The Man Who Wears the Star
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
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
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
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
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!
December 5, 1998
Copyright©2007 by Robert
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