The Fate of Religion
Is there a future for institutionalised forms of spirituality?
I’ll begin this little piece with a caveat: if you find yourself ardently on either ‘side’ of the (supposed) religion vs secularism conversation, you may not likewhat I’m about to say.
Why? Because, time-after-time, I hear people prosecute arguments without any nuance or acknowledgement that the impact and experience of religion is incredibly diverse, complex, and multi-faceted.
As someone who has been both formed by and studied religion in-depth (and continues to have a love-hate relationship with religious institutions), I have seen a clear tension between the following supposed contradictions:
1. Religion has been the driving force behind an immense deal of violence, exploitation, injustice, and suffering.
2. Religion has been a major driving force for positive social change, liberation, self-transcendence, and human flourishing.
I know plenty of people — many of whom I have a great deal of respect for — who would argue vehemently for one of these two assertions. Yet, as I’ve surveyed the history of religion, religious texts, scientific literature, and sought to engage with people of diverse religious faiths (and none), I cannot help but conclude that it isn’t as black-and-white as an either/or (hint: life rarely ever is). Rather, both of these assertions gesture toward a deeper truth: that religion has been — and continues to be — a driving force for both good and evil.
For instance, take the Christian biblical texts. If we are to approach them with some degree of honesty, we’ll soon see that there are often multiple and — at times — conflicting narratives at play. The God who appears to bless empire and command appalling violence is the same God who has “brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52–53, NRSV). The God of kings is the same God of the eclectic prophets who — as Christianity claims — was most clearly expressed in that disfigured body on a cross; a (seeming) victim of state-sanctioned violence. Unsurprisingly, people throughout history have read these texts differently: slave-owners and abolitionists alike appealed to the words of the bible. This isn’t unique to the Christian tradition, either. Similar dynamics — to varying degrees of course — seem to be at play in other religious traditions also.
Moreover, by all measures, institutionalised religion is not going away. Globally speaking, it is increasing. Sorry, ardent secularists of western Europe and north America. You are the anomaly, not the norm. I don’t say that with any hint of triumphalism whatsoever — it’s just a fact.
But, perhaps more importantly, I would contend that religion and religious experience — properly understood — is an inherent part of the human experience. As the French philosopher, mystic, and political activist Simone Weil insists, us human creatures have a “longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world.” The psychologist Abraham Maslow — well known for his theory of the ‘hierarchy of needs’ — posited that self-transcendence was at the pinnacle of the hierarchy. That is, once all other prior human needs have been met — needs concerning physiology, safety, belonging/love, esteem, cognition, aesthetics, and self-actualisation — our ultimate motivation is oriented towards the transcendent.
The question, then, is this: how do we throw out the bathwater whilst keeping hold of the baby?
Part of the solution — I’m convinced — is in returning to the notion of religion not ultimately as institution, but as a virtue that we are all able to participate in as human beings; as creatures who contain within us the ‘spark of the divine’. This idea is not new, either. It is a consequence of modernity that we’ve come to view religion(s) as primarily a set of closed institutions (with cognitive assent to a particular set of beliefs being the markers of whether one is ‘in’ or ‘out’). You’ll find this notion of religion as a virtue expressed in people like St Thomas Aquinas, Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart, and in the thought of my friend and scholar David Armstrong — whose piece titled ‘Why Religion?’ I highly commend you to read.
Now, don’t get me wrong: this is not to say that I believe institutions are useless or futile. Far from it. In fact, in a very pragmatic sense, I’m inclined to believe that institutions are inevitable if a community with a particular set of metaphysical claims and practices is to persist over time. Yet, we must resist the urge to absolutise them: they exist insofar as they serve to foster the virtue of religion amongst persons, communities, and whole societies. Perhaps — once could say — that holding to religion as a virtue relativises the role that religious institutions play. They have a pivotal role to play in the future of our species in fostering virtue, safeguarding the dignity of all (for we all bear the image of God), binding communities together, and promoting the pursuit of the transcendent — amongst many other things. But, when religious institutions fail to live up to this, they become stale and lifeless (at best) or exploitative (at worst) — something many of us are familiar with.
So, what next? As someone formed in the Christian tradition, I cannot help but turn to that foundational archetypal pattern of death-and-resurrection. At least in the (so-called) developed world, adherence to institutionalised religion is rapidly falling and will continue to do so. There’s a lot of ‘death’ ahead of us. But, it’s not something to fear, for we know that death precedes renewal and rebirth. This ‘dying’ process presents us with an opportunity to be refined by fire; to let go of all that needs to be consigned to the past.
In ending, I’ll share this short clip from a podcast conversation between Lex Fridman and Professor John Vervaeke. Vervaeke is a cognitive scientist whom I have a great deal of respect for and whose work I have found incredibly enriching. Whilst I have some reservations about reducing religion purely to functionality, I am in deep agreement with him that religion — and religious experience — is about far more than the propositional (statements of fact): it must also encompass the procedural, perspectival, and importantly, participatory ways of knowing.
Afternote: For an introduction to those four ways of knowing articulated by Vervaeke (propositional, procedural, perspectival, participatory) — which form part of his ‘meta-theory of cognition’ — you can check out this piece from Psychology Today or this nifty little YouTube clip from Rich Watkins.