We live in an era of incessant debates which quarrel over the question “is religion a force for good”. What results is fame and fortune for the most prolific writers and debaters, embrassement for those who can not match the skills of their opponents in debate, defensiveness on the part of the quiet and well meaning but timid religious majority, self-righteousness for atheists because it gives them a chance to feel radical even if they are the farthest thing from activists, and perhaps a very small amount of genuine thinking.
I challenge that the problem with these debates is that the question is malposed. While I’m all for simplification, and I think “organized religion” is a real category which we can talk about, it just turns out that within organized religions there are two tendencies – one that tends towards the re-institution of traditions for their own sake (conservatism), and the other which demands on the basis of a dogmatic tenant, societal reforms or even revolution. The first set of tendencies put off the redemption of religion to a future life, or a future decision by the godhead. The second set demand that the decision has already been taken, and it is up to humans to implement it.
Organized religion is thus both revolutionary and conservative. And it’s not simply that some organized religions are revolutionary, and some are conservative, or that the same organized religion is revolutionary in one place and conservative in another (although this has certainly been the case in the Catholic church’s internal struggle for and against liberation theology). Rather, every organized religion have both of these tendencies at the same time, but perhaps to different degrees and with different results, insofar as they meet two basic conditions. The first condition concerns prophesy, which is always in the past, and the second concerns the messianic future.
1. The Prophetic Past
Organized religions tend to be organized around books. This might seem arbitrary if we believe religions are simply organs of power – why not just have a religion with a deity in charge, a person who’s word is true by virtue of their identity? The answer to this is, of course, the inherent instability of tribal political organization – institutions are stable, but at the cost of serving themselves rather than the people in them. Even the leaders of an institution serve the institution. So, the institution needs some content over and beyond the personality of its leaders – and this content is scripture and interpretation of scripture.
The scripture must motivate people. Or rather, while technically it would be possible to have a religion where people only believed in the scripture because they were threatened with violence if they believed otherwise, the character of internal belief is such that it is almost impossible to believe something only because you are being forced to. It is therefor far more efficient to create scriptures which themselves help in the motivating process. There is something compelling about scripture - the texts themselves want to be believed, and you want to believe them. Of course, it’s possible to resist this temptation with reason and critical faculties, but the fact that you must resist the easy beliefs proves their power of motivation.
Now, for a scripture to be motivating, it must accord in some sense with your person. There must be something about it which falls into line with either what you already believed, or with what you wanted to believe but didn’t know yet. If you are going to believe it to be the eternal truth, especially on a question of justice, it must be “believable”, in fact, it must not only fail to be repulsive, but if we believe that the motivating character of scripture might be one of the differences that makes some religions grow and others fail, perhaps it might confer some advantage on itself if it accords with an internal principle of justice – something we think on the basis of being human, something that we all think.
Now, this of course is not a very popular view amongst post-modernists who wish everything to be socially constructed, and the degree to which social forms can differ completely infinite. But just for the sake of argument assume that the idea of equal worth and equal dignity is a fundamental property of human justice, and that it follows either from the idea of freedom (Rousseau/Hegel/Sartre/Badiou/Hallward), or from the kind of being which we ourselves are – finite, thrown into a world of possibilities, already caught up in projects, and needing to cope with situations of tension and conflict with each other (roughly, the Phenomenological and Sociological traditions). If we believe this, we might begin to think that if religions were only unjust, immoral institutions – why would they include this idea? Because they do, (at least some of the time, and not enough). And it’s really inconvenient for them to do so – because it means commentators have to go to great interpretive lengths to show why, despite some commandment or principle or religious law, it’s still ok to kill people that you hate, or who you think are your enemy. It would be much easier all around if religions explicitly only granted the right to life for people in the in-group. But, I challenge, if they did that they would have more difficulty recruiting new members, and maintaining motivation amongst existing members.
Not only do principles of freedom pose problems for organized religions when they are trying to be genocidal and colonialist, they also can produce situations where those values get out of control, so to speak, and people on their basis demand certain political rights. Liberation theology is the best example of this, but you could also look at the Catholic struggle for equal rights in Northern Ireland, and the Palestinian struggle for fair treatment and the return of their homeland. While there are secular elements of all of these conflicts (certainly the Palestinian struggle was dominantly secular up until the first intifada), many people in these conflicts have religious beliefs – and I’d be surprised if their ideas of equal worth, anti-tribalism and anti-colonialism do not receive much of their emotional motivation from the idea that “I deserve to be treated as such because God says so”, or “My grievances are as valid as his or hers because God says so.” These are interesting kinds of statements, “because God says so” is completely unverifiable, and it seems to come from nowhere. But, maybe there is something profoundly powerful about the fact that a liberatory statement can come, as if, “from nowhere”. If a liberatory principle had to be empirically grounded in evidence, it perhaps never would be justified at all. What evidence do you have, after all, that you are as worthy of consideration as another human being? Appeals to the sociological content of a political situation only reveals the emotive dynamics and the differential power and importance and usefulness of the different actors. In other words, if you demand an empirical ground to equal worth, all you will find is different worths. And there’s a reason for this – social organizations are complex, and they don’t function well if everyone has the same task, or even a task of similar importance. Difference people have different skills, and which skills are valuable changes depending on the conditions – that’s not “ableism”, that’s just the real world.
Trying to make everyone equal empirically in a struggle is cause of indigestion in radical movements – just look at how the need to “not be ableist”, if interpreted in a naive way, results in organizations acting so clearly against their best interests. Clear examples of this tend to involve people who do not have the adequate skills to accomplish a task being directed to do that task, and the result is failures, and the worsening of the situation for everyone together.
The equal worth of people is a theological tenant, or a metaphysical tenant if you need to expel the idea of God. It comes as if from outside. Of course it doesn’t actually come from outside – it comes because someone had the idea and wrote it down, and other people htought it was a good idea – the idea grew through the public imaginary and was captured by the religions system which uses it towards its own ends. But, that same idea can always escape from the grips of the priests and be used against them in a struggle for the fulfilment of the value, rather than of their ends which always concern the next world rather than this one. This brings us to the second condition of religion:
2. The Messianic Future
Organized religions motivate people with beliefs that are genuinely related to human justice. But, they have to make sure they maintain themselves as power structures. The easiest way to do this is play a trick with time. To say, “Sure, everyone is equal before God, but you don’t have to worry about changing the situation here because the judgement that matters is God’s, and God’s judgement judges every person equally” – this conveniently avoids the fact that on earth, the rich are not judged equally to the poor – the rich get off, and the poor go to the jail. This deferral of justice is power’s greatest ally, because it allows it to maintain the highest moral authority, while propagating or at least perpetuating endless criminality.
The real trick, however, is to get people to believe that the apocalypse, the return of the messiah, or whatever future event justice is waiting for, is not only the moment of the redemption of the pious – but the arrival of a justice so much greater than human justice, that human justice in relation to it is not even worth fighting for. This idea manifests itself differently in different religions, but is always the attempt to not only defer, but invalidate the struggles that religion can support as I’ve outlined in the first condition. I don’t like to bring in specific examples, but I must speak a little about Protestantism – there is an idea in the Protestant mindset that acts are without value, acts are like dirty rags – only God’s love can save us, and what we do is somehow of no consequence – and therefore we can avoid our moral obligation to stop injustice – even when we directly profit from the injustice. The protestant idea that acts are like dirty rags literally makes it palatable to people to own stock in companies that organize the killing of union organizers. This is pretty amazing, and it helps me understand why America and Canada are protestant countries. (We of course look at the Catholic church as genocidal institution with a dictator at the top, and we should, but by doing this we avoid seeing the structural injustice permitted by the anti-Catholic Christian sects, which are the protestant churches).
Perhaps the most terrifying thing about the messianic condition is that it makes people want the end of the world. Literally, Christian Zionists across North America today are celebrating the desecration of not only Muslim but also Christian graves in occupied Palestine because they believe that it is a step towards bringing the great war which will start world war three, and kill most people (including most Jews, incidentally, except for a few thousand). And it makes sense for them to want the end of the world – if you love the justice of the final decision infinitely more than human justice, then why wouldn’t you try to bring about the cataclysm as quickly as possible?
Christianity is the religion I am most familiar with – and it has in it these two conditions in a profound way. And, it has had them for ever – the serious attempts to understand the lives of Jesus and Paul tend to come to the conclusion that they actually believed that the day of judgment would arrive in their lifetime. The famous quote attributed to Jesus, “worry not for the morrow”, literally makes no sense unless you believe that the apocalypse will come in your own lifetime – on what other basis could it be moral to leave your job, your children, your family, to follow a crazed lunatic across the land? And Jesus clearly some decent qualities to have motivated so many followers (although, it seems like more in retrospect, in reality there were not so many Jesus followers before Paul invented Christianity, and even then, Christianity is mostly Pauline mysticism with little to do with Jesus’s actual teachings or the historical lineage of his rabbinical practice).
The question of whether “religion is a force for good in the world” should really be interpreted in terms of these two conditions which organized religions rely upon. The extent to which religions are apocalyptic, and defer justice to death or to the resurrection, they can easily be mobilized for evil. The extent, however, to which they motivate people to act on humanist values, because they feel God has told them, to this extent they can be unmatched sources of positive motivation.
Secularism has many advantages – the cool calm use of reason can propel the human mind and spirit far beyond what the shackles of religion will allow. But so long as religion will be a force in the world, we have a choice of either leaving it alone, or trying to support its most revolutionary elements. Those who hate the world because it does not contain the objective conditions for the fulfillment of their values are resentful, weak, and nihilistic in the worst sense. The revolutionaries who will change the world are those willing to listen, read, and adopt to the current circumstances that they find themselves in, and support the liberatory values while kindly and gently working to marginalize the power of deferral to avoid the messianic apocalypse from becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.