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Religion in the Modern Age

By Daniel Henninger

The best thing about going to church this Christmas is that for at least an hour you won't have to think about religion.

By religion I of course don't mean the spiritual respite one may feel in a house of worship. I mean "religion"--the controversy, the battleground, the fighting word, the bomb-maker's inspiration and the lawsuit. Religion in the modern age.

Let's start with those nice Episcopalians. Last week seven Episcopal parishes in northern Virginia, one of which claims George Washington as a former parishioner, voted to separate from the U.S. Episcopal Church. It was Monday's lead story in the Washington Post. The seven parishes say they've lost patience with the mother church on matters such as homosexuality and the ordination of women. They plan to affiliate with a more traditional Episcopal diocese, in Nigeria.

In September, Pope Benedict elevated the politics of Islam and jihad, or holy war. Religion will be at issue in 2008's presidential politics. Mitt Romney's candidacy, one reads, must overcome the belief among Southern evangelicals that Mormonism isn't a religion. Sen. Sam Brownback, a hero to evangelicals, would build his campaign around the moral status of the culture. Meanwhile, the evangelicals find themselves beset by radical atheism.

When I asked a young clerk at Borders on lower Broadway if they had Richard Dawkins's best-selling atheist manifesto, "The God Delusion," he replied, "Oh, we'd better: It's a fantastic book!" He swept the quarter-mile across the store to make sure I got it. "Enjoy!" he said sounding, well, triumphal. I laid it against my new copy of "The Catechism of the Catholic Church," felt no electrical current and departed.

For the purpose of a Christmas-weekend meditation on religion's place in the nation's life, the atheist counteroffensive is the most interesting of these concurrent rifts.

The book jacket for "The God Delusion" carries encomiums for Mr. Dawkins's attempt to argue religion out of existence from several men who are scientists or writers on science--Craig Venter (genomics), Steven Pinker (cognitive science) and Desmond Morris (zoology). Secular science has always grumbled about data-deprived religionists, but why have the fallen angels mounted another assault on Heaven? What seems to have made them pop is the movement in some U.S. towns to challenge or replace the teaching of Darwinist evolution. This has been taken by some scientists as a clear and present danger to the idea and practice of science itself.

The hell-hath-no-fury scientists, however, are only one division in the army arrayed today against the believers. The surge in antipathy toward people of intense religious faith gained steam at the time of the 1992 Republican convention in Houston and the long-gone glory days of the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Since then, many semireligious people have been upset with the political activism of "the religious right."

Amid last November's elections a reader emailed me this stiff summary of the anti-evangelical complaint: "I cannot and will not continue to support a party that seems to be dominated, for whatever reason, by people who wish to legislate for me my lifestyle, my beliefs, my 'morals,' my rights to my body. These are my choices. If the Republican party doesn't purge these right-wingers, I will be voting Democrat for the first time in my life." He probably did.

This rift is unfortunate, because it upsets a useful institutional and historic balance in American life. Religion has been the supplier of virtue necessary to American exceptionalism. The suggestion here is not of an arid moral arrogance (the "absolutism" so feared by critics) but of reaping material and social benefits from shared virtues that have sustained the American enterprise--from its origins 'til now.

Virtues can vary by religion, but in the U.S. religiously originated virtue by and large organizes behavior toward civic good. Critics such as Richard Dawkins argue that utilitarian virtue can occur without religion. In "The God Delusion," Mr. Dawkins offers his own "new" Ten Commandments, such as "Do not discriminate or oppress" and "Value the future on a timescale longer than your own."

The socially formative virtues I have in mind, most of them expressible in a word and widely understood as a matter of tradition, would include: fortitude, prudence, temperance, justice, charity, hope, integrity, loyalty, honor, filial respect, mercy, diligence, generosity and forbearance. There are others. No one possesses them all, but all should possess some. By now the people of the West are agreed that virtue should allow society to progress. Religion's current critics, of course, say its politics are impeding scientific and medical progress, as with stem cells.

Whatever the truth in that, their own antireligious absolutism risks throwing out the baby with the holy water. The idea that we could get along fine without a public religious presence in American life--dating back at least to the Episcopal congregation in Falls Church--is a risky, untried proposition.

They may think they represent the alternative: a higher, productive rationality. But they are underestimating their own secular competition--the many, often confused cultures loose in the U.S. now. Hip-hop culture, acquisitive consumerism, fashion, hipsterism, street gangs, mystical evironmentalism, Web-centered "reality" cultures. Where's the higher-level thinking here? And by way, the hobgoblin fear of bioengineered food doesn't reside in the American South but in agnostic Europe.

Do virtues matter as ballast in a dynamic, complex society? If yes, where will they come from? Do secularists simply expropriate them from religion? Or do they create their own, such as "do not oppress"?

Atheists and the unchurched undervalue the extent to which they are getting a free ride on the social strength that religious-based virtue provides. It's one thing to write in a book that we don't need them. But I'd rather not run the real-world experiment of navigating without them. And this is why this weekend so many will spend an hour with virtue's originalists.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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