Secularism and Seleucidism


It is nearing those two great winter festivals of the Western religions: Christmas and Hanukah. I want to address the current travail over Christmas, but to do it, I want to draw an historical analogy with the occasion behind Hanukah, the Feast of Lights.

Hanukah celebrates the victory of Judah the Hammer ("the Maccabee") and his clan over the occupying power of the Seleucid Empire, one of the great empires that survived the break-up of the empire of Alexander the Great. The Seleucids were named for Seleucus, one of Alexander's generals and successors. It seems the mad potentate Antiochus IV Epiphanes (i.e., "God manifest on earth") decided that all in his realm should worship him as Zeus incarnate. To this end he had effigies of his own swelled head placed on statues of Zeus. To this end also he sought to stamp out Judaism. His goal was not just theological capitulation. He wanted to further Alexander's project of cultural assimilation. He wanted all civilization to dance to Greek pipes. And many Jews had no difficulty obliging him. Many enthusiastically converted to Hellenistic ways. Many worshiped Dionysus, thinking him only another version of Yahve anyway, as did many Greeks. Many overcame their modesty and exercised naked in the new gymnasiums (which means "places where you go naked"). Rabbis assembled circles of pupils on the model of Greek philosophical schools. They began to apply to the study of the Torah the allegorical techniques the Stoics had already developed to make sense of the Iliad and the Odyssey. But that wasn't good enough for Antiochus. He made it a capital crime to study the Torah or to circumcise one's children. Antiochus' henchmen sacrificed an unclean sow on the altar of the Jerusalem temple, defiling it.

The old priest Mattathias one day decided he had seen about as much of this Hellenization, enforced as well as voluntary, as he could stand. So, as he saw a fellow Jew about to renounce the traditional Torah, he lost it. Mattathias grabbed a knife and disemboweled the quisling. That lit the powder keg. Mattathias, his son Judah, and his younger brothers after him, led a revolutionary guerilla war that eventually succeeded in ridding Judea of Seleucid tyranny. They were independent for about a century till the Romans came in to fill the colonial vacuum.

The Hasmonean/Maccabean revolt was perhaps the most successful of all known Revitalization movements. It is well to celebrate it. And Hanukah commemorates an aspect of the victory: the legendary miracle by which, during the reconsecration of the temple, the holy lights continued to blaze for days past the limits of the available fuel oil. Without the Hanukah victory, the artistic, religious, and cultural treasures of Judaism would have been lost. But the peculiar relevance of Hanukah this year for us, a wider audience, is the analogy I see between the efforts to stamp out Judaism in favor of Seleucidism and the ongoing efforts of secularists to eradicate any public expression of Christmas observance.

The ACLU and its secularist allies have made Christmas to appear to be the totem of theocratic intolerance, an implicit demotion of all who do not celebrate the Christian religion to the status of second-class citizens, like non-Muslims required to pay an unbelievers' tax in Muslim lands. And once Christmas has been tarred with the brush of Political Incorrectness, certain department stores and companies have decoded to dump "Christmas" references for lame bleatings of "holiday cheer" and "season's greetings." And let's not forget about the perennially bone-headed school administrators (always the inmates in charge of the asylums). With an uncanny lemming instinct, they have followed along, scratching Christmas off the calendars like the Egyptians chipping all mentions of Akhenaten from off the monuments after he and his heresy were deposed. As Antiochus of old sought to sterilize the land of its Judaism, so do secularists today seek to crush any vestige of Christmas from public discourse or display. Why?

For one thing, they have failed utterly to grasp the wise distinction drawn long ago by Harvey Cox in his book The Secular City, that between a "secular" society and a "secularist" one. A secular society is the kind created by the U.S. Constitution, one where no single faith has official status or demands universal assent. By contrast, a secularist society is the kind the Soviet Union and China aimed at: a society which sees religion as a curse and eliminates it or at least officially frowns upon it. There is nothing to say a secular society should not allow and even to promote celebrations of either majority or minority religions. It is not a fairness doctrine that motivates this campaign to exorcize religious expression from the public square, but rather a hatred of religion, an imperialistic desire to make society over in the image of the secularist and the atheist.

What the tin-eared secularists fail to grasp is that religion is and always has been inextricably part and parcel of any culture. Religions are not easily separable modules that might be ejected and replaced. Public schools have feared to teach about the religions for fear of violating the boundary between church and state. Again, witness the thick-headedness endemic to school administrators! They don't mind relativistic sex education in schools, but they cringe like Dracula from any mention of religion! But who can fail to see the sheer impossibility of teaching about, e.g., Pakistan's culture while studiously avoiding any treatment of Islam? Can you give any but a grossly misleading account of Thai culture without reference to Theravada Buddhism? Absurd! And listen, buster, you are fooling nobody when you maintain that America is not a Christian country in this particular sense.

It is not, thank God, officially a Christian country (or a Muslim country or a Hindu country). There is no state-sponsored religion. And that is why we cannot have the Ten Commandments posted in public school classrooms and courtrooms, since that would be for the government to mandate the exclusive worship of Jehovah. Not Christianity nor any denomination thereof has any official standing before the law. But what can be wrong with public schools and other government venues showcasing the religious-because-cultural heritages of the subcultures that go into its wonderfully diverse mix? To recreate an America that shuns the mention of Christianity as hate speech is not to honor diversity but rather to deny it and to "terraform" the society in the image of one particular minority group: atheists and secularists. If we really embrace diversity, we ought to go out of our way to honor the religious images and values of our component populations. At the moment, the Post Office has available a set of holiday stamps featuring Christmas, Hanukah, Eid (and Islamic holiday), Kwanza, etc. What's wrong with that?

When cranky fundamentalists object to public schools teaching about non-Christian religions, we have no trouble seeing a display of Christian exclusivism. Why can we not see in the present anti-Christmas campaign a similar attempt to impose the stamp of secularism on public life as the waters cover the sea?

It would be outrageous missionary chauvinism for Protestants to move to Thailand and start demanding the suppression of Buddhist expressions so as to avoid "offending" the prickly sensibilities of the non-Buddhist minority. Can you imagine the hue and cry such a move would raise among liberals in America? That's why they hate the nineteenth-century Christian missionaries to Africa: they suppressed indigenous culture, placing an alien Christian stamp onto native culture. Aren't secular activists pulling the same stunt here? Or trying to?

Atheists have learned that victimhood is powerful, so they go on about suffering from persecution. And they do not have to make up evidence for their claims. But they do not see how they are embracing the contemptible tactic of resentiment, the impotent whining of the coward who envies the power of others and so tries to get his big brother (the government) to do his fighting for him. I very much hope atheists and secularists do not make things worse for themselves by making themselves such a nuisance, demanding to have it their own way. As far as I can see, such tactics will only heighten the hostility the public already feels for the nonreligious minority.

I fully share the suspicion and antipathy secularists have for theocratic bullies like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and the Southern Baptists. I don?t doubt that these creeps would impose an alien Christian hegemony on our gloriously pluralistic society if they got the chance. What I am afraid of these days is that the atheists and secularists will help give them that chance by provoking a populist over-reaction. If they make it seem like there is a large-scale attempt to suppress Christian expression on the part of the majority (which is Christian), they will goad the larger society into a theocratic backlash. Their paranoia will have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Merry Christmas.

Happy Hanukah.

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
December 2005



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