You could say the country is different now than it was when Vince posted last week. We have a new Congress. They say “no” to Obama’s “yes, we can.” The Tea Party is not ascendant (with any luck, they’ve cocked a pistol pointing at the Republicans’ foot), but the election is undoubtedly a blow—not just to Obama, but to the kind of “change” that Pecora himself calls for in his post.
Pecora shares at least this with the President: both embrace a loosely Pragmatist sense of the future as an open-ended project-in-the-works. As Vince notes, just because our very tradition of church-state separation has strongly Christian roots—a position that I think, in light of a recent Vanderbilt University poll, the nation “collectively” (if not the “average American,”) seems to get —doesn’t mean that the United States is “essentially” Christian. Origins are not essence; they define us no more than the suburbs we grew up in. For my money, Nietzsche nailed this point best when he observed, “only that which has no history is definable.” Everything else—by which Nietzsche meant the meanings that humans argue about and project onto their habits, practices, rules, nations, and so forth—must be understood as stories, stories that remain unfinished. America is not only what it was; it is what we want it to be—and in this respect, too, we’re like any other nation on earth.
If you’re in the business of trying to sway the lay reader (whoever that is), the self-proclaimed Anti-Christ may not be the man you want stumping for you. But I bring up genealogy for a reason. It seems to me that Pecora’s point is not really about secularization or faith but about history, or, rather, our relationship with the past. He is advocating a particular bearing toward the past that applies not just to the question of a/religious identity but to that of identity in general. We are no more obligated to embrace the Founders’ interpretation of the First Amendment than, say, their attitudes toward slavery. If you buy this analogy, the point seems pretty obvious. Why, then, do we need a special reminder when it comes to Christianity? Why is it so difficult to treat religion as just another cultural phenomenon, whose importance as a historical force varies by time and place —to achieve, in other words, the kind of measured “indifference” that Jonathan Sheehan has advocated on this blog and elsewhere?
I’m not sure. But I wonder if there’s anything to be gained by approaching the question as William James might have. In “The Will to Believe,” he says that you can think about any choice in three ways: It can be a) live or dead, b) forced or avoidable, c) momentous or trivial. A live choice is one that “makes some appeal, however small, to your belief.” James picks the example: “Be an agnostic or be a Christian.” (His example of a “dead” option is “Be a theosophist or be a Mohammedan”—bear in mind we was giving this lecture in 1896 to the Philosophy Clubs of Yale and Brown). In a forced choice, “there is no standing place outside the alternative”; it’s a decision we can’t avoid (“Either accept this truth or go without it,” is James’s example). A momentous decision seems at first similar to a live decision, but it’s different: James cites the example of the scientist who finds a question “live” enough to be worth pondering for a year, but, upon discovering that it cannot be resolved conclusively, is still “not vitally harmed.” At the very worst, he spent his year somewhat unproductively.
So what kind of decision is religious belief? For James, it’s the trifecta: live, forced, and monumental. Personally, he chose to be a “believer,” but also an unrelenting critic of belief that does not acknowledge that it might be wrong. Whether or not James’s brand of faith appeals to you, I think he’s basically right in diagnosing the kind of choice that the proposition of some transcendent reality (call it God) presents to most Americans. Find me the man who thinks belief is a “dead” question, who thinks it doesn’t matter whether he believes or not. As James points out, being agnostic is actually slanted toward unbelief: it stacks the deck against faith by demanding precisely what faith can’t supply: empirical evidence. But nor is James’s own kind of provisional, tentative belief a neutral option: it is, after all, belief. “The Will to Believe” is useful here precisely because it reminds us that, if there is a middle ground on the question of faith, it’s very hard to find.
This is not to say, by any means, that Sheehan’s “indifference” is an impossible standard. Atheists and agnostics always have empathy: they can—should—recognize and weigh the integrity of others’ faith and the importance of religion as a historical force in concrete situations, even though they don’t think the belief systems in question have any truth value. But as we go about life and scholarship in the “mundane” realm, there is always a larger question lurking in the background, and to it, “indifference” is not really—or, at least, not yet—an answer.