Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Jul/11

6

America’s unique advantage: religious faith?

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On a recent shuttle van ride from the Los Angeles International Airport, I directed the African driver to pause before turning left into a blind intersection.  Instead, he barreled across without looking.  Not to worry, he said, I’m a professional driver and besides I know that my God loves me and will protect me.

That, to me, is the essence of religion: I have a special friend who will keep me safe from the usual disasters that rain down on my fellow human beings (see killer earthquakes and tsunamis, town-destroying tornadoes, fatal car crashes, children born with half a brain, and other Acts of God).

 

This understandable desire for a few strings to pull in the great random play of fate, for a special someone to get you out of tight fixes and to mop up messes, is an even more fundamental impetus behind religious faith than the hope for an exemption from death, in my observation.  The desire for a personalized leg-up lies behind the constant propitiation of the gods in the Aeneid and continues unbroken into the Christian cultivation of saints and the nonstop din of petitionary prayer.  (Today’s Los Angeles Times gives the usual fawning treatment to Third World superstition, lovingly chronicling the spread of the Mexican cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe throughout Los Angeles.  I fail to see why I should be cheered by such spreading superstition, as religious conservative pundits tell me I should be.)

I thus am not persuaded by Leon Kass’s argument that the core of (implicitly, Judeo-Christian) religious faith is a belief in equality and democracy and that without American religiosity, American democracy will decline.  Kass applauds a speech by Calvin Coolidge that has been getting some attention recently claiming that the pulpit, not Enlightenment philosophy, provided the grounding ideas of America.  But if the ideas of “equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, [and] the rights of man“  grew most directly out of religious faith, rather than from evolving political thought, why was the Catholic Church happy for centuries to provide its imprimatur on the most unapologetically absolute monarchies?  Why did the official exponent of Christianity fight European outbreaks of liberalism as dangerous threats to crown and church?

Many American colonial preachers and their church hierarchies aspired to the same control of sanctioned religious thought as the Catholic Church enjoyed and which had caused so much bloodshed in Europe; it was only the assiduous application of the secular principles of toleration and the separation of church and state that foiled them in their hoped-for monopoly.

Of course, religion does contain philosophical and ethical principles.   But I do not think that those are its essence.  Its essence is a desire for supernatural protection from adversity; religion’s ethical superstructure is an outgrowth of human moral reasoning that does not depend on a belief in invisible friends and helpers.

Kass and Coolidge are right in one sense, however.  The idea of human equality is not an empirically derived proposition; it is an a priori theorem.  But I think it should be defended on the basis of human dignity and our intuitions about the Golden Rule, not through an appeal to revealed truth.

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15 comments

  • mark e. · July 6, 2011 at 4:56 am

    I don’t think it’s useful to talk about ‘the essence of religion’ but I agree the string-pulling aspect accounts for much of its appeal.

    The notion of equality before the law can certainly be defended – but equality per se?

    I think perhaps you underestimate the contributions religious and other traditions have made to Western civilization and to the concepts we deploy. Democratic systems are failing not least, I would suggest, because our civilization is failing.

  • Don Kenner · July 6, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    I notice the driver said “God loves ME and will protect ME.”

    Nothing about you in there. After all, hideous car accidents often leave the drunk driver unscathed while the passenger dies.

    Next time you should tell the driver that while he has a special, supernatural guardian, you are not the recipient of divine protection, so could he please use a little earthly caution, otherwise you might not live to see the error of your atheistic ways.

    And he certainly doesn’t want that on his conscience!

  • TLP · July 6, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    In communist countries, the orthodox church was more than willing to side with the state as long as it kept some amount of power.

    Churches always “embrace” the current winning trends and claim them as their own. Hence Romania’s Patriarch Iustinian’s assertion “christ is the new man, soviets propose a new man, hence christ was a soviet man”.

  • Polichinello · July 6, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    And he certainly doesn’t want that on his conscience!

    He’s more worried about the tip, I imagine.

  • Polichinello · July 6, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    …why was the Catholic Church happy for centuries to provide its imprimatur on the most unapologetically absolute monarchies?

    Ehhh, the record’s a bit more mixed. First, Christian monarchies didn’t become “absolute” until the modern era, often in the teeth of religious opposition. They were often the only effective check on secular monarchies. True, this was often in pursuit of their own interests, but it did provide a solid counterbalance to the monarchy that you wouldn’t have found in a lot of pre-Christian societies, particularly large nation-state sized societies, or even mohammedan ones.

  • Tom Meyer · July 6, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    “I thus am not persuaded by Leon Kass’s argument that the core of (implicitly, Judeo-Christian) religious faith is a belief in equality and democracy and that without American religiosity, American democracy will decline.”

    You know, I wouldn’t have such a problem with this if religious conservatives would just occasionally acknowledge our our Greco-Roman and Enlightenment heritages. Dennis Prager — whom I otherwise respect — is a particularly bad offender this way.

  • Dtye · July 6, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Andrew Stuttaford just got finished teaching me to hate religion because it teaches the infinite blessings of suffering. Now I am supposed to hate it because it offers divine protection from suffering?

  • Mike H · July 6, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Well, that’s indeed just the thing. The American condition can’t be viewed as driven by any one factor in isolation. Certainly, Christianity played a major role in the forming of American society and its institutions and values. But it obviously didn’t do so in isolation, one can’t ignore the intellectual fascination of the 18th century American intellectual elite with the then relatively current Enlightenment thinkers as well as the ancient pagan world and its thinking. The impact of that worldview on the particular shape of the American system and ideology is unmistakeable.

    And let’s not ignore the way ancient Germanic, and to a lesser degree Roman and Celtic, modes of organization and cultural norms affected not just elites but the routine life of every town, village and hamlet around the country.

    None of those things, of course, had really existed in isolation before they came to America either. Christian thought couldn’t entirely ignore the classics even in the darkest Middle Ages. And the way Christianity was developed obviously was influenced by pre-Christian cultural mores in various locations. It is hardly a matter of theology that Christianity in Alabama is very different from that in Mexico or Italy or indeed Sweden. The shape of religion in a locality always seems to neatly align itself with many other forms of cultural expression in that place.

    Christianity is part of what made America America – but America and all its other influences are also what made American Christianity, in its various subcultures, today.

  • CJColucci · July 6, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    The idea that murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and just plain cruelty are bad was not something people didn’t know until Moses got the Word on Mt. Sinai (“The good news is, I got Him down to ten. The bad news is He won’t budge on adultery.”), so it is simply false to say that religion gives us these values. Nevertheless, it is a fact of history that, for most people, religion is the vehicle by which these values are transmitted. And it is a fact of Western history that Christianity has been the dominant religious vehicle for their transmission. If the values lose their purchase, society goes to Hell in a handbasket. Whether the values, and society, can survive the breakdown of a particular vehicle is a different question, though it’s unclear whether the Kasses of the world see it as different.

  • Eusebius · July 7, 2011 at 2:10 am

    Recommend to the driver the sermon of Fr. Arnall in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Guaranteed to sober him up!

  • eugen · July 7, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Polichinello is on the right track. The historical record is much more complex than many “secular rightists” seem to think. A major victory for freedom was the desacralization of the State (especially in the thought of St. Augustine), which had been virtually deified by classical antiquity (e.g., Roma). Lord Acton, who delved deeply into these issues, is very helpful here.

  • Brett Stevens · July 8, 2011 at 1:22 am

    “The idea of human equality is not an empirically derived proposition; it is an a priori theorem.”

    Perhaps “assumption” would be a better word there.

  • wm tanksley · July 8, 2011 at 2:36 am

    You can’t possibly derive human equality from human dignity without begging the question — some people are at least superficially less dignified, for example comedians (I grant that anyone who speaks less than completely seriously is a Lebensunwertes Leben). And intuitions are by definition revealed truth; just truth from an unknown source. Hitchens will warn you of the dangers of revealed truth; but Hitchens, every librarian, and honest theologians will join to warn you against the danger of revealed truth from an unknown source.

  • Mark Weaver · July 10, 2011 at 12:34 am

    “Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy & Theology” by Allen Jayne provides a very convincing argument that Jefferson was directly opposed to the orthodox Christian morality of his time. All of the American denominations believed in original sin which rendered men incapable of moral choices unless directed by clergy, Church or scripture. The churches also believed in predestination and salvation by grace which were directly opposed to the idea of equality. Jefferson believed these ideas were incompatible with the individual moral judgments required for the of exercise of liberty and the practice of democracy.
    Christianity has superficially adapted itself to the Jeffersonian conception of liberty and independent moral judgment in the last 200 years but the dogmas are still there waiting for their time to return to visibility.

  • Polichinello · July 12, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    All of the American denominations believed in original sin which rendered men incapable of moral choices unless directed by clergy, Church or scripture.

    I don’t know if the misreading is with Jefferson or Jayne, but that claim is wrong. Original Sin never meant that people were “incapable of moral choices.” In fact, it means opposite: we have knowledge of both good and evil, so we can choose between the two. That’s the whole point of the Myth of the Garden of Eden. However, according to most Christian thought, temptation over the long run will push humans to ignore convention and morality. The Christians have a point here, given the breakdown of society and mores once law and its enforcement are removed.

    Now, yes, Christianity feels that humans need guidance, but so what? How is that not true? Why do we consult moral philosophers and law codes if we don’t need guidance? We didn’t spring whole from Zeus’ head full of wisdom. If we were such angels, we wouldn’t need government at all, or we could live under Rousseau’s dispensation–which Jefferson and Franklin were both a bit too dangerously attracted to.

    The churches also believed in predestination and salvation by grace which were directly opposed to the idea of equality.

    This is wrong on both facts and theory. Not every church was Calvinistic. The largest Christian sect, Catholicism, was not. There were various Arminian sects amongst Protestants as well.

    Secondly, neither predestination or nor grace strike me as being opposed to human equality. Quite the opposite. According to predestination, no human can judge who will be saved or condemned, and in that we are all equal before God, rich and poor, weak and strong, men and women, etc, etc.

    Also, the Pelagian counterpart to the Augustinian counterpart is hardly conducive to equality. If we are to be saved by our own efforts, than only those fortunate or rich enough to live an autarkic life can hope to be saved, and then only through an endless examination of their lives and through thorough repentance. Augustine recognized that this is no way for normal human beings to live. A farmer, a butcher, a mechanic or any humble person can’t live a life full of reflection, and society at large can’t afford to have them doing so, so they need some sort of bridge to repentance and salvation. Thus the grace of God is given, in his view, to all alike.

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