash either. If nativity scenes contravene the Constitution, why was this not noticed by anyone, assuredly including the authors, until at least 1950?

(I am reminded of the old joke about the high school that issued a boy a condom, and expelled him when he was discovered praying for a chance to use it.)

A common reading is that the sciences have become a sort of secular religion, with the Big Bang replacing Genesis, and evolution as a sort of deanthropomorphized god chivying humanity onward and upward. There is a large element of this, yes. The self-righteous intolerance directed by disciples of evolution against religion assuredly resembles the intolerance of religion against heresy. Does this explain the anger of the rooters-out? Is it partly that believers in America tend to be Southern or Catholic, both of which are regarded as politically inappropriate conditions?

Why have the sciences achieved such power over the popular mind? Obvious answers are that they work spectacularly within their ambit, that they produce wondrous gadgets, that they are swathed in incomprehensible runes such as triple integrals or tensors dripping with sub- and superscripts, and have resounding incantations like “pentaerythritol tetranitrate.”

I wonder whether something else is not involved. Today most of us live in profound isolation from the natural world. People in large cities can go for decades without seeing the stars. Should they drive through the countryside, it will be in a closed automobile with the air-conditioning running. On a trip to the beach, the sand will be overrun by hordes of people, half of them on whining jet skis.

We exist utterly in a manmade cocoon, as much as desert termites in their mud towers. This, I think, profoundly alters our inner landscapes. Live in the rolling hills around Austin, say, as they were before they were turned into suburbs, with the wind soughing through the empty expanse and low vegetation stretching into the distance, the stars hanging low and close in the night, and you get a sense of man’s smallness in the scheme of nature, of the transitoriness of life, a suspicion that there may perhaps be more things in heaven and earth. It makes for reflection of a sort that throughout history has turned toward the religious.

People no longer live in large wild settings, but amid malls and freeways. The ancients believed that the earth was the center of the cosmos. We believe that we are. There is little to suggest otherwise in manicured suburbs and cities where the sirens will be howling at all hours. It is an empty world that begets philosophically empty thinking.

Without the sense of being small in a large universe, and perhaps not even very important, the question arises, “Is this all there is?” and the answer appears to be “Yes.” Without the awe and wonder and mystery of a larger cosmos, existence reduces to blowing smog, competitive acquisition of consumer goods, and vapid television with laugh tracks. We focus on efficiency, production, and the material because they are all we have. It is not particularly satisfying, and so we are not particularly satisfied.

I suspect that the decline of religion stems less from the advance of scientific knowledge than from the difficulty of discerning the transcendent in a parking lot. Certainly the scientific has generally replaced the religious mode of thought, even in people who believe themselves to be Christians. For example, it is amusing to hear them saying that the parting of the Red Sea refers to diminution of water by a wind in what was essentially a swamp. That is, God is all-powerful, but only to the extent that he behaves consistently with the prevailing weather.

Yet note the decline of even non-religious contemplation of such matters as meaning and purpose, right and wrong, ultimate good, and so on. It is not that people behave worse without faith, but that they cannot explain why they do not. The use of the sciences as a substitute for belief in God or gods has produced a religion that cannot ask the questions central to religion. It has also made discussion of such questions a cause for eliminating the offender from the guest list for the next cocktail party.

But this does not answer the question of why the hostile stalking of religion that pervades the ranks of the educated and influential in the United States. In almost all times and places, disbelief and secularism have existed, yes. Few educated Romans actually believed in Jupiter the Lightning Chucker. There have been Cathars and Wiccans and Manicheans and innumerable agnostics. Yet, so far as I know, only communism and Americanism (is that the word, perhaps?) have tried to eradicate religion.

Mexico has separation of church and state, and yet a bus driver can display a crucifix without upsetting anyone. I do not know how many Thais are believing Buddhists. Certainly Buddhist symbols are visible everywhere, and it doesn’t seem to have engendered disaster. Why the angry rejection in the US? I will get email telling me that it is a Jewish plot, like everything else, but in fact it is the default attitude of the educated. Why? Who cares?