I have problems with all religions. Why? Because any religion can be used to suppress free thought, progressive movements, new ideas – and as a philosopher I trade in these things. So, any religion appears as a potential danger to me. Also, I consider myself very progressive – on the vanguard of a new world, and conservative forces appear as threats – wanting to quash our dreams and keep rebuilding the walls of our existing society, which means reproducing all its violences if potentially in slightly sanitized forms.
But there are two problems with this. The first is that no society can survive without some conservative elements. If all the structures that we use to organize ourselves are constantly in flux, constantly changing every time somebody has a new idea or something goes wrong, they will never be refined, they will never even come close to working properly – and society will erode and die. It needs to be hard to overthrow the establishment, otherwise it could be overthrown by bad ideas to the detriment of everyone.
The second follows from the first – the conservative element in nation-states is detached from traditional religions. You can call it nationalism, loyalty, state-worship – you can call it what you want, but in effect it is a religion because it embodies the conservative tendencies societies need to maintain some stability, and because it demands peoples absolute loyalty (and though it may not always get it, it gets it more or less – enough to maintain peace and order, to a degree).
So, I am not opposed to there being a state religion – I think it follows analytically from there being a state. (Actually, I don’t think there should be a state religion because I don’t think there should be a state, but that’s another story). The question is what should its content be? I think the best is for the state religion to be secular, that way it can appear not to clash with anyone’s particular religion, and we might avoid sectarian conflicts which result from people feeling like a religion is being imposed upon them.
But, at the same time, we might think that we should be honest about the state religion being a religion – because otherwise we might become radically intolerant of particular religions, seeing only the bad in them, and saying “why can’t these people be non-religious like me?” But, in fact, “me” can’t be non-religious insofar as I’m obliged to practice the state-religion of obedience to the law and loyalty to state institutions.
On the other hand, if we become too aware of secularism as a state-religion, people might begin to see how it is in conflict with their own particular religions, and decide to reject it, and we could descend to a situation of sectarian conflict.
But, I don’t think maintaining social order through a pervasive ignorance is a good thing. It may be the situation today, but I think the situation could be improved if we decided to become more aware to the extent to which secularism and obedience to the law has become a religion. Because, after all, if we are all expected to practice it – we might want to know what it is so we can criticize it and make sure it doesn’t become pathological and murderous.
Certainly the rise of the right in Europe should be a harbinger of the dangers of not noticing the common beliefs we are expected to hold. The idea that “we” are normal and “they” are dangerous outsiders who don’t really subscribe to the state religion (various ways of saying this are, “they don’t integrate”, “they don’t learn the language”, “they obey their God above the law”, etc…) can easily become a source of sectarian hatred and violence. We should take this danger seriously, and be honest with ourselves and with others about the role of the state-religion, and think creatively about ways it can be seen as not conflicting with other religions.
We should also always remember the difference between other religions which are at the centre of a cultural identity (like white protestantism in Canada), and religions which are at the periphery – which are poorly understood, actually about which people generally understand very little at all, and what they have heard has been edited to frighten them.
So, while I have a problem with all religions, I also recognize that religion is inevitable and an essential part of human social organization. Rather than do away with religions, we should strive to live in a productive relationship with its conservative tendencies, and think openly and honesty about to what extent the conservative elements are needed, and to what extent they are destructive and should be changed or done away with.