Religion, Sect, Party (Part Two)

Having given you Taylor’s definition of religion last time, I now want to move over to Slezkine’s discussion of religion (which then bleeds over into politics) in The House of Government.

He offers a few attempts at defining religion, the first from Steve Bruce: religion “consists of beliefs, actions, and institutions which assume the existence of supernatural entities with powers of action, or impersonal powers or processes possessed of moral purpose.  Such a formulation seems to encompass what ordinary people mean when they talk of religion” (73; all the words in quotes are Bruce’s, not Slezkine’s).  If we go to Durkheim, Slezkine says we get “another approach. ‘Religion, according to his [Durkheim’s] definition, is ‘a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things.’  Sacred things are things that ‘the profane must not and cannot touch with impunity.’  The function of the sacred is to unite humans into moral communities” (74).

Durkheim’s position is functionalist; religion serves human need, especially the needs of human sociality.  Slezkine continues: “Subsequent elaborations of functionalism describe religion as a process by which humans create a sense of the self and an ‘objective and moral universe of meaning’ [Thomas Luckmann]; a ‘set of symbolic forms and acts that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence’ [Robert Bellah]; and, in Clifford Geertz’s much cited version, ‘ a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these with such an aura of facticity that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (74).

In Bruce’s terms, I don’t think I can be considered religious, since I think morality is uniquely human; I don’t think there are impersonal or divine processes/beings that have a moral purpose and are capable of acting to further that moral purpose.

But the Durkheim/functionalist positions seem closer to home. What I have been worrying for months on this blog concerns the “sacredness” of “life.”  Does taking life as sacred, as the ultimate value, as the thing that profane hands (the state, other agents of violence, the lords of capitalism) should not destroy or even render less full, fall within the realm of religion?  It does seem to aim at some of the same ends—certainly at establishing a “moral community” united by its reverence for life; certainly in establishing a “moral universe of meaning” underwritten by the ultimate value of life; and certainly in paying attention to “the ultimate conditions of existence,” i.e. the drama of life and death, of being given a precious thing—life—that can only be possessed for a limited time.

I am never sure what all this (that is, the “formal” consonance of religion with humanism) amounts to.  If it is something as general as saying that the question of meaning inevitable arises for humans, and that the ways they answer that question has inevitable consequences for human sociality/communities, then the resemblance doesn’t seem to me to have much bite.  It is so general, so abstract, a similarity that it doesn’t tell us anything of much import.  It is like saying that all animals eat.  Yes, but the devil is in the details.  Some are vegetarians, some kill other animals for food, some are omnivores.

All human communities must be organized, in part, around securing enough food to live.  But hunter/gatherers are pretty radically different from agrarians—and all the important stuff seems to lie in the differences, not in the general similarity of needing to secure food.  I suspect it is the same for religion/atheism.  Yes, they must both address questions of meaning and of creating/sustaining livable communities, but the differences in how they go about those tasks are the significant thing.

More interesting to me is how both Taylor and Slekzine use Karl Jasper’s notion of the “Axial Revolution.”  Taylor leans heavily on Max Weber’s notion of a “disenchanted” world; Slekzine is interested in how the Axial revolution displaces the transcendent from the here and now into some entirely separate realm.  Or, I guess, we could say that the Axial revolution creates the transcendent realm.  In animist versions of the world, the sacred is in the here and now, the spirits that reside in the tree or the stream or the wind.  The sacred doesn’t have its own special place.  But now it is removed from the ordinary world—which is fallen, in need of salvation, and material/mechanical.  Spirit and matter are alienated from one another.  The real and the ideal do not coincide.

For Slekzine, then, every politics (like every post-Axial religion) has to provide a path for moving from here (the fallen real of the world we inhabit day by day) to there (the ideal world of moral and spiritual perfection).  He is particularly interested in millennial versions of that pathway since he thinks revolutionaries are quintessential millennialists.  And he clearly believes that all millennialists promise much more than they can deliver—and then must deal with the disappointment that inevitably follows from the failure of their predictions to come true.

That’s where I retain a liberal optimism—which is also a moral condemnation of the pessimist. My position, quite simply, is that some social orders (namely, social democracy as it has been established and lived in various countries, including Sweden, Denmark, Canada etc.) are demonstrably better than some other social orders if our standard is affording the means for a flourishing life to the largest number of the society’s members.  Measurements such as poverty and education levels, life expectancy etc. can help us make the case for the superiority of these societies to some others.

The point is that the gap between the real and the ideal is actual—even in the best social democracies.  But the point is also that this gap is bridgeable; we have concrete ways to make our societies better, and to move them closer to the ideal of a flourishing life for all.  Pessimists take the easy way out, pronouncing (usually from a fairly comfortable position), that all effort is useless, that our fallen condition is incorrigible.  A humanist politics, then, aims to re-locate the ideal in this world (as opposed to exiling it to a transcendent other-worldly place), while also affirming that movement toward the ideal is possible—and should be the focus of our political efforts.

In these terms, the ideal is, I guess, transcendent in the sense that it is not present in the here and now.  The ordinary does not suffice even within a politics that wants to affirm the ordinary, the basic pleasures and needs of sustaining life.  But there is also the insistence that the ordinary supplies everything we need to improve it—and that such improvements have been achieved in various places at various times, even if we can agree that no society has achieved perfection. There is no need to appeal to outside forces, to something that transcends the human, in order to move toward the ideal.

How a society handles, responds to, the gap between now (the real) and the ideal seems to me an important way to think about its politics.  Looking at 2018 America, it seems (for starters) that we have a deep division over what the ideal should be.  The liberal ideal is universal flourishing.  It seems very difficult not to caricature the ideal of liberalism’s opponents.  I think it is fair (but they probably would not) to say their view is premised on the notion of scarcity.  There is not enough of the good, life-sustaining, stuff to go around—which generates endless competition for the scarce goods.  In that competition, there is nothing wrong (in fact, it makes emotional and moral sense), to fight to secure the goods for one’s own group (family, ethnicity, nation).  A good (ideal) world would be one in which the scarce goods would go to those who truly deserve them (because hard workers, or good people, or “one of us.”)  But the real world is unfair, all kinds of cheaters and other morally unworthy types, get the goods, so politics should be geared to pushing such moochers away from the trough.  That seems to me to be the rightist mindset in this country these days.

But both sides seem to be humanists of my sort, since both seem to think politics can move us to the ideal in this world.  There is not some hope in a transcendent realm—or an orientation toward that realm.

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