The Religion of the Irreligious
This essay by Alex Rose has loitered about my desk for better than a month, because I’ve been unable to decide whether it’s worthy of response. One gets the strong impression that Mr. Rose’s primary intention is to execute a faux-daring poke in the eye of an acceptably accosted group — traditionally religious people — to provoke a reaction and draw attention to himself. If that’s the case, he’s guilty of no more than ambition and a lack of imagination. Why the Providence Journal opinion page editors would step over the reams of local, national, and international material that they reject on a daily basis in order to contribute to the ignorance of their readers by offering them Rose’s expression thereof is another question.
Whatever the answer, the fact that the piece of writing landed in my driveway on a winter Wednesday morning suggests that corrections that we might like to think unnecessary may, in fact, be required. Herewith, I’ll run through the exercise expeditiously so that I can send Mr. Rose along with Tuesday’s recycling. (Perhaps he’d appreciate that detail, inasmuch as recycling appears to be among his methods of writing.)
Indeed, the first clause [of the First Amendment], “[c]ongress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” can be read as downright self-contradictory. For how are laws to protect religious institutions without explicitly honoring them?
Having twisted a word or two for laughs, myself, I can testify that it’s possible to read just about anything as “self-contradictory.” Usually, though, especially when handling the language of our well-educated forefathers, such a reading is evidence of misreading. In the case of the Bill of Rights, “establishment” is not meant as a synonym for “organization” — as in “a business establishment” — but as the act of establishing. Congress cannot establish a Church of the United States, which, absent the First Amendment, it could theoretically do without infringing the free exercise of other religions.
Rose’s misreading is especially significant because he proffers it en route to suggesting precisely the sort of establishment of religion that a properly understood First Amendment would proscribe:
Let me be clear: I am in no way suggesting we impose any kind of legal sanctions that might threaten religious freedom. I do believe, however, that children have the right to be educated, that access to truth is as “inalienable” a birthright as the pursuit of happiness.
If what they learn in Sunday school is flatly at odds with the scientific worldview — and often it is — they are bound to be confused.
What they come away with is a very inconsistent picture of reality, one in which ghosts and miracles exist alongside natural selection and photosynthesis. Maybe some grown-ups can find ways of squaring the circle without any problem, but kids cannot, and the rift creates air bubbles in their understanding of how the world works.
As somebody who finds the plausibility of miracles’ coinciding with photosynthesis to be such a simple matter that children could readily understand it (even if adults like Rose stumble on the concept), I’d suggest that “how the world works” cannot be comprehensively answered without some non-falsifiable assumption. Whatever its mechanics, either the universe runs on cold chance or some sort of intention, and that particular “yes” or “no” makes all the difference.
Joseph Anesta, of Cranston, put it very well in a letter to the editor appearing the following Wednesday:
Ironically, Mr. Rose clearly does have a god, the most jealous, vengeful, angry deity of all. His god is the State, and “thou shall have no other.”
Secular statists like Alex Rose may permit their fellow Americans to quietly believe whatever they like, but in their view, workers have no essential right to their own property and parents have no essential right to convey their beliefs to their children. The government, on the other hand, is supposed to be perfectly within its reasonable boundaries when it determines the nature of reality and educates its children accordingly.
The most telling evidence of Rose’s fundamentalism is his apparent confidence that his fellow adherents are destined always to be the ones wielding the power of the state. That would be threat enough to liberty to justify fear, but the greater danger is the more strongly believing faction that would surely seize the precedent.