I have in mind a certain system of religious thought. Can you identify it by the following clues?
It includes a cycle of stories explaining how life came to be, where it's going, and what will happen at the end of time. This mythos features a creation story that has sustained criticism by scientists for inconsistencies with the physical evidence of our planet. There's also a fascinating tale about a catastrophic flood-likewise scientifically improbable-that wipes out much of humanity. There is a strict moral code associated with this religion, which takes great offense at those who would violate its commands.
Am I speaking of fundamentalist Christianity? Orthodox Judaism? No, I'm thinking of the dominant faith of America's and Europe's cultural elite: secularism, whose disaster myth-strongly reminiscent of the Bible's famous Noah story-is now the plot of the movie "The Day After Tomorrow."
Roland Emmerich's $125-million weather-turned-horror film depicts the plunging of North America, Europe, and Asia into a new Ice Age. It begins with a flood, producing waters so deep that a Russian tanker floats up New York's Fifth Avenue, freezing in place when the rain turns to snow and then ice.
Dennis Quaid plays Noah. He's a paleo-climatologist whose computer modeling has predicted the coming disaster. Before the sudden onset of the deluge, he cries out-at a scientific conference in New Delhi-that global warming could result in the oceans rising, followed by a deep and lasting freeze.
This might remind you of what biblical tradition says about Noah and his flood. According to the Midrash, Judaism's ancient collection of narratives building upon those of the Bible, the reason God had Noah build his ark over the course of many decades was so that other people would ask what he was doing. The idea was that he would tell them, and then they would repent. But Noah's neighbors did not repent-they ignored him, just as Dennis Quaid's environmentally insensitive contemporaries ignore him.
In the movie, those wise enough to heed Noah/Mr. Quaid-including his wife and son-escape with their lives. As in the Bible, the rest perish-with a few exceptions, notably a villainous Dick Cheney-like Vice President who in the last scene has become a diehard environmentalist. The message: To be saved from future environmental calamities, we must all be born again (and give up our SUVs for hybrid Hondas).
At the conclusion of the movie, a few survivors are standing on top of frost-encased Manhattan skyscrapers, where they are rescued by helicopter-just as the occupants of Noah's ark survived because their craft came to rest atop Mt. Ararat.
Never mind that even most believers in global warming-and not all scientists are counted among the faithful-deny that greenhouse gases could produce such a sudden disaster. Adherents of secularism are less concerned with the facts than with the moral of the story, summarized in a catechism entitled "the Kyoto Accords."
There are other curious parallels between secularism and more traditional religious faiths. Adherents insist on secularism's account of how life on earth came to be-namely, via Darwinian evolution-as strenuously as any biblical fundamentalist ever insisted that the world was created in six human days. Yet in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, free-thinking scientists have cautiously been raising hard-to-answer questions about Darwin's just-so story of random mutation and natural selection. In 2001, a Seattle think tank, the Discovery Institute, ran ads in The New Republic and the New York Review of Books signed by a hundred Darwin-doubting scholars, from Berkeley to M.I.T. As James Shapiro, a molecular biologist at the University of Chicago, writes: "It is remarkable that Darwinism is accepted as a satisfactory explanation for such a vast subject-evolution-with so little rigorous examination of how well its basic theses work in illuminating specific instances of biological adaptation or diversity."
Only a will to believe, essentially religious despite the absence of a deity in secular doctrine, could account for this phenomenon.
The moral implications of secularism are worked out in a system of commandments no less exacting than the one in the Bible. In biblical faith, the ultimate goal is communion with God in the context of eternal life. Secular faith also aims at eternal life, defined in gross material terms as keeping your body alive as long as possible. Thus the secular commandments focus on health: Thou shalt not smoke. Thou shalt not pollute the environment in other ways. If at all possible, thou shalt ride a bicycle to work. Thou shalt, in any event, exercise five days a week for at least 30 minutes per session. Thou shalt not eat fatty foods. A fat person or a smoker is a sinner, to be regarded with moral indignation.
Preaching its morals, the faith has its reverend ministers-such as Al Gore, no less evangelical as a secularist than President Bush is as a Christian. While the former vice president wasn't pushing a literalist interpretation of "The Day After Tomorrow," he said, "Millions of people will be coming out of theaters on Memorial Day weekend, asking the question, `Could this really happen?' I think we need to answer that question."
What the secular church doesn't seem to have going for it is the passion of the masses-and I use the word "passion" advisedly. The new century's most notable movie reflecting biblical religiosity, "The Passion of the Christ," is one of the most-watched films ever. By contrast, in a lackluster opening weekend, "The Day After Tomorrow" was clobbered by "Shrek 2." Given the implausiblity of Mr. Emmerich's disaster scenario, along with the overall paucity of spiritual nourishment offered by secular clergy like Rev. Gore, it's not hard to see why the pews-or rather, the movie-theater seats-aren't overflowing.