A Tale of Two Gods

Photo by Ken Treloar on Unsplash

“Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion,” writes John Gray, the British philosopher. I wish that weren’t true.

But it is.

There’s a national poll that I’d like to see with two questions:

  1. Does a nation need a god to keep its citizens doing the right thing?
  2. Do you need a god to keep you doing the right thing?

Now, sure, I know how Humanists would answer these questions. But, face it, Humanists are not in the the majority.

I would like to know the percentage of people who say “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second. Because these questions reveal a split in opinion concerning democracy that goes all the way back to the foundations of modern democracy in the Enlightenment period just before the American and French revolutions.

The British philosopher Simon Critchley points out that a document central to the thinking of the American and French revolutionaries was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract from 1762. Interestingly, Rousseau wrote two versions of the text, one in which he claimed that human rights are based in universalized human understanding through the use of reason, and the other in which he claimed that nations must believe in a (traditionally Christian) god in order to control human nature. Rousseau appears to have believed that the first was true, but his published book claims the second is true.

In this way, Rousseau joined with the other parent of the American Revolution, the British philosopher John Locke, who clearly did not believe in the traditional (Western Christian) concept of a god but who also claimed that societies could not function without the belief in a traditional Christian god embedded in the minds of the citizenry.

In the culture wars between right and left in the United States, we tend to wrangle over whether or not the founders intended the US to be a Christian nation. This is not a particularly fruitful line of argument. Rather, the better frame is to consider the two opposed views of god that the framers held. One was the traditional view of a deity sitting on a throne, keeping records, and doling out rewards and punishments — this is the god that both Rousseau and Locke claimed is required to keep citizens in line.

The other god was the Deist god, one that set the universe in motion using certain immutable laws, then let the whole thing go as it will, after giving humanity the gift of reason in order to figure it all out. This is the god claimed in the Declaration of Independence, a god who proclaims universal laws applicable to all of humanity.

These two gods still lurk behind assumptions concerning aspirations and government in the United States. And they are not compatible.

For those who believe in the Christian concept of Original Sin, an active god who punishes and rewards is required. Why would sinful people act in socially productive ways, except out of fear? The nature of the human is, in this view, evil. An evil whose propensities must be controlled.

For some who believe in other gods from other religious traditions, this view also makes sense.

For those who believe in the Deist god — and that includes the more recent addition of those who believe in various gods from beyond European Christendom, non-traditional gods, and no god at all — for these, human beings have the capacity — through reason — to find right moral action.

One of my contentions is that if you tell me about your god, I can tell you your politics, and if you tell me your politics, I can describe your god. Because I have never met anyone who said, “I know that god requires ____, but I believe that that is morally reprehensible.” As liberal theologians have long pointed out, the human propensity is to place on a concept of god one’s highest aspirations. Or, conversely, one’s basest prejudices.

  1. Does a nation need a god to keep its citizens doing the right thing? Nope.
  2. Do you need a god to keep you doing the right thing? Nope.

There is no moral to this tale of two gods. It’s clear that John Locke was wrong in his assumption that the general population needs to fear a punishing god for a society to work. Many societies for much of human history have done quite well without this very bad idea.

And Rousseau chickened out of publishing what could have been an even more ground-breaking work.

And those of us within the borders of a nation incapacitated by the culture wars generated by these two views . . . . Well, it would be nice if some sort of god would come to our aid. But, well . . . . Perhaps the Deists and their descendants are right.