"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 drives enterprise, productivity, economics, and the arts.  Law and civil society provide the contest within which the individual can flourish.  Jefferson's 'the pursuit of happiness' means exactly that - a nation of individuals acting out of self interest but never to the detriment of the community. 

Image result for images jefferson

Religion satisfies other, more primal needs and has since the first human settlements provided simple answers to unfathomable events, offered refuge and consolation, and perhaps most of all, the eventual release from a brutish and unremittingly painful world. 

The two exist well together. Civil society works just fine without religion, and the scale measuring the weights of individual enterprise and government authority is usually balanced 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 coherent.

However, regardless of complexity, the system needs no divine intervention.

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.

Image result for images atheism logos

Given the passion of Environmentalism, it has become the religious movement of the day and 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.

Image result for images new age gaia

Environmentalism may be the best example of secular religion, but America is awash in causes with believers just as fervent. The social media appeal for animal rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and civil rights. The faithful fill auditoriums to listen to secular priests fulminate about doom and disaster – puppies eviscerated, women up against 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 minor lives.

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


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