Does religion have added value?

As we can expect, Greg asked a fantastically thought-provoking question in his post the other day: “How can we take equally seriously [as reason and experience] the role of religion itself as a formative anthropological influence” in forming a basis of moral consensus in a liberal society? What we’re after here seems to be both a deep sense of religious freedom as well as the commitment to human dignity that pushes us to actually respect that freedom. Greg recounted Peter Berger’s argument for experience as a basis for a shared sense of human dignity, using the “primal experience” of Huck Finn’s conscience. He also quoted Hadley Arkes’ article that, in part, came out in favor of reason and natural law even (at least sometimes) over religion, as a basis for protecting human dignity.

Presumably we want all three of these factors – reason, experience, and religion – to play a role in defending human dignity. Each of these three factors can and, I think, should help us in our effort to figure out how we know that “every human individual has a claim to moral significance”, which Greg aptly described as the sine qua non of modern liberal society.

But here’s what I’m wondering. Can it be said that of these three, only reason can really aspire to the status of “universal”? Here I’m sympathetic to Hadley, because religion – just religion qua religion – is no longer something that can be assumed. Berger’s candidate, experience, does give rise to some universality; at some level, we do just all know that certain behaviors are cruel or wrong and just shouldn’t be done. But the shared ground there seems to be coincidental, rather than essential. That is, it’s good that Huck Finn’s experience of conscience won the day in keeping him from turning in a slave, but “primal experience” seems simply not that operationalizable when we’re talking about public issues instead of recounting individual tales.

But this brings us back to Greg’s question: how can we use religion itself as a basis for knowing that we have the rights that we believe we do have? I think – and Greg will, I hope, correct me if I’m wrong – that another way of asking the question is, what does religion add to the picture over and above what reason and experience get us?And here, I simply don’t know what to do about pluralism, because the answer, it seems to me, will be very different coming from the Qur’an than from the Bhagavad Gita. (Et al., not just religious texts but religious traditions.)

Can, then, religion actually serve “as a formative anthropological influence” for articulating a basis of moral consensus in a pluralistic society, if that society is (as I think we are, by defending religious freedom) attempting to preserve the right to freedom that entails that very pluralism? Or are we restricted to reason and experience?


4 Thoughts.

  1. This deserves a longer reply, which I hope (Lord willing) to give it next week. For now, a preliminary observation. Here you seem to be thinking of “religion” only in terms of what is sometimes called “organized religion.” For example, you say religion is no longer a universal, and when you ask what religion adds to the picture that can’t be reduced to reason plus experience, you make reference to the sacred texts of major world religions.

    That definition of “religion” is of course a plausible one for many purposes, but it may not be the one most appropriate to this question. In another sense, every normally functioning person has a religion. Sociologists define “religion” in ways that imply this. It is also theologically plausible, if we take it as an operating premise (as I do, although I’m open to challenge) that the human being is first and foremost a religious creature.

    This approach is empirically plausible as well. Consider the recent Pew data showing a big jump in the people who answer “none” when asked their religion. One of the most frequent comments made about this statistic is that most of the people in that group believe in God and have other beliefs that would typically be classified as religious, and they have what is recognizeable as a spiritual life. They just don’t identify with “religion” in the more limited sense you are using.

    On those terms, the question of reason, experience and religion becomes broader. It may well be that for those who have “religion” in the broader sense but not the narrower sense, their “religion” adds little beyond what reason plus experience would get them. On the other hand, it may not! The question deserves further consideration, which I hope we can all give it together here on HT.

    And we should also think in terms of potential for dynamic change rather than merely about the status quo. Can we expect the “nones” to stay nones or could they mobilize in a more concrete direction? If we think humanity is at bottom a religious creature, we should think of the nones as potential recruits to religious movements – which could arise from existing major religions or new ones. American evangelicals have been treating the religious “nones” as a mission field for twenty years. For a while they had great success in reaching them – this is what fueled the growth of the megachurches in the 1990s. But now they’re losing them again. And they know it. They’re looking for new tactics. They might succeed! Or the Catholics might decide to go after them (though that looks less likely). And let’s not dismiss the possibility of a new religion. America has already produced Mormonism, which is quickly becoming a world presence. It could happen again.

    Here’s an analogy. One of the interesting questions people have played with in political science is what would happen if the large population of non-voters in the U.S. started voting. One thing we can establish is that they are fickle and easily led – they are more responsive to changes in survey question wording than others, more likely to answer “yes” to whatever you put in front of them. Would that mean that if they became voters they’d fall in line with the two parties and the only question would be which party was more entrepreneurial in grabbing them? Or should we expect that their active presence would empower demagogues and fringe movements? In the end we can’t know, which is why the question never became a really hot topic. But it’s interesting to think about. Same with the religious nones.

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