Why Religion


Jay B. Gaskill



 God is dead.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Religion is poison.” Mao


Were Nietzsche and Mao right? 


The landscape of the 20th century is littered with the casualties of two secular, pseudo-scientific ideologies. Both Nazism and totalitarian Marxism appeared on the world stage, adopting the trappings of secular, neo-religions (see Eric Hoffer’s classic, The True Believer). When put into practice, these two ideologies were infected with an inhumane intolerance whose virulence was more deadly than that exhibited by authoritarian religious institutions at their worst. In gulags, ditches, gas ovens, labor camps, prisons, torture chambers, and forcible relocations, the last century’s two major anti-religious totalitarian regimes between them killed more of their own people than the entire casualty list of the Inquisition, the Crusades, the jihads, and all of the religious wars and oppressions before them combined. If, as Mao claimed, “religion is poison,” how was it that just two secular ideologies with scientist pretensions - Nazism and state communism-caused more human suffering and death than all previous secular and religious movements combined? Masked in the language of “race science” and “social science” respectively, the two movements were nightmare parodies of both science and religion.  


While some secularists (Marxist and otherwise) still think that religion is infected with a psychological poison, history suggests a more persuasive theory.  The problem lies with the deep insecurities of any authoritarian regime (religious or secular) whose ideological underpinnings are deemed essential to stability, yet remains vulnerable to destabilization through heresy.  The overreaction of the current regime in mainland China to the Falun Gong sect is yet another example of an insecure ideology faced with a possible competing belief system.  The reaction of Islamicist ideologues in the 21st century to secular modernity, an authoritarian regime based on a distorted version of the original faith, riddled with deep insecurities, is another example of the same phenomenon. 


Liberty and human dignity cannot long abide in a state of nature – they require a civilization for the maintenance of the hospitable conditions in which these desirable states can persist and even flourish. The inherent strength of a culturally diverse, free, yet coherent civilization cannot be overstated. Tolerance of diverse views within an overall framework of rational order that is well supported by a robust normative architecture is the single best guarantor of human freedom and dignity.  Religion, as a source of moral authority that transcends political power relationships, should be (and sometimes is) a bulwark for the framework of rational order that supports human freedom and dignity.  In other words, that strain of religious thought which is compatible with human freedom and dignity is part of the solution, and that strain which is incompatible is part of the problem.


Human society abhors a moral vacuum.  In the presence of a psycho-social moral vacuum, when the moral infrastructure seems to give way and the legitimacy of the order itself is called into question, civilizations tend to revert to their most primitive, authoritarian, atavistic, degraded forms. Extreme authority rushes in to fill the gap when weaknesses in the “normative architecture” reach a certain critical state.  The desperate economic, social, and psychological conditions in Weimar Germany and in post World War I Russia were amplified by the deteriorated conditions of the respective moral infrastructures of those societies. The ethical systems supporting the political and civil social order cannot be damaged without also damaging civilization itself. The resulting moral uncertainty eroded the authority and credibility of those pre-fascist and pre-communist regimes. Irresolution and a lack of confidence by their governments opened the door to their replacement with authoritarian movements with brutal, atavistic features. 


During the reign of these two totalitarian movements, independent religion was suppressed.  Why?  Because religion is not itself poisonous, except to totalitarian regimes whose ideologies are threatened. Eventually, the internal and external opposition by religion contributed to the eventual defeat of both Nazism and Russian Communism and their replacement by more democratic institutions. I believe that one of the distinguishing features of any authentic world religion is the claim to a basis for moral authority that is binding on the kings, regent, and dictators of the age, as well as the rest of us.  The appeal to trans-human moral authority, the kind of normative judgment to which even tyrants must be subject, is incompatible with the theory and practice of totalitarianism. This requires robust religious institutions, imbued with ethical authority, who remain separate form the structures of governance.


Dare we dismiss our religious heritage as a primitive artifact of the pre scientific age?  After all, is it really God who is dead or is it the vitality our spiritual and moral faculties?  Is morality really just an artifact of culture, the province of anthropology and psychology?  …or is it the necessary context for all inter-human relations?  Is religion irrelevant to the 21st century?  …or is it necessary for our survival into the 22nd?  I believe that we, as a species, can no more afford to jettison religion than we can afford to jettison the rule of law.  The case for a renewed robust and relevant religious presence in 21st Century culture can be compressed to three essential points:


Religion is as necessary to a civilization as water and oxygen are to an organism because:


1.      Religion is uniquely suited to provide the psychological and social environment for the necessary human consensus about core normative and metaphysical judgments. Religion is the sole institution that exists to facilitate the common nexus to the universal and the numinous. The numinous level of experience (the core experience of the religious/spiritual mind) is the fountainhead of the ethical impulse.  Religion is uniquely capable of promoting and under girding: belief in trans-human moral authority, thus supporting the ongoing deep traditions that form the foundations (culturally and intellectually) for the moral/ethical basis of civilization itself.


2.      Religion is uniquely suited to provide support – in terms of community, logistic, and moral credibility – for the prophetic tradition, that is for the critique of “kings,” i.e., of all those who occupy (and abuse) positions of secular power (including those in positions of religious authority who succumb to the temptations and therefore abuse power).


3.      Religion is uniquely suited to provide protected, sacred spaces for individual spiritual and ethical expression development in the context of community.


The decline of religious influence over the last two centuries has occurred in direct relationship to the growth of the psychological power of the scientific/rationalist revolution among the intelligentsia, and that of the liberal hedonistic revolution within the popular culture.  This happened, in part, because religion, in its older forms had been co-opted by illegitimate authority structures.  In the early stages of the rationalist revolution, the targets of the rational revolution were the remnants of feudalism, royal privilege, anti-democratic, class-based regimes, gender and race-based patterns of domination, and the repression of the natural pursuit of ordinary human pleasure.  These targets have destroyed or reformed, one by one. But the process of skeptical deconstruction has continued. Much like a computer virus, once useful amd now out of control, the anti-authority skepticism unleashed by the 18th century mind has begin to attack the very basis of healthy human morality and the core norms on which civilization rests.


The response of religion to these developments has been as diverse as its geographic, cultural, doctrinal and liturgical range.  In some instances, elements of the popular culture have been incorporated into worship, and the moral-behavioral strictures of traditional faith based ethical systems, especially relating to sex, and recreational activities, have been dramatically liberalized.  The doctrinal response by religion to the scientific/rationalist critique has been equally varied, consisting in some cases of outright retrenchment into literalist, authoritarian fundamentalism.  In other cases, the response has been the assertion of a “post-modern” irrationalism. In some versions of the “new age” post modern stance, the truth-claims of science have been demoted the realm of “preference” – ironically, the same low status to which some positivists have relegated ethics!  In liberal theology, there has been cautious engagement with the scientific/rationalist revolution, usually coupled with a strategic retreat from traditional theistic/deistic doctrines.


Predictably, the results were mixed.  Third world cultures have remained traditionally religious and afflicted with caste-based authority and religious institutions.  An atavistic form of Islamic thought has given rise to terrorism on an unprecedented scale.  The bulk of the European population has all but abandoned religion, yet, in America, popular religion remains robust, though generally more fundamentalist than in Europe.  New converts may be in numerical decline among the youngest generations, especially those in urban areas.  Almost everywhere, the intelligentsia seems to remain predominantly atheistic, materialistic, while at least nominally humanistic.



I am as acutely aware as anyone I know of the failings of religion now and over the course of our species’ history. I believe that religion must reform and renew itself or die. But the stakes are very high.  I remain convinced that no other set of institutions, other than the authentic religious ones, will ever have the stature and standing to assert the validity of any moral system which is credibly binding on those who wield political power.  The eruption of pseudo-scientific ideologies took place because of the innate human need for authoritative grounding of our normative systems. Only religious individuals and institutions have been able to perform this prophetic function, and there is no plausible successor for religion’s prophetic challenge to abuses of power.


To expand on the unique value of religion to a 21st century civilization:


  1. A community of belief based on the numinous level of experience. The human need for and response to the numinous level of experience is well documented, as is its role as the vital source of ethical insight. For thousands of years, the human narratives in the mystical tradition have varied in language, idiom, and cultural context, but the sense is very clear that, at essence, the same sense of contact with the ultimate is being described:
    • sometimes through meditative practice or other liturgy;
    • sometimes in the Tevye dialogue, i.e., the classic Jewish human-God dialogue;
    • sometimes in that unquantifiable, essentially indescribable sense of contact, of the tearing away of the veil of ordinary reality, that has been portrayed in countless idioms over the centuries by mystics and ordinary people of various religious and non religious affiliations.

Our species’ engagement with the numinous by whatever name or none at all has given rise to the baseline insight on which the moral order is founded.  This insight is accompanied by a self-validating sense of contact with deep reality, a sense of peace, of the connectedness of all life, and for many, the distinct sense of contact with a universal benign sentient presence before whom we are all like children. The uniform, natural response is overflowing compassion, and a deep, intuitive certainty of the common linkage between all thinking, living, feeling beings. In some instances, the mind reaches a clear understanding of the shared nature of the inner being of all such creatures. The implications then spin themselves out in the refracting lenses of individual cultures, histories, understandings and situations, but each individual is forever changed by the contact. Respect for the being of others is the clearest and most enduring of the insights whose implications readily translate into the Tao in its various expressions.  Just as Buddha and Jesus can be seen as successive incarnations of this enlightened state, the Tao and the Torah’s highest moral commandments can also be seen as the successive iterations of its implications.

  1. The prophetic tradition… The prophetic tradition ultimately rests of the existence of institution and persons with inherent moral authority. Religion, at its best, facilitates the capacity to access trans-human normative truth and supports the ability to perform the prophetic function against abuses of power.  I would argue that this capacity is part of the very definition of authentic religion.
  2. A sacred space… One of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s most compelling characters said, “Without God, everything is permitted.”  No societal, nor personal renewal, nor any ethical system can flourish without the ability to effectively address three questions:

Why care? 

Why bother? 

Why act? 

Purely secular systems of thought and belief fail here.  All three questions, in a real sense the core of all robust ethical systems, reduce to a single question: Why care about the future after I am no longer living my present mortal span? The very domain of the answers to the ultimate questions lies within what we call sacred space.


The realm of the sacred is the domain of authentic religion, and its protection in the context of supporting communities is religion’s primary charge.  Where the core “why” questions are concerned, the answers that actually work in human lives are only partly intellectual.  They are also deeply experiential. 


Only the sacred is ultimately powerful enough to support the moral order. We might paraphrase Dostoevsky—Without a viable sacred tradition, grounded in Ultimate Authority, all human life and civilization will inevitably regress. This is why I believe that if we didn’t have religion we’d have to reinvent it.






Copyright © 2003 by Jay B. Gaskill


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