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The New Polytheism Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Sunday, 10 August 2008

A Unitarian, according to the joke, is a person who believes that there is, at most, one god. In 1822, before some currents in Unitarianism became visible to jokesters, Thomas Jefferson predicted that there was not a young man then living in America who would not die a Unitarian. The sage of Monticello was mistaken, at least nominally. Almost two centuries later, 0.3 percent of us are Unitarians, while 80 percent are Christians or Jews of some kind. But the kind matters a lot, of course, and we might find with a few simple questions that our presidential candidates or next door neighbors are, in fact, Unitarians of the minimalist persuasion in all but name. Or then again, maybe there are more gods among Unitarians than are dreamt of by comedians.

Many Americans assume that it doesn’t matter what you believe, or whether you believe anything at all, so long as you are a “good person.” But it is not true. Yes, of course, there are Christians who are spectacular sinners and non-believers of unrelieved uprightness. But several recent analyses have shown that there is a strong correlation between traditional forms of faith and morals on the one hand, and social health on the other. Societies that display low church attendance, disdain for the military, acceptance of homosexuality, soft drugs, and euthanasia, and whose people consider themselves citizens of the world generally have low birth rates and weak prospects. Absent serious change, they are destined for dissolution and replacement by more fertile and vital peoples.

Nature abhors a vacuum, we’ve been told, but incapable of love or hate, nature does no such thing. We do, though, and if we do not worship the true God, we will find other gods to fill in. Utopian politics, radical environmentalism, absolute personal autonomy, and myriad other things have become for many a religion, and it would clarify our thinking to give these enthusiasms their true name; they’re a new polytheism. But another part of this pantheon needs to be included now, the burgeoning field of wild, multiplying, and limitless rights.

I say this with some sadness. The idea of rights played a salutary role in the American Revolution, and the international struggle for basic human rights contributed to the fall of the Soviet empire. It still sometimes restrains malefactors. It’s a good thing when President Bush or the pope can reach for the language of rights to criticize religious repression in China or the denial of freedom of conscience and expression in many parts of the world. Since we have no other common moral language, limited appeals to “fundamental” human rights have a practical value, if weak philosophical foundations.

The brilliant French mystic Simone Weil once pointed out that the last man on earth would have no rights, but would still have duties—towards God and himself. It doesn’t get more fundamental than that. By contrast, it is difficult to see how rights inhere in a person – except as duties that others bear towards that person.

The problem with positing rights without external determinations (not God-given but self-proclaimed) is that anything can be claimed as a right, and has been. The U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which is hardly a radical document and turns sixty this year, lays out some fundamental goods, but as the text rolls on the logic of rights claims takes over until we find in Article 28: “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” Nota bene: no society in human history has fulfilled this dream and no one knows how to construct such a society (indeed, modern attempts have killed tens of millions). But we have a right to it.

Lately, the United Nations has been moving even further, to the view that abortion, homosexual activity, and gay marriage are basic rights. Without the resistance of Republican administrations in America and a few hardy states, these would long ago have become sacral practices. Our reluctance to accept these and other such initiatives looks archaic to sophisticated opinion. At a European conference, a diplomat once publicly excoriated me because America has “not even signed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.” “You’re damn right,” I replied, “we wouldn’t trust our own government to define the rights of our kids and we aren’t going to trust some U.N. body with little democratic oversight either.” He did not pursue the point.

In light of these and parallel domestic developments, I’d like to make a modest proposal. Let’s start thinking about the alleged new rights as Greek gods. Here’s a short list to get us started:

Zeus (absolute personal autonomy, ruat caelum)

Hera (reproductive rights, especially over Zeus’s bastards in the womb)

Aphrodite (sexual rights – Zeus took the form of bull and bear and golden shower for sexual conquests. See: “absolute personal autonomy”)

Hades (right to privacy, especially when it leads to the underworld)

Athena (right to pursue unorthodox truth, though “truth” does not exist)

Apollo (total artistic freedom in pursuit of unorthodox truth, though “truth” etc.)

Dionysius (right to a “more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating mode of living”)

Hermes (right to instant information, however mercurial).

Clever readers can fill in the rest of this pantheon, I’m sure. I’m serious that if we looked at burgeoning rights claims as a new polytheism that we might better understand what we’re becoming and the religion to which many of us now adhere.


Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His latest book is “The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West."

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