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Monday, September 28, 2015

The public value of religious faith

In the midst of the "new atheist" attack on the value of religion as a public good, British philosopher Roger Scruton took part in a discussion regarding that topic over at the UK Independent online: Scruton defended religion as a force for good in society. As Scruton stated:
The rituals of religion are shared and those who participate in them are drawn into another kind of relationship with their neighbours than those that prevail in the world of "getting and spending". People hunger for this kind of membership and the power of religion resides in its ability to provide it. In the rituals of a religion all worldly differences are overcome: the Sultan bows in submission beside his subjects and the good-natured fool takes communion beside the crook who cheated him. The ritual shines on both of them from a place beyond their ordinary experience and includes them in a community whose home is in some way not of this world. And in the Christian case the ritual records a primeval sacrifice, born of love.
In addition to its ability to provide consolation and to help people deal with "metaphysical loneliness," Scruton contends that religion can incubate fundamental virtues like humility & justice as well as reinforce the principle of human equality:
[Religion] contains idiocy, prejudice, ignorance and stupidity in all the proportions that these are displayed by mankind as a whole. But that is its great virtue: it can draw people, whatever their talents and intellectual powers, into a shared apprehension of their condition. It can teach humility and justice, and remind the one with power, knowledge, wealth or artistic talent, that he is the equal of the one beside him in the moment of worship, however ignorant, weak or sinful that person might be. And to both of them it offers hope.
I would add one point to Scruton's argument -- that religion can serve as a counterweight to both radical individualism and overwhelming state power.  Religion at its best calls human beings beyond themselves to care for others and to be concerned not with their own wants and desires, but with transcendent moral truth.  For the same reason, religion can serve as a balance against the power of the state -- when the state demands immoral action, religion can provide the intellectual framework and moral tradition to thwart tyranny.  Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, Franz Jäggerstatter, Lech Walesa, and others too numerous to mention testify to this fact.  

This point is so strong that even Christopher Hitchens acknowledged it. As the dying writer said during a public discussion with his younger brother Peter: 
When Lech Walesa was starting his work in the Polish shipyards and the Polish Militia and the outer ring of the Polish Army were closing in on Gdansk, he was interviewed with his then fairly small group, and he was asked: “Aren't you frightened, aren't you afraid? You've taken on a whole powerful state and army - aren't you scared?” And he said: “I'm not frightened of anything but God or anyone but God.”
Christopher Hitchens then went on to acknowledge that he wouldn't have been able to say anything like that and that it was a "noble" idea; he was spot on with that observation. Almost to a man, the American Founders understood that it was faith in God, a God who stood above and beyond the State, that makes the idea of limited government possible, that makes the idea of human rights possible, that makes the idea of common, ordinary people rising up to resist tyranny possible. It is this concept that underpins some of the most soaring language in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
This concept of transcendent authority in support of liberty was part and parcel of republican principle at the time of the American Founding. As Benjamin Rush put it:
I have always considered Christianity as the strong ground of republicanism.  The spirit is opposed, not only to the splendor, but even to the very forms of monarchy, and many of its precepts have for their objects republican liberty and equality as well as simplicity, integrity, and economy in government.  It is only necessary for republicanism to ally itself to the Christian religion to overturn all the corrupted political and religious institutions in the world.
-- Letter from Benjamin Rush to Thomas Jefferson, August 22, 1800, quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, edited by James H. Hutson (Princeton:  2005), pg. 195.

The American abolitionists during the 19th century understood this.  The civil rights movement was built on this idea.  As Hitchens points out, one of the great leaders in modern Europe's struggle for liberty, Lech Walesa, lived this principle. Without religious faith, without the belief that God stands above all merely human institutions and will hold all of us accountable for the good and evil that we do, the tapestry of human rights, the rule of law and the freedom of the human person is difficult if not impossible to maintain over time.

As a consequence, religious faith, particularly Christianity, has a critical public role in the preservation of liberty & the idea of the limited state. Human beings will look for an ultimate authority -- as St. Augustine observed in his Confessions, "our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord" -- and if people seek it not from heaven, they will look for it here on earth. And for examples of where an earthly ultimate authority leads, one needs only look at the slaughterhouses of the 20th century.


Tom Van Dyke said...

"Onward Kantian Soldiers" just doesn't have the zing.

Mark D. said...

Right. It loses something in the reworking. Reminds me some of some of the bowdlerized versions of Amazing Grace that substitute "saved and strengthened me" for "saved a wretch like me."

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