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The almighty dollar

AT A SOCCER game last year, one of the parents invited me to bring my sons to a kind of circus performance. Afterward, she explained, the performers would ''talk a little bit about how God has helped them in their lives."

Politely, I declined. At our house, I explained, we worship the Almighty Dollar.

My wife was appalled by this story -- not so much at the thinly veiled proselytizing aimed at defenseless 7-year-olds, but at my cavalier sacrilege and the way I had imputed it to everyone in our household.

But religious dissenters have always faced persecution, and a little spousal disapproval isn't enough to shake my faith. On the contrary, I've decided it's time to do a little proselytizing of my own. Let me therefore take this opportunity to rehabilitate poor Mammon from the purgatory to which he's for too long been consigned. My hope is that, by writing this, I can ignite the flame of love and faith in the hearts of all the naysayers I meet (churched and unchurched, not to mention tenured and untenured) and get them to join me -- without guilt -- in the venerable religious institution of getting and spending.

As gods go, after all, the Almighty Dollar has a number of glaring virtues. It's indifferent to competition from ''false" gods, it knows no borders, and it maintains a certain tidy moral neutrality that is refreshing in this age of nonstop moralizing. There's none of the vengeful self-importance so characteristic of more traditional gods -- no smiting, no pillars of salt, no outlandish demands for human sacrifice or exhortations against blended cloth. And while many misguided people have committed crimes for money, many more have done much greater harm in the name of Yahweh, Allah, Zeus, and all the rest.

Instead of wasting time in traditional worship or carrying out obscure rituals, moreover, we worshippers of Mammon simply make the world a better place by striving to make money. To do so, we strive to give people something they want or need; to the extent we succeed, we enrich them even as we enrich ourselves. And make no mistake, affluence is an unalloyed good, one denigrated, I find, only by those comfortably well off -- usually by birth. Money is associated with longevity, democracy, scientific research, environmental protection, cultural production, and almost every other kind of social good. Our Mammon is a bountiful god, and we improve the lives of believers and nonbelievers alike by exalting him.

I'll go further. Nobody could have been more wrong than St. Paul (or his posthumously self-appointed amanuensis) when he claimed in the New Testament that ''the love of money is the root of all evil." On the contrary, most of the evils I can think of are associated with indifference to money. Imagine if Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot had cared a lot more about making a buck. Would the bodies be piled quite so high if they had behaved more like John D. Rockefeller or Bill Gates? Osama bin Laden doesn't care nearly enough about money to suit my taste. If he did, he'd chose another line of work. ''A man is seldom so innocently employed," said Samuel Johnson, ''as when he is getting money."

The anodyne nature of the Almighty Dollar may account for the benign characteristics of its worshippers, who can be criticized at the very worst for being dull or crass. To the extent such an indictment is valid (and certainly these charges are true about me), it contains only misdemeanors, which must be set against the good my co-religionists and I do on a daily basis. Consider that traditional religious organizations are tax-exempt, resulting in higher levies on everyone else, whereas every breath I take seems to generate new tax liabilities. My government, it seems, worships Mammon almost as fervently as I do.

At this point I should confess: I am a sinner. In my youth I fell into apostasy and now, rather than devoting myself to my god by making money hand over fist, I eke out a barebones existence as a writer. But I believe fate led me to my impoverished pass as the price of understanding so many other penniless idealists.

Enlightening these poor lost souls -- saving them from lives of unproductive bitterness -- is my calling. If I can help just a few shed their guilt about making lots of money (as opposed to wheedling small amounts from an aging parent), my time here on earth will have been well spent. The only question, of course, is whether I can get away with charging for the service.

Daniel Akst is the author of ''The Webster Chronicle."

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