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.