On the Unsurprising Coincidence of God-Talk and Social Failure

“…in the public square of a pluralistic democracy, justification is always up for grabs and…the term ‘source of moral knowledge’ will always be out of place. I take the point of Rawls and Habermas, as of Dewey and Peirce, to be that the epistemology suitable for such a democracy is one in which the only test of a political proposal is its ability to gain assent from people who retain radically diverse ideas about the point and meaning of human life, about the path to private perfection. The more such consensus becomes the test of a belief, the less important is the belief’s source.”

Richard Rorty, “Religion as Conversation-Stopper”

“Willingness to accept the liberal goal of maximal room for individual variation…is facilitated by a consensus that there is no source of authority other than the free agreement of human beings.”

Richard Rorty, “Globalization, the Politics of Identity and Social Hope”

“Why do they [the radical Muslims] hate us? Why do they hate us so much? Ladies and gentlemen, the answer to that is because we are a Christian nation.”

Gen. William Boykin

“So our experience in this jihad was great, by the grace of God, praise and glory be to Him, and the most of what we benefited from was that the myth of the superpower was destroyed not only in my mind, but in the minds of all Muslims.”

Osama bin Laden

This article in the British Times Online spotlights a report published recently in the Journal of Religion and Society (you can read the actual paper here) that finds an inverse relationship between several indicators of religiosity and numerous measures of public health and social stability among developed industrial nations. The study’s authors take pains to clearly state the obvious by pointing out that their data directly refute the old (but recently resurgent) notion that although everyone need not be a true believer, religion is still “good for us”, particularly at the social level.

As he helped initiate the American experiment Benjamin Franklin stated that “religion will be a powerful regulator of our actions, give us peace and tranquility within our minds, and render us benevolent, useful and beneficial to others” When the theory of biological evolution removed the need for a supernatural creator, concerns immediately arose over the societal implications of widespread abandonment of faith. In 1880 the religious moralist Dostoyevsky penned the famous warning that “if God does not exist, then everything is permissible”

Unfortunately for Ben and Fyodor, the relationship between goodness and God-talk appears to be either not very strong (the best case scenario for religious folks in this study), or pretty tight but inverse (in which case religious folk come out looking like some sort of social disease). It may well be the case that, pace Dostoyevsky, “If God does not exist, then we’ll need to take responsibility for our own well-being.” The authors of the study provide a number of ick-inducing graphs like this to illustrate their findings:

I’ve written here before about my personal faith. I wasn’t kidding, it is real and vital and not particularly liberal or “meta” or any other sophisticated modifier.

In the 90s, I was very much influenced by a hope that the American churches could have a role in the American future. I didn’t mean the crazy, frothing churches, of course. I think in my secret heart, I was hoping for a renewal of what was once called the “Mainline” of American Protestantism. This hope was not based on some sectarian agenda, but rather grew out of my alarm at the rapidly accelerating shallowness and perversity of both American pop culture and the American character. I was influenced Robert Bellah’s “The Good Society” and “Habits of the Heart”, and the ideas of Amitai Etzioni, and hoped for the emergence of a cultural and religious “third way” analogous to the Third Way politics of Tony Blair and then-president Bill Clinton. It seemed reasonable, then, to hope for a world in which human values could countervene against the brutally instrumental rationalism of the global economy.

I still find that a reasonable hope, but I’m back to square one regarding the specifics. I want to state openly and publicly that I believe I was utterly wrong to hope for a restoration of civic religion. I got what I wished for, and it sucks the big one.

I have come to believe that democracy (at least as we have in the West) depends on underlying cultures that have a certain secular and rationalist tenor to them. Our democracy is, in short, a child of the Enlightenment. No matter how much we may long for our alienation to be alleviated or our world re-enchanted, the history of modernity suggests that we can have neither. Liberal democratic polity depends on liberal democratic (read: secular) culture.

This study is interesting, but it only confirms what I can see around me every day: that America is rushing headlong toward a culture of unreason and superstition, with the predictable result of declines in rational discourse and technical ability across the board. It would be foolish to draw from this study the conclusion that religion makes people “bad” (promiscuous or violent). Any secularist worth her salt can see that such an assertion would be ignoring the well-established socioeconomic and structural bases of behavior. An overtly and irrationally religious culture may, however, make people dumb. A culture that pays excessive attention to morality and the life to come may gradually lose its grip on technical competence and the world that actually is.

The recent hurricanes have shown our own government to be a case study in the inverse relationship between competence and God-talk, but you can see it in a million countless details of everyday life. Underlying the current crises of our democratic polity is a catastrophic collapse of democratic culture. Things like the controversy over “intelligent” design or the fact that 1 in 5 Americans (that’s 20%!) believe that the sun revolves around the earth frighten me far more that the almost certain theft of the elections in 2000 and 2004. Because you can hold all the elections you want, but if you don’t have an underlying culture of democracy, you just won’t get democracy in the political sphere. President Bush is currently in the process of proving my thesis in Iraq.

I accept the compromise proposed by Rorty (and, in a way, by Jefferson long before). To refrain from positing ideas that cannot be evaluated on their merits or verified, but must be accepted on the authority of their premises alone, is a small price to pay for freedom in religion and rational discourse in the political sphere. If keeping my religion out of the public sphere will keep people like George W. Bush out of both my religion and the public sphere, then I am happy to accommodate that. I was once struck by Bellah’s insight that the personalities generated by modern secular society are remarkably vapid and banal, but I now believe that this in an acceptable price to pay for a society that looks outward to technical mastery and rational comprehension of the material world. It is also a more-than-acceptable price to pay for the freedom to pursue my own private perfection and achieve whatever spiritual mastery and sublimity of soul I may.

I renounce, and I urge other thoughtful people of faith to likewise reject, any wish for a more organic society or a more enchanted world. I do not want to live in a culture that is tribal, or provincial, or based on clan and tradition. No matter how much we gussy them up with our multicultural pomo fantasies, such societies give no evidence of supporting democratic governments or broad respect for human rights over the long run. Only secular and broadly cosmopolitan societies have ever done so.

I want to live in a secular society. I will vote for a secular society, and I would urge Democratic leaders to give up the game of kissy-face they’re trying to play with the so-called Evangelicals. All the political faith-talk only panders to the rising tide of unreason and religious hysterics. It does a disservice to us all.

Every Christian should want a secular society, and struggle against false sanctification of the state. The variety of federally-funded God-talk being pushed by the “Evangelicals” is the sort of Christianity that Paul Tillich placed in opposition to the genuine in-dwelling of the divine life in the cultural realm. He called it heteronomous. We need only call it heresy, and fight it – as much for faith as for freedom.

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