Slaves of Religion and The Liberated Victims of Modernity
Most societies in history have been religious and even theocratic in that the priests who officiated the ceremonies held political power too. The word religion” comes from the Latin “ligare,” which means to tie or to bind, this being the same root of “ligament,” meaning the fibrous tissue that holds in place bones and organs.
According to that root meaning of “religion,” the members of an irreligious society would have to be defined largely by their lack of social binding. This is indeed an attribute of modern individualistic cultures like those that picked up the pieces after the collapse of feudal monarchies, which had been the standard social orders for thousands of years.
Individualists are relatively free from dogmas, oppressive regimes, lawlessness, the tyranny of nature’s indifference (thanks to technological progress provided by the freedom of thought), and from the obligation to submit to the dogmas and rituals of a religious institution.
However, we should be ambivalent about both the freedom of irreligiosity and the togetherness of religiosity. Each will look different, depending on where you’re standing, as it were. On the plus side of irreligiosity, there are the political and economic freedoms of opportunity made available by the individualism and humanism that replace theocracy.
A highly religious society stifles ingenuity by enforcing a moral code and a theological restriction on science, epistemology, speech, government, and the market. The religion provides a rationale for the concentration of political power, as in the so-called divine right of kings. That power naturally tends to corrupt the ruling class, whereupon the aristocrats consolidate their privileges by depriving the masses of economic opportunities for their personal advancement. Consequently, most of the population serves the monstrous, “elite” or “noble” minority in perpetuity as peasants or slaves.
The religious myths prop up faith in the monarchy despite the royals’ palpable amorality and indeed irreligiosity that they need to navigate the world of realpolitik. When the cognitive dissonance increases beyond the masses’ capacity to suspend their disbelief, the majority become disenchanted with the rulers’ religious narrative. In that case, a “modernist” political revolution occurs which awards the lower classes greater control over their lives. Politically, that control is democratic, and economically it’s capitalistic. Together those systems make up liberalism and its relatively individualistic counternarrative.
Again, those political and economic liberties are real. You get to choose the rulers even if you’re poor and you don’t descend from a royal bloodline. You can choose what line of work to apply to, or you can start a business. You’re even free to fail and to try again, thanks to bankruptcy laws.
These, then, are some real benefits of an irreligious culture, that is, of one in which the citizens are free to go their own way without reprisal from politically powerful guardians of moral or theological correctness.
You don’t have to look far, though, to see the downside of these liberties. Think of your choice of goods to buy at the supermarket. Your choices are many because the market is relatively free, meaning people with different tastes and expertise can sell goods and cater to various niches.
However, none of those products has any backing from a transcendent authority, according to secular expectations. God is left out of the marketplace, so every business is an entirely human endeavour. Perhaps the government regulates the standards to some extent, but that’s only one earthly government, among others. Soon enough that government will be voted out of office and a new one will take its place and may change the guidelines for companies to follow. In short, the social standards are all stipulated to be subjective, relative, and fallible.
What that means is we alone bear the responsibility for our choices and for how we use our freedom. The world’s objective conditions may impinge on our choices or even force a situation on us, but that would be an amoral outcome for which no one is responsible. In so far as our actions are right or wrong, we’re the sole judges, collectively and individually. And we presumptuous judges evolved from furry primates that lived in trees and hurled feces at each other.
That comical responsibility is a lot to bear, so our irreligiosity — our freedom from social ties — is liable to become toxic, resulting in mass anxiety, depression, and tribal substitutes for religion. The wokester cult of political correctness in progressive circles, along with totalitarian cancel culture, libertarian conspiracy theories, conservative appeals to social Darwinism, and the like fill those erstwhile roles of religious communities, creeds, and inquisitions.
Moreover, capitalism has a penchant for reversing the gains of modernity and for reinstating the vast economic inequality of the ancient monarchies. Capitalism merely bypasses religious traditions and moral compunctions and channels the social dynamics that make dominance hierarchies so prevalent in the wild. Yet the modern Gilded Ages lack the religious fig leaf, relying as they do on the comparatively feeble civil religions to convince the free nations that the majority deserve to be poor and that the rich have earned their wealth — even though the poor and the rich alike serve no power higher than their greed.
The Religious Ties that Bind
Religious cultures have a corresponding upside and a downside. The advantage of religious togetherness is that the practitioners identify with something greater than themselves, which uplifts them and preserves them from the uncertainty and horror of an overbearing skeptical outlook.
The religious person belongs to a venerable tradition and institution and is assured that he or she is in God’s graces or is one with the eternal essence of reality. Any hardship she undergoes she can reinterpret as a blessing in disguise — not just because her faith motivates her to choose to look on the bright side, but because her religion informs her that only the bright side is real, and that all evils and injustices are illusions or means of achieving a greater, divine good.
The social binds of religion train people to fear divine punishment and thus to live up to certain moral standards. This typically takes the form of social conservatism since the standards in question arose centuries ago in harsh, patriarchal, authoritarian cultures and were passed along as dogmas backed by the theocratic governments. Nevertheless, despite the content of religious morality, religionists feel confident that their way of life rests on something more reliable than human opinion, taste, or even the ruler’s earthly power. That certainty is the opposite of deep-seated doubt, and this subjective certainty is as good as blissful ignorance.
To see what the downside of a religious sense of community might be, notice the ambiguity of the word “bond,” with respect to the religious ties that bind There’s the bond of honour, for example, as in a man’s feeling obligated to keep his word. But there’s also the bond of bondage, as in slavery, the opposite of freedom. Again, most of the population of a highly religious, theocratic society are effectively servants with few if any liberties.
There’s a bait and switch technique at work here in which authentic (as opposed to secularized) religionists trade their political, economic, and cognitive freedoms for the feeling that they’re on the winning team. Indeed, they interpret their sense of spirituality as a fulfilment of their potential, as their freedom from the dire endpoint of sin or from natural illusions. In Christianity, the Bible gives Christians “spiritual discernment” for which they’ll be rewarded in the fullness of time when God will supply them with an immortal resurrected body. Thus, the religious believers will be free from death and error, able to enjoy God’s presence in joy forever.
In the meantime, however, the religion calls for sacrifice. Religionists are often supposed to follow not just elementary moral principles but a strict, elaborate patriarchal code, and to demonstrate their faith with displays of allegiance to the religious institution such as by donating money to the cause or by publicly confirming their commitment to ludicrous propositions, thus humiliating themselves and depriving them of their pride as potential independent thinkers.
See, for example, what the Catholic catechism says about faith: ‘By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, “the obedience of faith”’ (my emphasis). Moreover, the catechism says, “Abraham is the model of such obedience offered us by Sacred Scripture,” Abraham being the one who offered to kill his son as a sacrifice to God.
The religious ties that bind often benefit the abstraction of the whole community or the religious leaders at the expense of the individuals who are enthralled by those binds. Compare this with the chattel slavery of kidnapped Africans in medieval and early-modern Europe and North America. Despite being forced into Christendom by the laws and institutions that held them captive, these slaves would have felt alienated and resentful because this wasn’t their native culture, and they were being worked to death.
A switch of allegiance, however, is evidently possible, as in Stockholm syndrome in which a captive grows to love her hostage-taker. Similarly, in the case of growing up in a religious society, the native religionist will take for granted her love of the religious institution even if that institution is objectively oppressing or exploiting her. There were even ascetics who were effectively worked to death by the religion’s strictures, rather like the explicit slaves of Christendom (and of other civilizations too, such as the Ottoman empire).
The main difference between that asceticism and what we think of as slavery is that the religious true-believers typically grow up in the religion that’s reigned over their family for many generations, so that these religionists are taken captive, in effect, as children before they can understand what’s happening; in any event, it’s primarily their mind rather than their body that the religion holds hostage. However, the opposite is so in the case of one person’s legal ownership of another as property.
A Pair of Flawed Coping Mechanisms
Both aspects of religiosity and of irreligiosity, then, are apparent from the respective levels of analysis. Both the advantages and the disadvantages are real. What seems like the blessing of freedom will be the stuff of a meaningless life to someone who’s thankful she’s been given the chance to serve a loving God. And that religious servitude will look like a con to a free thinker who understands the farce of our being too smart for our good.
“Religiosity” and “irreligiosity” are both honourific and pejorative labels. Each phenomenon is simultaneously good and bad. Objectively, however, both are ways of coping with the type of creatures we are. We used to cope by consoling each other in communities that passed around fairy tales to lend us an illusion of dignity. We could hypnotize each other into suspending our disbelief and taking comfort in our religious pride.
Eventually, that coping mechanism ran populations into the ground until they rose and demanded what we call “modernity.” The masses liberated themselves from the boons and banes of theocracies. As a result, we have the freedom to succeed or to fail, and we understand that neither our success nor our failure matters to anyone apart from ourselves. We know, too, that we’re not special to the rest of the universe.
To be sure, our self-consciousness and intelligence are apparently anomalous in nature, but we weren’t meant to evolve, as far as science and philosophy are concerned. The planet didn’t prepare for our arrival and won’t mourn our departure. The cost of our secular liberties is that our dignity as autonomous persons is often as imaginary as that of the ancient or medieval religionist who took herself to be a child of God.