The role of emotion in maintaining religion: a follow up


There were some very interesting comments to the original post on this topic that I would urge people to read. There was one point raised that I realized required a much more extended response. In that comment Corbin questioned some of my conclusions and asked “Is there really evidence to support Marx’s claim that religious persons and societies are more docile and more likely to simply endure social injustice?”

He went on to say:

I can think of several counter-examples, ranging from the religious roots of the racial justice movement of the 60’s in the US to the role of liberation theology in the Polish Solidarity movement. And although I am not a historian, I think that one can find many examples in history of individuals who played major leadership roles in social justice movements feeling motivated, supported, and/or enabled to action in large part due to their faith experience and perspective.

For example as an (highly unscientific) experiment, I found a list of about 25 names of persons famous for leadership in social justice on a web site http://collegeten.ucsc.edu/activists.shtml. I see a lot of names of people who are not only religious but for whom their faith played an central role in their actions.

I cannot disagree with any of these statements. Corbin is absolutely correct that there are many, many examples of religious people being at the forefront of major social change movements. One can immediately think of Martin Luther King Jr., Bishop Oscar Romero, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and others like them for whom religion was the driving factor in their social justice philosophy.

But I don’t think that the percentages of high profile atheists and religious people is a good measure. One needs data on the attitudes of regular people. While I agree that the question of whether religious people are more likely to be docile in the face of injustice is an empirical one, obtaining actual data is going to be tough, given that people’s religious beliefs are hard to pin down, and that atheism is seen as so reprehensible.

Even within Judaism and Christianity, the Bible, by itself, is varied enough that people can draw inspiration for all kinds of attitudes. For example, the book of the prophet Amos contains some of the most scorching condemnations of social injustice that one can find anywhere, excoriating those who exploit the poor and promising severe retribution on them. The gospels recording Jesus’ life are also full of passages that serve as inspiring calls to action in the service of social justice.

In fact, my own religious beliefs were strongly influenced by religious people (both clergy and lay), who were themselves inspired by liberation theology and other similar strains, and who felt that the gospels called on them to act for justice. They saw the afterlife as real but also focused on the importance of this life and the obligation of Christians to work for the betterment of everyone. I do not think that I would ever have been attracted to Christianity by a purely “heaven in the sky when you die” message, and these people provided me with a meaningful religious alternative. I was inspired by them and still recall their influence fondly. I look on the religious guidance and values they provided as providing a kind of scaffolding for building my own views. I have since discarded that scaffolding since my beliefs and values can stand independently of them.

But even then I knew that these were not the messages that are dominant in religion. Such people have always formed a distinct minority within the Christian church. The predominant message is one that calls upon people to bear their suffering with dignity, to see their reward in heaven, and not to rise up against their oppression and their oppressors.

In the absence of actual data correlating religious beliefs towards attitudes of social justice, one has to resort (as I did) to more indirect inferences. For example, religious missionaries were in the forefront of colonial penetration by European powers in Africa and Asia and South America, arriving almost concurrently with the invading armies, and given wide latitude to spread their religious message. While these missionaries may have been motivated by purely religious inclinations to “save” the “savages’ souls”, the colonial powers undoubtedly also saw them as serving an important auxiliary function by keeping the colonies quiet by diverting energies away from the injustices perpetrated on them. As the famous quote by a colonized person goes “When the colonialists arrived, they had the Bible and we had the land. Now we have the Bible and they have the land.” It is hard to imagine that preaching for freedom and social justice and self-determination would have been tolerated by colonial administrators.

Or take the bitter experience of slavery. There is no question that religious beliefs sustained the black community during a time of incredible cruelty and hardship, enabling them to endure by hoping for a relief and reunion in heaven. The words of the spirituals are a testimony to that forbearance and that religious tradition remains strong within the black community to this day. But one wonders what might have been the result if they had not had heaven to look forward to. Would there have been more agitation and unrest among the slaves? Would more people have joined in the occasional slave revolts? We are speculating here about an alternative history and we cannot definitively know the answer. But it is hard to get away from the idea that religion does provide a sedative that the powerful can use to make those they control more docile. In fact, as has been discussed by others, promotion of religion is a conscious policy of social control.

The idea that god has a plan for us and that our suffering is part of that plan, while comforting in some way, cannot help but be a bar to taking action to change those conditions. Marx, living in the heyday of colonial expansion and seeing these things in real time, would undoubtedly have taken note of this role of religion in arriving at his metaphor of opium for religion.

If one also looks at religious music (hymns and spirituals) one rarely finds stirring songs that call upon people to unite and fight for justice. Most of them are other worldly, saying that this world is not important, that what really counts is the care of one’s soul, extolling patience and forbearance, and promising in return the reward one gets in heaven. When I was a lay preacher conducting services, I found it almost impossible to find hymns that were not of this kind.

Does this prove my point that religious people are more likely to be docile about their fate? Not really. It is still a circumstantial case that is being made. But in the absence of actual surveys and data, this is the best I can do.

Of course, the fact that one is not religious does not automatically imply that one is less likely to tolerate social injustice. One has to want things to be better. The point I was driving at is that if one does not believe in god or cosmic justice or rewards in an afterlife, then the fact this life is all that we have cannot help but be an incentive to action.

POST SCRIPT: Media masochism

Some of you may have been following the venomous attacks on the media following the revelations of administration snooping, such as NSA wiretapping and bank transfer records. It is quite amazing that major newspapers are being accused, of all things, of treason, and calls are being made for reporters to be jailed. These commentators seem to have lost all sense of proportion. It looks like they want to intimidate the media even more so that they will not make even the most timid criticisms of Bush policies. (See Glenn Greenwald who has been tirelessly reporting on these tactics of media intimidation.)

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow skewers the way that mainstream media gives so much air time to these hysterical extremist commentators who hate them.

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