St. Patrick’s Church is now a modern structure consisting of two red-brick tetrahedrons sprung up, like some poisonous mushroom, over the transformed landscape.  The original building, Old St. Patrick’s, is down the street from the usurper, crouching in the shadows, dreaming of the days when a Roman Catholic church could never have been mistaken for a flying saucer.

Lacking only gargoyles, its dark stone loomed large over my 12-year-old self.  It was there that I discovered my interest in philosophy, and ideas in general, in Sunday school.  My teacher was a layman and a neighbor: a bright, 40-something housewife whose knowledge of Catholic theology inspired classroom discussion of the meaning of free will, the proofs for the existence of God, and the reconciliation of science and religion.  None of these things were ever discussed in the rather pedestrian public school I attended, just as they aren’t today, but in those days students were allowed to leave school early once a week to attend what was referred to as “religious instruction.”  What this really meant was a get-out-of-jail-free card for the Catholic kids, and they took advantage of it.  I actually enjoyed it.

Not that I was religious.  It’s just that I loved to argue, and here was someplace I was allowed to do it.  This relationship with the Church persisted and grew throughout my adolescence, thanks to the sheer accident of location.  On a hill overlooking the small town where I grew up was the nerve center of the Jesuit order—the Vatican’s intellectual shock troops.  Bordered by the ruins of a long-abandoned resort, it was just the kind of terrain a 12-year-old boy would find fascinating.  Our explorations inevitably led us to the top of the hill, to the vast estate occupied by the Jesuits.

We just wandered into their mess hall, where the black-robed young Jesuit wannabes were having their midday meal, and soon we were sitting there talking to them.  More people to argue with!  They had a huge library, and after a few more visits they arranged for me to be able to take out books.  Soon they were coming to dinner at our house; my parents were ecstatic.  Was I going to be a priest?  Given my record, nothing would have surprised them more, but it was a vain hope.  I was by that time a convinced atheist, as I remain to this day.  Yet my relationship with religion, and specifically the Roman Catholic Church, is much as it was in my youth: nonbelieving fellow traveler.

Indeed, as a longtime defender of underdogs and crusader for lost causes, my interest in and sympathy for the plight of the religious minority in today’s fiercely secular America has only increased.  The militant secularists, who want to drive religion out of the public square and out of American life, are on the offensive, and their zeal in this regard can only be regarded as semireligious—a sour substitute for the real thing.

While it was Ayn Rand’s influence that pushed me over the edge into atheism at the age of 13, I wasn’t surprised to learn that she had considered a priest as one of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged, and decided against it as possibly sending the wrong message.  This is an indication Rand had some ink­ling of the long Catholic philosophical tradition that includes the proto-history of the earliest free-market economists, of which Murray Rothbard’s History of Economic Thought is the definitive treatment.

Rothbard’s two-volume examination of the impact of religiosity on the development of economic concepts in Europe, from the Middle Ages to modernity, came to mind in the midst of the international imbroglio over the Innocence of Muslims video.  As a regular writer for a website devoted to international affairs, I find the gulf between the West and the rest when it comes to religion to be a given.  Yet it was still startling to see the shock on the faces of U.S. officials: Having given up their own religion long ago, they are surprised by the spectacle of rampaging mobs of . . . believers.

While baffled embassy employees frantically tweet that the U.S. government had nothing to do with the video and in fact condemns it unequivocally, their twittering is meaningless in societies where the sacred and the secular are indivisible.  As in premodern Europe, and throughout much of the world today, these spheres don’t just coexist; they commingle.  The Muslim mobs cannot imagine what we have become: a society in which blasphemy is the norm.  As Chronicles goes to press, a left-wing French “anarchist” magazine is about to release obscene cartoons featuring Muhammad undressed—and the French government has announced it is vacating 20 of its embassies in the Muslim world.

We don’t know much about the makers of the obscene video that set off an international conflagration—and that is really the key to understanding this incident.  I’ll wait until all the evidence is in, including the alleged “warnings” supposedly issued by the Libyan government, which may have had some degree of complicity.  At this point, one thing is clear: Someone who did indeed understand the centrality of the religious impulse in human behavior got precisely the reaction he wanted.  The question is, who?