Sunday, July 27, 2008

Hallowed Secularism and the Fear of Death

7/27/2008--I am writing a book to be entitled “For the Establishment of Religion”. The book argues that the American law of church and state is changing. The dominant paradigm—separation of church and state and government neutrality toward religion—probably no longer commands majority support on the Supreme Court and probably will not do so for the foreseeable future no matter who wins the Presidential election. A President Obama is not going to nominate a separationist like Justice Stevens after the faith friendly campaign he has been running. The wall of separation ran into “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Unfortunately, the only alternative to the separation approach to the Establishment Clause right now is Justice Scalia’s proposal to endorse monotheism, to the denigration not only of non-believers, but Buddhists and Hindus and other believers. He says their views can be disregarded in light of the history in America of monotheism.

With luck, that proposal will not gain majority support on the Court either. It does not reflect the openness of the American people.

My book will argue that government should be permitted to endorse—“establish”—religion, just not any particular religion. My understanding of religion includes the notion of Hallowed Secularism, so that not only all believers but most secularists are included. (Whether this vision succeeds, is another question).

But my approach requires a broad notion of “religion”, one that is consonant with a basically naturalistic view of reality. For example, the natural laws of science are not subject to miraculous exceptions.

This leads to a dispute with the terrific American sociologist, Peter Berger. In A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (1969)(reissued with new material in 1990), Professor Berger suggests that trust in reality is at the heart of religion--with which I certainly agree--and that if this trust does not include a reality beyond death, that trust is not truthful, but is a delusion.

It seems to me that this assertion illustrates a basic disagreement between the Christian tradition and the original insight of the Hebrew Bible. (Judaism has since wavered on this point). The Old Testament was generally content with a human span of life in obedience to God’s will in support of God’s plan for humanity. That is how Abraham lived and died. It is how Moses lived and died. There was no promise to them of personal immortality in a heaven, nor of an end to suffering in a new age—no messianism, in other words-- though Pope Benedict sees that promise in the farewell to Moses in Deuteronomy.

The question is, can man live with death as an ultimate finality and still affirm existence? I think the answer to that question is yes. This is a different question from the question about suffering, whether inflicted by nature or by human beings on each other. On that, more later.

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