by Bruce Frohnen
Most of us have been told from a young age that religious beliefs cause strife. The early modern “wars of religion” are portrayed as merely the most overt form of what happens when religion is allowed too much influence in public life. Of course, Protestant and Catholic forces fought on both sides of these conflicts. Nonetheless, we are taught that they were not primarily about the consolidation of national and royal power, but, rather, about religious intolerance. The solution, then, is supposed to be strict separation of church and state—leaving those who “have” religion to follow their beliefs in private, while preventing them from imposing those beliefs, or stirring up pain and trouble with those beliefs, in the public sphere.
There is, in fact, a certain logic to this position. If you are convinced that religion is an irrational set of beliefs that cause irrational people to fight over what they believe (falsely) is crucial to eternal salvation, you should try to keep those beliefs out of the public square. The solution, then, is a secular society that is “tolerant” enough to allow religious people to do their religious business, whatever it may be, behind closed doors.
The only real problem with this position is that it is based on a set of prejudices that utterly misconstrue the nature of religion. Religion is not merely a set of abstract beliefs. Thus, even if secularists were correct in their conviction that religion is all superstitious garbage, they still would be wrong in claiming that they can compartmentalize religion out of the public square with anything less than repressive action worthy of a police state. Sadly, proof of this fact, evident everywhere from America’s heartland to the streets of Bagdad, is consistently ignored by those whose “faith” lies in their prejudice against religion.
The very word religion means “to bind.” Not “to believe in angels or fairies” but “to bind.” In our hyper-individualistic culture, many people have many different beliefs about religion—most of them boiling down to the self-confident demand that whatever we do will result, ultimately, in God, Gaea, or “the universe” rewarding us for our self-esteem and “good intentions.” These are not religions. They bind us to nothing but our own vapid fantasies, demanding of our solipsistic sense of reality that we be affirmed. A religion, on the other hand, is a way of life. It is something that binds us, not merely to a set of beliefs, but to a set of habits, as well as institutions, through which we learn and follow a specific form of conduct, attempting to walk in the ways of our Lord.
I will not claim any special knowledge of non-Western religions and so, beyond mentioning the importance of “the way” in several Eastern religions, I will confine myself to noting that in the Judeo-Christian tradition (and here the “Judeo” part is of great importance) children are not merely taught a few abstract beliefs, then left to their own devices regarding how to live. Rather, articles of faith (one thinks of the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds) are just one (crucial) part of an interconnected set of catechetical things we say and do to become and live as Catholics, Jews, Lutherans, and so on.
Many imaginative conservatives will recall that culture and cult share a root word in Latin meaning to cultivate—be it one’s garden, or one’s soul. Even a passing familiarity with history shows quite clearly that civilizations grow, if at all, from common beliefs and practices that have their root, like their ultimate end, in religion. The question is whether civilizations can “outgrow” religion, stripping their public squares of religious beliefs and practices without descending into anarchy.
Secularists always have evinced great confidence that morality does not require belief in any divine being or beings, let alone any set of intrusive moral strictures. After all, do not we all just naturally “know” that it is wrong to kill, steal, or do any number of other bad things? And, if some people don’t know these things, cannot we simply teach them “self-esteem” and the advantages of playing by the rules?
From this perspective, the only real problem remaining is fending off attacks on the secular public square by all those religious types. So, for the moment, let us ignore all the evidence that the secular version of morality produces atomism, a general breakdown of social mores, and an exponentially increased dependence on organs of the state to maintain peace and even functioning markets (lawsuits, anyone?). Instead, let us ask why it is that “those religious types” keep causing problems and whether those problems can be stopped without tyranny and bloodshed.