The World Remains a “Land of Dreams”

Posted on Categories Religion & Law

This Friday, in my seminar on Law & Theology, we turn to a topic that is near and dear to my heart – the role of religion in public discourse. Although not all proponents of minimizing God talk in the public square seek to mold a secular society, some do. They argue that religion – particularly religion outside of the highly privatized and skeptically contingent world of liberal Protestantism – is irrational and, for that reason, potentially dangerous. Richard Rorty told conservative Christians that the goal of a liberal teacher is “to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable.” Children from such homes, he wrote, “are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft [domination] of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents . . . .”

Within the legal academy, Steven Gey argues that the public square should be a “religion free zone” and popular writers, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, write bestsellers calling for the end – or at least the marginalizing – of faith. In a forthcoming film, comedian (?) Bill Maher announces that “[t]he plain fact is religion must die for man to live.”

But is this assumption of a post-religious world governed by rationality consonant with reality?

G.K. Chesterton famously said that “[h]e who does not believe in God will believe in anything.” A recent survey by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, entitled “What Americans Really Believe,” suggest, as have other studies, that he is right. Mollie Ziegler Hemingway described the results in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal:

While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.

Even among Christians, there were disparities. While 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ, Sen. Barack Obama’s former denomination, expressed strong beliefs in the paranormal, only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God, Sarah Palin’s former denomination, did.

An ISR press release claims that “traditional Christian religion greatly decreases credulity, as measured by beliefs in such things as dreams, Bigfoot, UFOs, haunted houses, communicating with the dead and astrology.” (It appears, from this table, that theologically conservative folks are a bit more likely to say that they do not believe in these things, but that the theologically liberal are much more likely to say that they do believe in them.)

Assuming their validity, I’m not sure what to make of these findings. Are they a hangover from the pre-Enlightenment enchanted world? I’m more inclined to think that they are an inevitable human attempt to come to grips with what we cannot know but suspect, whether from wishful thinking or an innate sense, is there. To recall Matthew Arnold’s image of the retreat of the Sea of Faith with its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” it may be that the tide will always return.

10 thoughts on “The World Remains a “Land of Dreams””

  1. I’m more inclined to think that they are an inevitable human attempt to come to grips with what we cannot know but suspect, whether from wishful thinking or an innate sense, is there.

    Disclaimer: a thought experiment without extended reflection follows…

    Christians are told that their free will, bent by the Fall and prompted by temptation, is the cause of sin, and that they must improve in order to reflect the Glory of the Creator.

    Thought on Free Will is wrapped up intensely with Christian philosophy and theology. Therefore, attempting to dispose of one’s belief in God inevitably impacts one’s view on Free Will, so that one must become materialist / determinist to the extent that the way that one acts, thinks, etc., is determined by internal or external physical environment.

    With that said, and as you note, there are very few pure determinists. Even those that claim to be will be found speaking as though they were not a few minutes later. Therefore, they assemble a strange combination of beliefs in a vague attempt to reconcile feelings of nondeterminism with determinist outlook. Hence, the claim that something like alignment of the stars and visible constellations tends to induce certain behaviors without evidence of reinforcement by an external source (e.g., Pavlovian howling induced by imbibing alcohol at the advent of every full moon).

    (Hence also the problem underlying claims that if the poor weren’t poor, they wouldn’t commit crimes, but also refusing to take such determinism to its’ logical extent and eradicating criminal penalties for such individuals entirely.)

  2. Professor Esenberg,

    Good stuff!

    You may want to check out Jeffrey Stout’s 2007 Presidential Address published in the latest edition of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. He may help you sharpen your criticisms of Rorty. In particular, he writes of Rorty’s position:

    “If privatizing religion is essential to safeguarding democracy now, and eradicating belief in God is essential to achieving the utopian democracy of the future, then these goals will have to be accomplished somehow: if not by rational persuasion alone, then by some other means. If secularism confines itself to rational persuasion while granting that this means it is unlikely to succeed, the strategy boils down to a mere ought expressing the secular intellectual’s alienation from a disturbingly religious present. It thus implicitly concedes its futility as a politics, as a strategy for achieving some desirable public end.
    Rorty’s argument up to this point raises three questions: (1) If part of the long-term objective is the eradication of theism, how is this to be accomplished, assuming that most theists are not about to change their minds? (2) If the stop-gap measure is to keep theists from acting on the apparent political implications of their religious beliefs, how is that to be accomplished? (3) If the Jeffersonian compromise is to be enforced, what are the means of enforcement going to be and how are they supposed to be squared with such democratic ideals as freedom of religion and freedom of conscience?
    Rorty offered no answers to these questions, and seems to have been reluctant to advance his cause by using force. Democratic secularists need to do their best, he thought, to narrate the history of the Great Separation in a way that makes the benefits of privatizing religion both salient and attractive. They should project a secularist utopia in which all good citizens have overcome the desire for the consolations that theism provides. They should strengthen their hold on the institutions of higher learning and convert as many young people to democratic secularism as possible. But in the end they will have to admit that these discursive means of advancing the secularist cause are likely to fail.”

    Hmmmm. . .

    Check out Jeffrey Stout, “2007 Presidential Address: The Folly of Secularism,” in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion 76 (September 2008): 533-544. The whole article should be helpful for your research.

    Blessings,

    Joe Pagano

  3. Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Pagano who holds his Ph.D. from Marquette and helped me to develop the seminar.

    Thanks as well to Mr. Watson. I agree its tough to be a strident determinist. But, at least, each day, you’d surprise yourself.

  4. What I have a hard time believing is that this post is serious, but I’ll assume it is.

    It appears, from this table, that theologically conservative folks are a bit more likely to say that they do not believe in these things, but that the theologically liberal are much more likely to say that they do believe in them.

    All of whom are religious believers of some sort. So how exactly does this suggest that Chesterton the celebrated bargain basement aphorist was right?

    Another survey cited approvingly by your WSJ author says, “21% of self-proclaimed atheists believe in either a personal God or an impersonal force.”

    Setting aside the cavernous theological disparity between “personal God” and “impersonal force,” all that proves is that the respondents didn’t know what an atheist is (which is hardly an uncommon position), or else were messing with the pollster.

    I’d have engaged in the latter, no doubt about it.

    Good for Baylor’s marketing department, however, for demonstrating that “credulity” is measured by comparing one set of supernatural beliefs with another slightly less rigid set of supernatural beliefs.

  5. My goodness, Tom. The table I cite to is one of many. The study points out those who do not worship largely substitute a different set of beliefs than those who worship regularly. Of those who do worship, those who are more theologically liberal seem to be more prone to buy into less traditional supernatural beliefs.

    Of those who claim to be atheists (not those so characterized by the study), a number seem to be unable to hang on to it.

    Of course there are some people who manage to be consistent materialists. The point here is that this view seems to be difficult to maintain.

    Now, we could talk about whether there are materialist fantasies to which the rigorously atheistic are inclined, but that’s for another day.

  6. Dreams and inspirational visions, check. Bigfoot, check – well, giants, it doesn’t say they were hairy. UFOs, check, Ezekiel 1:4. Haunted houses, zombie saints coming out of their graves and reappearing to many, check. Communicating with the dead and non-corporeal, check. Angels, demons, small, large, human-like, intervening in human affairs, check. Astrology, check (a star to guide them, moons into blood, sun turned to darkness). Magical powers of various saints, check. Innumerable other characters with magical powers, check.

  7. Here is the actual survey if anyone would like to study its questions and tone.

    The raw data and cooked data (“The final data are weighted to be more representative of national characteristics”) are online as well. The return rate (contacted vs. returned) was 46.5%.

    The Baylor press release concludes “that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases credulity”. I think we need to tell them about correlation and causality.

    The ISR web page seems a bit tilted, too – would objective researchers pre-declare certain beliefs and practices to be “non-standard”?

  8. “Richard Rorty told conservative Christians that the goal of a liberal teacher is ‘to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable.'”

    Did he? My copy has him discussing “bigots” in the first instance, including “racists” and “fundamentalists” — in particular, it seems clear, such fundamentalists as are led to bigotry of one sort or another.

    The term “fundamentalist” could certainly use some refinement, but no substitution of the phrase “conservative Christians” could plausibly represent intellectual good faith here. I invite readers to search Google Books for _Rorty and his Critics_, p.21 ff., and judge for themselves. By my reading it’s utterly unwarranted to pretend that Rorty would have said the same things about Christians whose “conservativism” was defined to exclude racism, hatred of homosexuals, misogyny, and the like.

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