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Does Society Need Religion?

A commentary on French President Macron’s declaration at the Vatican.

This post is part 1 of 2.

The Crisis of Cultures

When French President Emmanuel Macron declared during a visit to the Vatican this past summer that, “We have, anthropologically, ontologically, metaphysically, need of religion” (Nous avons, anthropologiquement, ontologiquement, métaphysiquement, besoin de la religion), there was little critical analysis in the press, much less by philosophers and scientists, of the moral, historical, or evidentiary basis of such a sweeping claim by the leader of one of the world’s first and most revolutionary secular regimes. What follows is an attempt to make sense of President Macron’s claim in the current European and global socio-political context, in part with the aid of recent research in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East from our team at Artis International and the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford.

The values of liberal and open democracy appear to be losing ground worldwide to xenophobic ethno-nationalisms and radical religious ideologies. The “creative destruction” associated with global markets has transformed people from the planet’s farthest reaches into competitive players seeking progress and fulfillment through material accumulation and its symbols but without a sense of community and common moral purpose. The forced gamble of globalization especially fails when societies lack enough time to adapt to unceasing innovation and change. As their members fall short of aspirations, anxiety, anger, and alienation can erupt into violence along prevailing political, ethnic, and confessional fault lines.

Today’s alt-right movement involves the same narrow-minded global weave of tweets, blogs, and chatrooms linking physical groups across the world as the jihadi movement. They are in a tacit alliance that is clobbering societies in ways similar to the hatchet job on Republican values by the fascists and communists in the 1920s and 1930s. In a May 2017 poll of residents in the former communist countries of Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia, substantial minorities in each country think the EU is pushing them to abandon traditional nationalist values once associated with fascist movements, whereas Russia has taken the side of traditional values. In Hungary, a revanchist expansive nationalism is advocated by the ruling national conservatives (Fidesz) and far-right Jobbik party (claiming rights to “protect” large communities of ethnic Hungarians in nearby countries). Prime Minister Orbán, who was expelled from Liberal International, a global coalition of centrist liberal democrats, is now Europe’s leading apostle of what he calls “the illiberal state,” citing Russia and China as examples. There we find that youth strongly support the government’s call for restoring the “national cohesion,” lost with the fall of Miklós Horthy’s pro-fascist regime (1920-1944), and for rooting out “cosmopolitan” and “globalist” values (grotesquely caricatured in government-sponsored posters of the Jewish financier George Soros).

Fidesz avowedly seeks to end “the two-party system with ongoing division as to values” and create a “permanent government” devoted to genuinely “Hungarian” values — a praiseworthy “rethinking of values” according to Vladimir Putin, but inconsistent with membership in the European Union. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński, head of the populist Law & Justice party, Poland’s largest parliamentary block, promised to follow suit and create “Budapest in Warsaw.” In November 2017, on Poland’s Independence Day, tens of thousands of far-right demonstrators in Poland sported anti-immigration signs for “Clean Blood,” but also “Pray for an Islamic Holocaust” to wake up “White Europe” to the dangers of tolerance. Leaders of Austria and Italy, and the plurality of their publics who elected them, now support or tolerate (thus letting hate spread without hindrance) similar pronouncements against Islam, immigrants, and Gypsies.

According to the World Values Survey, the majority of Europeans do not believe that living in a democratic country is “absolutely important” for them. This includes most young Germans under age 30, and especially their elders in the former communist East, who, in September 2017, voted into Parliament the right-wing populist party, Alternative for Germany. In April 2017, Marine Le Pen’s hard-right National Front and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s hard-left Unbowed France together captured just over half of the French vote of young people ages 18 to 34 in first-round national elections. And in the U.S., political scientists Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk find that nearly half of Americans lack faith in democracy, with more than one-third of young high-income earners favoring army rule — presumably to halt rising social unrest linked to staggering income inequality, job insecurity, and persistent failures in racial integration and cultural assimilation in an age of identity politics.

Religion’s Role in Society

Fearful of the chauvinism and xenophobia that fed two World Wars, many liberal and “progressive” Western leaders and press simply denounce national identity or cultural preference as bigoted or racist, and show an ostrich-like blindness to pan-human preferences for one’s own. This leaves the field wide open for the offensive of white nationalist groups of the alt-right, or the far-right’s less overtly racist alt-light defenders of “Western Culture” against the onslaught of Islam, globalism, migration, feminism, and homosexuality. But patriotism is not necessarily about sentiments of superiority and pride; it’s as much or more about belonging and social responsibility, as when people also feel ashamed about where their country is going or what it has done.

Then there is religion, which many secular thinkers, especially in Western academia, denounce for its seemingly primitive cosmology and reactionary morality that leads to stupidity and cruelty (think “God created the world in six days” or “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting the Lord,” Colossians 3:18). But in fact, religious canon has very little cosmology (“There is only one God,” “Jesus is his son,” and “Mohammed is his Prophet” are some), and the majority of injunctions (think Ten Commandments or Pillars of Islam) are less about morality than about the performance of social rituals (keep the Sabbath, give to charity, etc.). Even religion’s cosmology and moral injunctions are highly open to interpretation, which is why universal religions, at least, are so adaptable over so many different peoples, places, and times. This is why we have priests, pastors, rabbis, and imams giving weekly sermons that show contextual meaning to what are logically and empirically absurd cosmological notions (“God is three in one, bodiless but sentient, omnipotent, and omnipresent”) and nuance to moral imperatives (“You can’t kill, or take from others, unless…”). This is also why it is nonsense to say, as many political leaders and social commentators do, that this or that religion is “fundamentally” or “in essence” for peace or war, oppression or liberation. Religion is whatever the people doing the interpretation, and however people act according to interpretation, make of it as a way of living with others.

Religion, then, is less about fixed cosmology and rigid moral canon than about securing belonging through the dutiful repetition of shared practices (rituals) that affirm social responsibility toward a group rooted in transcendent (sacred) values that are fixed in symbols, but highly variable in thought — values that bind people together in words and rituals with a sense of timeless significance and purpose, and which are heartfelt certain to endure whatever the crises, challenges, and uncertainties of the here and now. Neither can its social functions be simply co-opted by negotiated social contracts, even for the greatest good of the greatest number. All contracts are ultimately matters of convenience, with a better deal always possible down the line. And if there’s ever the likelihood of a better deal down the line, then (reasoning by backward induction) it’s always to a person’s advantage to defect sooner rather than later, which makes societies built exclusively on contracts unstable in the long run. But religion’s transcendent values and symbolic rituals blind people to exit strategies, no matter how immediately reasonable or rewarding, and whatever the stress or costs. In short, religion cannot be readily discarded or replaced without severe social side effects that usually lead to its eventual re-emergence in societies that seek to endure.

As Edmund Burke noted, if people were to consider society no more than a voluntary association for the pursuit of self-interest, and allowed to question traditional customs, values, and institutions merely in light of that personal self-interest, then the only means to halt this centrifugal drift of society to “crumble away [and] be disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality” would seem to be an absolute despot.

This leads to consideration of the role of religion as a palliative against socio-political unrest, whether under an absolute monarchy or in a free market society, which has been analyzed in similar ways by some of the most original political theorists of the modern age. Perhaps the pithiest summary of this general view is one widely attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte (whom some consider the despot Burke anticipated following the chaos of the French Revolution): “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet. Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.” Now, if that is what religion is mostly about, then there is cause for considering President Macron’s call for religion in society as evidence for the charge of “elitism” in favor of the powerful and wealthy that many of his critics level against him. Karl Marx, for example, considered religion to be contrived by the powerful to keep the powerless effectively enslaved. Marx thus rejected religion’s role as a pacifier that promotes the common good and considers it rather as an “opiate” (Opium des Volkes) that inhibits the masses from freely exercising their reason, will, and productive ambitions and abilities.


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