Moving forward with hope. Or, sigh, not so fast.

Disclaimer: I recognize that it is easier to be a cynic than to argue – well – that there is cause for hope. I’ve perhaps too taken the former path in posts while Greg has bravely forged (oh dear) “forward” with “hope” for renewed moral consensus in America. (Greg, I promise those words were coincidental.) So I must apologize for yet again playing the moral consensus Scrooge.

After rereading Greg’s response to my post on whether religion has any “added value” (which Dan wisely revised to “added value that can be shared”), I’m beginning to think that we might be responding to questions that are significantly, though subtly, different. That difference has to do with the distinction between Greg and me on what the term “religion” denotes. I’m getting ahead of myself, because I’ve assumed without verification that Greg does indeed mean to use the minimalist definition of ‘religion’ as a combination of reason and experience, while acknowledging that to many people, it is much more than that (though even for them, it is at least that). But for argument’s sake, let’s assume that either he (or someone else) does want to use that idea of religion.

My own position is that religion is necessarily more than that, and while it would take a book to lay out a good workable definition, suffice it to say that I take religion to mean not only reason and reasoning about experience, which to me seems like ideology, but also some sort of worship of a unified figure that adherents recognizes as somehow divine. This needs explanation, refinement, defense, etc. But the definition of religion isn’t the point here, so I’ll risk sloppiness so as to raise the question I’d actually like to ask, which is, in brief, “Do we need religious renewal in order to have renewed moral consensus?”

When Greg is talking about the religious “nones” (i.e., those who respond “none” in surveys about their religious affiliation), he is talking about people who may have what I would term “ideological” commitments and what he would call “religious” commitments in the forms of Romanticism, Marxism, perhaps Utilitarianism, etc. He asks whether “we should think of the nones as potential recruits to religious movements”, with the implicit hope that with some religion, the ‘nones’ might become those we ally ourselves with on issues of public morality rather than those whose positions we must oppose.

Why this is different from what I thought we were talking about, then, is because I rarely think of religious (as I understand it) conversion as a prerequisite for renewed moral consensus in America. I tend to think like Hadley Arkes (no surprise there, I know) in the article Greg cited; i.e., I think that we can appeal to a standard of justice knowable by natural reason without explicit (note bene! explicit!) appeal to religion or religious doctrine. So that’s my hopeful side – we can still reason with each other in the public square once that public square has lost religion. (But only to a degree, and here we need to talk about the effects of the obliteration of religion on one’s ability to reason.)

A whole slew of qualifications have to follow. One, I don’t think that one’s ability and willingness to accept such standards of justice are the most important; the salvation of souls matters infinitely more, and that certainly can’t be done by natural reason alone. Two, it would be way better, certainly for souls and almost certainly for moral consensus, if we did actually experience a religious (ok, I’m partisan, Christian) renewal in this country, which is what I take Greg to be hinting at in his comment on the religious nones becoming part of broader religious movements (please correct me if I’m wrong, Greg!). And three, none of what I’ve said or am going to say should be taken as reason to spend any less efforts on evangelizing, and that for the aforementioned reason – no matter how low public morality gets in this country, souls matter more.

But here I put my Scrooge hat back on, because it seems to me that the ‘religious’ people who are, in my terms, only ideological, are not so easily swayed. And that is because, as Greg certainly holds by his including Marxism and Romanticism in the category of “religion,” they also hold beliefs deeply. Yes, if, as Greg suggests, they convert to Christianity, we’ll have more grounds for moral consensus. But at the moment, they are religious nones who have instead ideologies. And that, it seems, puts us back into our own camps, that is, IF we are to rely on the “shared added value” of religion as our grounds of moral consensus. It would be nice – really, really, really nice – if we could in fact rely on that shared added value of religion on which to base a moral consensus, but right now, I’m inclined to think that we need instead to sharpen our “reason and experience” articulation skills, to pry open the door to moral reasoning in the public square.