Is a Religiously Infused Society a Good Thing?


It is “Memorial Day Weekend” in the United States. Living here in the Philippines it is easy to miss that. It is a day to honor the dead… but especially those who served their country. In the United States, “serving one’s country” usually means in the military or war. Despite that fact that I was in the US military and served in Desert Storm, I have trouble seeing why service to country is so narrowly defined. It is one of several holidays in the United States where Christianity and American Nationalism/Patriotism are heavily mixed in what is sometimes called “American Civil Religion.” A nice little article by Peter Gardella on the characteristics of American Civil Religion is found HERE.

However, I am focusing on a different article right now. It is by Wray Herbert, and called Infused with Faith: Religious Ritual and Hope for Peace.”  The article notes that a lot of conflicts in the world that have a religious edge to them (Northern Ireland, Middle East, and many many other places) are not so much empowered by religious differences but the extent to which a religion is “infused” into the society. Essentially, “religious infusion” is “the extent to which religion permeates a group’s private and public life.” The article looks at the research that Dr. Steven Neuberg of Arizona State University.

According to this research, the greater the religious infusion in a society the greater:

  • Bigotry or intolerance to those seen as “Them,” especially those of different beliefs.
  • Tendency to utilize aggression against “Them.”
  • Tendency for the weak or oppressed to disobey or stand against the strong.

The first two items here would be generally seen as bad (I think most of us would agree). To many these first to findings would be counter-intuitive. Most religions, at least officially, espouse peace as a virtue rather than aggression. Many religions also (officially) support tolerance. For example, while many point out the rather intolerant behavior of the Israelites in the Old Testament to other faiths and (at least in the book of Joshua) other races, the Pentateuch encourages and even commands hospitality to strangers and aliens. Likewise, the New Testament presumes that Christians live at peace, as much as possible, within a larger non-Christian society. But it must be remembered that the bigotry and aggression are not tied to religion per se, but to its amount of “infusion” in the society.

But lets look at the third point for a bit. One might argue that this third one could be a good thing. While Christianity promotes a certain amount of submission and honor for those societally “above” them, this is also balanced by rejecting the status quo that maintains social injustice in society. As such, the tendency for the weak and oppressed to stand up against oppressors and institutions of oppression can be seen as a good and moral corrective..

Of course, if you take a moment to pause, you may wonder about this third point on a different level. Karl Marx said that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Religion, Marx appear to say, gives an illusory hope and illusory happiness that leads the religious to “accept their fate.” However, according to this study, religious infusion within a society tends to do the opposite… it seeks to overthrow the oppressor.  Was Marx wrong. Well of course, Marx can be wrong– he, in my mind, was always better at describing problems than at prescribing solutions. But we shouldn’t just ignore this apparent contradiction.

One solution is that Marx lived in a predominantly Christian society where the popular theology of the day promoted the Christian virtue of “Submission to Authority” and demoted the Christian virtues of “Mutuality/Accountability” and “Social Justice.”

But I think a more important solution is this… Marx was not dealing with Religion so much as Civil Religion. Civil Religion is the syncretism of a Religious Faith with Nationalism (or Ethnocentric Ideology). While religion sees ultimate reality and challenges the existing society counter-culturally and parabolically, civil religion embraces societal values and promotes them mythically. Of course, a religion does not necessarily have to be theistic or formally organized— civil religion is rarely formally organized, and the ideological underpinnings can just as easily be atheistic or agnostic. In fact, the 20th century has demonstrated how caustic non-theistic ideologies can be when they are linked to political power and the will to exercise that power.

So getting back to the title, is a religiously infused society a bad thing, or not? I would argue that it has a potential to be good like yeast in dough. But there is a sad tendency for the situation to switch and become a societally infused religion.

If this hypothesis is true, the bigger danger comes from Religious Infusion of Civil Religion. It increases bigotry and aggression, while promoting the maintenance of societal injustices. A solution, in my mind, is a religious faith that is counter-cultural (not anti-cultural…  enculturated but with a parabolic rather than mythic role) and dis-empowered. By dis-empowered, I mean a religion that lacks the “opiates” of political or financial ambition. As a Christian, I believe we need to go beyond simply separatng church and state, but separating Christianity from social powers.

Christianity has always been a better Underdog than Top Dog.

<By the way.  I am “guilty” of putting commentary on here that often is not within the apparent topic of this blog… Christian missions. But in this case, it is quite relevant. Missions that promotes a power theology and a over contextualization, especially pertaining to national identity, is at risk of the problems described in this blog. I would have to reccomend a more counter-cultural contextualization that eschews classic power methods.>

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