Religion is a subject near to my heart, although not exactly dear to it; I had been looking forward to reading this issue of Lapham's Quarterly for two months. Lewis Lapham's introductory essay, "Mandates of Heaven," started off with a seemingly worrisome disclaimer that "[t]his issue of Lapham's Quarterly doesn't trade in divine revelation, engage in theological dispute, or doubt the existence of God," but I soon discovered a simpatico soul behind the editorial tact. Lapham writes:
I came to my early acquaintance with the Bible in company with my first readings of Grimm's Fairy Tales and Bulfinch's Mythology, but as an unbaptized child raised in a family unaffiliated with the teachings of a church, I missed the explanation as to why the stories about Moses and Jesus were to be taken as true while those about Apollo and Rumpelstiltskin were not. (p. 13)
As usual, the selection of historical material is first-rate: Marx's "opium of the people," Nietzsche's "God is dead," and Pascal's infamous wager rub shoulders with Joan of Arc, St Teresa of Avila, and Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. One false note was struck with this partial sentence from Washington's Farewell Address, which was truncated past the point of obscuring its nuance:
...reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. (p. 107)
A fuller version of that passage adds the necessary context:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
It's the same old atheists-are-less-ethical argument that we saw, surprisingly, in Locke's "Letter Concerning Toleration:" "those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God." A good antidote to this sort of religious bigotry is the extract from Jean Meslier's not-yet-infamous-enough Testament, which is nearly bold enough to make the Four Horsemen of atheism blush:
Don't fool yourselves, my dear friends... [...] Your religion is no less vain or less superstitious than any other; it's no less false in its principles, no less ridiculous and absurd in its dogma and maxims. You're no less idolatrous than those who you yourselves accuse and condemn of idolatry--the idols of pagans are different from yours only in name and shape. (p. 33)
This passage is contained in Chapter 2 of the first complete English edition of Meslier's Testament, released last year by famed freethought publisher Prometheus Books. Since I gave up sugar-coating my atheism for Lent, I'm looking forward to reading the entire work and feasting on it past the famous morsel (less famous, however, than a later version by Denis Diderot) about the confluence of ecclesiastical and political power:
I remember the wish of a man a while back who had no culture or education, but who, to all appearances, did not lack the common sense to pass sound judgments on all these detestable abuses and tyrannies. [...] His wish was that all the rulers of the earth and all the nobles be hanged and strangled with the guts of priests.
This expression may seem hard, rude, and shocking, but [...] it expresses very well in a few words everything these kinds of men deserve. (Testament, p. 37)
Speaking of the separation of church and state, far too few people are familiar with these words from Tocqueville's Democracy in America:
I found that they [members of all the different sects] differed upon matters of detail alone; and that they mainly attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country to the separation of Church and State. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet with a single individual, of the clergy or of the laity, who was not of the same opinion upon this point. (p. 29)
My, how times have changed. It is common now among the politicized preachers on the Right to claim that church/state separation is "a lie of the Left" or some such nonsense. A century of fundamentalism has done a great deal of harm to our nation, to which the Religious Right stands as the most egregious exemplar and secularism the broadest bulwark. Warren Breckman's essay "Secular Revival"(pp. 203-212) is of particular interest for his reference to "the emergence of modern secularism, including outright atheism" as an "extraordinary event:"
After all, from the earliest evidence of human symbolic activity--art, song, dance, and ritual--dating back at least fifty thousand years, there is evidence of religion: conceptions of an afterlife, of deities, and of the human desire to summon these supernatural powers. Measured against this vast stretch of time, the strictly naturalist conception of the world is a brand new creature. It may have begun to stir as long ago as three, four, five, or six hundred years--exact chronology is not the really important point. To an ear tuned to the long duration of human history, the claim that the cosmos is godless still rings with bold novelty.
...if the human past was fully intertwined with religion, the future is long and open. As far as the eye can see, it is a future indelibly stamped by the great turning point when nonbelief entered the world.
That turning point has been on the horizon, however, since ancient Greece:
"But if horses or oxen or lions had hands
or could draw with their hands and accomplish such works as men,
horses would draw the figures of their gods as similar to horses,
and the oxen as similar to oxen,
and each they would make the bodies
of the sort which each of them had."
(Xenophanes of Colophon: Fragments, A Text and Translation with a Commentary, Fragment 15, trans. J.H. Lesher, p. 89)
Skepticism's flowering into out atheism has taken rather a long time, from Montesquieu's parallel observation two thousand years later that "if triangles were to make to themselves gods, they would give them three sides" (Persian Letters Letter 59, 1721) to today's secularism-with-strength. Publications such as Lapham's Quarterly can help, by nudging the process along in a more thoughtful and insightful path.
Now that I've read this issue, my magazine backlog (which has continued with the addition of a few issues of Common Review, Democracy, Dissent, Foreign Policy, TPM, and the like) is finally finished. My next reading adventure is taking shape, but I won't have any more to say about that until a little later.