The idea of having other gods is a commonplace for Christians. We hear sermons on it, read books about it, teach it to our children. We know from the examination of our own hearts that such things are not only possible, but the natural state of things. There is a spiritual Second Law of Thermodynamics that says we will move inexorably toward lesser, path-of-least-resistance gods unless organizing energy is put into the system.
Yet few things are less congenial to a nonbeliever’s mind. I have lost friends almost immediately after asserting to them that they do indeed have a religion, whether they recognize it or not. That may be my fault for putting it so bluntly. The idea seemed very natural and unremarkable to me, having encountered it in myself so often. To set up Education, or Comfort, or Books, or Position, or Fame, or Freedom of Action as a small deity with a shrine of its own somewhere in my life is something I do almost accidentally. Self-examination or events of the week cause me to stumble over its altar: “Hey look, there’s a god there! Darn.” These days, my computer is God's Rival.
The initial difficulty comes because people think that to be called a religion, something has to have formal prayers or worship in it. If they don’t wear special vestments, or sing songs while thinking about Something, or get together with others to agree that they have a religion and this is it, they don’t think it should be called a religion. There’s some justice in that. Religion often does mean those things, and if we’re going to use common words in a different way, we have some obligation to clarify. I have several times mentioned here that liberalism is a religion – as conservatism can also be, though that is currently less automatic. It is easy to find people online who claim that environmentalism is a religion.
Where that goes wrong is that it is running way too far ahead. What we mean is if you examine this set of beliefs closely, you will find that it resolves into something that functions like a religion. And once we have stated it in that complicated fashion, it’s obvious that no one’s going to swallow that concept at one gulp. We need to go more slowly on that.
I have several times been in the CS Lewis “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” debate with people, and I have never convinced anyone. (Even playing an Arts & Humanities trump card and saying that it comes from a medieval formulation aut Deus aut homo malus – either God or a bad man – has been unpersuasive.) People put forward all sorts of ideas about Jesus that they say do not fall into any of those. That’s true, in its simplest sense. What I should have argued is that all claims about Jesus eventually resolve into one of those three. The resolution, however, is not always immediately apparent.
If we start from the other end, and claim that everyone has some set of animating principles by which they have learned to interpret the world, there may be less objection. “Oh well then, if that’s all you mean, then of course that’s true.” Or to take it from another angle, that everyone has things they pursue and sacrifice for that pushes out lesser goals. I think it is only through long examination and many steps that people come to a realization that their desire to focus on rescuing the environment is based on an idea of leaving some legacy (why, one asks, should we care at all?); that this proposed legacy includes an idea of how the world should look; that this should is based on some idea of nature left over from summer camp, or from ideas of stewardship, or aesthetics. Only well down the line can people begin to absorb the ideas that this particular legacy may be tied in with having only one child, or none; that it wishes most for others to look at nature as they do; that it wishes, in fact for all people to be like them in some essential characteristic; that it is, in fact, a religion, with triumphant vision, ritual, sacrifice, and the giving of oneself.
Or similarly, people believe that we should move toward a world of no violence. For what reason? (I don’t disagree, but it helps to ask the question.) It would be better now if we had a world which resolved things through negotiation, so it is natural to think that those who come after will want the same. Let us attempt to move toward that world, then.
Yet why? We don’t know the people who will be running the joint in 2100, and they may be doing a lot of junk we disapprove of. We might not like them. And they may not like us. So why bother? If we have determined visions of preserving what is valuable no matter what Dark Ages may lie ahead – and I have those thoughts often – what is the reason? I know my reasons – they spring directly from my religion.
My most radical-lib friend claims to care not a whit about the year 2100, and in one sense, I believe him. He hates George Bush and the corporatocracy because they are destroying human freedom with their fascist overthrow of democratic principles. When you press him, he cannot allow it directly, but it is clear that he wants people to live a certain way in the world – for certain values to rule. He wants, in short, for others to be like himself and his friends. He believes if all this junk and superstition is cleared away, if the powermongers are held in check and the wise people allowed to direct things, that everyone will see that this is best and be happier. When his tribe wins, all will be well. He doesn’t sing songs about his tribe; certainly he does not pray to his friends or some idea of the ubermensch that is within our grasp; he doesn’t think he goes to worship services. But it’s a religion.
“Worship at the church of your choice*” the public service TV ad used to run when I was a child. Yes, children, that was broadcast over the public airwaves in the old days, and no one thought it odd. In 1960, 96% of Americans claimed to have some affiliation with a place of worship. It may have been that faith was a mile wide and an inch deep, but it was indeed a mile wide. That line comes to me on Sunday mornings as we drive to church. One person is running – ah, a body-worshipper; another has a skimobile or ATV in tow – ah, a fun-worshipper; the café is full – another type of body-worshipper, or perhaps a socialization worshipper. This one does the crossword and reads the NYTimes Review of Books. Another goes to work to make money or rise in society. Yet another plays with the children, a gentler religion, bearing resemblance to the faith of his fathers, but insidious nonetheless. “Worship at the church of your choice.” You do.
*Those who worship on other days, no offense meant.