June 5, 2007



Jay B. Gaskill

One of the most important developing social conditions in the Twenty First Century is the ongoing weakening of hereditary-based coercion and other social pressures supporting religious affiliation.

A free market in religion has arrived. And not all religions will survive in the new environment.

Here I use the term “religions” broadly to include all morally grounded metaphysical systems of belief that are linked to and supported by practicing belief communities.

Drifters & Rebels

Our culture is teeming with people who have given up on religion or who are just barely hanging on. Most of these people are “moral” in a traditional, baseline way. While they may pursue one of more of the popular virtues (think of “thrift” or “niceness”), these pursuits are more like competing avocations (think of “shopping” or “working out”) rather than the natural outcome of deeply felt ethical inclinations.

Among the overall group, I find the subset of angry ones the most interesting…and promising.

Many of these belong to that cohort of fiercely moral people who really haven’t given up on religion as a subject so much as they have turned their backs on one or more of its most deeply flawed institutions. Potentially they are among the best of the best. The fiercely moral ones are potential leaders without a following. They may not be part of the problem, but neither are they the solution. Not yet…

There is a third group, also promising, consisting of the ethically grounded, secular humanists who are currently operating in the “as if” mode. As a friend of mine who probably still belongs in this category once said, “Really, I would like to believe, but…”

The good news is that this “I gave up on church because I doubted” group has pretty much stayed out of jail. They are clearly among the cohort of decent people among us, the ones who are not pillaging and shooting up their neighborhoods. The less good news is that too many of them are having difficulty demonstrating and defending morality to the next generation in terms that transcend the mere “get along and get ahead” strategies. To say to a child, “X is moral and Y is not moral for me, but of course we can’t really speak for someone outside our culture”, falls short of the mark.

Unless and until we can learn how to convey moral truth and wisdom in terms that cut through the sophistries of relativism and moral ennui, we are in for a few centuries of trouble.

Two “Parables”

When I was a teenager, I started keeping my first “Great Idea” journal. One entry (I may have been 19 at the time) has stayed with me over the decades and its various reiterations. Technically, it’s an extended metaphor, rather than a parable.

Imagine, I suggested, that the entire set of human moral beliefs and their supporting fundamental principles are a few gallons of water held securely inside a bucket. The sides and bottom of the container make up the bulwark of religiously supported and informed moral precepts and principles; these support the walls and boundaries that sustain civil society. Then imagine that container suddenly stripped away. There is a pregnant instant when everyone might go on in the “as if” mode. Imagine the water hanging in midair, mirroring the bucket’s shape. Next, the whole glistening thing begins to quiver. Finally, gravity (I was thinking of cultural entropy) begins to take hold.

“Without God” (i.e., religion or at least without deity or an equivalent universal moral authority) “everything is permitted”. Sartre, that cynical atheist, attributed this aphorism to Dostoevsky. I’ve located the likely source in a passage from The Brothers Karamazov, in Book X, at Chapter 4, where Mitya Karamazov is in jail awaiting trial for killing his father. He’s speaking to his brother, Alyosha, the novitiate. Mitya has just said that he is “sorry for God” because, “Your Reverence, you must move over a little, chemistry is coming!” Then Mitya says: “How…is man to fare after that? Without God and a life to come? After all, that would mean that now all things are lawful, that one may do anything that one likes.” [page 753, Penguin Edition 1880, 1993 trans. Reissued 2003 w/ revisions.]

We can be pretty sure that Mitya was speaking for Dostoevsky, and that Fydor was on to something.

I owe the second parable to the Right Rev. Mark MacDonald, Episcopal Bishop of Alaska, a charismatic, spiritual leader with Native American roots in Minnesota, and a fine gift for story telling. Bishop Mark tells the story of his visit to a cranberry farm in his home state of Minnesota.

The cultivated cranberry plants, he was told, are extremely fragile, requiring constant careful nurturing. “What are those?” he asked, pointed to a patch of very hardy looking growth outside the cultivated area. “Oh those are cranberry plants too. Those uncultivated ones are hard to kill.”

He goes on to explain (in good humor) how the Christian message is much like those cranberry plants, struggling within the cultivated domain of the church, but flourishing and hardy outside the tender care of …he smiled… the clergy.

He talks about the power, vitality and hardy growth of Christian models that flourish outside any church. His example is the vitality and growth of the Twelve Step recovery programs as a form of Christian engagement without benefit of clergy. These recovery programs have proliferated, driven by the need for recovery from the bondage of addiction, even as many formal congregations have declined.

Go figure…

Lure of the Cults

I suspect that the secular world has trouble identifying “cults” because it is approaching the problem from outside, and therefore it lacks an adequate definition of religion itself. Or to put it differently: to the anti-religious skeptic, they’re all cults.

Of course there are the easy cases: Think of the cult of the Reverend Jim Jones whose followers joined him in an infamous mass suicide/homicide. Jones was a California guru whose followers joined the “Peoples Temple”, helped found “Jonestown” in Guyana, then were induced to commit mass suicide and homicide at their leader’s demand in 1978. Among the 911 to 914 dead were children whose parents fed them poison punch.

But there are more difficult cases: What are we so say about the accounts that some well meaning parents, adherents of Christian Science (an otherwise benign variation of Christianity), have denied their minor children antibiotics with sometimes fatal results?

One working definition of a cult or cultish sect is any religion or proto-religious movement that lacks a recognizable thematic connection to the great underlying ethical traditions, or both.

This definition requires us to identify the elements of the “great underlying ethical traditions” in a way that bridges the secular-religious divide. This is exactly why I believe that it is a useful exercise. This is a topic to which we will soon return.

Challenge of Adaptation

Another definition involves obsolescence. A cult or cultish sect can be defined as any religion (or proto-religion) that withers after its first impulse is spent (often when its founders are discredited or die without a vital living legacy of followers). In most cases, this is really a failure of adaptation, a fatal lapse of relevance.

Few religions can survive the changing social conditions without adapting to some extent. But frequent or dramatic change is not always necessary, as the endurance of the Roman Catholic Church attests. After all, morality is based on a few enduring principles.

But the moral applications can change, and the social conditions, problems and needs that make up the context of applied morality are in constant flux. In fact, modernity has accelerated the processes of change, and has independently presented new challenges to traditional religions based on the truth claims of science.

Therefore any a religious or quasi religious movement is at continuing risk of becoming a socially irrelevant cult because of the failure to adapt to changing conditions.

There are two extreme versions of this:

(a) Any sufficiently parochial religion can become trapped in its particularity and remain increasingly vulnerable to the destabilizing arrival of dramatic, unambiguous contradiction.

How would Islamists, for example, deal with the arrival of civilized, technologically superior non-Islamist space aliens? After learning to communicate with these hi-tech guests, our Muslim fellow humans would no doubt quickly conclude that Mohammed had never visited Aldebran V. Eventually, I suppose, the little purple ones from space would become just one more set of unconvertible infidels to be dispatched. These hypothetical Islamists could only hope (when frustrated in their attempts to behead the little interstellar visitors) that their own human children would not find the alien way of life “cool”.

[Of course, we Americans are the real aliens in this story, and we come equipped with a dangerously subversive adolescent culture. But I digress.]

(b) At the other extreme, any historically disconnected religion, lacking deep and impressive roots in the common human past, is vulnerable to obsolescence, in effect to “fading fad syndrome”, because of a lack if historical particularity. Without the anchor of deep human tradition, a history of acts of heroic moral integrity or of saints whose holiness, exemplary goodness (or both) transcend time, place and culture, religion fades into dry philosophy, vulnerable to the airhead/brain-in-the-clouds critique: “You just invented that!”

Glimpse of a Future

I’m tempted to invoke Dickens’ Christmas ghosts, here, by imagining a world coming apart at the seams without its great religions, and then pointing out that it’s not too late. But this discussion is not about one religion, one curmudgeon or one simple choice.

Again, in later posts, I will argue that every world religion has something that our species’ needs, and that no religious institution can properly claim to “own” its valuable universal insights any more than any particular religious figure can claim to “own” God, or enjoy the exclusive custody of the path to the good life.

I believe that we can be reasonably optimistic because of the necessity principle. It can be stated this way:

If civilization requires a vital substrate of moral belief for its continued survival (and I believe it does);

If that moral substrate is best maintained by locating it outside the shifting currents of human fashion – as in a developed metaphysical system;

If the vitality of that moral substrate depends on effectively linking it to supporting belief communities,

Then we humans are going to need religions – or a close facsimile thereof – for the foreseeable future.

As we can rule out the cults and sects as the “wave of the future”, the saviors of civilization, we can imagine two competing scenarios:

  1. Civilization is adequately supported by the subset of traditional religions that learn work in the vital center, between the extremes identified in (a) and (b) above, and remain capable of continuing to inspire and instruct us.


  1. Civilization finds sufficient support in some new, but similar social construct that is able to acquire the necessary moral credibility without degrading into cult or sect. [A 20th century caution: Those of us who are familiar with the brilliant insights of Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman autodidact who wrote “The True Believer”, are entitled to shudder at the prospect of another invented secular religion, given the records of Marxist-Leninism and Hitler’s National socialism. The last century’s two “scientific secular religions” murdered many times more innocents than all of the religious repressions and wars combined.

In other words I submit that it’s going to be religion or religion by another name.

This Is Why I Think Religion Will Be Relevant for Another Thousand Years

It seems likely that the religions that survive and thrive into the late Twenty First Century will still originate in a particular history (or deep tradition that reaches before formal history) but (to remain a vital part of the human story) they will have succeeded in carefully uniting and integrating their particular histories with universal values and ethical principles. And conversely, they will be able to show how a particular tradition originated in (and operated as an expression of) universal moral precepts. The religions in the vital center (as defined here) are more resilient that (a) and more vital than (b). They will probably make it for these five reasons:

They are reconcilable to the principles of universalism, the first of which is the maxim that: the more you plumb a particular aspect of the world, the more you discover the embedded universals in operation.
And to the second maxim, to wit: The more you explicate, spin out and connect a universal to real events, the more particulars you are able to sweep into the context you have just created.
They will profit from two deep psychological aspects of the human condition: (1) We humans carry around a deep, God shaped hole or spiritual vacuum in our chests; (2) but we have learned to be suspicious of religious charlatans. This is no trivial insight: We humans tend to know that true holiness is real, but that it is very rare; we tend to see holiness as connecting to a universal moral sense. Therefore, we find that the inability to inspire good followers is suspect, and that the ability to inspire bad followers is even more suspect.
Our species just doesn’t have the time to reinvent authentic, historically deep religions from scratch. The social function of religious institutions are so essential to the survival of civilization that if humanity didn’t have something vital filling the “religion niche’, we’d be forced to find something equally effective. The existing religions that have authentic roots and good hearted spiritual leaders are far more likely to evolve into the vital center than something that just springs up in the cultural desert, Kwanza-like, as an academic invention.
All flaws accounted for, religions function as the primary supporting communities that hold, support and propagate the species’ institutional memory of the moral and moral law; they hold up the normative infrastructure of civilization itself. But without the anchor of deep human tradition, a history of acts of heroic moral integrity or of saints whose holiness, exemplary goodness or both transcend time, place and culture” any religion lacks real traction. Because that deep history can’t easily be invented, I predict that on New Year’s eve, 2999, we will still be working with the existing set.

Looking For the Creative Center

So….I find myself looking for the convergences connections and integrations, as if it were really true, a priori, that if something good must happen, then something good will happen.

As I’ve begun to notice emerging patterns, it occurs to me that the trend towards creative convergence will benefit greatly when we can find a language to express our deeper spiritual and moral aspirations and insights that can bridge the secular and religious subcultures. That process is part of the “mission” of the Bridge to Being” Blog.

As it happens, recently a diverse group convened in a Berkeley bookstore to hear Professor Jacob Needleman talk about his new book, “Why Can’t We Be Good?” (Penguin 2007). Professor Needleman has taken some giant steps in honing ordinary language so that it speaks meaningfully and simultaneously to our culture’s religious and secular ethical sensibilities. And, inter alia, he also has just released a very persuasive case for an innate human conscience, the capacity of which to become a real world force of moral agency has been impaired by our crippled and cramped understanding of the human body. I can’t do his latest work justice here (it’s accessible, insightful and deserves careful study), but here is a flavor of his contribution.

The famous story about Hillel the Elder is central to Needleman’s account. Some of us Judeo Christians are familiar (in one form or other) with the account in which Hillel was confronted by a young man (presumably he was seeking the Cliff notes version of the Law) who challenged the great teacher to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel recited a version of the biblical injunction (from Leviticus) to love one’s neighbor (“don’t do to another that which is hateful to yourself”) as a summary of the entire corpus of the law. “All the rest is commentary. Go and study!” [I note that a few years later, another rabbi (Jesuah, AKA Jesus) said much the same thing, after reciting the shema, the injunction to love G-d.]

Dr. Needleman (a self described “Jewish boy”) was by far the “oldest” soul in the standing-room-only book talk area, but he quietly and lucidly demonstrated the supple mind of someone four decades younger. It was refreshing to encounter a professional philosopher (Dr. Needleman still teaches at San Francisco State) for whom the grand old subject represents the integration of real life lessons. His was the kind of discourse in which one hears insights from Plato, Socrates, the Stoics, Meister Eckhart, Paul the Apostle, and Hillel the Elder. And more deeply impressive still, was his transparent moral authenticity. When Dr. Needleman talked about conscience as a faculty, as something far deeper and more important than Freud’s “superego”, he was sharing a secret lost on the post-modern culture, and he was revealing his own life journey.

The following brief excerpt from his latest book, “Why Can’t We Be Good?” should be accompanied by a caution: His thesis obviously distills a lifetime of living, study, reflection and applied interaction with the world and his own internal self. The book is more than ideas. I’d stamp the inner fly leaf: INNER WORK REQUIRED.

“Twist and turn as we may, explain it or deconstruct it as we may, we know that though we may be animals, we are ethical animals. In everyone, in every place, in every occasion of our lives and culture we see that we are failing what we are meant to be – and we suffer from that, we run from one answer to another – religion, relativism, psychology, medical drugs, psychotropic drugs, mass movements, charismatic leaders, fundamentalisms of all kinds from the religious to the atheistic to the scientistic; we run here and there looking for our moral power, trying to exercise it even though all evidence screams out to us that we do not have this power, that we cannot be the moral beings we know, down deep, that we are meant to be.” (p 244)

There is much more to say, of course. So stay tuned….


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