Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

The Slippery Slope of Secularism

Rabbi Daniel Lapin

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Have you ever tried to slow down your car by applying the parking brake? No, I'm sure you haven't. But if you did try, you would be surprised to discover that it has virtually no effect on your speeding car, whereas the lightest tap on the foot brake immediately diminishes speed. This is why on the one or two occasions when you drive off without remembering to release the parking brake, you drive three blocks before noticing the warning light. However, with your foot on the regular brake the car won't budge. Yes, that regular foot brake is a far stronger device than your parking brake. This is called Newton's First Law of Motion.

That great scientist observed that it is far easier, which is to say it takes far less energy, to keep a stationary car immobile than it is to bring a moving car to rest. Thus a relatively weak parking brake is quite sufficient to keep a parked car stationery even on a hill, but to bring a speeding car to a standstill at the red light you need to stomp on a powerful foot brake.

Sir Isaac's First Law of Motion is hard at work here in the United States. As a moving car resists efforts to modify its movement, so does a human system. If a society is trending in a certain direction, absent any countervailing forces, it will generally continue in the same direction.

For some period of time, and we can debate whether it is fifty or a hundred years, America has been trending secular. Prior to that time, being wise and educated meant knowing God. That is why most universities and schools of earlier periods were established and attended by religious Christians. The same is true in Jewish history. Until the 19th century education and knowledge were inseparable from religion. Even the etymological origin of the word "secular" is linked to the Hebrew word for a fool.

This obvious link between God and education was clearly recognized in the wording of that great document that accelerated the westward expansion of the United States, the Northwest Ordinance of July 1787, which included this phrase:

Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

It never occurred to Thomas Jefferson and the other authors in the Congress of the Confederation, that schools would not teach religion and morality and certainly not that one day American schools would proudly proclaim themselves free of religion and morality.

Archimedes once said "Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world." Why did he include 'a place to stand' in his pithy little aphorism? Why didn't he make it even pithier by saying merely, "With a lever I could move the world"? Obviously because when one pushes against something without a firm and immovable platform on which to stand, one's effort results in a reaction. Instead of moving the world, no matter how long his lever, Archimedes would have succeeded only in propelling himself backwards. A firm base allows one to apply the action. Without it, one's effort merely produces a reaction which will slide one backwards. This is Newton's Third Law of Motion.

Trying to become educated without first acquiring a foundation of moral certainty is futile. It resembles trying to push a Zamboni machine off an ice rink while wearing dress shoes. One would only slip and slide, make a lot of noise and fall on one's face. Thus it is in our universities, the institutions in which we exert most effort from the shakiest of platforms, that we frequently find moral distortion and embarrassing foolishness.

Are secular fundamentalists stupid or of low intelligence? Of course not. Conservatives making this claim betray misunderstanding of how secularism insulates even smart people from reality. Even a genius is handicapped if he has been deprived of a religious education. He uses logic like a witchdoctor might use a computer--as a type of totem rather than as a tool.

Each passing year we slide further down the slippery slope of secularism and each passing year we are a little less educated and perhaps a little more foolish. Each passing year makes is harder to reverse or even slow the trend, because as Newton explained, societies like vehicles tend to continue doing whatever they are doing. It is no accident that like most brilliant and educated men of his day, Sir Isaac Newton, was a deeply religious man. Perhaps he became the 17th century's teacher of gravity, motion, and calculus precisely because he stood on the platform of the moral absolutes of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

I suggest slowing the slide down the slippery slope of secularism by firmly placing our feet on the brakes. Let us put down our foot and confidently contradict every smug secularist we encounter who tries to confuse faith with superstition and religion with ignorance. Instead of compartmentalizing faith and isolating it from education, we ought to recall the words--awareness of God is the foundation of wisdom. At the very least we can oppose today's intense cultural hostility toward Biblically-based faith.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin,is president of Toward Tradition: The American Alliance of Jews and Christians, a bridge-building organizationproviding a voice for all Americanswho defend the Judeo-Christian valuesvital for our nation's survival.

Read this article on the Toward Tradition website. Reprinting allowed.

Posted: 5/8/04

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