By nearly every quantifiable measure, life has improved for most Americans over the past four decades. Yet most Americans are also increasingly unsatisfied with their lot. What gives? My theory is that many of my fellow citizens have not only abandoned God, as I have, but have shelved a bunch of His good ideas as well.
Take, for example, the Sabbath.
As a kid I’d occasionally be sent off to an Orthodox Jewish youth group, where I would be billeted with a religious family for the weekend. One of the more irritating features of these spiritual mini-camps was being compelled to keep Shabbos. Though this all pre-dated cell phones and perpetual connectivity, it still entailed shutting off most of the outside world; so no sports, no Miami Vice or Knight Rider, no Walkmans or video games. Sabbath meant conversation, sleep, traditional meals, wearing a suit, and, worst of all, walking to a temple — a place where a teenage boy might accidentally ponder his selfish and iniquitous actions.
Needless to say, I found the entire practice antiquated and completely unreasonable.
Today, of course, I can’t think of many Biblical mandates more enticing than a prescribed day of rest. As a practical matter, I would happily disconnect from the din once a week for a much-needed breather. Doing so with a community of like-minded people who shared my cultural roots would be a pleasant bonus. These days, the only thing really binding me to my neighbors is a shared love of quality cable-television series. As entertaining as this is, it’s not a real community.
But I don’t believe there would be consequences if I chose not to keep the Sabbath holy. For me, alas, commandments are actually just suggestions. No, those spiritual weekends didn’t stick. Nor did years of yeshiva. Faith in God is gained or lost, embraced or rejected, but it can’t be fabricated. On the other hand, for me at least, these rituals and convictions born of thousands of years of human existence are more than mere superstitions.
Unlike many of my fellow non-believers, I don’t feel especially enlightened or rational for my apostasy; I feel kind of unlucky, actually. The typical non-believer sees the strictures of Christianity or Judaism as a punishment — mythical limitations set to inconvenience him — but I see people who take profound comfort in a beautiful fate that awaits them as long as they treat people as they would want to be treated themselves. As a man who believes his story ends in a pile of dirt rather than in celestial salvation, I have many reasons to be envious.
Yet, for my entire atheistic life, I’ve been nudged to mock the believer. The unifying doctrine of atheism is a reflexive antagonism toward faith and all the ideas that it has dragged along with it through the centuries. A recent Pew Research poll found that one in three Democrats now believe that churches negatively affect the United States.
“Oh, you and your imaginary sky God! How about reason and science?” Well, how about it? An open-minded person would concede that science and reason aren’t the monopoly of the skeptic. In fact, though I have my differences with some denominations, it’s clear that the cult of the imaginary sky God comprehends the human condition far better than the gods of secularism do.
Put it this way: Not only would I keep the Sabbath, I’d hit the Catholic confessional every week if they let me.
Of course, even a cursory reading of modern history will tell you that men have hatched many dangerous utopian ideas to find meaning and replace God, leading to horrifying ideologies such as Communism, fascism, and astrology. I’m afraid we haven’t learned our lesson.
Not long after a hyper-partisan leftist named James Hodgkinson attempted to assassinate Republican congressional leadership on a baseball field in Alexandria, Va., a Washington Post reporter noted that the only way to improve comity in American life was for people “to stop making their political identity a central part of their personal identity.”
Perhaps secular Americans haven’t quite figured out how to replace their churches yet. I mean, what should the central identity of an American be? According to the contemporary Left, it might be your sexual orientation. Or maybe your racial identity. Or perhaps your gender. And always your economic station. All of these things define us to some extent, of course, but they are meted out by evolution and circumstance. They are things we are, not things we believe. All of them have been transformed into political designations.
The great journalist Ben Hecht once complained that, in his time, governments had taken the place of people. “They have also taken the place of God,” he wrote in his masterpiece, Perfidy. “Governments speak for people, dream for them and determine, absurdly, their lives and deaths.” The way secular Americans treat policy debates these days — and they really aren’t debates as much as they are sermons and denunciations — politics has increasingly become a defining moral activity. Think of the hopelessness and anger precipitated by the Democrats’ loss this presidential election. Policy is moral imperative. Laws are salvation.
Ultimately, this can’t be enough. Humans will always fail you. And politicians are the most human among us. Yet some denominations seem to believe that malleability is the way to attract more congregants. With all due respect, any philosophy that bends that easily to the vagaries of contemporary thinking is not much different from a political party, anyway. For many of us, the promise of structure, ritual, tradition, and community — even if we’re skeptical of the underlying belief — is the most attractive aspect of faith. It has probably always been that way.
– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.