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The problematic concept of religion

Christmas time highlights — usually in relatively trivial ways — the tensions between traditionalists and advocates of progressive forms of secularism and multiculturalism. The underlying issues run deep, however, and go to the heart of some basic political principles and assumptions. These issues are real and intractable. They will not be resolved by linguistic or conceptual analysis. But at least they may be clarified.

Recently I tried to articulate some nagging concerns I have about the concept of religion. My basic point was that no equivalent of our modern notion existed in the ancient or medieval worlds. Nor do you find such a notion in most non-Western cultures. These facts don’t necessarily undermine the concept of religion, but they should make us question it.

Take the Latin word ‘religio’. It did not mark out a separate (“religious”) sphere of living. This compartmentalized view of life only arose in the modern era and, though it seemed to work and bring social benefits, it could be seen to be both anomalous (historically speaking) and intrinsically unstable.

A standard Christian view is that there is no separate religious sphere of life: that life is an integrated whole and not compartmentalized into religious and secular components. I would argue that such a view, not dependent on an inevitably abstract and arbitrary notion of religion, is natural and robust and can work not only for those who are committed to traditional creeds and practices but also for those (like me) who are not.

Problems arise, of course, when people committed to very different views and traditions live together, and the secularization of politics and public life could be seen as a sensible and pragmatic solution — perhaps the only viable and humane solution.

My focus here is not on policy prescriptions, however, but rather on certain fundamental ideas about religion. These ideas are important at least to the extent that they motivate and help to justify political judgments and prescriptions.

Typically, traditional liberal approaches have not been based solely on pragmatic concerns but have been motivated also by metaphysical views, often involving a generalized religious perspective deriving from Stoic and Neoplatonic sources. Human rights talk, for example, derives from the natural law tradition which in turn owes much to Stoicism. And the modern notion of religion (against which the secular is defined and upon which notions such as religious freedom depend) could be seen as deriving in large part from Renaissance Neoplatonism.

A number of key 20th-century liberal thinkers, though ostensibly agnostic, took religion very seriously indeed. The views on religion of Ludwig von Mises were not atypical.

Though lacking any specific religious affiliation, Mises was a relentless critic of behaviorism and a believer in human freedom, not just in a political but also in a metaphysical sense. In Theory and History (1958) he states that he sees an essential truth lying behind sacred scriptures and mythic narratives of the fate of the soul. These “rather crude representations” have been sublimated, he claims, by religious doctrines and by idealistic philosophy. Neither reason nor science is able “to refute cogently the refined tenets of religious creeds.”

History can explode many of the historical narrations of theological literature. But higher criticism does not affect the core of faith. Reason can neither prove nor disprove the essential religious doctrines.

Essential religious doctrines? Mises expresses a commonly-held view, but it is one which I personally cannot make sense of. What is this essential religion exactly?

One does not lightly dismiss a body of concepts and practices which has, one way or another, underpinned political thinking in the West for hundreds of years. But times change and current levels of social discord would seem to indicate that classical liberal principles have lost traction. Whether they can be reworked and applied effectively to the sorts of societies we now have is a moot point.

At the very least, however, these ideas and their motivating principles need to be subjected to critical scrutiny and reframed in terms which can be understood without recourse to the idealism and essentialism of another age.

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Why are you a conservative?

This is addressed to people who consider themselves fundamentally conservative, and not libertarian, and, also reject the supernatural. By this, I mean that if you do support libertarian policies (I often do) it is not necessarily because you are at the root someone who is motivated by liberty as the summum bonum. By rejecting the supernatural I mean that you don’t accede to the plausibility of gods, spirits, etc.

Sometimes the answer can be somewhat vague and general. For example, by conservatism, as I implied below, is rooted in the social dependence of human flourishing. This necessarily entails that individual freedom is not the ultimate ends, and means that I am opening to diverging from libertarian logic in many specific cases. Or, more precisely, in the case of the United States I think that this nation-state is a good thing, that it has legitimacy, and that it’s coherency as a nation-state should be defended as a long term project. It’s not a mere convenience for the execution of legal prescriptions.

I throw the question out there because I’m wondering how people will take the ideas I’m going to present at the Moving Secularism Forward conference this March.

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Michelle Bachman recently suggested that the summer’s catastrophic weather reflects God’s displeasure with the course of American politics:

“I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians . . . We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said: ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’”

Predictably, she has now retracted her theological claims and says she was just joking. 

If the earthquake and hurricane did not represent God’s will, what did they represent in a world governed by an omnipotent, omniscient God?  Screw-ups?  Things that just slipped by his attention?  Any believer who dares articulate the unavoidable implications of religious practice these days, however,  will be forced into just such a recantation as Bachmann’s, for religious faith conflicts with what, for contemporary society, is the far more important secular ethic of tolerance and inclusion. 

This spring, Texas Governor Rick Perry issued a proclamation declaring April 22 to April 24 as “Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.”   Now what is logically entailed by such a proclamation?  The same implications regarding divine will as were behind Bachmann’s unacceptable gloss:

1.  That God has omnipotent power over earthly events.
2.  That such power exists whether the power-holder decides to change or to maintain a status quo: both action and inaction represent deliberate Godly intentions towards reality. 
3.  That if God wants to end the Texan drought, he can.
4.  That God is aware of our prayers. 
5.  That God has the capacity to act upon our prayers.
Specifically to Perry’s proclamation (and to every other such “group day of prayer”):
6.  That God employs democratic pollsters who tabulate public opinion: the more people praying to him to take a particular course of action, the more likely it is he will rouse himself to that action (this corollary of all such calls to collective prayer conflicts of course with the equally prevalent meme that all it takes is one voice crying out for help to move God to action). (more…)

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How America is a little like Pakistan

Cross-posted from Discover.

Recently a “hot story” in the barbaric nation that is Pakistan is that a politician did not know how to recite a prayer properly. An important back story here is that Muslims generally pray in Arabic, but most Muslims are not Arabic language speakers (and in any case, colloquial Arabic is very different from “Classical Arabic” which is derived from the language of the Koran). So deviation from appropriate pronunciation is a major problem for Muslims as a practical matter. And, since the words one recites in ritual prayer are derived from the Koran they are the literal Word of God as transmitted to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel. Proper delivery is of the essence (and for your information, I can still bust out sura Fatiha, thank you very much).

But the major point illustrated by the incident is the importance of public piety in Pakistan. The father of the nation of Pakistan, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, was so Westernized that he had to have mullahs prep him on how to recite lines of the Koran during speeches. He was himself from a heretical Muslim sect (heretical in the eyes of the Sunni majority at least), the Ismailis, and married a woman of Zoroastrian background. Like much of the Pakistani elite today and upper class men of the British Empire during that period Jinnah had a soft spot for various liquors. Pakistan has come a long way from those days, re-branding itself as an extremist nation par excellence. The “moderates” may be the majority, but they are not moved to place themselves between the extremists and their victims.

And this brings me to the USA. How is it like Pakistan? We’ve also have come a long way since the Founding in terms of the respectable “orthodoxy” which we demand of our politicians. A new Pew survey on religion in Congress puts this into stark relief:




Faith and finance

The argument that the current financial crisis was at least partly caused by the retreat of religion from the public square and by rising secularism will undoubtedly recur regularly over the next few years.  These are complex matters, and those propounding the godlessness thesis are far wiser and more knowledgeable than I.  I would like to offer just a few pieces of possibly countervailing evidence, with no presumption that they are correct. 

— Maybe thirty years ago, American culture could have been characterized as increasingly secular, but after the emergence of the Religious Right and the Bush Administration, I’m not so sure.  In 1978, sociologist John Murray Cuddihy noticed what he called the “’invisibilization’” of religion in America’s civic realm.  “Religious identities as such must not be pushy, elbowing themselves into contexts where they do not belong,” he wrote in No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste.  “If they do, they encounter an equivalent of the polite bureaucratic put-down, ‘You don’t belong here; I must refer you to . . . window 73B.’” 

Cuddihy’s observations remain valid within a centuries-long perspective;  even the most devoted acolyte of Jerry Falwell practices a religion that has been defanged and domesticated compared to the power-hungry, truth-monopolizing manifestations of religion throughout most of Western history. 

But compared to the 1960s and 1970s, religion today plays a far more assertive role in public life.  The Religious Right has weighed in on everything from the NEA to tax cuts.  Political religious rhetoric and influence increased during the Bush years, whether in state legislatures or in Washington.  Bush’s executive branch contained a number of publicly-professing Christians who made no secret of the role of faith in their public life.  Federal policies on embryonic stem cell research, foreign aid for contraception and abortion abroad, and other “life” issues mirrored the platform of the Religious Right.  I would not be surprised if President Bush’s evangelical speech writer Michael Gerson pushed for the greater liberalization of mortgage lending to minorities, on the ground that “compassionate conservatism” (read: his Christian beliefs) required it.  It was during this political religious reawakening that the credit markets evolved ever more arcane forms of risk-dispersion.  (more…)




Neither a borrower nor a lender be

It all comes from you, it all belongs to you.

(Pastor Rick Warren’s inaugural prayer.)

The Christian world-view holds that all human virtues are a loan from God.  The secularist responds: “Quite the opposite.”  Compassion, love, and mercy are human predicates; we confer them on God. Human beings are the sole source of meaning in the world; history is our story, not God’s story, as Rick Warren has it. 

Many believers assume that this human-centric sense of life must lead to nihilism.  “Secular humanism  . . . founders on its own perception of the meaninglessness of human life,” writes Michael Novak in No One Sees God.  I’m puzzled by this stance.  The world is awash in meaning, more than anyone can possibly take in.  I don’t need God to be slain by the exquisiteness of Don Giovanni or a Chopin nocturne.  If life’s beauties, conflict, and cooperation leave believers looking elsewhere for significance, it is they, not skeptics, who live in an empty world.

But Warren’s speech reminded me of one important power of religious rhetoric that is not easily replicated in a secular setting: divine petition. (more…)

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Going to school v. going to church

The teen birth rate has started climbing again. As usual, it’s highest in red states and states with high black and Hispanic populations and lowest in New England blue states. In 2006, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Texas topped the list, with 68, 64, and 63 births for every 1000 female teens, respectively, compared to 19 births per 1000 female teens in New Hampshire and 21 in Vermont and Massachusetts.

Will more religion cure this scourge? Not by itself. Mexican-American teens have the highest birth rate—93 births per 1000 girls—compared to 64 births per 1000 black girls and 26 births per 1000 white girls. Decadent secular Europe and non-Christian Asia lag far behind. In 2003, Japan’s teen birthrate was 3.9 births per 1000 girls. Italy’s rate was 6.9 per 1000, and France’s, 10 births per 1000 girls.




An Anodyne Age?

I’m almost finished with What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Reading this and other books on this period of American history I’m struck by how milquetoast the public discussion of religion is in the political domain today in comparison. I noted below that very few individuals in Congress will admit to not having a religion, and yet I recall John Ashcroft being grilled as to the nature of his adherence to the Assemblies of God during his confirmation hearings.  We live in an age when religion is good, just not too much, or too strange.  In 1832 Andrew Jackson, arguably the first orthodox Christian president of the early republic, refused to set aside a day of prayer due to his strict separationism.  A robust anti-clericalism and secularism was not too uncommon in some sectors of what became the Democratic party.  Robust enough that Benjamin Tappan, the irreligious brother of the more famous evangelical Tappans, could win enough favor with the legislature of Ohio to be elected Senator during the period we know as the Second Great Awakening, when evangelical reformist politics were waxing.

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