The Secular Faith: the idol of the other

By Joel Hess


Recently in a conversation on KFUO am with pastor Craig Donofrio, we expressed the predictable puzzlement many Christians suffer when contemplating the morality of atheists. The argument follows: if there is no God then there is no morality, no reason to do good, to love one’s neighbor, to have rules etc. Furthermore if one believes there is no afterlife would not the weight of mortality crush every moment of the atheist or agnostic’s life? Yet we all have friends who are atheists and agnostics who act morally in many situations and are not constantly depressed. Why?

They have a religion that gives them purpose. It is the religion of the other. It sounds like the golden rule, but eventually it is not.

Matthew Arnold, a great poet and enjoyable thinker and cultural critic from the 19th century England, predicted that Christianity and all religions would eventually disappear and be replaced by poetry. If only he knew how irrelevant and boring poetry would become by the 21st century. Actually I take that back. If poetry morphed into pop music and movies perhaps it is indeed our new god. Another blog.


Well, Arnold was half right. Christianity would not die, though some still predict its demise. But a new religion has come to replace it for many in the Western world. Arnold hints upon this new religion in the wonderfully depressing poem, Dover Beach. Below is the last stanza.

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Arnold poetically paints the waning of religion and replaces it with “let us be true to one another.”

That’s it. No God. No heaven. No hell. No code that you can live by, David Crosby. Nothing but the other. People, indeed the icon of God, stand upon our altars.

da vinci

Arnold would suggest that we find our identity, our peace, our hope and our purpose in the eyes of someone else. It’s all we have.

Arnold and many other enlightened thinkers prophesied that religion would evolve, shedding its mystic nature only to reveal the kernel of what all the stories and fables of the Bible were really getting at – love for others.

We see this today for many. People find their identity not in the eyes of God but in the eyes of others.

It sounds good right? It looks sometimes like the Christian faith as this atheist religion feigns love and compassion for others, even promoting humanitarian causes or environmental zoological causes.

Meaning and purpose are derived not by something transcendent and even stable, but by relationships (relationships not just with people, but animals too.)

Humanity ultimately is atheism’s idol. It worships it. And why not? If there is nothing else, the only sign of life, of meaning, of purpose is in the talking dude or the purring cat living next to you.


Sadly the anchor of this religion is unstable. As we desperately cling to another, the other does not always love back. The other cannot be trusted or always appeased. Relationships break down. Sometimes the actions of the other hurt us and we hurt them. Oftentimes the other is an idealized version of something in the platonic cave of the lover’s head. Sometimes we look into the eyes of the other and we see a dark blank abyss.

And furthermore, though we may make all sorts of promises to the other, we fail at living up to them, of loving others.

Without recognizing God, the definitions and parameters of love are nebulous and cannot be counted upon. It is not enough to hold each other in the night standing upon the cliff of mortality.

Ultimately this altruistic religion of the other breaks down and breaks its worshipers.

Yet there is a true Other. Altogether other. From whom His icon, Jesus, came. The second Adam. The second Other.

His embrace gives meaning. His vow of commitment gives certainties. His promises give peace amidst the storm.

All Glory be to you. Icon of God.  JaggedWordLogo2