We are entering an age in which those who maintain allegiance to the atheist or humanist creed are gaining much more esteem and cultural significance than at any time before. It is an age in which, sadly, those who profess religious belief are on the verge of oppression and persecution by the former group.
Almost a sixth of the world (myself included) is heading toward the middle of Lenten observance – where the emphasis is on contrition for sin, charity, and fasting in an attempt to be grounded, humble and basically a more beautiful person. Because of Lent, I thought now is the appropriate time to pose the thesis that democratic republics, especially the United States, need religion.
This is not a new argument. Political philosophers since the pre-Socratics, to Plato himself; continuing to medieval typologies including the great Jewish thinker Maimonides; and the great writers of Islamic political thought, including al-Farabi and Averroës; not to mention the Catholic fathers including Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas; have all posed the argument that society, to be well-maintained, needs religion – especially if that society is based in majoritarian principles.
This is perhaps a much more controversial thesis to make today than at any time in history. But give me the chance to make a case. After all, it is certainly the case that many of the Founding Fathers made, and one that Alexis de Tocqueville pounded into the pavement because of the danger he foresaw if religion’s influence deteriorated in America. This argument will be released over the next several weeks.
WHAT GOOD IS religion? Many of my atheist friends and family argue that religion is no good; that it causes evil in society; and has blanketed the world with wars and crimes against humanity. Many, for instance, evince the current dilemma with ISIS, whose extremist take on Islamic puritanical theology is responsible for some of the most brutal violence the new century has witnessed.
Others, such as President Obama, invoke images of the Cru-sades and Catholic transgressions against the innocent during those terrible campaigns. Others lunge straight for the jugular, and use the examples of corrupt popes and other church officials, including the inexcusable atrocity that has been the priest sex abuse scandal.
These are all clear demonstrations of the evil that is capable from human hands. I indeed used many of these examples, and others like them, to keep me away from any faith through graduate school, until I was persuaded through systematic Catholic theology that I was living a sin-filled life, and made the faith-based decision to will myself closer to God through the Catholic Church.
Although these arguments are valid and show great evil, they are not the entire story, and they evade the good that religion does for society and, more importantly, for the sincere believer, seeking to become a better person. Why, if it can help a person become a better person, is there such a war against religion in the public sphere – which is slowly taking on a war against religion even in the private realm?
RELIGION HAS GIVEN the world so many good things. For instance, many scientific advances have been made by early Islamic thinkers – perhaps something unknown to many in the United States – and of course most understand the contributions to knowledge from Christianity. Catholicism, for its part, can claim at least partial credit for establishing the modern university, the modern hospital and, arguably, the modern idea of charity in general. For all the evils people blame on religion – which isn’t religions’ fault and certainly not God’s, but more deviant individuals who use religion improperly for their own benefit – there are many reasons to be glad of religions place in society.
People have used religion for evil, but it has produced good souls as well – for instance, Mother Teresa, who no one can argue did not perform wondrous deeds. When we debate religion, we must be honest about its negative and positive contributions. Without religion, for instance, we may not have the Special Olympics.
The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic lay fraternity (of which I am a member) contributed more than $170 million to charity in 2013, and more than 70 million hours in works of charity. That includes $400 million over the past 30 years to those with physical, emotional and intellectual disabilities.
Surely, this is a good that can’t be overlooked.
This argument will continue next week. For now, I await your criticism.
(The writer is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Regents University.)