The Myth of Religion 6

The Myth of Religion 6

Yesterday we saw that Religion's claims to deliver absolute morality are insubstantial, and that Religion need not try to govern all societal concerns.

Today we will discuss why politics ought not to be subservient to Religion.


Religion not superior to politics

Is religion really a superior power to which society and politics should defer? Religious people would love that to be the case, but unfortunately, it cannot be so. As we have seen, Religion is far from being the universal source of principles that religious people seem to think it is. It does nothing to prevent destructive self-interest. It cannot make people good, and therefore cooperative, in society. It has no access to truth that can be shared widely, because different sects and faiths believe different things; and even if some sort of ecumenical agreement is achieved on fundamental ethical principles, the details become the object of bitter acrimony among different believers.

Given the inability of Religion to produce agreement about the truth, how can it pretend to have any role to play in the cooperative activity that is at the heart of American politics and society? On the Conservative side, by harking back to a golden age when, it is pretended, all Americans had the same religion and the same values. (We leave out of consideration here the liberal religious position, which takes its stand in Religion as a uniting force rather than an extension of self-interest. Conservatives, imbued with the Major Myths, do not even recognize that view of Religion, and cannot be enticed to engage it, except by means of lip-service.) In the golden age, disagreement on first principles would never occur. In such a Garden of Eden, there would be no need for self-interest, because everyone’s interest would be the same.

The unreality of such a notion should be quite apparent. There never was such a time. There never was uniform religion in America. Nor was there ever a uniform tradition and culture in America. On the contrary, self-interest was just as dominant at the start of the republic as it is now, and the  Framers chose to deal with it not through Religion, but through Reason. Their solution, outlined in The Federalist, was to pit self-interested factions against one another. They did not rely on Religion, or character, or personal virtue to overcome the vice of self-interest. They used the only power that is equal to self-interest to counter it—self-interest. They hoped that competing self-interests would exhaust themselves, so that all parties would see that it is better for each group to get some of what it wants, than for one group to get everything it wants. Since positive benevolence was not to be expected on a large scale, they invented negative benevolence: a state of cooperation arising from self-interests recognizing the value of compromise.

We live in a time, however, when rational self-interest has broken down. Nowadays, too many people believe that it is better to get everything you want instead of only some of what you want—even though its impossible to get everything you want! This is a failure of Reason. So the solution is not a return to some imaginary religious utopia, but a renewal of Reason. That’s all it takes to see that agreeing to compromise on some of your demands in order to attain some others beats refusing to compromise and stopping everyone, including yourself, from getting anything.


Tomorrow we will complete our consideration of the Myth of Religion by looking at the useful and beneficial role that Religion can play in society.

Until tomorrow, then.

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