Excommunicating the Almighty

When I was in college, a fellow named Brother Jim would visit the campus during lunchtime and evangelize on a small grassy region. He inveighed against promiscuity and general heathenism, adding admonishments of perdition for the unrepentant.

Brother Jim evoked intense responses from some students. Most found his harangues a loopy amusement between classes. It was like a free circus show: "Let's go see Brother Jim." (This is to say condescension rather than disagreement prevailed.)

Once while dozing off to some leftist essay or another, someone approached and asked if I'd like to attend a nearby Bible study group. I declined. The individual said ok and left an open invitation. I said thanks and resumed my dozing.

Neither Brother Jim nor the Bible group solicitor coerced anyone; they simply offered their views for consideration in the marketplace of ideas (Brother Jim more vigorously). One could reject both without repercussion.

It would be accurate to say Brother Jim and the Bible group solicitor appreciated pluralistic coexistence. Perhaps they were mindful of how freedom of conscience suffers in tyrannies and understood that imposed faith (if such a thing is possible) is no path to justice – advocacy yes, imposition no.

"[I]t bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life." So wrote Chief Justice William Rehnquist of the majority opinion in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, which nullified student-led prayer at football games. Unlike Brother Jim and the Bible group solicitor, the six-justice majority (only two of them Democratic appointments) imposed their exclusivist sentiments upon the students in question. When it comes to matters of faith, there exists a presumption of illegitimacy. (To put it in legalese, strict scrutiny must be applied to the devout.)

Call it the excommunication of the Almighty. If a theocratic intolerance once reigned in parts of America, a similarly intolerant and more expansive secularism has been entrenched thanks to elite institutions such as the Supreme Court. (For those who equate judicial imprimatur with Holy Writ, ask them their take on a case like Bradwell v. Illinois, where the Court held women could be barred – pun intended – from practicing law.)

Some scholars won't hesitate to indicate their desire for a godless America. Take the prominent philosopher Richard Rorty, votary of John Dewey and avowed leftist. He writes in his recent Philosophy and Social Hope, "Dewey had stories to tell us about our progress from Plato to Bacon to the Mills, from religion to rationalism to experimentalism, from tyranny to feudalism to democracy." Note the parallelism between religion and tyranny and its inferior rung on the ladder of progress.

Rorty's most explicit antipathy to religion manifests in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Convictions grounded in transcendent truth have no place in his prescribed polity:

"[I]n its ideal form, the culture of liberalism [not classical, of course] would be one which was enlightened, secular, through and through. It would be one in which no trace of divinity remained, either in the form of a divinized world or a divinized self. Such a culture would have no room for the notion that there are nonhuman forces to which human beings should be responsible. The process of de-divinization which I have described…would, ideally, culminate in our no longer being able to see any use for the notion that finite, mortal, contingently existing human beings might derive the meanings of their lives from anything except other finite, contingently existing human beings. In such a culture, warnings of u2018relativism,' queries whether social institutions had become increasingly u2018rational' in modern times, and doubts about whether the aims of liberal society were u2018objective moral values' would seem merely quaint."

When Rorty elsewhere writes of "philosophical pluralists like myself," it rings just a little hollow in light of these sentiments.

Another philosopher, Hilary Putnam, offers a counterpoint to Rorty. A former Marxist-Leninst and SDS faculty advisor "connected with a Maoist group," Putnam concluded in 1972 "that I would rather be governed by Nixon than by my own u2018comrades.'" He offers a piece of wisdom for those who think revolution denotes salvation: "What is wrong with the argument that u2018it will take a revolution' to end injustice is that revolutions don't mean an end to injustice." (Putnam's description of Peruvian philosopher Francisco Miro Casada gives a good idea of his current politics: "I found him a man who represents the social democratic vision in its purest form.")

"As a practicing Jew," Putnam writes, "I am someone for whom the religious dimension of life has become increasingly important." He finds in religion "a sense of human limits," the converse of "the deification of man" rejected as humanism's great falsity. This isn't to say Putnam is uncritical of religion. His criticism, however, is informed by recognition of alternative deficiencies:

"The sense of the sacred is not necessarily a good thing; it can lead one to do terrible things. Of course for that very reason in the nineteenth century people said we should stop believing in the sacred, and then we won't do terrible things any more. Then we had two very atheist dictators, called Stalin and Hitler, who between them killed even more people than anyone had killed in the name of the sacred."

Reich, homo Sovieticus, El Hombre Nuevo – these chiliastic designs drown their beneficiaries in blood. Theism may be purged, but the diabolists remain.

I doubt Rorty and the like seek to resurrect Nazism or Stalinism. All the same, I'll stay skeptical of godlessness as a panacea.

May 11, 2001

Myles Kantor Archives

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts