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Monday, March 21, 2016

America Without Religion –A Good Thing Or A Bad Thing?

Emma Green writing in The Atlantic (3.21.16) notes that in the United States, fewer young Americans identify as religious or attend regular services than members of any other living generation, and speculates on how this lack of faith will change the way we live:
Religion tends to make people happier, healthier, and more civically engaged. It creates a foundation for communal and social life, provides a common set of behavioral rules for people to abide by, and can be a useful guide for navigating the exhaustion and pain of everyday life. Looking out at a generation full of folks who don’t go to church or synagogue or mosque, some sociologists and commentators can’t help but wonder: What will become of us?
Yet, should the increase in young ‘nones’ really be of concern?  Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov assuredly and cynically believed so. Morality is predicated on immortality, he said..  Without a belief in the afterlife and the moral rules which govern accession, there would be chaos.  Rakitin, an associate of Father Zossima responds angrily, and says to Alyosha:
Did you hear your brother Ivan’s stupid theory just now,” Rakitin said, “that if there’s no immortality of the soul, then there’s no virtue, and everything is lawful. (And by the way, do you remember how your brother Mitya cried out: ‘I will remember!’) An attractive theory for scoundrels! Or maybe not scoundrels, but for pedantic poseurs, ‘haunted by profound, unsolved doubts.’ He’s showing off. His whole theory is a fraud! Humanity will find in itself the power to live for virtue even without believing in immortality. It will find it in love for freedom, for equality, for fraternity.”  (II.7)

It is difficult to take sides in the matter since all societies practice some form of religion; and there are too few atheists with too short a history for longitudinal studies to track their morality.  However, since morality – or at least the principles of right and wrong – is taught to children well before they reach what Catholics call ‘the age of reason’ and before their First Communion and official entry into the world of faith, one would have to suspect that Ivan was wrong.

No, say some critics.  Although the foundations for morality are laid during childhood, they are infirm.  How can a child, they say, anticipates the tests and trials of morality that await them in adult life?  How can fibbing and sneaking cookies out of the cookie jar possibly intimate the betrayals, deceit, murder, greed, and antipathy that await them?  Unless children are constantly reminded of their obligation to parents, family, friends, and society, they will certainly follow the dictates of human nature -  a nature, as history has amply shown, is aggressive, self-serving, territorial, and exclusive.  And what better reminder and enforcer of morality than the Church?

Morality is neither absolute nor a product of religion others say.  It is merely a social construct – one which ensures that these most venal and self-interested instincts are kept in check.  Religion is not at all necessary to maintain civil order because socialized men all respect the law as a means of justice.  One’s personal ambitions may not always benefit from the law, but without it in a tooth-and-claw world, the risk of losing everything is great.

It appears, therefore, that morality does indeed exist without religion.  Man has always found secular means to keep the selfish desires of other in check.

What, then, about the argument that religion is the foundation for a social and communal life?  As above, there seems to be no need for religious faith to keep our worst instincts in check.  A secular respect for the law is enough to preserve, support, and promote the social integrity needed for survival. 

On the other hand the American church has always been the focal point of community life; and faith may only be incidental.  Religious affiliation is a marker of both subscription to prevailing social norms and a common faith in God.  Churches in many parts of the country are not just places of worship but venues for schools, elder care, social and psychological support, and safe adolescent engagement.  Certain Protestant denominations in the North pride themselves on social activism.  Many political progressives add the United Church of Christ or the Unitarian Universalist Church to their secular resumes.

Yet is disingenuous to believe that if these churches no longer existed, they would not be replaced by other, equally accommodating institutions.  Human beings are socially hardwired.  Survival is always predicated on some degree of social insulation.   Atheists, for example, are exhibiting the same need for social belonging, approval, and justification as their religious brothers and sisters.   Atheism is rapidly becoming the secular church in America.  Environmentalism has acquired all the trappings of religious faith – a belief in a Supreme Being (Mother Earth), an anti-Christ (Wall Street and its corporate demons), an Apocalypse (a fiery end to the planet), and salvation through both faith and works.  It has become the secular religion in America.  We all need belonging, purpose, status, and identity, and environmentalism does the trick.

Finally Green talks of religion as a way of “navigating the exhaustion and pain of everyday life”.  A safe haven, in other words.  In a world where trust is at a premium and where deception, greed, arrogance, and venality are the rule, where better to find solace and support than with a merciful, understanding, and loving God?

There is no doubt that religion’s primary raison d’etre is shelter from the storm.  No matter what disaster, disease, infirmity, accident, or freak of nature may occur in one’s life, there is always God. 
Tolstoy wavered between nihilism and religious faith for most of his life and despite his avowal of belief in A Confession, his later writings betrayed that conviction.  Tolstoy, therefore, was always a religious man, for nihilism is as articulate and convincing a philosophy as any enunciated by Paul, Tertullian, Aquinas, or Augustine. 

Life without meaning is not so terrible.  It is not so difficult to accept, as Konstantin Levin (Anna Karenina) could not, the irony of being created with intelligence, wit, insight, creativity, and passion and then after a few decades of life consigned to eternity beneath the cold, hard ground of the steppes.  A life without meaning offers tremendous license – one which may be led within the circumscription of society’s norms, but one equally without guilt or remorse for a sybaritic, epicurean existence.


Nietzsche, the greatest nihilist of them all, was not content with such indulgent lifestyles.  In the face of a meaningless life, one had the obligation to act.  The expression of personal, individual will was man’s only validation of his existence.

Whether one  is either a follower of Epicurus or Nietzsche, religion is irrelevant.  A life of pleasure, attainment, dominance and glory or one of quiet, resolved resignation are both logical and acceptable alternatives to God.


Green closes by noting that while traditional Christian faith is less confessed in America, other religions are.  We are no longer a nation of Jesus Christ but of Rama, Mohammed, the Buddha, and Gaia.   While this may be true, the fact remains that the ‘nones’ are outnumbering everyone else.  America may be a pastiche of the world’s religions, but those who are faithful are becoming fewer and fewer.

In closing, there is absolutely no cause for concern.  Human nature is such that the ‘nones’ will look elsewhere for moral and social support, status, belonging, and meaning.  The fabric of American society may fray, but not because of the decline in religious belief.

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