As far as the government and the media are concerned, the world's fourth largest belief system doesn't exist. By one count, In number of adherents it's behind Christianity, Islam and Buddhism but ahead of Hinduism. Globally it's 85% the size of Catholicism and in America just a little smaller than Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans put together. Perhaps most astoundingly, given today's politics, in the U.S. it is roughly the size of the Southern Baptist congregation. Another count puts it in third place with Buddhism a distant 6th.
Its leaders, however, are not invited to open Senate sessions. Our politicians do not quote them and our news shows do not interview them. And while it is a sin, if not a crime, to be anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic, disparaging this faith is not only permitted, it is publicly encouraged. The media acts as though it doesn't exist. You'd need an exceptional lawyer to sue your employer for ridiculing your belief in it. Its adherents are repeatedly and explicitly excluded from the category of "people of faith" even though they are among the most steadfast and well-grounded in their beliefs. Finally, if one of its major figures dies, you will probably not read about it, let alone find the president, two ex-presidents and Brian Williams flying off for the service.
So completely is this belief system excluded from our national consciousness that we do not even have a name for it. So let's give it one, at least for this article: shafarism - standing for secularism, humanism, atheism, free thought, agnosticism, and rationalism. Shafars are 850 million people around the globe and at least 20 million at home who are ignored, insulted, or commonly considered less worthy than those who adhere to faiths based on mythology and folklore rather than on logic, empiricism, verifiable history, and science.
This might be considered just another of the world's many injustices were it not for the fact that the globe is currently exceptionally endangered by a madness driven by false prophets of major traditional mythologies such as bin Laden, Bush and Sharon. Seldom has organized religion been so ubiquitously harmful. Even in our own country the dismantling of our republic and its constitution is being led by a extremist Christian cabal that not only is a political travesty but a mockery of its own professed faith.
In short, this is not a wise time for those of alternative beliefs to be banned from the airwaves and the public prints, especially since they have contributed so little to the current troubles.
Further, omnipresent evocations of American religiosity ignore some basic facts. Such as the Harris poll that shows about half of Americans go to church only a few times a year or never. In other words, they are at best what is known in some Latin American countries as navi-pascuas, attending only at Christmas and Easter. And among these, one reasonably suspects, are numerous closet shafars, silenced by the overwhelming suppression of skepticism and disbelief. In fact, the same poll found that 21% of Catholics and 52% of Jews either don't believe in God or are not certain that God exists.
Such facts are blatantly ignored by a media which happily assigns absurdly contradictory roles to God in stories such as the recent shootings in Atlanta. In that case one was led to believe that religious faith saved the hostage, even though the abductor professed belief in the same almighty, as presumably did at least some of those killed by the perpetrator. But who needs journalistic objectivity when such cliches are so handy?
None of which is to say that mythology and folklore are necessarily evil or that the non-religious necessarily earn morality by their skepticism. I'd take a progressive cardinal over Vladimir Putin any day. The thoughtfully religious, expressing their faith through works of decency and kindness, are far more useful, interesting and enjoyable than lazy, narcissistic rationalists. There have been times, such as the 1960s, when the church not only lived up to its gospel but proved to be one of the most desirable institutions around. And there are tens of millions of people who act as good Christians, even when their Pope or other leaders make it difficult.
But faith in religion is just one type of faith. Atheism can be called faith in evidence, agnosticism faith in doubt and science faith in logic. These are no less human faiths than those in an unseen God. Then there's deep ecology, a faith motivated, as one evangelist put it, by belief in creation rather than creator. Whether you call it God or Nature, argued Thor Heyerdahl, "the disagreement is about the spelling of a word." As far back as 1979, Vincent Rossi of an Eastern Orthodox holy order formed an Eleventh Commandment Fellowship to foster the biblical injunction that "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; thou shalt not despoil the earth, nor destroy the life thereon."
Further, mythology and folklore serve the secular as well, picking up where knowledge falters. The wise recognize this as Dr. Einstein did when a friend noticed a horseshoe over his door and asked, "You don't believe in that do you?" "Of course not," Einstein is said to have replied, "but they tell me it works." At the other extreme was Spock who couldn't understand love because it wasn't logical. But then Spock was only half human.
Mythologies - religious and secular - have often made humans better and, at times, saved them in ways that rationality simply couldn't. They have prevented suicides, preserved families, rescued drunks, and helped others climb mountains.
But that is not the issue.
The issue is whether religious faith should be allowed to intrude with impunity in such secular areas as politics or science and still claim the protection of reverence and law. The answer, shafars should loudly proclaim, is no. Once Southern Baptists, Catholics, Jews or Muslims enter the political arena, they are no more entitled to special protection or regulated rhetoric than a Democrat or a Republican.
If the Pope wants to tell Africans not to use condoms, then he has left religion and deserves no more respect than George Bush or Bill Clinton. If Jews encourage Israel to suppress the Palestinians then they can't label as anti-Semitic those who note the parallels to South Africa. And if the Anglican church wants to perpetuate a second class status for gays, then we should give the Archbishop of Canterbury no more honor than Tom DeLay.
In other words, if you want to pray and believe, fine. But to put a folkloric account of our beginnings on the same plain as massive scientific research is not a sign of faith but of ignorance or delusion. And if you want to play politics you've got to fight by its rules and not hide under a sacred shield.
After all, is it worse to be anti-Catholic than anti-African? Is it worse to be anti-Semitic than to be anti-Arab? Is it worse to be anti-Anglican than anti-gay? Our culture encourages a hierarchy of antipathies which instead of eliminating prejudices merely divides them into the acceptable and the rejected. Part of the organization of some 'organized' religion has been to make itself sacred while the devil takes the rest of the world.
We need both faith and doubt, myth and science, but this yin and yang can not work if only faith and myth are allowed to sing in public places. We need to celebrate not just Christmas and Hanukah but the daily faith of the Seventh Day Agnostic and of the free thinker. The existentialist needs to be treated as respectfully as the evangelical, the skeptic as well as the fundamentalist. And we need to hear the wise words of secular philosophers as well as those of Jesus Christ.
Why are we so afraid of such voices? Why do we suppress them, keep them off the air, not mention them in public? Why - at a time when Southern Baptists, Catholics, Muslims and Jews are causing the world so much trouble with their misguided certainties - do we refuse to allow even a question mark?
Before unexamined religious faith causes more death and misery we should at least allow doubt, logic, and secular solutions to sit at the table and raise their voice.
Of course, given the vast cultural bias towards mythic certainties, it won't be a chair offered us by either the traditionally faithful or by an anti-secular media. Rather the secularists, humanists, atheists, free thinkers, agnostics, and rationalists - the shafars - are going to have to stand up and make themselves heard. While they don't have to go as far as to demand that anti-secularism become a hate crime, they do have to start beating on the doors of the media and politicians demanding a decent visibility, a fair hearing, and assurances that Brian Williams will come to some of their funerals, too.