Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Brief Note on the Social Utility of Religion

In most discussions about the role religion should play in public life in America, there seem to be two basic positions. Conservatives generally argue that religion is essential to a healthy society because it instills in citizens good morals, a love of order, and a spirit of obedience toward authority. This conservative argument based on morals can trace its lineage at least as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and the argument for religion as a guardian of order and obedience certainly extends as far back as Martin Luther. Most liberals, on the other hand, argue that religion is bad for society because it leads to social conflict in the form of clashes between rival orthodoxies. In making this argument, modern liberals are drawing, whether consciously or unconsciously, on the more radical writers of the Enlightenment, such as Thomas Paine and Voltaire.

Underlying both these arguments is the idea that religion removes doubt and encourages unity in action. The difference between the two lies in the extent of the unity: conservatives favor religion when it encompasses an entire society, while liberals fear religion in the form of a sect. Nevertheless, both positions seem to assume that religion is a tool for giving answers and providing unity. Conservatives support religion in society because it gives good answers to ethical problems for all of society, while liberals oppose religion in society because it gives bad answers and encourages factiousness, pitting unified groups against each other.

But, is that assumption right? Not according to Christopher Lasch, who had this to say in his essay on "the soul of man under secularism" in The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy:

What has to be questioned here is the assumption that religion ever provided a set of comprehensive and unambiguous answers to ethical questions, answers completely resistant to skepticism, or that it forestalled speculation about the meaning and purpose of life, or that religious people in the past were unacquainted with existential despair.

Interestingly, Lasch includes this essay on the soul of man under secularism in a section of his book entitled "the dark night of the soul." There is a reason why this expression comes not from Voltaire but from St. John of the Cross. Catholic mystics interpret the dark night of the soul as a purification of the soul, a training in faith, hope, and love--not as a final overcoming of all life's problems. If the dark night of the soul is one of the most profound and authentic experiences in religion, perhaps religion is not as socially useful as so many people think.
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