Saturday, September 09, 2006

But don't call us religious!

No, I'm not talking about Darwinists who deny that their theory qualifies as a religion. I'm talking about Richard John Neuhaus, uberChristian and proprietor of the First Things blog and magazine:

Robert Royal, who runs the Washington-based Faith & Reason Institute, has a new book out from Encounter, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. The argument of the title and subtitle is persuasively set out, and we will be giving the book more attention in the pages of First Things. But I am struck by a review of the book in the New York Sun by Brooke Allen.

She writes: “Mr. Royal’s belief that religion has acted as a restraint on human cruelty rather than an instigation to it addresses a question that probably will never be settled satisfactorily. He points out, as others have, that anti-religious regimes like Mao’s and Stalin’s murdered many more people than religious persecutions ever did. While this is certainly true, Mr. Royal does not take into account the fact that ideology functions as a sort of religion in its own right, offerings its acolytes the feeling of transcendence normally associated with faith, and the sublimation of the ego in a larger cause.”

This is part of a very old word game. If you say anti-religious ideologies are more destructive than religion, it is only because anti-religious ideologies are, in fact, religion in another guise. Part of the problem, of course, is in the defense of religion-in-general. Any thoughtful Christian has to have at least a modicum of sympathy for Karl Barth’s solution, which is to insist that Christianity is not a religion. In this view, religion is a human enterprise aimed at reconciliation with, or manipulation of, transcendent powers such as God or the gods. Christianity, by way of sharpest contrast, is not a human enterprise but the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. It is a human enterprise only in that a community of human beings, the Church, responds to that revelation, but that, too, is the work of God in engendering faith in response to God’s revealing initiative.


I give him A+ for hubris. So, people who gather in churches and worship Christ are not trying to reconcile or manipulate God, it is the other way around. Christians are being manipulated by God, as by remote control, to fulfill God's reconciliation with humans. But that only applies to Christians. All you other guys are religious, because you're just pretending. We're the real thing, baby!

I have to say that this theory takes me by surprise. But it makes sense. A religion (yes, Christianity is a religion, no matter what Barth and Neuhaus say) is like any other organized human enterprise. To sustain itself it has to continue to bring in new adherents (or customers, if you will), and it must compete for those adherents with other like-minded enterprises. What Barth and Neuhaus are doing is known in the marketing world as "differentiation". You have to make your potential adherents/customers believe that no matter what similarities exist between your message/product and others, your message/product stands in a class by itself. The more similar your message/product is to others, the more radical the perceived differences must be made to seem. That is why Coke and Pepsi, two nearly identical brands of sugar water, must advertize so broadly and constantly to make it seem as if the choice between these products is a life-altering choice for the customer.

That brief description does not do justice to the argument of Barth and Barthians, but it suggests one way of drawing a sharp distinction between Christianity and religion-in-general. The whole idea that there is such a category of human belief and action that can be fitted into the category of “the religious phenomenon” is misbegotten, as Robert Royal points out in his critique of “religious studies” departments in higher education.

An alternative to the Barthian strategy is to observe that all thoughtful people are engaged in a search for the truth of things and the wisdom to live in accord with the truth of things. At one level, one might simply call this “thinking,” although traditionally we have called it philosophy—meaning the love of wisdom. In the Christian intellectual tradition, the early church fathers called Christianity the “true philosophy.” The claim was that Christianity, grounded in the logos or reason that created and sustains all things, makes more sense of more facts than alternative ways of thinking about reality.

In this view, it is entirely misguided to speak of philosophy, on the one hand, and religion, including Christianity, on the other. But, of course, over the last centuries, and dating back to the initiatives of Bacon, Descartes, and Kant, a philosophy that aspires to account for the whole of reality is called not philosophy but religion. In our day, John Rawls influentially warned against “comprehensive accounts” that, according to Rawls, do not count as public reason. Authentically public reason, or philosophy, is limited to ways of thinking that assiduously refrain from thinking about the really big questions about, for instance, the final and formal causes of existent beings.

These are huge conceptual problems with a very long history, and the dichotomy between philosophy (or reason) and religion is deeply entrenched in our intellectual culture. The problems are luminously addressed in John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio, but even there we have the difficulty of a title that, contrary to the substance of the argument, suggests a sharp division of labor between faith and reason. That faith is an integral and necessary part of reason is very powerfully argued in Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, a book I never tire of recommending to people engaged by these questions.

While I am in warm agreement with the case that Robert Royal makes, I do wish he had chosen a subtitle other than How Religion Built and Sustains the West. Christians have no stake in defending religion as such. Except to the degree that all rational people have a stake in exposing the irrationality of a philosophy of ideological secularism that refuses to engage the big questions that secularists dismiss as “religious.” In addition to Polanyi, I suggest Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought as an important aid in rethinking the way that Christianity should position itself in relation to other ways of thinking. It is the great work of the next generation of Christian intellectuals to rehabilitate philosophy in a way that makes it possible to persuasively propose Christianity as the “true philosophy.”


Good luck with that project. The religious traditionalist really is in a bind. To combat secularism he builds up the value of being religious, and so you see conservative Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and even some Muslims publicly minimizing the differences between themselves to present a united front against secularism. And yet such a stand for the generic practice of religion, or "belief in belief" as Brit puts it, undermines their own truth claims. Neuhaus very clearly expresses this conundrum in the article.

There is additional irony in the title of the book by Robert Royal that Neuhaus refers to in the article: "The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West". It is ironic because the main accomplishment for which we celebrate the West above other world civilizations is Modernity. And yet it is modernity that threatens orthodox faith. Modernity has only been possible through secularization, the disestablishment of orthodox creeds and the multifaith tolerance regime. "Religion" gained at the expense of orthodoxy. And this is why Neuhaus won't celebrate it.

17 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

All true.

But if you are going to take the deity out of religion, you don't just turn it into philosophy.

You also turn it into just another human enterprise, not distinguishable, except in results, from a Dale Carnegie course.

Then, if you step back a step, comes the question: if Christianity/Islam/Buddhism/etc. are in principle no different from Dale Carnegie, how come nobody ever wanted to kill or die for Dale Carnegie?

I am not holding out for any large number of people ever thinking clearly enough to go through those changes, but there can be only one answer, and it is totally destructive of religion, however conceived.

September 09, 2006 10:04 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

You're right, Harry. I thought the same thing, though not specifically Dale Carnegie. Neuhaus makes a mistake when he says An alternative to the Barthian strategy is to observe that all thoughtful people are engaged in a search for the truth of things and the wisdom to live in accord with the truth of things. Are people really searching for the truth of things? Or are they searching for hope?

Neuhaus continues: Except to the degree that all rational people have a stake in exposing the irrationality of a philosophy of ideological secularism that refuses to engage the big questions that secularists dismiss as “religious.” Is it really irrational? As I mentioned above, the big questions that Neuhaus would have secularists address are along the lines of "so what does the universe have for me", or "why should I care about right or wrong". These aren't questions about objective, external things, but are motivational in nature. Thus the tie-in with Dale Carnegie. Neuhaus refuses to admit that religion is not about seeking objective truth, but subjective meaning. The Truth isn't about giving Richard Neuhaus a pleasing narrative that gives him a reason for hope. We can't handle the Truth. We couldn't understand it anyhow, it far transcends our ability to comprehend it.

September 09, 2006 4:56 PM  
Blogger beepbeepitsme said...

Well, firstly, believing in something "religiously" doesn't make it a "religion."

It just means that they believe in the social/political ideology of secularism, or capitalism or communism, or whatever ideology you want to name.

Technically, a religion is: ~

"a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs."

Religions involve the worship of a god or gods, so though a person may "believe" in a political ideology, and defend that ideology through hopefully the processes of reason, it is NOT a religion.

But having said that, I agree that political. economic, social and cultural ideologies can can be followed or believed in religiously. (Like a religion, but not a religion.) In one instance it is claiming literally that the ideology is a religion, in the more accurate way, it claims figuratively, that the practice is LIKE a religion.

Dominionism, The Other Autocratic Regime
http://beepbeepitsme.blogspot.com/2006/09/dominionism-other-autocratic-regime.html

September 09, 2006 5:35 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Skipper and Cyril Connelly (I'm reading 'The Unquiet Grave') disagree with me, but I like to preserve the word religion for systems that refer back to a Big Spook/s.

It's true enough that the irreligious can worship Mammon, the proletariat or rassenkrankheit.

But I see a difference, in principle, if not often in practice: you are free to back out of any of those beliefs without worrying about supernatural penalties.

September 10, 2006 1:18 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

To combat secularism he builds up the value of being religious, and so you see conservative Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and even some Muslims publicly minimizing the differences between themselves to present a united front against secularism. And yet such a stand for the generic practice of religion, or "belief in belief" as Brit puts it, undermines their own truth claims.

Yes, I can see why that phenomenon would trouble you guys so. You have dined out for so many years on the image of squabbling faiths trying to slit one anothers throats (as any honest reading of their scriptures would reveal they are commanded to do) and only held back by you wise, even-tempered agnostics/atheists keeping them all at bay and preaching tolerance 'n stuff. It's a little like the referee getting attacked by both teams, isn't it? Now, Duck, you know how much I dislike amateur psychologizing, but if I were into it, I might just wonder whether the spectre of your loosing this exalted position as wise and mature camp counsellor keeping an eye on all the wild kiddies is behind all the Duckian impatience with religionists who challenge your insistence they have an obligation to slit the throats of all dissenters.

Your picture of religons as wide-eyed mass movements of insatiable greed ("Grow or die!") will come as big news to adherents of Judaism and doesn't seem to describe Christianity for the past three hundred and fifty years, but hey, why quibble about such poetic beauty? But I do have a question. I believe both you and Skipper have identified the American dream and American exceptionalism as your "faith". Tell me, do you find it tough to stifle those messianic impulses to invade and ravage Finland? No? And you call yourself a good American!

September 10, 2006 4:31 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter,
Let me attempt to unravel your misunderstandings. When I said that Modernity was dependent on secularism, I'm referring to that of the governmental variety, not the philosophical variety. The big blow to orthodoxy came when religious people determined that government by divine inspiration had to go. As much as I'd like to believe that the Founding Fathers (peace be unto them) were atheists and agnostics, the record clearly shows that they were not, highly unorthodox as they were.

And yes, the religious were indeed slitting the throats of dissenters by the truckload prior to the seularization of governments.

So, if you can resist the impulse to psychoanalyze me for a moment, can you review my post for factual inaccuracies or logical fallacies? I think I'm on firm ground here.

You bring up an interesting point about the Jews not marketing for converts. Interesting because, numbers wise, they are one of the least successful religions out there. Which kind of proves my point. I've written on this before, but you can rank Judaism, Catholicism and Evangelical Christianity on a scale of product differentiation. For Jews, religious piety won't get you saved, only being good will, and salvation is open to unbelievers. That's like Coke saying, "we're really no better than any other soft-drink, and besides, a soft drink doesn'nt make you a special person".

Catholics require both Christian faith and good works, and salvation is open to other forms of faith, though maybe those other faiths aren't as good as guiding you along the right path as Catholicism. So its like Coke saying "other soft drinks are better than none , but the colas are the best and Coke is the best cola. But those women won't just flock to you because you drink Coke, you have to bring your own marbles to the table (works)".

Now Evangelical Christianity has this differentiation thing nailed. You don't have to do anything other than believe. No works. But if you don't believe exactly the right things, you are damned no matter how good your works. This is the gold standard of differentiation. From a soft drink standpoint it is like saying "Coke is the key. Drink Coke and your life is changed forever, you are in paradise. Pepsi won't do it, Mountain Dew won't "dew" it, you might as well be drinking sewer water. All you need to do is drink Coke, forget about works or anything else, just drink Coke."

Now when you look at it this way, it is easy to explain why the market share numbers look the way they do.

September 10, 2006 6:17 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

You cannot compare Judaism (or Hinduism) to Christianity or Islam, because the latter two are universalizing, salvationist monotheisms.

The really evil effects come only when you have all three working together.

Judaism, an antiuniversalizing salvationist monotheism lacks the incentive to kill. (Although, in OT conditions, it did not.)

I was much struck by a remark on another blog this morning (an unfamiliar one and I've already forgotten its name). It was ruminating on the 9/11 anniversary and alleged discrimination against Muslims since then. The writer asked what would have happened in, eg, Saudi Arabia if 19 Jews had flown planes into an iconic structure there.

This remark actually shocked me, because the idea that 19 Jews would fly planes into a building in the name of Judaism was beyond my imagination.

I could imagine 19 Catholics doing it, though.

September 10, 2006 11:36 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

...but you can rank Judaism, Catholicism and Evangelical Christianity on a scale of product differentiation.

Well yes, I could, but I'd rather not, mainly because I can make no sense of the metaphor.

But I do have this delightful image of a gathering of Catholics, Jews, Protestants and Muslims getting togther to discuss your analogy and dissolving into a bar-room brawl over who gets to be Coke.

September 10, 2006 3:42 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I expect there's a good chance they would dissolve into a brawl anyhow

September 10, 2006 9:35 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

I thought Martin Amis put it (and a lot of other things) very well in his must-read essay 'The Age of Horrorism':

the opposite of religious belief is not atheism or secularism or humanism. It is not an 'ism'. It is independence of mind.

September 11, 2006 5:36 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

... only held back by you wise, even-tempered agnostics/atheists keeping them all at bay and preaching tolerance 'n stuff.

Hardly. Instead, as I have frequently noted, held back by the plethora of sects: while Christianity is the dominant religion in the US, no specific variety can have anything like a commanding position.

Contrast this with Islam, which breaks down into roughly three sects. Therefore, any country is almost bound to have one dominant sect, and one or two dumpedupon sects.

Religion is the only way to hold back religion.

Harry:

Skipper and Cyril Connelly (I'm reading 'The Unquiet Grave') disagree with me, but I like to preserve the word religion for systems that refer back to a Big Spook/s.

I think your preference is largely sound. If I was to be clearer, I would have used Baroque/Monarchic as a class of belief systems, of which religions are a subset, distinguished largely by divine imprimatur.

B/M belief systems are responsible for a great deal of misery.

Brit:

I happen to be mid-way through Martin Amis's essay. It is, as you say, excellent.

September 11, 2006 12:03 PM  
Blogger jefferson park said...

"I could imagine 19 Catholics doing it, though."

I concur. It's an interesting exercise. I can imagine Baptists, Nazarenes and Non-Denominationalists doing the same. I can't imagine Episcopal terrorists though, or Methodists either.

Jefferson Park

September 11, 2006 4:24 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Mr. Royal does not take into account the fact that ideology functions as a sort of religion in its own right, offerings its acolytes the feeling of transcendence normally associated with faith, and the sublimation of the ego in a larger cause.”

This is part of a very old word game. If you say anti-religious ideologies are more destructive than religion, it is only because anti-religious ideologies are, in fact, religion in another guise.


Perhaps you will give my comparison more credence now that Fr. Neuhaus has said it. (Althouth, he completely fails to take on board that in two respects, "anti-religious" and religious ideologies are identical: they are both baroque and monarchical. He also neglects to mention that, with respect to all other religions, his ideology is also anti-religious.)

September 11, 2006 7:39 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

I definitely can't imagine Anglicans doing it. I can just about stretch to imagining them forcibly commandeering the drinks trolley.

"Everybody stay in your seats, this is a hijack! Now then, who would like a nice cup of tea? Shall I be mother?"

September 12, 2006 1:15 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Perhaps you will give my comparison more credence now that Fr. Neuhaus has said it.

Not bloody likely, sport. I don't believe that you have read him right, but if you have, then I disagree with him too. We religionists are always doing that. It goes with our independence of mind.

You have a litle problem here that you won't address. No doubt it is fun to sit in Dearborn with your own private dictionary and pronounce marxism a religion or baroque or monarchical or whatever. But millions of its adherents, including a wide swath of the West's brightest minds, believed for over a hundred years that they were analyzing history and society according to strict scientific rationalist principles. Moscow was awash in "scientific" institutes and lenghty marxist analyses were famous for being so thorough, unemotional and "systematic" as to make evolutionary biologists read like Robert Ludlum in comparison. Likewise the fun chaps who manned the guillotines of revolutionary Paris. Don't you find it a tad..hmm..pompous to say they were all swept up in a religious fervor only you and your small merry band of libertarians have managed to escape in all of recorded history?

What I think you are failing to see about Neuhaus is that he would definititely include you and Harry in the mix.

September 12, 2006 4:15 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Brit/Jefferson

What, you have never seen how Anglicans react when the priest suggests the annual church fundraising auction should be dry? Scary!

September 12, 2006 4:21 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

If we are in the mix, who could be out?

A category that includes all subsets is no category at all.

There is that fundamental difference that whatever I recommend that you do, it carries only the weight of my reputation and the suggestion's own inherent merits, if any.

The Big Spook makes all the difference.

Probably no Aztecs would have gone to the trouble of cutting out hearts if they had thought the sun would rise tomorrow anyway.

September 15, 2006 3:07 PM  

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