Saturday, October 6, 2007

The risks of progress

A couple of students invited me to speak to the Mid-South Conference of the Left, a series of meetings and workshops being held on campus this weekend bringing together various leftist and progressive organizations. The topic I was assigned: "Religion and Progressivism: Contradiction In Terms?"

Naturally (these provocative titles are almost almost destined to be answered in the negative) I argued that they are not, that rightly understood, religion challenges every status quo. My audience ranged from those who have already allied with mainstream denominations for social action, to those who have abandoned or reinterpreted their religious upbringing because of its association with social conservatism, to those who have embraced scientism or militant atheism.

Now I'm on record as agreeing with much of the reasoning of the latter group, the ones who oppose religion per se. Yes, religion tends to lose its prophetic voice when allied with temporal power. Yes, belief in absolute supernatural authority cannot be safeguarded from violence in that authority's name.

But there are two reasons I can't follow Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett et al. to what they feel is their logical conclusion.

1. Exactly how is the vacuum of values creation and meaning generation to be filled once religion has been swept into the dustbin of history? Science has done a pretty poor job at that necessary transition from is to ought, as forcibly impressed on previous generations by eugenics, trench warfare, the atomic bomb, The Bell Curve, etc. Yet that's clearly what Dawkins, at least, would have us install as the sole source of data for human thought.

2. The Enlightenment thought this problem had been solved. Reveal the natural history of religion, its superstitions and foibles and ignominious heritage, and it would wither away as the human race matured past the stage of needing such a crutch. Obviously, they couldn't have been more wrong. What should we learn from religion's refusal to die? Perhaps that we need to remain connected with our heritage, our traditions, our communities past and present. Perhaps that the values that religion has fostered, nurtured and proclaimed are deep in the selves and in the cultures that formed ourselves. Perhaps that cutting ourselves off from what gave us birth, proclaiming emancipation and divorce, is neither healthy nor sustainable. Why not try to find a way to live with this part of ourselves instead of expending all our energy fighting it? Siggie Freud, have you taught us nothing?

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