"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, August 26, 2013

Secular Religion–We May Not Need God, But We Still Need To Believe

America is perhaps the most religious country on earth; and the number of avowed believers, those who attend church regularly, and those who believe in divine intervention in everyday life is very high indeed. While the number of non-believers is rising, they are still relatively few.  We are still a God-fearing nation and will be for some time to come.

Andrew Brown, writing in The Guardian (8.26.13) laments the passing of Robert Bellah, a sociologist who believed that a society without religion is impossible and dismisses entirely the notion, embodied in the Constitution, that the collective will of the people guided by the benevolent hand of the State is enough – there is no need for religion:

Liberalism… has no need of God because it trusts that the self-interest of the citizens will lead them to the best possible outcome: "the state is a purely neutral legal mechanism without purposes or values. Its sole function is to protect the rights of individuals, that is, to protect freedom." Such a state is, he thinks, an absurd impossibility, which could never exist.

The two notions can, of course, co-exist. Society functions well because of individual self-interest – our fundamental, ineluctable, hardwired human nature. We all follow the law of the jungle.  However, while clubbing a rival hunter who intruded onto our patch of the veldt was as reasonable as tigers defending their territory with tooth and claw; agriculture and the large communities it engendered demanded cooperation. Law and civil society were begun.

Religion developed independently. It satisfied other, more primal needs. Ignorance bred fear of and respect for lightning, thunder, and earthquakes; and eventually the worship of the powers that were behind them.  If we worshipped and prayed, perhaps lightning wouldn’t strike.

No less is true today.  Civil society works just fine without religion, and the scale measuring the balance between individual enterprise and government authority is usually balanced even as human societies grow ever more complex.  ‘Government’ is now thousands of little governments, jurisdictions, departments, courts, and division; and ‘civil society’ is far less atomized and more agglomerative – the AARP has clout.  However, regardless of complexity, the system needs no divine intervention.

At the same time, religious worship is no different than what it was in pre-history.  We still worship unknown forces, pray for divine intervention, and solve the riddles of the universe by saying ‘God did that’.  We still have priests who interpret divine will; ceremonies of sacrifice, penance, and repentance; and we all wear the protective mantle of belief.

Since there will never be any answers to the big questions, there will always be a role for religion. And as long as society remains unequal, religion will always provide the last refuge for the poor, the disadvantaged, and the unfortunate.

One important distinction, however, should be made. It is belief that is universal and unchangeable, not religion. If the cycle of history turns towards the secular, and God is put on the shelf for a few hundred years, we will create other, secular gods.  Atheism, for example, is not simply a personal rejection of God, but a religion of unbelief – a collective movement with its own dogma, rituals, recitations, and cant.  There are now atheists’ conferences, school clubs, websites, and jamborees.  It is simply not enough to wake up one morning, look in the mirror, and conclude that God doesn’t exist.  We need affirmation, collective support.  We need to be in a crowd shouting “God doesn’t exist”, carry copies of the Atheist Catechism, proselytize and evangelize, and pray that others will see the errors of their ways.

Given the passion and  irrational fervor of Environmentalism, it has become the religious movement of the day, and is little different from the millennialism of the past.  The world will end in a fiery Armageddon, say Environmentalists.  We will pay for our sins against the Earth, and our fate will be hot, brutal, and inescapable. However, we can save the Earth and ourselves through prayer and good works.  There is still time.  How different are these warnings, chastisements, and admonitions from the fire and brimstone that rages from the pulpit every Sunday?  No different at all.

Environmentalism may be the best example of secular religion, but America is awash in causes with believers just as fervent. The social media are crammed with appeals for animal rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and civil rights. The faithful cram auditoriums to listen to secular priests fulminate about doom and disaster – puppies eviscerated, women banging their heads on glass ceilings, gays marginalized and abused. These true believers leave the room feeling as sanctified as those who receive Holy Communion.

We invent God daily.  We cannot do without a belief that supersedes our small lives. This, however, has nothing whatsoever to do with the real world in which we piss on our perimeters, fight like she-bears to protect our children, go to war with our rivals and competitors, scramble up the corporate ladder or game the welfare system, and, bloodied and bruised, pull over when John Law fires up his flashers.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ron,
    Tony Lavely turned me onto your wonderful blog. I will henceforth follow it with interest. I too was a great fan of Robert Bellah and studied his last book, "Relition and Evolution" very carefully. You might be interested in another take than yours on the subject of God from this post on my blog:

    Best regards,
    John Wylie Y64


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.