The Roman emperor Gaius, it is said, was insane. He perpetrated such antics as declaring war on the North Sea, making his horse a senator, and appearing in public dressed as various gods. Better known as Caligula, Gaius is often presented as evidence of the decadence that would eventually lead to the fall of the Roman Empire. Civilization, we’re told, has progressed enormously since then. We put people on the moon, and we carry in our pockets technology that appears, to mere mortals, as if it’s magic. We have elected an African-American to the White House and men have magnanimously granted females the right to vote. Oh how far we’ve come! And yet, in the midst of our self-congratulation, we have not one, but a plethora of high-ranking politicians in all three branches of the government who believe the world is only 6000 years old. They firmly believe Jesus will return on a white horse (presumably to be made a senator) any day now. And there will be a massive battle of good (us, or at least some of us) versus evil (those not evangelical in orientation) that will lead to the end of the world. And they are easily elected. Is that a knowing smile I see on Gaius’ face?
David Niose, president of the Secular Coalition for America, has written an important book entitled Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans. Before you run for your shotguns, be assured that Niose is—like most secularists—not trying to do away with religion. Secularity is all about the founding principles of this country: freedom of conscience, the right to believe what we will. Or won’t. Up until the 1950’s the secular aspect of this country was taken more or less for granted. Tellingly, Niose opens his book by looking at the presidential elections of 1912 in which not one of the four candidates had a problem with evolution and even the most religious of them was very much a moderate. A century later and we have rampant Fundamentalists well funded and ready to push other nations toward initiating Armageddon. “Well, they started it!” And still, secular Americans are consistently portrayed as insidious snakes in the garden, trying to destroy everything.
It is difficult to read Nonbeliever Nation and not feel embarrassed as we see the promise of an advanced nation winding back its clock to the point that the educated are presented as ignorant at best—or more likely, evil. Where churches and corporations are increasingly difficult to tell apart, and where basic civil liberties for women and gays are still considered somewhat suspect, as if they hadn’t cleared the desk of the Big Man upstairs. Yes, he does have a beard and a son. And yet, despite the message of that putative son—known as a pacifist with radical ideas about social equality—the faithful bar the way for the oppressed while building the most massive arsenal in the world’s history. Rome, they say, was not built in a day. It didn’t even fall until 476, but already in the first century, large cracks had begun to appear. The difference is that America is far more religious. Does that give us any better chances, or worse? Read David Niose and decide. And, since global warming is real, the North Sea will eventually win in the end.