The President performed an annual duty by appearing at the National Prayer Breakfast this morning. This is a political rather than constitutional duty, since skipping the event would certainly scandalize many Americans, but I'm sure Barack Obama wouldn't miss an opportunity to talk. His talk today was predictable enough: freedom of religion for everybody; persecution and violence for no one. Inevitably on such an occasion Obama must say religion is a positive good and I don't doubt he actually believes that. He said today that "religion strengthens America" and proceeded to give examples: "Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights."
For today's purposes, at least, the President accepts that religion was a necessary motivator for all these brave men and women. He seems to agree with those who argue that you can't believe people are equal unless you believe they are created equal. In other words, egalitarianism presumes a Creator. Religion did strongly motivate the abolitionists, but their egalitarian beliefs arguably overrode scripture whenever scripture seemed to condone slavery. What really happened in the past, I suspect, was that people couldn't help anthropomorphizing their idea of justice. For whatever reason it couldn't be compelling if it wasn't the will of a conscious being. In modern times, however, egalitarianism should follow from science. If we believe in human rights, they should extend to all humans by virtue of genetic identity, not divine creation. The harder part, of course, is acknowledging that humans, not God, define human rights, since any human definition seems not as irrevocable as a divine mandate and thus not as secure. God has proved a poor guarantor of the rights attributed to him, however, while we can always challenge any revocation or revision of human rights proposed by human governments, with at least as much hope for success as an appeal to God.
The President's remark reminded me of a David Brooks column I read earlier this week in which he criticized secularism for a lack of motivating fervor. He didn't question whether secularists could be moral, but while he finds many of them to be "genial, low-key people who are ... now leading peaceful and rewarding lives," Brooks questions whether they have sufficient passion to fight injustice. Conceding on the authority of cognitive science that the world won't conform to reason, he sees weakness in a secularism defined by reasonableness and individualism. Secularism "can't just speak to the rational aspects of our nature," he writes; it must "arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action." To be a positive moral force, secularism must become "enchanted," which means that it "puts emotional relations first and autonomy second." Brooks expects this to happen, but it's odd that he seems not to realize that it had happened already, for what is this "enchanted secularism" he proposes but a regime of ideology, if not a totalitarian system in which the Leader, as the embodiment of the State, becomes the object of motivating passion previously directed at God? Today's genial, low-key secularists recoil from that very thing, and today's atheists recognize the Great Leader regimes of the 20th century as substitutes for religion rather than alternatives to it. So why can't we just do right? Why do we have to believe in something else before we believe in doing the right thing? The answer may be that some things aren't as self-evident as Thomas Jefferson thought -- as Jefferson proved by keeping slaves in defiance of self-evident human equality. Religion argues that doing the right thing doesn't come naturally to humans, and secularists should be able to agree with that without accepting that man needs myths in order to do right. "Right" itself may be a myth, of course, but it may be the one necessary myth that renders all the others superfluous. The key is teaching it right, but no one seems to be good at that these days, so we're left to our prayers instead.