It is striking and, to use a religious term, a bit awe-inspiring to see how central that religion has become to politics in the post-Cold War era. For more than 200 years, the defining split was left versus right. Now religion is in the equation in a big way.

It’s clearest in the United States. Bill O’Reilly once told me, on air, as if it should be obvious even to Canadians, that The Globe and Mail is a “left-wing” paper because it is “secular.” Secular equals left, religious is right. The best explanation I know for Sarah Palin’s refusal to tell Katie Couric what news sources she reads isn’t that she reads none but that she relies on biblically based reportage in Christian media. It’s hazier elsewhere, but, in Europe, there’s born-again Tony Blair. (“God will be my judge on Iraq.”) Over here, Stephen Harper plays it down, but his church has strong theological grounds for supporting Israel; one can wonder what effect that has.

This all slots “the left” into a pretty reflexive role as secularists or atheists, simply rejecting the faith and piety of the right. I thought about this when someone asked me recently about beliefs I’d held back in my days as a seminarian. Instead of just saying I don’t think that now, I tried to say what I do feel: a sort of awe at the world, an amazement that anything is, from rocks to thoughts; even a kind of divinity suffusing existence. But no transcendent Being as a source of comfort and intervention, who reveals Himself in a scriptural text. Reverence without religion, perhaps.

Now there used to be a word for that, back in the 18th century, during the runup to the U.S. and French revolutions, when the great left-right division was taking shape. The word was deism. If you read James Boswell’s London journal of 1762, you learn that a standard debate in the coffee houses then was over “revealed” — i.e., biblical religion versus natural religion, or deism. Many of America’s founding fathers were deists. People still argue about who was and who wasn’t. An article in The New York Times Magazine last month asked, “How Christian were the founders?”

That debate was far more interesting than the crude name-calling between current atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the believers at Fox News — which is more like bumper stickers in Mexico that used to read, Dios si existe and Dios no existe. A sixth grader I know who’s entering the age of pondering such things asked whether there’s a word for people who don’t care if there’s a god. These days, I’d call that a sophisticated position.

Oh for a modern version of deism. But wait, there is: environmentalism. It can take spiritualized forms, like venerating Gaia, with radical practices such as extreme ecology. Sometimes, it shades over into faith, which you can see in the zealotry of some of the hacked e-mails on climate change, or the fervent tone of the Rev. Al Gore’s sermons. Mostly, though, it has an overtly secular form, like The Globe and Mail, and avoids religiosity. It’s where the long debate between deism and revealed religion still thrives. It reaches beyond intellectuals, into ordinary people’s lives (with ordinary rituals, such as recycling) and a place in popular culture, in a film such as Avatar.

The Oscar combat between The Hurt Locker and Avatar, I’d say, was miscast as low-cost, feisty, relevant war film versus costly, hyped Hollywood blockbuster. But really, The Hurt Locker was a formulaic, “blow everything up real good” movie that concealed social reality (all Iraqis as faceless villains or passive victims), as well as environmental impacts. It’s Avatar that had the deist spirit of environmentalism, with a reverence for all forms of life, including newly evolving ones. It also had, I’d say, the true documentary spirit, appearances notwithstanding, and all the kids I know adored it.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.