I debated for some time whether to post this here. “Faith” was very nearly a fifth Copper Jungle value (alongside Freedom, Family, Fortitude, and Fun), but I ultimately decided that was a personal value, not a company value.
This made the cut for posting because: 1) I don’t maintain any other channels for long-form thinking and 2) Faith has important implications for Freedom and Family. Not least of which is the idea that being areligious grants you additional freedom by freeing you from religious moral codes. I disagree, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the post:
I believe that human beings are inherently religious. All of us. Even people who don’t think they are.
The reason is that religion is much bigger than what you think God’s name is. Religion is how we answer the unanswerable questions and how we make value judgements. Which religions we choose have important implications - not just in the afterlife - but also in earthly lives and societies.
As a result, in this essay, I advocate for people to seriously reconsider traditional religions and to make their choice of faith intentionally.
THE NATURE OF RELIGION
There are lots of important things human beings don’t fully understand. There are questions ranging from big - Where did the universe come from? Why are we all here? - to small - Should I have a family? How do I handle my anger?
This is the essence of religion: How do we answer questions we don’t fully understand? How we answer those questions is a matter of faith. It must be. We cannot answer these questions scientifically and so the decisions we make and the values we infer as a result must be based in faith.
In this frame, every human being is religious. Everyone must choose values and everyone must decide how to handle these questions.
Even deciding not to address the questions directly is, in fact, religious. The belief that other religions are silly, outdated, or don’t matter is - ironically - itself a religious belief. It is unfalsifiable and has just as many implications for values systems as “traditional” faiths.
Despite averments to the contrary, agnosticism, nihilism, Marxism, and other “secular” belief systems ARE religions. That they lack identifiable organization, clergy, symbology, or holy books is entirely irrelevant. (Most of these schools of thought have them anyway. They often don’t self-identify as such and are thus less well-recognized as such, even among adherents. )
The decision is never “religious or not,” but is always “which religion?“
In Western societies, secular religions have the advantage of being the default. Many people are born into them. Schools and media reinforce their values systems, so they require little to no action or introspection to maintain. Because they aren’t widely recognized as religions, their internal contradictions and hypocrisies are rarely aggregated and sharpened by critics (although there are plenty).
But are they really what is best for most people? Western societies are often criticized for worshiping wealth, glorifying violence, ignoring the elderly, alienating individuals, and failing to reproduce. Anyone who has worried about these things has started to feel around the edges of the religious choice. “Are we valuing the right things? Are we making the right decisions about what is right and wrong?”
Without framing it as a religious decision, they are feeling in the dark. When the light is turned on and the decision is framed as a religious choice, the choice becomes stark. Nearly every “traditional” religion de-emphasizes wealth, frowns on violence, builds communities, and supports family formation and coherence.
Even once different religions have been brought to the point of direct comparison, many people raised in secular faiths find traditional faiths difficult to consider seriously. They have weird rules, blood-stained institutions, and - worst of all - aren’t very “inclusive.” In defense of traditional faiths, I offer a few thoughts.
The first is that the weird rules often have important second-order impacts. Rules about diet and sexual behavior directly impact the health and fertility of a society. Rituals reinforce values and public commitments. It isn’t hard to imagine that some other rules have other important second- or even third-order effects that are not as well understood.
Even if you don’t believe that God ordained any traditional religion, consider the implications of civilizational genetics. Every traditional religion has been around a lot longer than any Western secular religion. They have demonstrated remarkable fitness, even through significant periods of duress in most cases.
Some rules may be superfluous, sure, but which ones? How many can you change without wrecking the genetic code of a functioning civilization? (trebuchet link)
Counterintuitively, religious rules can also protect freedom. A core set of shared rules also gives people direction. A moral compass, like a literal compass, points people toward a specific path. Some secular religions remove this compass and it seems freer. Go any way you want! But people are social animals. The end result is that, without another direction, most people just wind up moving with the crowd, just as they would physically.
Various denominations of Marxism exploit this dynamic explicitly. Debase truth and remove the moral compass and you will have far fewer conscientious objectors when you point the crowd toward revolution and death. That doesn’t feel very free to me…
Second, yes, every major religion I am aware of has had violence committed in its name. But traditional religions seem to act more as a brake on violence than as an instigator. Human beings have a propensity to violence. As long as religions are made of human members, there will be religious violence, but the worst violence in history has all been committed under secular religions that place no sanctity on human life (the holocaust, soviet gulags, the Great Leap Forward, and Cambodian killing fields, to name a few examples). As awful as they were, the Crusades and Inquisitions of the past pale in comparison to the organized murder of the twentieth century.
Finally, to the charge that traditional religions are less inclusive than secular religions, I remain unconvinced either way. The “inclusion” of secular religions is similar to a Catholic communion - all who agree to key religious tenets may participate. Often, this type of “inclusivity” excludes more people than includes.
What type of inclusion you seek will depend on who you are and what you value. The more important thing for a diverse society is tolerance. We must be able to disagree with each other and still respect each other’s rights.
In conclusion, individuals and societies are profoundly and inherently religious in ways that go beyond names and buildings. Because religion is how we answer unanswerable questions and how we arrange our values for the many competing priorities in life, choosing a religion is unavoidable.
In making that decision, we should consider how the religion(s) we were raised in have shaped the world around us and whether modern defaults truly align with our values. We should treat traditional faiths with the respect they have earned over millennia and be clear-eyed in comparing their flaws to those of secular religions.
The future of our freedoms and families may depend on it.
PS Every religion - including secular religions - has its beliefs about the spiritual and post-death implications of your religious choices. To put it mildly, these are beyond the scope of this article.