Everything is a Religion
My mind has been returning again and again to religion as a concept these last few weeks, and an idea I’ve held for some time keeps coming to the fore. Namely, that “religion” is a far wider concept than most hold it to be, and influences political and social life more deeply than most would care to admit.
Functional Religion Vs. Theological Religion
First, we should distinguish between two conceptions of religion: Functional, and Theological. Theological Religion is what comes to mind for most people when they think of the world’s great religions- Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and all their infinite permutations, along with more traditional animisms and paganisms from pre-modern times which, occasionally, still survive to this day. Theological Religion deals explicitly with the metaphysical- who or what is God or Gods? What do they want us to do? What is their nature? Are they even there? Atheism, as we moderns know it, typically positions itself as a rational refutation of all forms of Theological Religion.
But some would note that “atheists” and “secularists” since the dawn of the modern era have oftentimes acted “religiously” in ways that even true believers in the Theological Religions would find pious- fighting and dying for nations and ideologies, supporting panhuman causes of universal human dignity, embarking on great quests of social reform, and more. It would almost seem that religious behavior, if not religion itself, is integral to human social nature.
There’s an easy explanation for this, I think. Since secularism and the refutation of Theological Religion as an organizing principle of public life has grown in the West since the Enlightenment, there has been a concomitant rise in another phenomenon, which I will call here Functional Religion.
Functional Religion, by my definition, is basically any widely-held set of social-moral beliefs that meets three criteria:
- It deals with absolute right and wrong.
- It deals with questions of individual and social human nature.
- It has implications and recommendations beyond the believing individual, reaching out to society as a whole.
This is to say, Functional Religions- like, say, Liberal Modernity, Communism, Nationalism, Environmentalism, and any other of the vast number of social belief systems that meet these three criteria- operate functionally more or less like Islam did for the Arab societies of the 7th Century, like Confucianism did for China for so many centuries, like Protestant Christianity did for many of the post-Reformation European states. They provide individuals and societies with a sense of moral purpose around which to order themselves and behave, and an analytic lens by which to examine and approach timeless questions and timely debates. Marx and Rousseau, in this regard, are prophets to the same degree that Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha were.
The Epistemology of Functional Religion
This view of Functional Religion as a natural human social phenomenon, of course, rests on a couple of assumptions. The most important of these are:
- Human beings are partly rational and partly spiritual beings.
- There is some form of ultimate reality, but human consciousness can only sense and interpret it- never understand or create it.
- All human interpretations of this ultimate reality are therefore social constructions, necessarily contingent on social and intellectual conditions around the time of their practice and creation.
- All Functional Religions, therefore, are complex amalgamations of universal truth and social construction, and all have some claim on truth while none have a full claim on truth. Any attempts to lay full claim on truth seem to have social consequences resulting mostly in tyranny or persecution, such as the Inquisition, the Reign of Terror, and the purges of the Fascists and Communists in the 20th
I come at this question from a philosophically Skeptical point of view, yet a Universalist conception of moral and spiritual reality- an odd mix of David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and C.S. Lewis’s universalist pretensions in the Appendix of The Abolition of Man. Hume teaches that human understanding is always limited and incapable of reaching universal truth; Lewis teaches that there are basic universal moral instincts sewn and sown into the human breast, which inform all moral thought.
Marry these two conceptions together, and you get a rejection of Jacobin-style moral universalism on the one hand, and a rejection of postmodern relativism on the other. There is universal truth and order in the chaos, somewhere out there, and we can know it’s there; we can’t, however, know exactly what it is or how to live it. Every human attempt at understanding it- which will always happen, because societies will always strive to justify and know themselves- will always be necessarily limited, but fruitful. We will never know truth, but we will always approach it.
This approaches something like the understanding the philosopher Isaiah Berlin attempted to convey in his essay, “A Message to the 21st Century-“ that there is a truth out there, but that there will always be different interpretations of it simply due to human social nature, and that we must never delve into universalistic hubris and must always tolerate the dissent of heretics. It’s not pure rationalism; but neither is it pure relativism. It’s hard to pin down, which, perhaps, may be why it’s hard to turn into a political program.
Examples of Functional Religion in Modern History
I won’t pretend to be able to list and categorize every single brand of functional religion out there across modern history, any more than any scholar of theological religion would attempt to list and categorize every theological religion out there. There are a couple of examples, however, which stick out, and are worth examining and illustrating conceptually at some length here. Like the Theological Religions, they each have their holy texts, their quasi-theological disagreements, their high priests and laymen, their excommunications and heresies, and the like. Unlike the Theological Religions, they do not view themselves as explicitly religious- but, in my view, are so nonetheless.
Though something like Nationhood or Nationalism has probably existed from time immemorial, with pan-tribal identities being churned into states, Nationalism as we moderns know it really is a product of the Enlightenment and therefore a child of Modernity (which is a religion in itself.) Its basic tenets are simple- that small-to-midsized groups of people share enough in common that they are uniquely one, that they are bound together by shared heritage and experience, usually sacrifice, that their symbols define that heritage and experience and are therefore sacred, and that there are distinct boundaries between a nation’s kinsfolk and foreign “others.”
Not every nation has nationalism, but those that do feel it strongly. The heads of state of these countries normally are in some ways religious leaders or figureheads, too- witness the semi-spiritual symbolism of the President of the United States or the Queen of England. More importantly, the citizens of these countries will oftentimes fight and die for the nation and its ideals- something that, a millennium ago, was reserved almost exclusively for communities defined by faith, as kingdoms normally had their own religious practices.
The elevation of nationhood to sacred status is one of the most interesting things about modernity, and it is best illustrated by the revered nature of heads of state and the sacrificial nature of patriotism. Unlike many faiths, though, nationalism is by its own nature parochial, not universal. It would be helpful to analyze some universalist Functional Religions, too.
One such universalist Functional Religion is Communism, Communism being that school of social thought and body of historical practice defined by the works of the prophets Marx and Engels, among others, and the life-works of various warrior-prophets like Lenin and Mao.
Communism has (or had, as its star has mostly faded now) a philosophy of history unique to itself- a complex theory of economic revolutions precipitating social revolutions with political consequences, inexorably marching forward towards a grand new utopian future. True Communists believed that this process was happening naturally and that the purpose of true believers was to help bring it about as vanguards in the various regions of the world afflicted by late-stage Capitalism, where the revolutions would most likely soon occur.
Like Nationalism, many true believers fought and died for Communism, and its high priests led its march across Eurasia with a crusading religious fervor. They believed in the universal application of Communist ideas, given that it was a natural historical process rather than an “ideology,” in their view. This combination of factors- a unique epistemology of historical progress and right and wrong, a devoutly personal attachment to the broader social cause, and a complex social organization of Communist institutions resembling the Church bureaucracies of old- puts Communism squarely in the tradition of functional religions, and probably the second most influential of all those of the modern period.
The most influential functional religion of the modern period, though, is the one that informs most of us (and certainly animates our political and social elites) nowadays in the 21st Century. That functional religion might be called “Liberal Modernity-“ it is an amalgamation of ideas about human equality, social progress, and international integration that expresses itself in the progressivism of most social discourse nowadays. It generally accepts internationalism and the neoliberal conceptions of free markets coupled with public social safety nets, and has a decidedly feminist and multicultural bent on social issues.
Liberal Modernity has its high priests- the purveyors of culture in media and the academy- as well as its rituals and holy texts. Most would not even consider it to be a functional religion, thinking of it instead as simply the natural way things are supposed to be- which further underscores its religious nature, given that it deals with a society’s basic conceptions of right and wrong and has serious implications for social structure and policy.
There are many schools of Liberal Modernity- for example, the Liberal Modernity of neoconservative foreign policy elites differs from that of Silicon Valley tech oligarchs- but generally these are mere doctrinal differences. The belief in human progress, human equality, and cultural cosmopolitanism informs educated elites and publics across the West, and Western-educated elites in most parts of the developing world. Liberal Modernity is, in this sense, a truly global religion, and as such it is the basic creed of one of the world’s global institutions of governance- the United Nations.
The United Nations vs. the Nations, the Papacy vs. the Kingships
Liberal Modernity very much informs the educated elites who staff and fund the United Nations and the ecosystem of social-progress and internationalism-oriented NGO’s and foundations across the world. The UN’s founding documents, in fact, even testify to the human-universalist nature of the UN’s world mission.
As such, the UN is often the butt of criticism from more Nationhood-minded elites and publics across the world, especially in the developing world but increasingly within the West, too. While some would call this a quintessentially modern phenomenon, it seems to me that there is a direct historical parallel to the UN’s universalism versus the nations’ parochialism- the history of the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and its client kingdoms, particularly from the late Middle Ages through the beginnings of the Renaissance.
In essence, the Roman Catholic Church was a Christendom-spanning political institution premised on regulating relationships between Christian states and encouraging their progress towards Catholic social teaching. It often took on political initiatives and military campaigns on its own regard, ostensibly for the good of Christendom as a whole, sometimes with its own initiatives in mind. Its legitimacy was founded upon the Papacy- the Church’s connection as a whole to the life of Jesus Christ through Peter, the first Pope. In Medieval Europe, a largely Catholic society, the Church’s authority was very real, and oftentimes conflicted with the constituent kingdoms despite the doctrine of “Render unto Caesar” that otherwise made clear the distinction between religious obligation and political obligation. These dividing lines were not really cleared until after the Reformation and the Hundred Year’s War, with the strict enforcement of local religious choice made in the Peace of Westphalia.
Fast-forward a couple of centuries, and you have the United Nations- a Liberal Modernity-spanning political institution premised on regulating relationships between modern liberal states and encouraging their progress towards Liberal Modern norms. It takes on political initiatives and military campaigns on its own regard, ostensibly for the good of humanity as a whole, sometimes with its own initiatives in mind. Its legitimacy was founded upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights- the UN’s quasi-spiritual statement of the most important truths of political reality. In the modern world, the UN’s authority is very real, sometimes conflicting with the imperatives of its member states. The dividing lines of sovereignty are often muddy, and never quite clear.
Though the United Nations and the Roman Catholic Church both are and were political institutions, they were animated and justified by a primarily religious sensibility that is, in many respects, quite similar in both situations. Moreover, the religious sensibility animating the Church and the UN is in most ways equally legitimate to the nationhood and kingship that informed and informs the teachings of both institutions’ respective client states. As such, the contest between international authority and national sovereignty is not solely a question of institutional turf-fighting- it is in many ways a religious conflict, based on conflicting loyalties to universalist religion and parochial religion. We should expect that some similar form of tension will exist so long as the Western international system is around.
The Root of History
Some would say geopolitics or some other material factor is the most important source of historical direction, or that money is the greatest imperative for human action. I would disagree- to me, it seems clear that religion– not merely Theological Religion, but Functional Religion as well- is the primary determinant, given that it informs individuals’ and societies’ beliefs about who they are and what they are supposed to do. Geopolitical and economic calculations set the boundaries of what can do, but functional religions set our sights on what we hope to do, which is the driving cause of action among societies and individuals alike.
Therefore, to understand why human societies behave as they do, it is not sufficient merely to understand their environments and physical histories, though this is important too. Far more important is understanding their cultures, their social structures, their myths and legends and the stories they tell themselves, and the goals towards which they are oriented. This knowledge of social soul will speak much about the in-the-moment decisions cultures make, alongside their long-term motivations and goals. Material concerns might shape these, but not drive them. Both are important to understand; but if it came down to a choice, understand the minds and cultures first, every time. Getting the religion, particularly the Functional Religion, correct, is the first step to understanding why peoples do what they do.