This is Part 6 of the Conservative Standpoint a serial post by Cole D.
Conservatism has always had a tenuous bond with religion. Not because of religious ill's, but rather because of the associated fanaticism and dogmatism that may associate itself with religious fervor. Likewise, the conservatives often find themselves hindered by the anti-intellectualism that is so often the antecedent of religious belief. That is not a declaration of religious stupidity: instead, it is recognition that the individual of faith must go out of their way to ensure self-awareness and intellectual rigour. It is far too easy to lapse into religious platitudes during an argument and the appeal to scripture and holy letters always remains tempting to the religious, and this is part of the confusion that envelopes the conservative thinker.
First to establish clarity on the purposes and scope of this essay as well as the limitations of the author, who addressing a touchy subject must profess modesty, is to state that I first am an atheist—an atheist who—is certain belief has value. Corollary to my profession is that I will not address two contentious aspects of the current religious dialogue: Intelligent design theory, which in my mind has been comfortably, refuted by Darwinian science, which in and of itself does not seem to be the antithesis to theological belief that some make it out to be, and the multitude of faiths. For the purposes of this piece, I speak essentially of the Abrahamic religions in their entirety.
This leads us to the objective of this essay. Why does the conservative care about religion, and why should one care beyond the scope of individual belief? Why should the conservative have a vested interest in the faith of the nation? The assertion to be made is that the conservative perspective on faith is precisely the opposite of the liberal position: conservative society can exist without an explicit metaphysical foundation, but it is bolstered when there is one. Coupled to this is the assertion that to the conservative it matters not whether the individual believes, but rather the conservative is concerned with the spiritual well being of the society as a whole, conservatives must see themselves as the guardians of a faithful society and it is imperative to the conservative to concern themselves with societies religiosity. For the conservative religion is not a private affair, but a public one, a social concern, not a household triviality.
First we must make the assertion that religion is a natural occurrence in all societies and the belief in the supernatural is something innate, and positive because such induction leads naturally to the admission that religion serves as a social utility with reasons for its persistence. Larry Arnhart in his book Darwinian Conservatism asserts that there is no society in human history without some form of spiritual belief, and with such an observation, Arnhart determines that religion or religious understanding is one of his twenty natural desires. Desires that provided benefits to all human beings and furthered our species. Arnhart asserts that religious understanding may have provided benefits in times of hardship and scarcity when it was necessary to provide reasoning for the suffering of the human species.
We find evidence for this innate belief when we observe the declining religious observance in the United States. In the United States of America, Pew has done a number of polls on religious observance and affiliation in the United States. In these polls Pew found that despite the decline in church attendance the number of people who remain spiritual, but not religious is high; as is, the number of people who profess belief in a supernatural deity, or remain religious without observance. Numbers of spiritual, but not religious and those who are religious, despite non-observance is 55%. If we accept belief in the supernatural is consistent with the innate predispositions of humanity we are not surprised to learn that Pew found,” nine-in-ten of the spiritual but not religious say they believe in God (92%).” This finding seems to suggest that belief is both natural, and inevitable, and only a minority will find themselves completely alienated from a transcendent being and order.
Some suggest religion served as a means by which human communities could achieve harmony beyond their own territoriality. If a faith is shared between communities, such as medieval Christendom, or the Muslim Umma, we often see a reduction in the direct conflicts and a sense of continuity and unity among those of a united faith. Robert Buckman states in Can We Be Good Without God? “A few non-theist organizations do offer congregational activities that give a true sense of community, and it is extremely valuable however, most individual non-theists do not have that sense of belonging to a community. Many of them speak of a genuine sense of isolation.” In this way, faith can be considered social glue that extends the reach or our mammalian social structure and facilitates harmonious relations. This does not mean I fail to recognize catastrophes such as the Sunni, Shia split, or the Thirty Years War, never mind other miscellaneous heresies such as the Monophysites, it simply means that on a macro scale it can be argued that religion promotes solidity amongst in-groups.
Even famed atheist Richard Dawkins concedes that religion has to have had some evolutionary utility, or at least it is possibility of being helpful to the species. He writes in the God Delusion, community health would likely be enhanced by the emotional well being provided by religion and that it is not beyond the scope of possibility that religious belief may exercise some form of placebo effect on those who believe helping to rid the body of ailments. Still neither Dawkins nor others in his field are convinced that this theory on its own is responsible for the evolution and persistence of religious beliefs. For this ultimate theory or explanation, the best we have is Group Selection theory: a hypothesis stating that the group evolves as much as its singular organism and in-groups favour and foster positive traits to perpetuate the group despite, the concession that some of these very traits may reduce the gene pool or cause harm to individual organisms. Dawkins goes further in suggesting it is not Group Selection that drives religion, but rather the misapplication of evolved impulses. Whatever the case, the answer is illusive, I believe it originates in Group Selection, but that is work for biologists, it can rightly be assumed that the propensity toward religion is both natural and persistent, and will not go anywhere soon.
From the Darwinian position on faith we can deduce that there is strength in the social theory of religion. Edmund Burke recognized this utility, as did Russell Kirk: Kirk stating in his Ten Conservative Principles, That the conservative believes their is permanent and an enduring moral order; Burke recognized that the religious void had to be filled and atheist solutions would not work:
We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long. But if, in the moment of riot, and in a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness, by throwing off that Christian religion which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization amongst us, and amongst many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it.
Further, in Reflections Burke gives reference to both Cicero and Plato. His endorsement of the polytheism of Greek and Roman philosophers lends credence to the view that religion served as social utility to Burke and though his own perspective was unorthodox, Burke certainly saw the necessity of faith to civil society. But what is this social benefit implicit in religion that both Kirk and Burke referenced? There are a number of propositions that assert the benefits of religion to civil society; first among these moral reinforcement and the prevention of moral relativism; second the facilitation of altruism; third, and finally the reinforcement of non-contractual social bonds and inter-generational bonds.
Peter Hitchens, in his book The Rage Against God acutely recognized the human tendency toward rationalization: he saw it first hand in the crimes of the Soviet Union as a correspondent in Moscow, and he likewise experienced it in his own unruly undergraduate years, where he embraced atheism with great enthusiasm. Hitchens realized that without a permanent moral order, every part of our ethical and moral foundations could be eroded through the human capability to rationalize.” Left to themselves, human beings can in the matter of minutes justify the incineration of populated cities, the mass deportation— accompanied by slaughter, disease, and starvation— of inconvenient people, and the mass murder of the unborn.” Certainly, there were many individuals who could temper themselves against the temptations of faithlessness, but the majority were fallible and like all humans subject to moral failure despite their own wishes to do better. God, Hitchens recognized, served as a form of invisible guardian and positive reinforcement when no other support was available. Hitchens believed that without strict sanction from a deity the only thing left for man to defer to is his own reason, which will lead him inevitably to the easy path. Finally he recognized that in the absence of a divine moral order the good man is free, but in the absence of a divine moral order the evil man is also free, and able, to justify any cause he deems fit.
Buttressing this thesis is the idea that even Charles Darwin believed religion reinforced positive morals, and Friedrich Hayek in his final book, The Fatal Conceit wrote that religion facilitated the social evolution of positive morals, with those that proved harmful to the society dying off, and those that were beneficial maintaining a reserve and sanctuary within religious institutions. Therefore, the conservative, believes that deferring to the metaphysical origin of morals proves the best course to maintain both social stability and principled and just behavior, but this is meaningless if morals are relative, and ultimately in the deterrence of moral relativism religion shows its worth.
Extending from the conclusion that religion enforces positive morals and limits relativism, is the premise that a religious nature serves as a catalyst for altruism, where it would otherwise be minimal. Arnhart recognized that religious belief might be especially useful in solving prisoner's dilemma situations where selfishness seems to be the only recourse, however with altruism inculcated in the religious and faith in fellow man, the believers may actually be able to resolve such conflicts for the mutual benefit. Hitchens suggests that religious nature, as much as love, can reinforce relationships between spouses after the romantic nature of the relationship is dead, or after one spouse has suffered injury or a severe handicap. It is the temperance against our impulsive nature and the buttressing of both forgiveness and charity that maintain these relationships, when, it would make no evolutionary or logical sense to maintain them.
Much is made of the religious superstructure that acts as the foundation for much of the world's charity. Both charity organizations and individual largesse are stronger amongst the religiously affiliated. Findings suggest that the religious give at up to 20% higher rates than the non-religious do. If we take charity a step further, and extend its benefits to the rest of the individual's life, it is highly likely that these individuals display significantly higher levels of generosity in total. Some like David E. Campbell author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, disputes whether belief in a deity actually drives the religious to be charitable. Campbell found religious individuals show similar rates of giving across faiths, and across denominations, however the positive effects remain; why should one be concerned about whether or not community drives altruism or belief in the supernatural, both provided identical benefits.
However, there is a singular benefit that religious giving provides, and it is couched in the greater social well being. Religious charities and philanthropic organizations are more likely to facilitate the inculcation of virtue in a derelict population; they are more likely to inoculate those who are worst off against vice. Religious organizations may do this by being independent of state actors and able to establish their own criteria for largesse. Religious philanthropy is especially active in fighting the root causes of both poverty and suffering by facilitating the correction of individual behavior.
With the recognition that religion positively affects altruism, we now turn to the most critical of the religious functions: the fact that religious belief facilitates the non-contractual, transcendent, and inter-generational bonds of a society. Again, Burke recognized that religious institutions in their persistence gave spirit to a community, and likewise, as mentioned by Roger Scruton in The Meaning of Conservatism, aids in fostering continuity in the Burkean social contract. This is because the Burkean believes that life is a compact between, “the living, the dead, and the unborn,” and religion with its belief in reunification in the afterlife is well positioned to magnify this statement. If there is an afterlife, it must be stated that we are beholden to the strictures and the pre-existing structure of our ancestors, and likewise our children shall be beholden to us, after they enter paradise.
Nevertheless, it is not just the past in which those alive today are made aware through religious observance; religion also serves as means to reinforce humanity's acceptance of the state. In our increasingly atheistic world, is it any surprise that the freeman on the land movement has gained some traction in the underbody of the world? If we believe that we are beholden to powers that will never be directly reciprocal, or we believe we are accountable to a bond, in which we may barely articulate, and never choose, well is this not analogous to our initial relationship to the state? Before anyone can benefit from the state, people are first subject to duties, and are encompassed by state structure immediately after leaving the womb. Only upon the trust of the benefits provided, although these may be quantified, do we accept the state's authority over us. This is what Roger Scruton recognized as the single core benefit if religion to the conservative. . . .
This leads us back to the initial premises of the argument: religion is of social concern to the conservative. It is imperative as a conservative that we believe that a religious society is both moral, and good, because the religious society enforces a moral order. A moral order, which is consistent and builds social utility over time; we accept that religion enhances altruism in man, by either establishing communal sentiment or by encouraging largesse through supernatural sanction; finally, we see that religion benefits us socially because it reinforces the loose bonds between people and communities, both past and present, by enforcing continuity in its structures. Religion with its eternal nature enforces strict respect for the established order, something, which is of immediate concern to the conservative, who by nature seeks to conserve. Although a conservative may recognize that religion is unsuitable, and uncomfortable to the individual. We each as individuals acknowledge it is impossible to live up to the prophetic legacy because of this recognition conservatives still recognize that there is benefit in trying; we are destined to fail at our religious observances, but this is why god forgives: because we are better for trying to live up to the legacy of our scriptural forbearers. The people who truly find observance too frustrating, too difficult, too immoral, let them languish, or bring them into the fold when they are so willing, but to the conservative it matters not, as long as the universal picture remains complete.
The conservative then must facilitate the establishment of both religious institutions and religious people within the society, the question becomes, how do we do this? For an answer to this question I turn to William F Buckley Jr’s 1951 opus God and Man at Yale for the central thesis and this is essentially that our Alma Mater: the public school systems in general, has failed in its mission to embed religion in our society. We have one means of mass assimilation in our society and that is the public school system. The ideal tool, that is not to dismiss scientific teachings, or to fail in presenting a well-rounded education. It is simply an admission that we must bring religion back into our education across the western world, a theological understanding as well as ritual and prayer, which serve as an affirmation of the religious beliefs of a society. Additional to this, the conservative should wish to affirm the religious beliefs native to their culture and history, in Canada this would lead to the government providing funding and support, as well as curricular devotion to both the Anglican and Catholic Churches which made up such deep part of both or English and French National Characters. The conservative understands faith is important to society and education as a whole serves as both the most efficient and natural means by, which to improve religious understanding and instill and institutionalize religious order. We have seen that the majority in most societies remain religious even if outside the orthodoxy of established institutions. It is contingent on the state to re-establish the sanctity, authority, and popularity of such institutions by the most efficient means, before nihilism becomes endemic.