The god of the monotheists is a diminished figure nowadays. Sure, some 55 percent of our species is at least nominally Christian or Muslim. But the influence these cults exert in everyday life can’t hold a votive candle to the secular (though hardly rational) creeds that wield the real power.
Today nonreligious belief systems dominate our world, often with a savagery that would make Yahweh drop his drink. It’s these non-god gods that ought to worry us. Atheists really need to start hunting bigger game.
The free market
Divine omnipotence is nothing compared with the mystical powers wielded by the free market — a papier-mâché Babylonian stage-prop god if ever there was one.
Hear me out: Economic activity takes place because of vigorous government institutions such as property rights, contract law enforced by government actors such as courts and judges, police, tax collectors. And yet politicians, professors, TV and radio personalities and economists talk about this this state-structured economic behavior as if it were an immutable force of the cosmos, like the tides or gravity — the natural order of the universe. And so for the past two centuries, any rule limiting the whims and prerogatives of Big Money has been anathematized by an assortment of secular warlocks as being tantamount to a crime against nature.
This laissez-faire mysticism is far more fanciful than belief in transubstantiation and has much nastier consequences too. Mass famines from Ireland to India have been tolerated — nay, perpetrated — in the name of the free market as government stepped in to guard grain exports and obstruct relief efforts in the name of the invisible hand. Today enormous wealth and income inequality in the United States are often accepted stoically, even masochistically, in the name of the free market Spaghetti Monster: How dare any mortal interfere with its invincible might?
There is a quirky libertarian heresy that admits that while there is no free market now, its glorious advent will come if we gut the state (or parts of it), bringing about an earthly paradise of virtuous yeoman entrepreneurs. This vision gulls some otherwise smart people, but it doesn’t survive contact with reality. The most free-market society ever forcibly enacted, Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, whose economic system was remade according to the dogma of Milton Friedman and his Chicago School disciples, resulted only in a more oligopolistic concentration of wealth, the return of 19th century diseases and some 3,200 extrajudicial murders and desaparecidos.
Strip off his pinstripe suit and our fictional friend the free market is just a lightly secularized, more Calvinist version of Tlaloc, the Aztec harvest god who had to be propitiated by blood, and lots of it.
If you live in the United States, you’ve most likely been exposed in some way to the cult of community (pronounced with a nasal elongation of the second syllable: com-muuu-ni-ty), that nourishing cosmic teat of the 501(c)3 firmament and even the nonnonprofit world.
What a cozy world we live in, so wall-to-wall full of communities! The Subway franchise community! The diabetes community! The Latino community! The international community! And, best of all if you’re in the nonprofit world, the funding community! Of course, this is sentimental nonsense. “Community” implies a kind of cohesiveness that is just not there in various business associations and broad categories of people who have little in common — granfalloons, in the old neologism of Kurt Vonnegut.
Brothers and sisters, let us be ecumenical in our disbelief, as religion has not cornered the market in rancid dogma.
And even when the phrase isn’t gibberish, the blessed realm of community is really no nirvana. Lynch mobs were and are a form of community justice; child molesting without legal consequence has been a feature, not a bug, of Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jewishcommunity and many Catholic communities. Communities can be nurturing and warm, but they are also liable to be xenophobic, intolerant, suffocating.
Communal bonds are, of course, real — and there is such a thing as society — but we should at least be agnostic here and recognize that this goddess is not all Vestatending her hearth but more like Kali, the Hindus goddess who, despite a maternal streak, is known as a blood-fanged force of destruction.
Airpower is another leading man in our modern Olympus, and he is not a pleasant character. Despite delusional self-confidence in his ability to bend the will of those below, this angry sky god almost invariably fails. The carpet-bombing of North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia produced humanitarian disaster and military defeat in Washington’s long Southeast Asian war. Gen. Wesley Clark’s prediction that Belgrade would capitulate after a few sorties turned out to be magical thinking, and the NATO air campaign in what had been Yugoslavia — replete with war crimes, according to Amnesty International — only intensified the ethnic cleansing on the ground below. Over the past few weeks, Saudi Arabia’s aerial assault of Yemen has created little other than a humanitarian crisis. Even the strategic bombing of Germany in World War II was much less effective than assumed, according to several military intellectuals of note.
And yet this loud-talking, impotent Zeus continues to dazzle Western policy elites. One almost has to admire the steadfast faith of our airpower snake handlers. Take, for instance, young Sen. Tom Cotton who recently said that Iran would capitulate to U.S. bombing in “several days,” an utterance made with the idiot, Zen-like serenity that only a guy with two Harvard degrees can attain.
From urbane drone-strike liberals such as Harold Koh to right-wing Angry Birds such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, an alarming number of our policy elites straddle at the shrine of airpower and its earthly apostle, St. Slim Pickens.
God gods and non-god gods
Belief in any of the above non-god gods is far more pernicious than belief in an old-fashioned god god, whose retro appeal I can often appreciate, what with Mahalia Jackson and all the stained glass. As for the list of secular idols, it could go on — education reform, the infallible wisdom of the U.S. Constitution, awareness, American exceptionalism and that creepy and narcissistic pseudo-divinity spirituality.
Whether or not you’re, like me, an atheist, the odds are you know plenty of religiously observant people (including some clergy) whose bullshit detectors are splendidly calibrated when it comes to the more powerful irrationalities disfiguring our world. Heck, the popes in Rome, even the conservative ones, have been criticizing capitalism for ages! It would be a good thing if our atheist celebrities Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Bill Maher diversified their Johnny One-Note disbelief and went looking for bigger Nobodaddies to dispel.
After all, given the choice between Maher, who espouses the apocalyptic belief that our Vietnam War was really great and noble, and the Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, whose lucid and well-informed antiwar writing I find most enlightening, there can be no doubt of which is the more rational of the two. It’s funny how much theology remains standing even if you don’t buy the divinity stuff, buttressed as theology often is by logic, reason and experience.
My artist friend Vitaly Komar has written about the “monoatheism” of his native Soviet Union, and what a dreary road that turned out to be. Brothers and sisters, let us be ecumenical in our disbelief, as religion has not cornered the market in rancid dogma. With all humane skeptics, religious believers and atheists alike, let us cheer as one or, better yet, as many: Écrasez les infâmes!