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The Persistence of Religion

Columbia professor Mark Lilla wrote a very interesting article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine which deals with the relationship between religious belief and politics (adapted from his forthcoming book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West). It’s an interesting article—one well worth taking the time to read and think about. Among the many interesting issues raised by this article, I was drawn to one in particular—the persistence of religious belief, and what might account for it.

Lilla wonders why, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, global politics is still dominated by competing claims about the will of God. It’s one thing to go to war on matters of doctrine in the seventeenth-century, before the rise of modern science and liberal democracy, but how, nearly four hundred years later, and several centuries into the most famous separation of church and state in history (the American “experiment” which Lilla refers to as “The Great Separation”) can people still be basing their politics on their various and discrepant conceptions of the will of God?

In other words, why hasn’t modernity ushered religion out the door like everyone thought it would? Lilla identifies the insight of Thomas Hobbes, a seventeenth-century philosopher, as the crucial one which started us on the path to a separation between religion and politics. Hobbes held that we didn’t need religion for social harmony, just a recognition of the fearful and fragile state of our existence, and a willingness to entrust our security to a sovereign. Man, not God, was the proper focus of political activity, and once enough people came to understand the true nature of human beings and the world they lived in, religion would vanish. Except, according to Lilla, it hasn’t quite worked out that way:

For all the good Hobbes did in shifting our political focus from God to man, he left the impression that the challenge of political theology would vanish once the cycle of fear was broken and human beings established authority over their own affairs. We still make this assumption when speaking of the “social causes” of fundamentalism and political messianism, as if the amelioration of material conditions or the shifting of borders would automatically trigger a Great Separation. Nothing in our history or contemporary experience confirms this belief, yet somehow we can’t let it go…. And so we find ourselves in an intellectual bind when we encounter genuine political theology today: either we assume that modernization and secularization will eventually extinguish it, or we treat it as an incomprehensible existential threat, using familiar terms like fascism to describe it as best we can. Neither response takes us a step closer to understanding the world we now live in.

This is quite a frank admission: Nothing in our history or experience confirms the notion that once material conditions attain a certain level, religious belief will disappear, yet we can’t seem let it go. Many people continue to cling to this myth almost like, well… almost like a religion.

Christopher Hitchens is one of those who continue to uncompromisingly believe that the modern narrative is one of a steady trajectory away from religion, a view made abundantly clear both in his book and in his review of Lilla’s article this morning. According to him, the “Great Separation” isn’t an experiment that has been tried, and found incapable of eradicating (or at least domesticating) religious belief. It is, rather, a political notion that simply required many “dress rehearsals” to arrive on the scene, and one that we can be supremely confident will one day lead to the demise of the superstition and wish-projection that is religion.

Regardless of whether or not Hitchens’ faith is well-placed, the persistence of religion remains a fact that requires explanation. For Hitchens, the answer is as simple as it is breathtakingly arrogant: religious people are just more stupid and fearful, and less intelligent and courageous than clear-thinking atheists such as himself. The story isn’t finished yet. Given enough time, people will eventually come to recognize the obvious superiority of a religionless world. We can then rid ourselves of all the relics of our religious past, including the unfortunate and toxic conflation of religion and politics that plagues us at present.

Lilla, on the other hand, points to the thought of Rousseau, and the idea that human beings are “theotropic” – that is, religious by nature. We simply are inclined to believe in God(s) and we might as well accept it. Lilla is fairly pessimistic regarding our prospects given this situation. Immigration policies of Western nations have led to huge populations of religious communities who do not accept the Western narrative of steady progress away from religion living alongside those who do. In this situation, “we need to recognize that coping is the order of the day, not defending high principle, and that our expectations should remain low.”

Personally, I’m partial to the notion expressed by, for example, Susan Neiman and Peter Berger that all worldviews are, in a profound sense, a response to the question of theodicy. All people need conceptual strategies for dealing with the existence of a world that does not align nicely with their desires and expectations, a world which contains so much suffering and evil even under optimal social arrangements. All people die, and all people suffer loss, confusion, loneliness, alienation, fear and the many other afflictions of the human condition that seem impervious to social advancements. These are existential problems, not social ones, and I don’t think it should surprise us that they have survived the many and varied socio-political arrangements that have come and gone throughout history. Simply put, religion persists because it claims to meet needs that go beyond the parameters of life on this planet as it is.

The writer of Ecclesiastes referred to God’s setting of “eternity in the hearts of men” as a burden; it seems that this is one burden that we cannot shake ourselves of, no matter how much progress we make.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I appreciate your summary and analysis. I had bookmarked the NYT piece to read and will definitely do so. Thanks,

    August 21, 2007

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