r m p






The Man Who Wears the Star


Yesterday Carol and the girls and I went into the city for a conference at the New York Academy of Science, sponsored by the Council for Secular Humanism. It dealt with the possible genetic and anthropological basis of religion. Very fascinating, despite the fact that I kept nodding off! Lucky for me, Carol was there to nudge me awake before a nasty public snoring incident could occur!

At lunch I was discussing various secularist agenda items with a few people attending the conference. A couple of us agreed that it was a pointless waste of time to agitate to get "In God We Trust" off the money. To get crosses and creches off public property. Who cares? Preventing a Pat Robertson theocracy? Now you're talking!

Something else in the same vein that came up was a broadcast one woman is hosting on Christmas Day on WBAI. The theme is something like "Alternatives to Christmas," and one of the speakers is Tom Flynn, who describes himself as an "Anticlaus." Recently he hosted an anti-Thanksgiving event, called "Blamelaying," where everyone griped abut the rotten things God must have allowed during the year, if there is a God. This seems like crank stuff to me, crackpot village atheism. I do not want to be associated with that. I happen to love Christmas and Thanksgiving, and I think they belong to no particular religion. Non-Christians need not celebrate them with a guilty conscience. Many secularists, Jews, Buddhists, and others celebrate Christmas, at least in the name of Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim.

But there was a larger, important issue underlying all this. I suppose it came into clearer focus elsewhere in the conference when one speaker asked rhetorically, given the built-in propensity for religion that human beings have, why the people gathered in that room were such a bunch of anomalies. Why had we all come to find religion unacceptable? Disillusioning? Now, as a result, we stick out like sore thumbs. Or even if we don't, we feel like outsiders, whether others know our lack of convictions or not.

And this gave me to think: we secularists, or atheists, or freethinkers, or heretics, or seekers, those of us who no longer identify with Christianity, suddenly find ourselves in the position Jews have always occupied in Christendom. As Christians consider themselves a Gentile extension of the Jewish covenant people, we, too, almost qualify as honorary Jews. Consider the parallels.

We share the same basic moral code as most people in our Judeo-Christian society, yet we do not trace it back to the Lordship of Christ or God. In this we are like Jews who share pretty much the same values as Catholics and Protestants, with whom they often make common cause. But then we hear some arrogant remark that makes us recall that the majority considers us stubborn unbelievers, unable to frame the password, and thus suspect.

Like Jews, we are interested in the Bible, and like Jews, we find an impassable bridge separating us from the largest group of Bible-lovers in the culture, because we cannot adopt the special Christian sectarian exegesis of scripture.

Especially when a movie like The Prince of Egypt comes out, Jews are reminded how much the whole culture owes to Jewish founder figures and spiritual pioneers, but then they feel the irony again that these figures have been co-opted and used against them by the majority who seem to equate Americanism with Christianity. In the same way, we treasure the memory of freethinkers, Deists, natural religionists and skeptics like Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Ethan Allan--only to hear these figures posthumously baptized as the founders of a Christian America.

When social occasions that are also religious occasions roll around, and we are invited or required to participate at a baptism or a funeral mass, we find ourselves on the sidelines worrying about manners. Like Jews, and for the same reasons. Our kids are looked at as oddballs, members of an exotic species by their playground colleagues because we have not raised them with the same religious indoctrination, probably with none at all.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not singing the victim song. It is not particularly a time of religious bigotry. We are not persecuted. Rather we face the same positive challenge Jews do in wanting to work together with Christian neighbors and colleagues with whom we share the same values. We have the same social concerns and want to build a common society in which religious allegiance or the lack of it will not be an obstacle of any kind. And the more and better we can work together the more likely it is that we will continue to live in such a genuinely pluralistic social world.

I have recently been reading the Toledoth Jeschu literature of late antique Judaism. These are the anti-Gospels written by Jews to satirize Christianity. There is an understandable degree of spite in them, given the natural antipathy of Jews toward their Christian persecutors. But then again not nearly as much as you might expect. Anyway, I mention it here because it seems to me that what my pal Tom Flynn is doing, lampooning Christmas and Thanksgiving, is like the venom of Jews understandably embittered at the oppressive majority. But it's not a time of persecution or oppression, as witnessed by the fact that Tom can do this sort of thing publicly and get away with it! It seems a bit crack-pottish to me. In fact, to tell you the truth, it seems to me the mirror image of those fundamentalists who condemn and boycott Halloween for being Satanic!

What is the point, the function, of practices of symbolic dissent, accentuating your difference from the mainstream? It is like the Amish or the Hasidic Jews, like Jehovah's Witnesses or Holiness Pentecostals. When they wear long beards, or beards without mustaches, or no make-up, or refuse blood transfusions, or abstain from movies or card-playing, they are simply trying to draw attention to themselves, in order to limit the basis and degree of social and personal interaction with outsiders so they don't get assimilated. It is like Hitler forcing Jews in Germany to wear the yellow star. Only in all the cases I have mentioned, the sectarians are wearing it voluntarily. You don't want outsiders intermarrying with you unless they convert and start observing the same taboos.

I have to wonder if it is not the same with atheists and skeptics who take the trouble to stand out from the crowd on issues like God on the coins, mangers in shop windows, Christmas songs in public schools. They are like the straight-arrow Christians of the second century who could not go to the theatre or into the army or public education because of the trappings of the pagan gods they inevitably found there. I think these atheists might be better advised to heed the injunction of the Sermon on the Mount: to be careful not to do their acts of piety (or, in this case, of  impiety!) before men. For otherwise, like the self-righteous religious poseur, they set up a false stumbling block. If people are turned off by your Scrooge-like scrupulosity in not observing Christmas because technically you're not a Christian, they will never get to the real issue of moral autonomy and psychological maturity through shedding the God addiction. Choose your battles carefully! Be like Bonhoeffer, a member of the German Resistance, who when in a cafe with a fellow Resistance member jumped to attention when the anthem of the Third Reich came over the radio. His brave friend at first remained seated in protest, but Bonhoeffer whispered to him: "Stand up, you fool!" 

Last night I happened to see Camile Paglia on C-SPAN bemoaning the sophomoric disdain for high art and culture endemic to today's snot-nosed "Cultural Studies" grad students. She remarked how she had recently been in New York and thrilled to the grandeur, first of Grand Central Station with its Classical design, then of Saint Patrick's Cathedral, then of the Museum of Modern Art with its Jackson Pollack retrospective. She said it felt like a church, which is just what I thought last time I was there. Now Ms. Paglia is a confessed atheist. But she realizes that the cultural monuments contributed by any religion, as those made by no overt religion, become holy and worthy of awe by all those who are heir to the culture. In the same way, Jews enjoy Bach with nary a thought about the theological sentiments, Christian ones, that inspired the music. What I am arguing against is the hyper-sensitivity of those Unitarians who are poor congregational singers because they are always reading a couple of lines ahead to see if they agree with the lyrics or not.

I suspect that religious and antireligious groups who try to segregate themselves and put up high walls between themselves and their neighbors are revealing something unfortunate about themselves. The assimilation they fear is no danger if their community is strong from within. If their members can see how their creed is attractive, strong, wise, and livable, they will stay with it. American Jews know they're in trouble when the intermarriage rate is so high. The smart ones don't rant and rave and threaten fellow-Jews not to intermarry. Instead, they try to cut the crap and demonstrate the winsome and wise reality of Judaism to their youth so they won't grow up thinking it is a matter of indifference whether they stay Jews or turn Catholic for the sake of their spouse. If you do that, if you can do that, you won't need to fence them in.

Remember the World War One song "How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm after They've Seen Paree?" Is that what you're afraid of? Is the homestead so much like Dogpatch that the alternative looks like Paree? I hope that Carol and I (and you, since you are part of their extended family) are showing Victoria and Veronica how rich, how exciting, how satisfying it is to think for oneself, to let one's imagination soar, to live without the numbing anesthetic of religious indoctrination--and without the sterility of pedantic, prosaic secularism.

The atheist or agnostic who refuses to celebrate Christmas, for example, is like the health-conscious parents who try to hide the reality of Chocolate from their children. Sooner or later, the kids are going to find out about it, and they're going to start making up for lost time. And what are they going to think of you? My guess is, you won't have to hide the chocolate if you can somehow make that healthy food taste good!


Robert M. Price

December 5, 1998




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