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The Role of Religion

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

This post is part 2 of 2.

There is undeniable historical truth that institutionalized religion has functioned to back a ruling power and the social classes it has privileged (as with the Church of England under the Restoration following England’s Civil War, or France’s Catholic Church following the Franco-Prussian War to “expiate the crimes of the Commune”). Nonetheless, there is also a strong historical current, both in the Anglo-American Puritan tradition and among French free thinkers, whether Catholic or Protestant, that religion provides a moral conscience that is as natural to reason as it is compatible with it. Moreover, this moral conscience that religion encourages provides a means to check the ruling power, and even a duty to rebel when that power imposes unethical, dishonorable, dishonest, or unfair burdens on citizens. Such, for example, is the sentiment expressed by the motto “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God,” which Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson proposed for America’s Great Seal.

According to the French socialist leader and leftist icon Jean Jaurès, religion inspires revolution: “The very essence of religious life consists in coming out of one’s small and selfish ego, to go toward ideal and divine reality” (L’essence même de la vie religieuse consiste à sortir de son moi égoïste et chétif, pour aller vers la réalité idéale et divine). Similarly, for the Protestant socialist philosopher Paul Ricoeur, whom Emmanuel Macron studied under and considers a mentor, religion, on whose foundation Western reason developed, helps us imagine a social and political life more desirable than the one we have. Religion thus serves the critical function of allowing us to judge what is wrong now and what might be better in the future. Indeed, far from hindering thought, religious faith “steps up reason” (suscite un surcroît de raison) by moving us “beyond any concrete morality” anchored to present and particular rules, behavior, and conditions, toward a general ethic of equality — a “justice where everyone’s rights weigh equally” — and to an “ethic of love,” including “that love of the innocent victim.”

There is, in other words, a longstanding vision and mission for religion and its role in a democratic society of liberal tolerance that need not privilege any person or group, and need not be obligatory or even institutionalized in ways hidebound to tradition or convention. This is a notion of religion that pervades public space in calling individuals to a common moral aspiration, and which is surely closer to the ideas of Jefferson and Jaurès than to Marx and Napoleon.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin cast devotion to spiritual and moral virtues that “come to be highly esteemed or even held sacred,” together with devotion to one’s own group, as the “the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy.” Together, commitment to cherished values and to one’s comrades appears to be the best evolutionary formula for success in history’s spiraling competition for survival and dominance. Across cultures, the strongest forms of primary group identity are bounded by sacred values that are immune to material trade-offs, such as an unwillingness to sell out one’s religion or country. Is not God the symbol and sinew of society, as French sociologist Emile Durkheim famously conjectured?

Through imagined kinship and faith beyond reason, religions enable strangers to cooperate in a manner that gives them an advantage in competition with other groups. This has been especially true since the advent of the “Axial Age” (Karl Jaspers’ Achsenzeit), more than two millennia ago. That was when large-scale civilizations arose under the watchful gaze of powerful, all-perceiving divinities, who mercilessly punished moral transgressors to ensure that even strangers would work and fight as one in the competitively emerging multiethnic empires warring and trading across the middle latitudes of Eurasia. Call it “God” or (ever since the American and French Revolutions) whatever transcendental and a priori ideology (and so immune to logical contradiction or empirical counter-evidence) one prefers, including any of the great modern salvational-isms, such as colonialism, socialism, anarchism, communism, fascism, or liberalism. Indeed, humans make their greatest exertions and sacrifices, for ill or good, for the sake of ideas that give a sense of significance. In a universe where humans may be nothing more than a trivial occurrence, and where humans alone among organic species recognize that death is unavoidable, there is an overwhelming psychological impetus to overcome this tragedy of cognition: to realize ‘“why I am” and “who we are.”

Often such values are attributed to Providence or Nature, and embedded in notions whose meaning one can never quite pin down, and which cannot ever be definitively verified or falsified by logic or empirical evidence (e.g., “God is great, bodiless but omnipotent” or “Free markets are always wise”). Thus, while “sacred values” intuitively denote religious belief, as when land or law becomes holy, it also includes the “secularized sacred,” as when ground or rights become hallowed (think of the military cemeteries of Gettysburg, Flanders and Normandy, or the Declaration of Independence or the Rights of Man). Consider the quasi-religious notion of the nation itself, ritualized in song and ceremony and sacrifice. Or take those “self-evident” aspects of “human nature” that humankind is supposedly endowed with, such as “inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In the initial draft of America’s Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson deemed these rights “sacred,” which Benjamin Franklin, seeking “rationalist” foundational principles, even for the spiritual, subsequently insisted be made “self-evident.” In fact, such rights are anything but self-evident and natural in the life of our species. For example, cannibalism, infanticide, slavery, oppression of minorities, and male domination of women were more standard fare. It wasn’t inevitable or initially even reasonable that conceptions of individual freedom and equality concocted by 18th-century European intellectuals should emerge, much less prevail. They did so only through revolution, intensive social engineering, economic competition, and belief in “just war.”

The Vitality of Values

Civilizations rise and fall on the vitality of cultural ideals, not material assets alone. After the Visigoths sacked Rome over 1,500 years ago, Augustine sought in The City of God to describe the abiding city or commonwealth that would outlast the fall of earthly cities; only “The Republic of God,” he surmised, would endure under whatever material guise. With the defeat of fascism and communism, have our lives defaulted to the material quest for comfort and safety on ever-shifting sand? Is an endless, de-spiritualized gambling for gain enough to ensure the security, much less triumph, of the open societies that we seem to take for granted, and believe our world should be based on?

Among young men just coming out from under ISIS rule in Mosul, our research team found no support for democracy, which, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, was suffered by the Sunni as a tyranny of the Shia majority. (And without the laborious development of institutions that underpin democratic governance of the kind that took Europe and the United States more than two centuries to foster, democracy just may not be very good at adjudicating across tribal, ethnic, and confessional boundaries and conflicts, any more than in family matters.) Almost all people we interviewed and psychologically tested initially embraced ISIS as “the Revolution” (al-Thawra). Although many came to reject ISIS’s brutality, the overwhelming majority continue to adhere to ISIS’s core value of strict Sharia law as the ultimate salvation of society. Moreover, those who believe in Sharia as the best form of government are more willing to make costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying. We also find that few of the thousands of Western European youth that we have surveyed, as opposed to North African supporters of Sharia in the service of militant jihad, are willing to make corresponding costly sacrifices for their supposedly cherished values, such as democracy. A majority of eligible 18-24-year-old voters do not even participate in national elections in France or the U.S. It is this seeming lack of devotion and commitment to our own core values, rather than threats from violent extremism or outside forces, that likely represents the greatest existential challenge for open societies.

Re-enchantment and perhaps the communitarian rerooting of our own once-transcendent values in an engaged and educated citizenry for the cooperative pursuit of individual liberty and happiness may be the key existential issue for our futures. For some, the rerooting of our own values of representative government, with equal opportunity and justice before the law and unfettered debate, may provide a way forward in life. Preserving what is left of the planet’s fauna and flora and avoiding environmental catastrophes may inspire others. Yet others might be called to anti-nuclear activities to parry what is probably humanity’s greatest threat.

The times arguably call out for transformative engagement of civil society and government to address the problems of violent extremism and radical illiberalism. They call out as well for a spiritual revival of our civilizational values and rituals and their potential for eliciting commitment to the defense of the common good represented by them. These need not be monotheistic or even institutionally “religious,” as President Macron implied, but they may well need to be sacred and transcendental. For history suggests that societies best endure when their culture-binding values and socio-political rituals become, as Darwin noted, “highly esteemed and even held sacred,” transcending and thus engaging — anthropologically, ontologically and metaphysically — commitment beyond any social contract’s utilitarian considerations.


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