Is Religion Essential to Human Thriving
Hello, good people and welcome to this week’s Stuff They Never Told You! I hope you are doing well and that you’re beginning to enjoy some fall weather. There is something special about autumn—the transition from hot to crisp weather, the falling leaves, the energy of a new school year, football, pumpkin patches, pumpkin spice everything. I love it. Texas is still hot but it is good enough now that my family has brought back our post-dinner walks/scooter rides and we’ve started taking more meals, books, and other activities outside. It will only get better from here!
Today I want to explore a topic I’ve been meditating on a lot lately. But I want to mostly allow a healthy dose of quotes to do the work for me. I’ll offer few answers, hoping instead to spark reflection. Onward!
FROM THE AGES
“All men need the gods. — Homer
“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” — Voltaire
FROM THE FOUNDERS
“Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education…, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” — George Washington
“I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mohammed inculcated upon our youth than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles.”
— Benjamin Rush in a letter to John Adams
“For it is in our lives and not in our words that our religion must be read.”
— Thomas Jefferson, whose personal religion may best be described as Christianity-inspired deism
“What separated us from the Old World was the idea that books, education, and the liberty to think and worship as we wished would create virtuous citizens who cherished and defended reason, faith, and freedom. In our finest hours, we have been neither wholly religious nor wholly secular but have drawn on both traditions.” — John Meacham
“If totalitarianism was the greatest problem of the twentieth century, then extremism is, so far, the greatest problem of the twenty-first. It need not be this way. Extremism is a powerful alliance of fear and certitude; complexity and humility are its natural foes. — John Meacham
Source: American Gospel
Among the coolest recent developments in my life is that I’ve been able to connect with author and 2014 California Teacher of the Year, Jeremy Adams. I reached out to him after learning that his recent book, Hollowed Out, is responding to many of the same concerns as my forthcoming book, Setting the Bar. His is a masterpiece that reminded me of how much I love history and the humanities, but even more, how important these are to our culture. One powerful quote, in particular, outlines the challenge for moderns who grow up in a time where this is less often appreciated:
“We are at odds over the basics: what it means to be human, to find fulfillment, to use freedom to obtain “higher” or “transcendent” or “objective” goods. We classroom teachers pull on our end of the rope because we think education is about imparting these higher goods: knowledge, skills, wisdom. But the students pulling on their end have already “won”—or, more accurately, they represent the winning side. Post-modernism is not ascendant, it is triumphant; it represents their underlying assumptions, and they are no more aware of its impact on their minds and souls than a fish is cognizant of water. To young people, radical individualism is not emblematic of being a renegade, an iconoclast, or a rule-breaker; it is not zealotry; it is, in a strange way, its own banal conformism. Yet it is revolutionary. It has overthrown the world of Plato, Christ, and Jefferson.”
The world has grown increasingly secular with more and more people never thinking of religion and claiming no religion at all. At the same time, it seems that many evangelize a cherry-picked selective biblical literalism, but overall seem to use religion more as a means of precluding the need for reflection and humility than as a program for spiritual development. It provides a sense of certainty that removes the need to ask those big important questions. Why am I here? What matters most? How ought I live?
I was raised Anglican and then as I entered high school my family became Eastern Orthodox Christian. Over time my doubts grew and I found other people’s certainty and willing blindness to be unsettling. It felt somehow dishonest for me to continue and I drifted from religion. But I’ve remained very interested in learning about religion and its interplay with culture. It has become more and more apparent that the decline of shared tradition and common ideals has contributed to the rising angst and meaninglessness apparent across the developed world today. As author Donald Kingsbury said, “Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems.” Shared traditions and common values are vital for stoking virtue, meaning, and social harmony. When a culture dismisses tradition, we all feel the consequences.
These past few months in particular, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring Judaism and Christianity again. As I’ve studied these traditions and the personal beliefs of many of my heroes, I’ve come to a renewed appreciation for their wisdom and the importance of Judeo-Christian religion to the development of Western culture. As a father, I’m feeling more and more that it is important to ground my family in a tradition. I’m still grappling with what this means and how to move forward. Above all, I want to live authentically and strive towards truth, but I’m beginning to feel that religion is compatible with that. For those interested, the Jewish scholar Maimonides’ conception of God has been very helpful for me.
It seems that what many people want and need is a balanced, intellectually honest view of religion seen for its vital societal role and its capacity to reveal higher truths, yet checked by reason, humility, and historic inquiry. My hope is that this nuanced view will become more common in the coming years as we rebound from the current extremes.
If you’re digging this vein, I highly recommend picking up Hollowed Out. Also, here are a few great related links:
Everything is Broken (And how to fix it) - Please read this all the way to its wonderful conclusion. It is phenomenal.
When Tolerance Goes Too Far - My argument against moral relativism, particularly its modern perversion.
Douglas Murray Quotes on Religion - A short video. Watching Murray speak is just too fun.
Does Jordan Peterson Believe in God? - A great read from a nuanced thinking once-atheist philosophy student who became a Christian priest.
In other news, I’m currently recording the Audible for my forthcoming book, Setting the Bar. This has been a fun, sometimes challenging project. Almost done! The book releases on November 9, but you can still get a free early ebook copy here: Setting the Bar
For those in the North Texas area, I’ll be having a soft launch the morning of November 6th at the Flying Squirrel in Mansfield, Texas. I’d love to see you there!
Thank you for reading and sharing with your kindred spirits. Have a great week!
Life is too short to be normal,