The funny thing about religion is that many of those who seem to be most swept up in it are those who believe it to be a fraud. At least that seems to be the case in our secular society. To be faithful today is to live in a hall of mirrors. For every person who believes their faith to be self-evidently true, in reverse images, there is a multiplication of those who equally believe that faith to be self-evidently false.
“Evidence!” is the cry from the Secularists. “We must have evidence”. This would appear an eminently reasonable demand if the Secularists themselves didn’t believe in a whole multitude of things that have not a shred of evidence. Haughty and muddled, they are like Stavrogin who “if he believes, he does not think he believes. If he does not believe, he does not think he does not believe” (‘Demons’ Fyodor Dostoevsky).
Because they are not commonly anchored by what they are, but unanchored by that which they are not, secular positions can be like shifting sand dunes in a desert. It’s an arid, barren land starved by mere repudiation. Nothing much of value grows there. If it does, it doesn’t survive long. The flowers that do survive tend to be the result of thousands of years of combined thought, not a few decades worth of musings from a sect of secular clerics; they tend to grow farther away from pedants and their explanations, and nearer to the souls of simple people.
Our ancestors instinctively understood that the soul of discovery is a story, and the soul of a story is a personality. It was inclusive. Narratives and evocative stories are much easier to follow than, say, the existential phenomenology of Heidegger or the deconstructionism of Derrida. But in the same way the longshore drift at a coastline is constantly changing the fabric of the environment, rationalism eroded religious beliefs in proportion to the new secular illusions that took their place. Instead of warm metaphorical treasures it has left us with cold abstractions.
Many come to cherish them, holding them to their hearts as their forefathers did with their own foundational tales. And since they have a thirst for Truth, this is also a thirst for God, so they too have had their reward of illumination. But even in order to understand that reward, we must understand that for philosophers that reward is the completion of the incomplete. Because it doesn’t consider what Camus noted as the absurdity of the human condition. These truths are therefore no more eternal than those they dethroned. And they are no more objective. Because we can’t separate ourselves from the meaning of the universe any more than a dramatist can separate themselves from the meaning of a play.
If you want to learn about somebody’s morality, you’d do better to watch them in their private moments than to study their public pronouncements. Similarly, in the quest for Truth, I should think you’re more likely to find it in the unconscious conduct of simple people than you are in textbooks. More in the fables, which are the unconscious masterpieces of humanity, than in academic definitions. Those may be, on the face of it, of a more exceptional character, but by putting a premium on the exceptional, in terms of Truth, we grossly underestimate the unconsciousness of the normal.
For example, if Moses had said he saw God as infinite energy, I should think words were being put in his mouth. As he said he saw a burning bush, the event has more resonance. It also seems more reasonable that Moses found the one true God on a mountain, than if he had said: “Energy is eternal; it’s a pervasive and impalpable essence which connects all things”. If he had said this, I’d think it more probable that he had taken a lecture in quantum physics than conversed with God.
Bronze age stories are quickly dismissed for being the crude imaginings of simple folk. Yet despite their seeming improbability they stand the test of time. And are even, in some respects, reinforced by the sophisticated cogitations of advanced science. I wonder, will Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity stand the test of time?
Religion is criticised by Secularists as being an archaic method of population control. Yet they would have to admit that there are certain views of certain things that they must take, even if their private thoughts happen to conflict with convention. Which is a set of beliefs in the same way religion is a set of beliefs. As ever, the more diffuse the belief, the more likely it is that it derives from or is buttressed by that class of persons with the greatest reach. So, in the interests of fairness, are we to criticise notions like “diversity is our strength” and “the war on terror” as being methods of population control?
There are many mutually incompatible religions, say the Secularists, so what does that incompatibility say about religion? There are many archetypal stories. If they were more unique, they would be less archetypal. One example would be two brothers fighting over a woman; another, lovers separated by Fate. Are we to suppose that because these stories are common to Legend, brothers were never estranged over a woman or lovers parted by circumstance? These stories are surely not made more improbable by their recurrence; rather, point to a hidden truth about what it is to be human.
There are a variety of theories for an ideal society. From Plato’s Republic to More’s Utopia. And on the most equitable distribution of power. From Hobbes’ Leviathan to Rousseau’s The Social Contract. They all share certain themes – the desire for the betterment of the social condition – and oppose each other in certain others – the elusive formula in how we are to reach this standard. But surely the abundance of mutually incompatible theories is not preclusive of society ever improving social conditions. If anything, like the Bible, they suggest the human tendency to yearn for a better condition.
The Three Wise Men’s Hope for something better was embodied by an eternal and majestic light in the dusk, which they followed to Divinity, but many Secularists fall under the influence of that starry impulse which leads people to take a great deal of trouble about quite useless and passing things. As society is itself predominantly secularist this impulse has become quite feverish. In fact, opinions often read like a list of symptoms. As if we were all huddled together like inmates on Poveglia island, people do not form these opinions; the opinions form themselves.
Disavowing religion as dogma, the modern world, the product of the enlightenment, ridicules the ascetic monk in a monastery as an eccentric madman; but as the whole modern world would now seem like a lunatic asylum, one might almost be driven, in the pursuit of sanity, to take refuge in a monastery.
We rightly shudder at the blood-soaked religious fanaticism of the past. Many of us think that religion must be bad because it leads men to do wicked things. But causes are of a different nature to results. It is perfectly possible that the cause was just and the effect unjust. After all, people commit crimes for good and bad reasons. The peasants of France, who had liberté, égalité, fraternité upon their lips, a motto inspired by the likes of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, were full of good reasons for social reform in the run up to the French Revolution; but the eruption of anger and violence that ensued, less so.
Fanaticism has nothing to do with religion. There are philosophical theories which can produce enough fanaticism to fill the world. Over 100 million people were slaughtered by their own governments in the 20th century, more than all the wars combined. You would think the philosophy behind this carnage would be renounced by all and sundry; but many Secularists, though they will be quick to denounce religion as harmful nonsense, are equally quick to approve the varied produce of this philosophy as anything but harmful nonsense.
Perhaps it would be erroneous to distinguish religion and philosophy in many instances. Most sincere attitudes take on a religious bent. Indeed, in many cases the complete loss of religious belief has made political positions become quasi-religious. Frequently, these are not arguments about society. They are statements about absolute values. They are ideals about how we should live our lives. This is not a debate where evidence is adduced – if you disagree you are considered fundamentally wicked. Because people are now treating their political opinions as though they were creedal formulations; to dissent from them is heresy.
Much of this is done under the banner of “tolerance”. While some people really are tolerant, clearly others are fearful and tired. How many is hard to say. Since alternative views are rarely given a significant platform, nor expressed. But judging from a strong undercurrent of online frustration, it appears modern tolerance is as deaf as intolerance.
But all this is very familiar. When something is put before enough people that seems enormously valuable, the chance of having it, the chance of losing it, can drive them quite mad. It has a similar effect in the moral world as pursuing gold in the economic world. It can create a kind of gold rush. People want to reach Nirvana ahead of their fellows. And are extremely disdainful of those who don’t want to reach it at all.
Though this story is as old as the hills, its age doesn’t make what it reveals about human nature any less true. We have an innate need for justice and meaning. A need for purity and perfection. A need to transcend the limitations of self. A predilection for in-group conformity and out-group belligerence. We are predisposed to crusade for these things. But while the ancients had the humility to supress their ego, the wisdom to not put themselves at the centre of the drama and to be subordinate to something much greater, the gold hunters of today seek wealth in their own name, not His; they don’t do it for His glory, they do it for their own.
This is a huge difference and one I thought that was worth mentioning.