The idea that religion makes civilization possible may appear counterintuitive to our Western mind today. We have witnessed a barrage of argument from people like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens that religion is destructive and irrational. Yet, not that long ago, certainly no more than three generations back, our communities instinctively understood that religion was a positive force. I will briefly introduce what it is about religion that our forefathers and mothers thought that religion was not only important but essential.
Religion Gives a Common Story That Answers the Big Questions
Religion is the metanarrative that allows us as individuals to come together as a community because we believe in the same story. It is a story that answers the big questions in life such as Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? How do I come to terms with death? How do I make sense of suffering? How can I possibly believe in justice? What can I know? What should I believe? What must I do?
Our religious stories provide examples of those who have struggled with the same questions before us. Learned stories give us knowledge of how we ought to live and thereby strengthen our will to do what is right despite our personal passion to do otherwise. Controlled and directed passion makes civilization possible. Uncontrolled passion, on the other hand, results in anarchy.
The story of Jesus Christ healing the sick, for example, has motivated Christians for two millennia to establish hospitals and homes for the infirmed. The Apostle Peter’s denial that he knew Christ at the time of the Crucifixion stands out as an example of what not to do – we learn courage and boldness from that story of failure. Christ’s teaching to love our neighbour was exhibited in his parable of the Good Samaritan and has inspired many Christians to offer assistance to those who are otherwise one’s enemies.
The religious narrative therefore is foundational to any civilized culture. It allows us to distinguish between justice and injustice; love and hatred; truth and falsehood; honour and dishonour; freedom and slavery. If there is no narrative, no story that unites a people’s understanding of the meaning and purpose of life, the result will be no organized system of living together in peaceful co-existence.
Religion Gives Understanding
American philosopher, Allan Bloom makes reference to his grandparents as being “ignorant people by our standards” but “their home was spiritually rich because all the things done in it, not only what was specifically ritual, found their origin in the Bible’s commandments, and their explanation in the Bible’s stories and the commentaries on them, and had their imaginative counterparts in the deeds of the myriad of exemplary heroes.” Reasons for their family’s existence, fulfillment of their duties, were found in serious writings, and they interpreted their sufferings “with respect to a great and ennobling past.” “This is what a community and a history mean,” notes Bloom, “a common experience inviting high and low into a single body of belief.”
Bloom compared the faith of his “ignorant” grandparents to those of his educated cousins who are M.D.s or Ph.D.s and found their comprehension of life’s meaning in want. “When they talk about heaven and earth, the relations between men and women, parents and children, the human condition, I hear nothing but clichés, superficialities, the material of satire,” says Bloom. He continues, “…that a life based on the Book is closer to the truth, that it provides the material for deeper research in and access to the real nature of things. Without the great revelations, epics and philosophies as part of our natural vision, there is nothing to see out there, and eventually little left inside.”
Emile Durkheim, the “father” of sociology, would agree with Bloom. Durkheim wrote in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. “For that which makes a man,” Durkheim said, “is the totality of the intellectual property which constitutes civilization, and civilization is the work of society. Thus is explained the prepondering role of the cult in all religions, whichever they may be.” The “cult” Durkheim refers to are the actions motivated by religion – the religious rites and the religiously inspired virtues. The persuasive influence of society comes about from the united actions of individuals that make up society. “It is by common action that it takes consciousness of itself and realizes its position; it is before all else an active co-operation.”
Durkheim observes that to understand the world we must first understand religion. “In summing up, then,” he says, “it may be said that nearly all the great social institutions have been born in religion. Now in order that these principal aspects of the collective life may have commenced by being only varied aspects of the religious life, it is obviously necessary that the religious life be the eminent form and, as it were, the concentrated expression of the whole collective life. If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion.”
Religion is Both Individual and Communal
Durkheim notes that people are Homo duplex, that is, we exist at two levels: as an individual and as part of the larger society. On one level, we relate one to one in our day to day relationships – family members, co-workers – where we keep our autonomy and personality intact. On the second level, we bond to a larger social entity (e.g., a religious community) as a whole and lose our individuality in favour of the actions and influence of that entity.
There is a reinforcing element that flows between the individual and her religious association. The individual consciousness is given direction and discipline from that association. “All religions, even the crudest, are in a sense spiritualistic: for the powers they put in play are before all spiritual, and also their principal object is to act upon the moral life. Thus it is seen that whatever has been done in the name of religion cannot have been done in vain: for it is necessarily the society that did it, and it is humanity that has reaped the fruits.”
Religious Transcendence Gives People Hope
Durkheim keenly observed that the value of religion is found in its ability to transfer to the individual a cause that is beyond reach of the one person – in fact, it is beyond reach of society as a whole – but all are united in seeking to obtain it. It is our collective source of hope. All religions point to a better day, the Promised Land or heaven, where evil no longer exists in society. Such a society is not an empirical fact. “[I]t is a fancy, a dream with which men have lightened their sufferings, but in which they have never really lived. It is merely an idea which comes to express our more or less obscure aspirations towards the good, the beautiful and the ideal. Now these aspirations have their roots in us; they come from the very depths of our being; then there is nothing outside of us which can account for them. Moreover, they are already religious in themselves; thus it would seem that the ideal society presupposes religion, far from being able to explain it.”
The concept of the ideal society, to which religion strives, has a very important role to play. It is not outside of our real society as forming two separate polar opposites. Instead, the ideal and the “real” society are part of the one society. The religious ideal allows our current society to strive for all things better. “A society can neither create itself nor recreate itself without at the same time creating an ideal.”
As Durkheim so eloquently puts it, “It is in assimilating the ideals elaborated by society that he has become capable of conceiving the ideal. It is society which, by leading him within its sphere of action, has made him acquire the need of raising himself above the world of experience and has at the same time furnished him with the means of conceiving another. For society has constructed this new world in constructing itself, since it is society which this expresses. Thus both with the individual and in the group, the faculty of idealizing has nothing mysterious about it. It is not a sort of luxury which a man could get along without, but a condition of his very existence.”
Durkheim’s one hundred-year-old observations have become the discussion of recent scholarship. The results are conclusive – he was right – we are homo duplex. While we live most of our life in the “ordinary world” we achieve our greatest joys when we move into the sacred world as formed by our religious identity. The religious beliefs and practises create a community giving hope for a better future.
The role of the “sacred” beliefs and practises that people like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have shrilled against for the last number of years as being irrational, inefficient and costly, are now seen as the very glue that binds people together. “There is now a great deal of evidence,” says Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “that religions do in fact help groups to cohere, solve free rider problems, and win the competition for group-level survival.” As D.S. Wilson says, “Religions exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.”
Religion, therefore, is the means through which we view the world – it gives us the ability to discern what is true, what is just, what is love, what is honourable, what is free. The ideal allows for people like Ghandi to hope for a better India; a Martin Luther King, Jr. to hope for a better America; and a William Wilberforce to hope for a better Britain. Its civilizing force makes society possible.
 See John Patrick, “Nine Questions Everyone Must Face,” found at www.johnpatrick.ca/papers/jp_9q.htm
 Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 60.
 Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1915, 5th Edition 1964) found at www.Gutenberg.org at 1302.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012), p. 225.
 Emile Durkheim, at 1305.
 Durkheim, at 1306.
 Haidt, p. 257.
 Haidt, p. 244.
 Haidt, p. 256.
 David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 159.
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