- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008

Noted social critic Herbert London opens his latest book with a simple statement: “Belief matters.” Every bit a cri de coeur, in little more than 100 pages Mr. London goes on to show how Americans, to the contrary, have come to embrace secularism - and do so at their peril.

In a chapter titled “Secularism: America’s New Religion,” he writes: “So much of American society has been constructed on the basis of both the belief in the divine and the organizational religion that it entails that secularism threatens to leave America with a ‘naked public square,’ to borrow a phrase from Father Richard Neuhaus. Secularists justify their anti-religious sentiments by citing concerns about the impending ‘theocracy’ of the Religious Right. This is odd, because in many respects secularism is itself not unlike a religion. It is grounded in several ideas that are valued by its adherents as deeply and unquestioningly as any spiritual creed.”

These ideas are, as Mr. London maps them out in the book, multiculturalism, cultural relativism and “scientism, which proselytizes for the belief that science will ultimately offer explanations that will exhaust the need for a divine creator.”

Among secularist cultural preferences are those of which Mr. London clearly disapproves, and to this reader, some of them seemed more harmless than corrosive (Full disclosure: I, for one, am a fan of the music of the Mamas and Papas, the TV show “Seinfeld,” and even the movie “American Beauty,” all of which come in for withering appraisals from Mr. London.) But Mr. London’s greater point is that underlying much of America’s secularism is hubris, and there is a toll:

“Those who exist under the presumption that they are the best are setting themselves up for a fall. One may well ask: Why should hubris inevitably lead to a fall from grace? What is there about hubristic behavior that brings about opprobrium and failure?

“Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, provides an answer: His villains exhibit monstrous vanity. Various Bond nemeses claim, almost comically, ‘I am invincible,’ or I cannot be stopped’ or ‘The world will be mine.’ It is in these declarations that a weakness is found, the weakness that the MI5 agent exploits. A belief in invincibility sets in motion circular thinking: I cannot be defeated; hence I need not concern myself with potential rivals.

“From the Maginot Line to the Roman Empire, history has been colored by this pernicious delusion .…”

But Mr. London is not merely offering a critique of godless lives, but rather, his book is a robust rallying cry for Westerners to embrace religious belief because of, among other things, how it might counter the looming threat of radical Islam.

Mr. London writes, “It has become increasingly obvious that, like it or not, the West is locked in a civilizational struggle with radical Islam… . As Mark Steyn has shown in ‘America Alone,’ the startling demographic decline of Europe and Russia … all but assures a showdown with rapidly multiplying Islamic populations. Meanwhile, the strategy of Islamists is clear: destroy Israel, create a Middle East devoid of any religion but Islam, employ the oil empire to create caliphates from Madrid to Jakarta and then launch a holy war against the West. What remains to be seen is whether such a philosophy would face any real opposition by a weakened West in the decades to come.”

Mr. London looks at American culture and, understandably finds much to despair of. But if he is quick to point out that we have let the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton fray our cultural fibers, he is equally adept at pointing out our national strengths.

“Civitas, by another name is patriotism: a selfless devotion to one’s society and the citizens who constitute it. This respect for law and community had its roots in religion Alexis de Tocqueville observed during his famous visit to America in the 1830s. He wrote in Democracy in America: ‘I sought for the key to the greatness and genius of America in her harbors … in her fertile fields and boundless forests; in her rich mines and vast world commerce; in her public school system and institutions of learning. I sought for it in her democratic Congress and in her matchless Constitution. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power.’ Today, nearly two centuries on, it is no coincidence that the most generous donors to charities are religious Americans… .”

Reading Mr. London’s forcefully argued and gracefully written book makes one understand why religious belief matters. And in these fraught times, even a nonbeliever would have to concede it’s time to fight fanaticism with conviction.

AMERICA’S SECULAR CHALLENGE: THE RISE OF A NEW NATIONAL RELIGION

By Herbert London

Encounter Books, $18, 104 pages

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