American Religion: Pagans wanted
Incredibly, I was interviewed for a radio show a few days ago--and asked to comment on why Americans are so very, very religious and how this ultra-religiousity shapes American politics and policy. Now, in the throes of espirit d’escallier I think I’ve got it.
From my professional perspective, as a philosopher, the core religious issues are metaphysical ones: questions about the existence and nature of God and post-mortem survival. So, in the standard philosophy of religion class we trot undergraduates through the classic arguments for and against the existence of God—Ontological, Cosmological, Teleological and Religious Experience vs. Problem of Evil and Verificationist Challenge—and material on the problem of personal identity that figures in discussions of the possibility of resurrection and disembodied existence. Then, insofar as we’re interested in Christianity in particular there are additional goodies: logic puzzles concerning the doctrine of the Trinity (my personal favorite) and worries about the idea of Incarnation.
We don’t have anything to say about ethics when it comes to philosophy of religion courses—that’s for ethics courses, of course. We might have something to say about miracles, because Hume did and if Hume was interested in a problem guaranteed it is philosophically interesting. But we don’t seriously believe that it’s of any real religious importance whether miracles, including the Virgin Birth and others reported in the Bible, really occurred. Religion from this perspective is essentially a matter of ontology—like the problem of universals: ethical and empirical issues, if they figure at all, are strictly peripheral. That is Phil 112, Philosophy of Religion, 3 units, term paper and 2 blue books, satisfies a humanities requirement—enjoy.
But that is not the way in which most people, religious or secular, view religion. For them the strictly metaphysical issues are not of primary importance. Religion is a total package, including a roster of empirical claims, and perhaps even more importantly, a vision of the Good Life and a variety of moral and political agendas. God and post-mortem survival come along with the package.
Americans are more sympathetic to the Package than Europeans but I doubt that this is because they’re less inclined to tough-minded empiricism. According to the figures I was looking at, from about a dozen websites which vary widely, averaging out, about 85% of Americans believe in God while only a bare majority of Brits do. But it turns out the percentage of Brits who believe in ghosts is significantly higher than the percentage who believe in God. Now it would be interesting to compare the difference in the percentage of Americans and Europeans who profess belief in God with the difference, if any, in the percentage of Americans and Europeans who believe in flakey nonsense—astrology, ghosts, “alternative” medicine, UFO abductions, reincarnation or generic spirituality. When I have time I’ll get the figures. But my guess is that the gap, if any, when it comes to beliefs about flakey nonsense is narrower than the God gap.
If this is so then my thesis is confirmed: Americans are no more religious in the Phil 112 sense than anyone else. Rather, for some complicated historical and cultural reasons, we are more likely to buy the vision of the Good Life associated with religious belief and the ethical and political agendas that go along with it than Europeans are. We buy into ontological and empirical claims, which we don’t really care about one way or the other, because they are part of the Package. In particular, my conjecture is that we distrust institutions, especially government, and are more likely than citizens of other affluent industrialized nations to believe that without religion people will run amok. We are more frightened of chaos breaking in than people in other affluent countries and more worried about violence; we place a higher value on self-discipline and are much more likely than Europeans to believe that religion is the most effective mechanism of social control.
Those of us who don’t buy this vision of the Good Life and the socio-political agenda are disinclined to buy the ontological claims—and are, by and large, unsympathetic to religion as such insofar as we regard it as a program for pushing through this agenda. So we run crusades against hill shrines, Christmas crèches in parks, and all the outward and visible signs of Christianity to stop what we see as creeping theocracy, a program to install Christian shari’a, suppress personal freedom—particularly freedom of sexual self-expression—and push through an ultra-conservative socio-political agenda.
Now I guess that what I myself am is an agnostic Christian pagan. When it comes to empirical claims, I do not believe anything different from what any convinced atheist believes. I do not believe in miracles—not because I think that anomalies are impossible but because I don’t believe that there is any compelling evidence that such events have occurred. I have no sympathy for any distinctively Christian ethic: I am a utilitarian. I detest the political agenda of the Religious Right. I think that questions about the existence of God are philosophically interesting but don’t see any compelling reason to believe that God exists—or doesn’t exist. If I have to jump one way or the other I’ll jump for theism though because of plausibility arguments from religious experience. I hope that by the time I am old I will have convinced myself that I shall survive bodily death but I am not counting on it.
But I really, really like religion. I like the philosophical puzzles, particularly the doctrine of the Trinity, and I simply love the stuff of religion—the mysticism and the art. From my Phil 112 perspective, none of this is any more threatening or indicative of a large-scale socio-political agenda than Buddha statues in Chinese restaurants or “God bless you” when we sneeze. Religion at its core is just metaphysics and has no more import for ethics, politics or social arrangements than speculative doctrines about the ontological status of numbers or disputes about whether time travel is logically possible.
Religious myth, symbol, ceremony, custom and decor are cultural products which, along with their secular counterparts—patriotic parades and fireworks displays, birthdays, weddings, and other potlatches, secular holidays and all the rituals surrounding the cult of professional sport—make life enjoyable. The more the better. The myths, ceremonies and symbols of Christianity predominate because they are the part of our culture, in the way that Thanksgiving, Halloween and Super Bowl Sunday are. For religious believers, that is people who buy the metaphysical claims, they express religious sentiments; for others they are just entertainment. Everyone can play: no one is excluded unless they choose to exclude themselves (in the spirit of puritanical killjoys who object to beauty pageants because they “objectify” women or to contact sports and computer games because they glorify violence).
My current preoccupation is the history of Late Antiquity. This ‘world full of gods’ appeals to me—this world of countless gods and cults, domestic and foreign, where some believe, some half-believe and some do not believe at all, where it is not clear whether a given deity is understood as an intelligent being or causally efficacous individual of any other sort, an abstract philosophical principle or a metaphorical figure, and where it does not really matter. That is what I wish the world were—a world where all the rich stuff of Christianity played the role of the myth, ritual and symbol of Mediterranean paganism from which it descended.
It’s a trite romantic fantasy, in the spirit of Santayana—who got it dead right about American religion and character in The Last Puritan and entertained similar fantasies about culture Catholicism: “There is no God, and Mary is His Mother.”