April 28, 2023
Another of those surveys of American religious attitudes has recently appeared. Its highly predictable conclusion is that religious affiliation and belief continue to decline in the United States, although it remains the most religious country in the Western world. However, I am always skeptical of such surveys, because their questions are usually formulated in such reductive ways that they obscure the interestingly complex variety of attitudes people really have about religion. What do people want from religion? What needs does it fulfill? The answers are less obvious than it might appear.
A lot of people are committed to a religion because their church provides them with a community, a thing of no small value in this fragmented and lonely society. A religion also provides them with a set of values and a moral code. Yet religion is not indispensable here. Community and morality are perfectly possible without a religious sanction—some would say more so, because secular social contracts are not tempted to use the claim of divine sanction to bully people into conformity. The rather common claim that if there were no God everything would be permitted does not stand up to serious scrutiny, Ivan Karamazov notwithstanding. The Western world saw 1500 years of Christian morality enforced by the fiercest threats of hellfire, and was no more morally upright than it is now. Threats of divine punishment are no more effective as deterrents than threats of civil punishment—indeed, less so, as they are abstract and theoretical. The catch phrase “Few saved, many damned” did not prevent Popes from playing power politics, poisoning their rivals like Vladimir Putin, leading armies, fathering children. A moral system is no more effective because its claims are said to be grounded on the will of God.
Moreover, Christianity considered as an external moral code kept in place by a combination of supernatural threats and temporal force moves inevitably in the direction of theocracy. By the word “Catholic,” which means universal, the medieval Roman Catholic Church signified its theocratic intentions. The whole world must be brought under the control of the one true religion. A similar tendency exists within some parts of Islam, and the Christian nationalism of far-right Protestants is presently moving in the direction of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. Most decent-minded Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims want nothing to do with this kind of religion, which relies on projecting evil outside the group onto scapegoats who pose a threat and who must be exterminated. Hence the Crusades, the Inquisition, the anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages. Hence the view of the U.S. as the “great Satan” that helps the clerical theocracy maintain power in Iran. Hence the clearly theocratic intentions of the extreme-right parties presently propping up Netanyahu in Israel. The theocratic mindset shows itself politically in the far-right members of the Supreme Court and in the fanaticism of politicians like Ron DeSantis, for whom “woke” is a kind of all-purpose scapegoat, and of Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Because the only religious manifestations that the media pay much attention to are reactionary, an increasing number of people, especially younger people, think that such authoritarianism is what religion is. Arguably, this accounts for as much of the decline of religion as any scientific skepticism.
But there is a whole other side to the Biblical religions, especially to Christianity. Christianity is a “salvational” religion, which means that it conditions its followers to internalize the moral code, and has thus been characterized by social scientists as a “guilt culture.” Christians are ruled not by the external peer pressure of a “shame culture” but by an internal conscience, the voice of God within. This psychologizes the religion, so that virtue depends upon an inward state of righteousness rather than on the performance of external rituals or observance of certain laws. It sets up a perfectionistic standard, however, that no human being could live up to, so that such Christians live haunted by a sense of sin and guilt, which means they must be saved by a power beyond themselves.
Freud’s theory of religion takes the sin-and-guilt pattern as its paradigm, despite the fact that the salvational pattern, if not unique to the Biblical religions, actually seems uncommon, perhaps depending upon the development of a more intense subjectivity and individualism. In psychoanalytic theory, the superego is the internalized authority of society as mediated by the parents, particularly the father. It is the voice of Big Daddy, the father imago projected as a God, coming from within, taking the form of the conscience and what is called the ego ideal. The superego helps the ego tame and repress the primal impulses of the id, but its lack of a sense of reality can make it fanatically perfectionistic. To somewhat oversimplify, Freud thought religion was an “illusion,” but one that performed a psychological function. External laws may be flouted, but people consumed with a sense of sinfulness and guilt will repress themselves. The problem with sin-and-guilt religion, however, is that it represses the wrong people, so to speak. It is the sensitive, thoughtful people who take the accusations of sin to heart, and are made miserable and neurotic by them; meanwhile, the sociopaths and narcissists continue on their merry and amoral way. The people who need to have the fear of God put into them seem to have a natural immunity. The members of the Republican party as it is presently constituted have no shame: meanwhile, liberals and progressives are convulsed with guilt over their complicity in events that happened before they were even born, such as slavery and the treatment of Native Americans.
Whatever may be true of “Jewish guilt,” I know sin-and-guilt religion from having grown up within pre-Vatican II Catholicism. Although Jesus does occasionally speak of hellfire, especially in the Gospel of Matthew, he does not seem to me to be preaching a religion of guilt and damnation. But when it became an institution rather than a “way,” Christianity attracted a certain type of personality that projected its own tormented conscience as a theology. This begins with Paul, who bequeathed to Christianity the dubious doctrine of predestination, the idea that God damns people for inscrutable reasons of his own. Predestination is like all those ads I get in my junk mail: you are “pre-approved” for a reward. The bad news is that you may be also be pre-damned, condemned before you are even born, which is about as guilty as it is possible to get. People can do nothing to save themselves, only wait fearfully for a divine grace that may or may not be forthcoming. The Christ who came the first time to say, “Go, and sin no more,” slowly gives way to the Christ of the Second Coming, a terrifying judge who hurls most people into hell. The central event of Christianity, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, instead of being the joyous bursting through the bonds of the human condition, signified by death, into eternal life, is instead interpreted legalistically as the doctrine of the Atonement. Christ has to die, and die horribly, as a punishment for human sin. Why? Because a wrathful Father demands revenge.
After Paul, the most influential theologian in the history of Christianity was Augustine. As we know from his autobiography, the Confessions, Augustine as a young man was tormented by his own sexual desires. Sin-and-guilt religion often finds its chief focus in sexuality because that is the drive most difficult for the superego to tame. From the superego’s sexual obsession derives the ideal of celibacy conceived not as the mere discipline to resist one’s impulses but as a spiritualized condition in which one has transcended sexual desire altogether. Thomas Aquinas is the official theologian of the Catholic Church because his architectonic intellect turned Catholic theology into an encyclopedic system, but it was Augustine who bequeathed Catholicism its institutional psychology, that of “Catholic guilt,” a complex that lasted well into the 20th century. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist based on James Joyce himself, listens to a sermon about the eternal agonies of hell. Its catalogue goes on for pages, after which Stephen is so upset that he goes outside and vomits, especially because he has been visiting prostitutes. I grew up almost the same way, minus the prostitutes. Even thinking about sex was a temptation to be resisted on penalty of damnation. But the sin-and-guilt attitude is not just a Catholic neurosis. The two prime movers of the Protestant Reformation, Luther and Calvin, were also obsessed by sin, guilt, and predestination. Calvin’s theology was adopted by the Puritans, from whom we get the term “puritanical” to refer to the idea that, if it feels good, it’s undoubtedly a sin, and especially if it’s sexual.
Much has changed in the half century since I was young, It can be asked whether sin-and-guilt religion has not become a thing of the past. Sadly, I do not think so. I think sexual guilt has simply become pervasive rather than institutionalized. The attempt at a more rational, liberal attitude that began in the 60’s as the sexual revolution and survives as the “sex positive” movement today does not seem to have made much headway against the feeling that all sex is somehow bad sex, even when it is not coerced or otherwise perverted. The message is that no one is having very much fun out there, that young people are having less sex than previous generations, and that an increasing number of people are identifying as asexual and/or aromantic (“ace” and “aro” in the current terminology—the old guy is at least trying to keep up), thus reproducing, no pun intended, the old ideal of celibacy as a liberation from sexual desire itself. This kind of liberal sexual guilt has been secularized, but, on the right, the desire to repress sexuality is clearly linked with religion. Mind you, it is other people’s sexuality that has to be controlled—the old scapegoating pattern again, the projection of unacceptable desires onto others. The move to outlaw abortion and birth control has very little to do with the sacredness of life. The language of the right makes clear that the real attempt is to clamp down on all those slutty women who want to sleep around. My phrasing is not exaggerated: these are exactly the terms that have been used in interviews I have read. Meanwhile, the hero of the right, Donald Trump, who has boasted of his uncontrolled sexuality, goes on trial for rape on the day I write these words.
If Christianity has been kidnapped by the sin-and-guilt complex of the hypertrophied superego, what does it look like when liberated from such complexities? It is, potentially, a religion of love rather than accusation of sin, guilt, scapegoating, damnation, and hatred. The New Testament word for love is agape, different from eros or desire-love. Eros is, if not selfish, at least self-seeking: it is desire, and desire wants an object. Agape is, rather, compassion based on empathy, and thus transcends the limits of the ego. It is based on a vision of the interconnection of all things, not just of all people but of humanity, nature, and God into a unity that is a larger identity, what Christianity calls the mystical body of Christ. Agape is what Dante, in the famous last line of the Divine Comedy, calls “The love that moves the sun and other stars.” Dante believed that eros could be redeemed by agape, or, if you are getting impatient with Greek words, that romantic and sexual love could be subsumed into agape and thus recreated out of their natural selfishness into the mutual regard and compassion of both partners. But, at any rate, agape love is not limited to Christianity. It is surely akin to the Buddhist ideal of compassion, made possible by detachment from the twin forces of illusion, desire and fear. And the vision of a total cosmic identity appears in many mythological traditions, East and West, though in the West it is usually condemned as heretical because it threatens the power of the religious institutions. In this context, the Resurrection is a model for a death-and-rebirth experience in which not just Christ but every human being may die to what Paul calls the natural man or self and be reborn as a spiritual self. He does not mean that the natural self is completely transcended—we are stuck with it and never entirely escape the “fallen” condition in this life. But with the birth of the spiritual self, we begin to experience what Northrop Frye, in his last book, written on the verge of death, called a “double vision.” Mircea Eliade calls the experience of the spiritual self “the sacred.” In the opening of his book The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion, he says:
[R]eligion may still be a useful term provided we keep in mind that it does not necessarily imply belief in God, gods, or ghosts, but refers to the experience of the sacred….The awareness of a real and meaningful world is intimately related to the discovery of the sacred. Through the experience of the sacred, the human mind grasped the difference between that which reveals itself as real, powerful, rich, and meaningful, and that which does not—i.e., the chaotic and dangerous flux of things, their fortuitous, meaningless appearances and disappearances.
The vision of all human beings interconnected and interdependent is the basis of Martin Luther King’s philosophy of non-violence, as we have seen in a recent newsletter. When we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, we are really celebrating his vision of a harmony that goes far beyond racial harmony alone. King was a Christian minister, but the experience of what Eliade calls the sacred and Frye calls the spiritual is by no means limited to a Christian context. In fact, for some people it is more accessible via a non-Christian mythology free of the baggage with which the theocratic and sin-and-guilt tendencies have burdened Christianity. Just this morning in The Guardian I read an article describing how paganism is alive and well, at least in the UK. Paganism is a recently invented religion, of the type that conservatives deplore as hopelessly flaky. Their dismissal, however, is a power play: “Our religion is the truth revealed from on high; yours is merely made up, an IKEA-religion assembled out of component parts,” or, to use the technical term, syncretism. But all religions are invented out of component parts, even if so far back that the inventing has become forgotten. In fact, Christianity’s component parts are often quite visible: one of them is the Old Testament, otherwise known as Jewish Scripture. The 66 books of the Bible are component parts assembled into a canon by a long process of institutional argument and infighting: those books represent many divergent perspectives and do not “agree” except by institutional fiat. Even the four Gospels do not “agree,” and there are many other gospels that were excluded from the canon. From what little I know, contemporary paganism seems partly invented ad hoc, partly influenced by mythological traditions going back at least as far as the Eleusinian Mysteries almost 4000 years ago. It seems to be distancing itself from any kind of sexual liberationism—one woman is quoted saying that you are welcome to our ceremonies so long as you keep your clothes on. Sorry, no pagan orgies here. But it appears especially motivated to emphasize and encourage a sense of harmony with nature that Christianity has uniformly condemned as “pantheism.”
Pantheism is the idea that God is within rather than without, immanent rather than transcendent. Conservative Christianity clings to the idea of an utterly transcendent God, the theocrats because a God “up there” on a throne is a guarantee of power and authority, the sin-and-guilt people because of their need for a God who is beyond the human condition and thus able to redeem it. Of course, Jesus was supposed to be fully human, at least according to Catholic orthodoxy, but there is a resistance to acknowledging the implications of that doctrine. Martin Scorsese portrayed a human, struggling Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and the conservatives picketed the theatres. The Holy Spirit is supposed to be the immanent aspect of the Trinity as the Father is the transcendent, but in practice he is mostly conspicuous by his absence, a holy ghost in more ways than one. Any attempt to stress the immanence of God, as in the left-wing Inner Light Protestantism out of which Milton emerged, is likely to be condemned as heresy.
It is said that right-wing Evangelicals are led into extremism, even so far as QAnon, because they are told that Christianity is on the verge of extinction. I think that Christianity is in danger of extinction, but because of the extremism that presently dominates it, or at least determines its public image. Would it be possible for Christianity to repudiate the reactionary forces that have kidnapped it and recreate itself into a religion fit for the 21st century? I don’t have the slightest idea, but will risk committing myself to a limited hopefulness. The work of my two chief mentors, Frye and Jung, moves in that direction. In addition to Protestant Christian nationalism, the reactionary forces include the Vatican opponents of Pope Francis, the conservative bloc within Methodism that voted to condemn homosexuality and thereby caused my university to end its affiliation with the Methodist Church, the comparable conservatives who keep threatening schism within the Anglican Church, and so on. But, whatever Christianity’s limitations, its central agape vision seems ideally suited for an age of diversity and inclusiveness more daringly universal than anything before it in history. I am an old hippie, and am still content to have been part of a spontaneous wave of agape sentiment embodied in catchphrases like “Woodstock nation” and “Summer of Love.” Yeah, it lasted just a couple of years, and then we got Nixon and Agnew, followed by Reagan and the yuppies. But the vision did not disappear: it merely went underground.
It may be that it is resurfacing, rising like Atlantis: the wave of authoritarianism in our time is in fact a backlash, the fear and hatred of those who hear people shouting from the bow, as in Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In,” “your days are numbered.” And the new universalism of our time is clearly a progressive clarification in time, which is one meaning of the phrase “expanding eyes.” The first step is slowly and painfully to learn to see the very existence of people who were invisible to us before. Trans individuals are only the current symbol of that process of recognition. Joseph Campbell always insisted that a new universalism would not result in a single world religion, but rather the opposite. William Blake, while identifying as a Christian, nonetheless said that “All Religions Are One.” He was not expressing a sentimental relativism. The companion to that aphorism is “There Is No Natural Religion,” no religion of Paul’s “natural man,” the selfish fallen identity for which religion is a will to power or a wish-fulfilment security system. But the imaginative core of all genuine religions, Blake felt, was identical. He is hardly alone. One of my heroes, Jane Goodall, in an essay explaining how she can be a scientist and yet religious, says,
I believed in the spiritual power that, as a Christian, I called God. But as I grew older and learned about different faiths I came to believe that there was, after all, but One God with different names: Allah, Tao, the Creator, and so our God, for me, was the Great Spirit in Whom “we live and move and have our being.” (81)
Campbell also noted more than once that, at conferences, he noticed that it was the institutional types who were reluctant to give up their religion’s claims to exclusivity. The mystics and visionaries always got it. and could talk to one another ecumenically. They knew that all religions are founded upon myths and symbols that are metaphors, images that cannot be taken literally because they are limited ways of representing a spiritual reality that exceeds all metaphors. However paradoxical it may seem, the spiritual community includes—as after all it does in many mythologies—both the living and the dead. The Resurrection implies that in fact there is no death: there is only metamorphosis, transfiguration, what Dante called transhumanization. As Dylan Thomas says:
And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot….
In The Productions of Time I said that spiritual vision takes two complementary forms, a vision of love and a vision of order. The vision of love is the agape vision, but what of the vision of order? On those religious surveys, a common question is, “Do you believe in a higher power?” This is why I can’t take surveys: I end by frustrating both the surveyors and myself without wanting or intending to, merely because my real point of view is not captured in boxes that can be checked. The larger point of this newsletter is that I believe that is also the case with a good number of other people, so that surveys indicating religious decline may actually be reflecting a new spiritual maturity too subtle to be captured in multiple-choice categories. Maybe if they gave me, and others, an essay question rather than an objective test we would be more able to articulate our true beliefs.
Do I believe in a “higher power”? Well, yes, in a way. Traditionally, that was called grace, and, as Portia says in her courtroom speech on mercy in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven…/…It is an attribute to God himself” (4.1). But my metaphor system also thinks in terms of a lower power that rises from mysterious depths, a power that since the Romantic era has often been called the imagination. As Frye notes in A Study of English Romanticism, it manifests itself as a kind of gnosis, a non-discursive knowledge experienced as an epiphany or anagnorisis, a recognition. I do not “believe in” either the upper or the lower vision. The phrase “believe in” implies a projection: what we “believe in” can only be some kind of idol. That is why there has not been much talk of God or gods in this newsletter. If I say that I believe in a God, I am accepting the terms of the question and implying a literalizing position. But faith is not belief. Faith is a commitment to what we cannot believe in literally. However, the difficulties go much further. If I say I do not believe literally in a God or any other myth or symbol, I am again accepting the terms of the question. The opposite of literal, factual belief is belief in a fiction, a lie, a subjective notion, presumably out of a desperate wish-fulfilment. I am then just another helpless, hapless liberal.
So what else can it mean? Faith is a choice, and indeed a momentous one, as those who speak of a leap of faith imply. But the spiritual vision that is the object of faith is never “present”—I am not falling into what the deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida calls a metaphysics of presence. Yet it is not absent either, as in the “blind faith” in a subjective fiction. If it is not “there,” neither will it go away. This is why, in The Productions of Time and elsewhere, I stress the crucial importance of the fact that I grew up reading the stories of the Bible as stories, not as didactic lessons or historical facts. I was enchanted by them, and when I grew up and experienced them all over again as retold in the images of medieval and Renaissance Christian art, in the music of composers like Bach, as recreated in the tradition of Western literature in ways that, like the quest for the Grail, go far beyond mere retelling, I was possessed by them, deeply and permanently, in a way that made them the only possible framework for any vision of my own. They are, and will always be, my native language. That actually became even more true when I decided as a teenager that I no longer “believed in” the myths and symbols literally. Religion begins as a set of stories and images, and should begin as such for every child growing up, apart from any attempt at indoctrination. I think that it is because this was true for me that I have been saved from becoming either a fanatical believer or a cynical skeptic. The stories possess you. You have a choice of responding to them or resisting them, but in either case they shape you. And people respond in myriad ways, whose differences could not be caught by any survey.
Any revival or rehabilitation of religion in our time is not going to be a mass movement. That is true in politics as well. Progressives are trying to learn the lesson that the only way to oppose and counteract the collectivizing of people by charismatic cult leaders whipping huge populations up into a mob frenzy by stories--again the power of stories--of anxiety and hate is to organize and talk to people one by one on the grass roots level. Jung said that mass movements bring nothing good, and that all hope depends upon the individual. But individuals may talk to one another. Anyone who is in education knows that “mass education” is a cover story. Really, it is one student at a time, one small class at a time, trying to awaken people enough for them to be possessed by a larger vision if they so choose. The wind bloweth where it listed, the seed falls by chance along the roadside. Whenever two or three are gathered together. Or maybe 50 reading a newsletter. But whatever will happen, whatever may be happening right now, the one thing we know is that it is not going to show up on a survey.
Eliade, Mircea. The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion. University of Chicago Press, 1969.
Goodall, Jane. “In the Forests of Gombe.” In Dreams and Inward Journeys: A Rhetoric and Reader for Writers, 8th edition. Edited by Marjorie Ford and Jon Ford. Pearson, 2012. 81-87.