What is religion in the postmodern world? Religion has been widely regarded as a source of oppressive authority, a body of outmoded superstitions that constrain the capacity of individuals to utilize their freedom and thrive in a liberal, pluralistic society. This view has been moderated in recent years, as a number of secular thinkers have credited religion as being the source of the moral values that are indispensable for the stability and well-being of liberal democracy, such as the golden rule or compassion for the poor. But I find that the predominant approach to religion taken by secular intellectuals is one of attempting to domesticate and rein in an unruly and potentially destructive force. The most urgent question for them is how to make faith, as it were, housebroken – i.e. how to harness its altruistic and humanitarian impulses for socially beneficent ends while curbing its powers elsewhere, so that it would not seek to impose constraints on individual liberty or otherwise stifle the ceaseless pursuit of novelty in consumer society.
Such a project necessarily assumes that religion can be divided between its enlightened varieties, those manifestations of spirituality that are accepting of other beliefs and take a relaxed attitude towards social mores and practices, and its strident and menacing forms, usually fundamentalist, which are bent on burdening non-believers with their oppressive values and irrational restrictions. Enlightened religion has made its peace with the modern world, and obeys the principle of “this far, and no further.” Reactionary fundamentalist religion is so unsettled by the relentless erosion of taboos in modernity that it appears ready to pay the price of economic competitiveness to restore the discarded and abandoned social and sexual norms.
On closer inspection, however, the task of making religion safe for secular democracy (as well as, one might add, capitalism) appears more daunting than one might expect, since it requires arriving at the correct balance whereby religion is strong enough to supply crucial moral intuitions (be kind to others, help the less fortunate, defer gratification) that cannot be generated by a purely secular rationality, but yet is left weak enough so that it is in no position to threaten to curb the untrammeled freedom which has come to define liberal individualism. One must contend furthermore with the concern that the “good,” pluralistic expressions of religious belief usually represent diluted forms of faith and practice. Such a spirituality, which has become so harmonized with modern life so as to become interchangeable with it, is incapable of supplying a corrective to the corrosive forces of the age and is fated to disappear with the passing of the present epoch and its values.
For Alexis de Tocqueville, it only makes sense to speak of the salutary effects of Christianity inasmuch as the religion and its values exist at a distance from the commercial preoccupations of democratic society. Democracy gives rise to a bustling society given over to commerce, in which men almost always meet others who are like themselves and in which their material success give them scant incentive to recognize and fathom the forbidding ideas and arduous experiences that were essential to the formation of their world. Only religion could preserve a dimension of otherness in a society defined by commerce and dominated by affluence.
In Tocqueville’s view, the emergence of democracy itself is a theological mystery. As such, he gives a definition of religion that can be understood as thoroughly atheistic: “When, therefore, any religion has put down deep roots in a democracy, be careful not to shake them; rather, take care to preserve them as the most valuable bequest from aristocratic times” (Democracy in America, 632-633). Like many contemporary social theorists, Tocqueville’s view of religion is oriented toward its social consequences, its social and economic utility, yet he underscores here that it is not primarily its moral or ethical dimension which is to be valued, but rather the historical consciousness it provides. Religion is what prevents the democratic and capitalist subject from being fully enclosed in the social and cultural horizon created by its activity. Religion, specifically Christianity, gives democratic men and women access to a radically different perspective that runs counter to the restless pursuit of material goods and worldly success.
What is accordingly truly other to capitalist democracy is not a vision of its possible improvements and modifications, such as socialism or communism, but rather aristocracy. Religion is an artifact of aristocratic centuries, in which hierarchy was a constant, harsh and unavoidable presence in everyday life. But what does a sociopolitical order, founded on rigid social divisions and irrational codes of privilege, have to offer than democracy does not? As Pierre Manent observes in his study of Tocqueville:
“Aristocratic society, which is founded on a false idea of freedom, on bizarre notions of honor, which particularizes men, causes them by the same token to live together and exalt the higher parts of the soul. Democratic society, which is founded on the just idea of liberty, whose notions of honor increasingly approximate universal notions of good and evil, which ‘generalize’ men, separates and weakens the higher parts of the soul. The false idea of nature elevates the nature of man and stimulates exalted achievements – in thought and politics, above all. The true idea of nature dulls the nature of man and makes him incapable of exalted enterprises that are proper to his nature – elevated thought in particular” (Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, 74, emphases mine).
Aristocratic society has hierarchy as its guiding principle, but this means that the “power of one man to govern others” extends to realms beyond considerations of political rank. The lack of egalitarianism in aristocracy has its noblest and most splendid consequences in the realm of thought. The habit in aristocracies of commanding and obeying is conducive for the realization of philosophic and artistic genius. Democratic society, by contrast, strives incessantly to suppress the awareness of inequalities and looks only to money as the only indisputable measure of distinction. Manent locates the incommensurable difference between aristocracy and democracy in the idea of influence: “Because [aristocratic societies] are extremely inegalitarian, great personal influences can make themselves felt… The social convention that recognizes great individual influences opens space in which great natural influences, owing to strictly personal talents and merits of individuals, can be exercised” (Tocqueville, 77). In aristocracies, the law of superiority means that people take it for granted that men ought to influence one another, including those who may lack the distinction of birth but who rise to exert authority by cultivating their abilities and gifts. Democracy, on the other hand, holds that no man is superior to any other, and so “tends to impose a real equality of men that it does not uphold in theory” (Tocqueville, 79). Democracy thus tends to “stultify” human nature, as democratic society is “constantly preoccupied with organizing men so that they are unconscious” of their inequalities, a necessarily “endless” task which compels individuals to “veil in themselves and ignore in another all sentiments, qualities, actions that tend to contradict this equality” (Tocqueville, 79).
While the Christian belief in the inviolable dignity of every human being is often regarded as the source of the modern concept of equality, the Christian view of the soul cannot be described as democratic. In Christianity, it is aristocracy (or monarchy) in Plato’s sense that provides the pattern for the right order of the soul, whereby the believer is called to recognize the love of God as the supreme authority that rules over his or her desires and capacities. The democratic soul in the Republic, by contrast, is defined by the absence of a single ruling power and by its insistence that all desires must be “honored on an equal basis” (561c). It could therefore hardly be called Christian at all. In Plato’s dialogue, the form of the soul corresponds to the regime that shares its name, i.e. the citizens of an aristocracy possess aristocratic souls, the citizens of an oligarchy oligarchic souls, the citizens of a democracy democratic souls, etc. For Tocqueville, the inward, spiritualized hierarchy of Christianity makes possible the coexistence of democracy with the aristocratic soul. Indeed, Tocqueville contends that it is best for a democracy to be populated by citizens who have aristocratic souls.
But an aristocratic soul that inhabits a democracy will necessarily exist in tension with this political regime. For it is the will of the human spirit to “harmonize the earth and heaven” (Tocqueville, 107). Religion accordingly serves as a force that restrains and moderates the corrosive effects of individualism and materialism, but it can do no more than hold back overwhelming powers that are bent on vanquishing it, subjugating, colonizing and manipulating it for its own indifference to higher purposes. The power of democratic society over religion sterilizes religion and deprives it of its capacity to serve as the repository of historical consciousness, as a body of ideas from which it is possible to reconstruct the perspectives and values of the aristocratic past. For Nietzsche, the nascent liberal Christianity of his time had lost sight of the “dread” and the “belief in human unworthiness” that drove Pascal, who was central influence on Tocqueville, to formulate his wager, and instead justified itself according to the “great benefit,” “enjoyment,” and “soothing effects” it offered. Such a religion, which sought its proof in “pleasure” and not “force,” was in Nietzsche’s view a “symptom of decline,” leading to an “opiate Christianity” that has “no need of that dreadful solution, ‘a God on the cross’” (Late Notebooks, 89-90).
The old saying that politics creates strange bedfellows must surely apply to the history of ideas – shifts in social values can reveal alignments and affinities between ostensible adversaries or between critics and the targets of their critiques. Thus, the more distant Christianity grows from beliefs that in the eyes of the present age are irrational, arduous, and strenuous, the better this unapologetic defender of aristocratic values can fulfill the unlikely role of the defender of an uncomfortable and troubling orthodoxy. It is instructive in this respect to look to Eric Voegelin’s commentary on Nietzsche, in which the latter emerges as a mystic of historical immanentism, for whom the union with God is replaced by union with distinct historical personalities: Schopenhauer, Wagner, Bismarck, Goethe, and perhaps most importantly, Pascal (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 271). Nietzsche is not so much a historicist as a mystic who seeks to “transform himself into an epitome of the experiences of humanity to the point that the historically unfolding spirit becomes incarnate for its actual present in his person; his person must become the medium of transition of the spirit into the future of humanity” (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 265). By “living through” the experiences of the past, the individual will “learn best where humanity in future should or should not go.”
Voegelin’s reservations about Nietzsche’s historical mysticism not surprisingly have to do with the possibility of misinterpretation, which is exacerbated by the thinker’s own “weakness in drawing empirical images of the actions of the immoralist” (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 296-297). Moreover, Nietzsche’s mysticism is ultimately a defective one, because he “was incapable of the transcendental experiences” which are infused by the Christian idea of grace (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 257). Yet, Nietzsche, in developing an array of “countersymbols” of the Christian religion, maps out in the movements of his this-worldly mysticism the “transfigured reality” of the soul once it has overcome “the world in which man lusts for life” (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 258). The most profound apologist for Christianity, Pascal, thus emerges as the thinker he followed most closely.
Pierre Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, trans. John Waggoner. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Writings from the Late Notebooks, trans. Kate Sturge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, trans. Gerald E. Bevan. New York: Penguin, 2003.
Eric Voegelin, “Nietzsche and Pascal,” in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 25: The History of Political Ideas, Volume VII: The New Order and the Last Orientation, ed. Jürgen Gebhardt and Thomas A. Hollweck. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999.