A Religion for the Moment

Two predictable things happen after every terrorist attack in North America and Europe. Okay, actually all sorts of predictable things happen, but I’m not talking about the usual call for more gun control or the frantic effort to point the finger at conservatives somehow. The two things I am talking about are the creation of odd little shrines of flowers and artifacts placed at the scene of the atrocity, and the candlelight vigils that are inevitably organized almost before the smoke has cleared. These things are noteworthy because, frankly, they are out of place. Why would tradition-hating, supposedly irreligious, post-modern science worshipers stand around in the dark holding little paraffin fires and wallowing in sentiment? They did this in Nice, in Orlando, in Paris, in Brussels, and in San Bernardino. Little piles of flowers and photos. Candles in the dark. Most of these people are, if not actual atheists, at least non-believers -- especially in Europe. What on Earth are they up to? Shouldn’t they be going to their therapists and grief counselors rather than emulating the traditional rituals of remembrance and prayer? Shouldn’t Christians be incensed with this most obvious of cultural appropriations?

It is plain enough that many individual progressives do have a religion of sorts -- and that it is merely a sad shadow of the one their parents or their grandparents had. They pray despite denying that there is any value in praying. They have long ago renounced the Holy Trinity as no more than a primitive superstition. “This is 2016,” they have snickered at believers. But now they are afraid. Their own gods -- the belief in human wisdom, goodness, and the blessed power of state authority -- have left them naked and unprotected. They do not know where to turn. Unlike their remote ancestors, they have lost the habit of chipping gods out of stone or casting them out of gold. They haven’t the craft skills to carve Asherah for themselves. They are sophisticated people, these Americans and Europeans -- yet they hanker after rituals any illiterate bronze-age shepherd would have recognized.

I understand them all too well. I have stood in front of that abyss and stitched together vague prayers out of my wavering unbelief. I have stood on my weak legs in front of the universe and paled to insignificance. I, too, have been afraid. What people feel when the world is crumbling around them has not been markedly altered by the invention of computers and cell phones. Human beings remain human beings. It doesn’t take any special insight to understand that our ability to have the universe conform to our wishes is strictly limited. It isn’t hard to see what comes of too little honest reflection or too much human pride. No one on Earth exceeds the committed atheist at being holier-than-thou. No one, in their misery, is more wretched -- or the greater fool.

It is unseemly and uncharitable to mock anyone in their suffering. It is certainly un-Christian. But what is the good of a ritual created on the spot then cast to the wind? Properly done rituals are the physical expressions an underlying faith -- it is not the ritual that makes the meaning, but the meaning that makes the ritual. What is the point of a candlelight vigil if you walk away from it with nothing but an uncertain feeling you forget the next day? If you will forgive a trite post-modern term -- where’s the sense of closure in that? No doubt, now and then, some watered-down cleric from some watered-down, interdenominational church turns up at such events to offer some sort of watered-down, interdenominational, interfaith, neutral-gendered parody of God’s mercy. The pseudo-spiritual handout given to all without regard even to their beliefs. One-size-fits-all, nonjudgmental, doctrine-free, generic blessings. The Gospel of redemption from nothing, because there never could have been such thing as sin in the eyes of such a loving God. This is another sad parody of faith -- a belief in nothing in particular.

Western governments, in all of their wise magnanimity, are untroubled by street religion -- no doubt because it poses no threat to them. Who cares what idiotic things the little people believe or do, so long as they obey their masters? The elites hate and fear real Christianity because it gives its followers standards that make them impossible to mold and shape at will. Islam is equally inflexible, but Western governments seem to have forgotten to fear it. In the left’s dream of the world all religion is nonsense, but only their own ancestral religion can really be considered dangerous nonsense. One can hardly think more arrogantly, or foolishly, than that.

Two predictable things happen after every terrorist attack in North America and Europe. Okay, actually all sorts of predictable things happen, but I’m not talking about the usual call for more gun control or the frantic effort to point the finger at conservatives somehow. The two things I am talking about are the creation of odd little shrines of flowers and artifacts placed at the scene of the atrocity, and the candlelight vigils that are inevitably organized almost before the smoke has cleared. These things are noteworthy because, frankly, they are out of place. Why would tradition-hating, supposedly irreligious, post-modern science worshipers stand around in the dark holding little paraffin fires and wallowing in sentiment? They did this in Nice, in Orlando, in Paris, in Brussels, and in San Bernardino. Little piles of flowers and photos. Candles in the dark. Most of these people are, if not actual atheists, at least non-believers -- especially in Europe. What on Earth are they up to? Shouldn’t they be going to their therapists and grief counselors rather than emulating the traditional rituals of remembrance and prayer? Shouldn’t Christians be incensed with this most obvious of cultural appropriations?

It is plain enough that many individual progressives do have a religion of sorts -- and that it is merely a sad shadow of the one their parents or their grandparents had. They pray despite denying that there is any value in praying. They have long ago renounced the Holy Trinity as no more than a primitive superstition. “This is 2016,” they have snickered at believers. But now they are afraid. Their own gods -- the belief in human wisdom, goodness, and the blessed power of state authority -- have left them naked and unprotected. They do not know where to turn. Unlike their remote ancestors, they have lost the habit of chipping gods out of stone or casting them out of gold. They haven’t the craft skills to carve Asherah for themselves. They are sophisticated people, these Americans and Europeans -- yet they hanker after rituals any illiterate bronze-age shepherd would have recognized.

I understand them all too well. I have stood in front of that abyss and stitched together vague prayers out of my wavering unbelief. I have stood on my weak legs in front of the universe and paled to insignificance. I, too, have been afraid. What people feel when the world is crumbling around them has not been markedly altered by the invention of computers and cell phones. Human beings remain human beings. It doesn’t take any special insight to understand that our ability to have the universe conform to our wishes is strictly limited. It isn’t hard to see what comes of too little honest reflection or too much human pride. No one on Earth exceeds the committed atheist at being holier-than-thou. No one, in their misery, is more wretched -- or the greater fool.

It is unseemly and uncharitable to mock anyone in their suffering. It is certainly un-Christian. But what is the good of a ritual created on the spot then cast to the wind? Properly done rituals are the physical expressions an underlying faith -- it is not the ritual that makes the meaning, but the meaning that makes the ritual. What is the point of a candlelight vigil if you walk away from it with nothing but an uncertain feeling you forget the next day? If you will forgive a trite post-modern term -- where’s the sense of closure in that? No doubt, now and then, some watered-down cleric from some watered-down, interdenominational church turns up at such events to offer some sort of watered-down, interdenominational, interfaith, neutral-gendered parody of God’s mercy. The pseudo-spiritual handout given to all without regard even to their beliefs. One-size-fits-all, nonjudgmental, doctrine-free, generic blessings. The Gospel of redemption from nothing, because there never could have been such thing as sin in the eyes of such a loving God. This is another sad parody of faith -- a belief in nothing in particular.

Western governments, in all of their wise magnanimity, are untroubled by street religion -- no doubt because it poses no threat to them. Who cares what idiotic things the little people believe or do, so long as they obey their masters? The elites hate and fear real Christianity because it gives its followers standards that make them impossible to mold and shape at will. Islam is equally inflexible, but Western governments seem to have forgotten to fear it. In the left’s dream of the world all religion is nonsense, but only their own ancestral religion can really be considered dangerous nonsense. One can hardly think more arrogantly, or foolishly, than that.