As I sat in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi on Christmas eve, listening to my daughters and the rest of the children’s choir singing about the nativity of the Lord, I couldn’t help thinking about an article I’d read in the New Mexican a few days before about secular humanist parents:
They are not religious, so they don’t go to church. But they are searching for values and rituals with which to raise their children, as well as a community of like-minded people to offer support.
Dozens of parents came together on a recent Saturday to participate in a seminar on humanist parenting and to meet others interested in organizing a kind of nonreligious congregation, complete with regular family activities and ceremonies for births and deaths.
I realize that my secular humanist readers will roll their eyes at the bovine stupidity of what this practicing Catholic is about to say, but I’ll say it anyway: these humanists are trying to reinvent the wheel when there’s a perfectly good wheel already in existence, and their imitation wheels are only going to be tacky Wal-Mart quality reproductions of the real deal.
As I sat beneath the soaring vaulted ceilings of the Cathedral with the gold-leaf painted designs presently undergoing restoration to their original breath-taking beauty, I wondered where the humanists would hold their new and improved rituals. As I listened to the children singing timeless liturgical classics accompanied by trained musicians under the direction of the Cathedral’s talented and dedicated director of music, I wondered what kind of songs the secular children might sing at their deity-free rituals.
Fine, the secular humanists will say, maybe your Cathedral is prettier than our community center, and maybe your “Adeste Fideles” is more pleasing to the ear than our “Frosty the Snowman,” but you’re raising your children with a lie, and we won’t do that.
For a committed atheist, who is dead certain there is no God, it would seem a lie. For an agnostic, however, who is uncertain whether God exists or not, the issue is more complex, and Pascal’s bet may be a good way of thinking about it. 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that even if you’re not certain whether God exists, the smarter wager is to bet that He does rather than that he doesn’t, for obvious reasons. If you bet He exists and you’re right, your reward is eternal salvation, whereas if you’re wrong, you haven’t really lost anything. If you bet that he doesn’t exist, however, your reward for being right isn’t much, but if you’re wrong, you pay the ultimate price.
An atheist might counter that if you bet God exists, but it turns out he doesn’t, you do lose something: all those long, dreary hours you spent in church, all that money you donated, all those earthly pleasures you passed up because you thought God was going to get you if you gave in to temptation. To this I would respond: 1) If all those hours in church were so awful, why are secular humanists trying to come up with God-free rituals to take the place of church rituals? Why not just be happy they don’t have to waste time on stupid rituals? Because apparently the human psyche craves ritual, and when it doesn’t have church ritual, it looks for something else. 2) A lot of that money you donated to the church was used for charitable purposes, and helped make people’s lives better, which secular humanists say they want to do, too. And yes, some of it was spent on church administration and whatnot, but if you hadn’t donated it, you might well have just spent it on DVDs and i-tunes downloads and clothes you decided you didn’t like after you bought them. 3) As to passing up sinful pleasures, if I expire at 80, surrounded by my children and grandchildren, and discover as my eyes flutter closed for the last time that I bet wrong, and that death is the end of everything, I really don’t think that I’ll spend my final moments of consciousness wishing that I’d slept with more guys who didn’t care about me, that I’d partied and drank myself blind more, that I’d gotten farther ahead in life by cheating and lying and stealing. I think that even if nothing but darkness awaits me after death, that I’ll still be glad that I raised my children right, set a good example for them, and helped far more often than I hurt my fellow man.
I know personally a few agnostics who are raising their children in a religious tradition, not because they’re afraid of going to hell, but because they want their children to have a religious tradition (which is far easier to abandon as a young adult than it is to adopt), want to give their children a firm foundation for the moral code they want to teach them, and think that the other children their children will meet at church or synagogue will be better influences than children they might meet elsewhere. The article on secular humanists confirms this:
I’m often told that when people have kids, they go back to religion,” said John Figdor, a humanist master’s of divinity student who helped organize the seminar. “Are we really not tending our own people?”
Across the country, religious observance hits a low for people in their mid-20s and steadily increases after that, “in conjunction with marriage and children,” said Tom Smith, of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago, which has polled people about religious affiliation and practice for decades.
Mr. Figdor appears to see this phenomenon as a problem, whereas I see it as perfectly natural. Charles Darwin himself, a secular saint if ever there was one, thought that the abolition of religion was a dangerous proposition. Like other agnostic intellectuals of the nineteenth century, Darwin believed that religion helped keep the common folk in check, helped reign in their disruptive and immoral inclinations. Not for nothing did Karl Marx call religion the opiate of the people, and while he and Sigmund Freud thought the world would be better off without it, many of their contemporaries believed that it was far better for the world if non-intellectuals went right on believing that God would get them if they stepped too far out of line. Many of these upper-class agnostics kept their doubts to themselves, or shared them only with their intellectual peers, all the while taking their children dutifully to services every Sunday and going through the motions — and the rituals — of being a good Christian.
G. K. Chesterton, that apostle of aphoristic apology, wrote,
The Catholic Church is the only thing that saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.
The secular parents seeking rituals for their children are trying to escape that degrading slavery. Apparently, the human psyche needs the irrational, and when we don’t get it at church, we look for it in trashy vampire novels and the cult of global warming. We seek perfection, and where the believer can seek it in the divine, the secularist has no choice but to seek it in earthly things. Fellow Catholic bloggger Patrick O’Hannigan (whom you can read in the American Spectator as well as at his blog) recently quoted a post of mine in which I wrote,
The thing secular leftists don’t seem to get is that perfection just isn’t possible in this sadly imperfect world of ours. Accept it. Get over it. Live in the real world, not some utopian fantasy land where nothing ever goes wrong and nobody ever misses an arbitary deadline due to legitimate bad luck or the intervention of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
We all want things to be perfect. If we believe in divine justice, we can have that sense of perfection, the sense that even if things aren’t perfect in this world, God will even up the scales in his own good time. Without divine reward and retribution, we either have to shrug and accept that vermin like Hugh Hefner live to a ripe and prosperous old age while little girls like Caylee Anthony get killed before their third birthdays, or drive ourselves crazy trying to make an imperfect world perfect. Just as without the ancient and beautiful rituals of the Church we have to manufacture new rituals to satisfy our craving for them. Atheists may mock my Church, but there is plenty in their secular theology and secular ritual-seeking at which Catholics might laugh as well. Though a good Catholic would not laugh, would instead pray that those lost souls might discover rituals of ancient beauty instead of manufacturing new ones, and seek perfection in the divine rather than in political institutions.