No God, No Master

By Pollitt, Katha | The Nation, January 22, 1996 | Go to article overview

No God, No Master


Pollitt, Katha, The Nation


When people complain about the secularization of America, and the naked public square, and the banishment of religion from civic debate, as Stephen L. Carter does in his Culture of Disbelief and Harvey Cox did recently in The Atlantic and in these pages, I always want to ask, What on earth are you talking about? Show me a modern, prosperous industrialized Western country where religion plays a bigger part in public life than it does in the United States. Could a politician be elected if he admitted to being a nonbeliever? Would a jury find credible a witness who refused to swear to God? Even to get into the public square requires that one tip one's hat to the corner church or risk the hairy eyeball-which is why you rarely hear people call themselves atheists, the way people identify themselves as Methodists or Catholics. Indeed, when I happened to mention on Crossfire that I didn't believe in God, the Freedom From Religion Foundation was so delighted it made me its Freethought Heroine of 1995.

Of course, I wasn't heroic at all; what did I have to lose? It was the foundation's Freethinker of the Year who was the true heroine: young Beverly Harris, whose challenge of commencement prayers at her Idaho high school resulted in death threats, ostracism and the murder of her cat. I had a wonderful time at the F.F.R.F. convention in Denver, singing "Die Gedanken Sind Frei" with my new secularist friends and catching up on the F.F.R.F.'s various lawsuits, like the one against the statue of the Ten Commandments in the apparently not-so-naked public square below the Colorado State Capitol. I also enjoy and recommend their journal, Freethought Today ($20 for a subscription, $35 for membership, Box 750, Madison, WI, 53701). Its coverage of "black-collar crime" puts the National Enquirer to shame: pages and pages of rapes, child abuse, fraud and other bad deeds committed by men and women of the cloth. It's like a direct pipeline into the fantasy life of Diderot ("Mother Superior Fondles Nun?""Priest's Victim Now Prostitute?"), except for its ecumenical scope and the fact that it's all real.

No, the whole country's drenched in religion, and that goes for the so-called left as well. That wonderful old anarchist slogan, M Dieu ni maitre, seems to stir few hearts today. Think of the big black voices: Jesse Jackson, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, are Protestant divines; bell hooks is a Buddhist; Marian Wright Edelman just published a book of prayers. Among whites, Michael Lerner has a whole magazine devoted to his peculiar view of Judaism as a hybrid of socialism and psychobabble. On a higher plane of seriousness, Jonathan Kozol sees religious activism as the hope of the poor. Feminism? The divinity schools would be bankrupt without feminist theology and the women students it draws. And don't forget Goddess worship and Wicca; they're religions too.

Is the American left hostile to religion, as Cox charged? I wish! So far as I know, there are only a handful of true anticlerics active on our end of the spectrum, and three of them have columns in The Nation. Reluctant to enter into coalitions with religious groups? …

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