I now think I inadvertently conceded a little too much in that last post. Through not paying quite enough attention to the first part of Chris’ comment – the ‘at its best, religion succeeds in a symbolic articulation of universal moral concern’ part. My attention was grabbed by the parenthesis, by ‘motivation,’ because motivation is exactly what I had it in mind to talk about. I do think religion can be a powerful motivator, for both good and ill. But that symbolic articulation I take to be a separate question, and that one I’m much more doubtful about. I for one simply don’t find its articulations all that impressive, or at least no more so (at best) than secular articulations. There’s a bit of Isaiah I love with a passion – the one about the lion and the kid lying down together – but it expresses a thought that a secularist could (and does) easily have just as well. It’s probably a thought that humans have had as long as they’ve been human.
To put it another way – I’m not sure it really is the ‘symbolic articulation’ that does the motivating. That’s why I take the two to be separate. I think the motivation actually comes from somewhere else. From the tangle of idealization, fantasy, imagination and so on that makes up the deity. That’s pretty much the point of a deity, after all. To provide a focus for all those longings and imaginings, to make up for all the terrible lacks of human beings, to be anything and everything we want, desire, need, long for. We need it and miss it and want it; we imagine and conjure it up; we love it. Of course we love it – what’s not to love? What are we going to imagine, a crappy tiresome inadequate deity that’s just as imperfect and frustrating as real people are? As boring, or bad-tempered, or lazy, or more interested in self than in us, as real people are? What would we do that for? What would be the point of that? No, our deity is like all the nicest things in the people we like and entirely without all the nasty bits. That’s the motivator, surely. (That doesn’t describe the all-too-human Greek deities, or the god of wrath, to be sure, but the effect is the same. Either extreme love or extreme fear: both gut-level motivators.)
Religious morality is not particularly original, and a lot of it is disgusting. Even Jesus, that we’re encouraged to think is all about love thine enemy and turn the other cheek and little else, is made to say some appalling things by the writers of the gospels, especially John. It always horrifies me to read of, say, Muslim feminists explaining that the Koran does not in fact require female genital mutilation or the hijab or whatever other piece of female subordination is being discussed. Good, glad to hear it, but what if it did? Would you then bow your head and submit? Or would you find a better way to decide your morality.
Either the morality is good, in which case the deity is surplus to requirements, or it isn’t, in which case the deity is one we should reject. But…the point about thin gruel remains. It’s hard to think of a substitute for religion as a motivator. Literature, as with Arnold and Leavis? Rock concerts? Football? Sometimes political movements can do it. The Civil Rights movement in the US was like that, and the struggle against apartheid. Which prompts baffled thoughts about the fact that we get inspired to be our best, dedicated, self-sacrificing selves when there is a glaring injustice to be corrected…So does that mean it’s good that there should be glaring injustices? Hardly. And yet the inspiration is precisely bound up with the injustice. This is a familiar thought, but one that doesn’t get discussed much. But it’s well-known that veterans of the Civil Rights movement, like veterans of the Spanish Civil War, are nostalgic for the Cause and the ‘beloved community.’ We’re all like Don Quixote, wishing we had something noble to work for. Making a little more money isn’t quite it.
Norm Geras has a very interesting post that’s also on this overall subject. And I have a good deal to add. It’s like a hydra, all this. Every N&C suggests three or four more. Get comfortable; we may be here for awhile.