Daniel Pryor admonishes those who would dismiss the insights that religion and spirituality have to offer.
I haven’t met many religious communists; it seems that radical socialism and vehement hatred of divine authority go together (despite the irony of the former encouraging absolute submission to tyrannical worldly authority). Libertarians are however, in my experience, far more likely to hold at least a modicum of religious conviction. Happily, the oft utilised ‘natural law’ justification for libertarianism and property rights happens to function perfectly well for both the theist and the atheist.
Yet there also exists a fiercely anti-theist sentiment amongst some libertarians, who extend their natural hatred of statist authority to the fluid, amorphous, abstract concept of religion: ‘No Gods, no masters’, as the saying goes. The late (and frequently great) polemicist Christopher Hitchens encapsulated such virulent anti-theism when he stated that:
“…all religions are versions of the same untruth…the effect of religious belief is positively harmful.”
Other famous anti-theists, such as Richard Dawkins in his workThe God Delusion, propagate the same broad argument: that religious belief is not only contrary to reason, but also bad for society. Taking a casual stroll through the annals of history, it’s hard not to see that Dawkins et al. may have a point. Whether it is the worst atrocities committed by al-Qaeda, the egregious homophobia of fundamentalist Christian organisations such as the Westboro Baptist Church, forced circumcisions, the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception as a means with which to fight the scourge of AIDS, the bloodshed of the Inquisition and the Crusades, or indeed any other instance of hatred and violence committed in God(s)’ name, it seems that there is a powerful argument to be made for religion being an aggregate evil in the world – past and present.
Of course, a central part of both libertarianism and Austrian School economics is methodological individualism (approaching social phenomena from the standpoint of the individual): and for many individuals, the so-called religious impulse engenders positive moral outcomes. I would submit that anti-theists often conflate valid and desirable religious impulses with the horrific consequences of religious fundamentalism. Not that I entirely blame them. Watching programs like The Big Questions, one could be forgiven for exacting damning verdicts of anything remotely religious after listening to the cavalcade of bigoted and illogical hard-liners that regularly occupy prominent positions in the show’s debates.
But as any reader of Hayek will be all too aware, a danger of using a blunt instrument such as anti-theism to tackle the disgraces committed in the name of religion is the potential for unintended consequences. Dogmatic, unwavering (and consequently hypocritical) repugnance towards anything remotely ‘religious’ casts the demons of sectarianism and social conservatism into the secular fires of obscurity, but at the same stroke destroys any possibility of gaining the valuable spiritual insights that openness to the religious impulse can offer.
To argue, one must clarify one’s terms. By ‘religious impulse’, I am not talking about uncritical, blind devotion to Thor, Yahweh, Allah, Ra, or indeed any other mythological deity. The term ‘religious’ has perhaps misleadingly been associated with adherence to specific mythologies, so perhaps it would be best to reclassify what I am arguing for: openness to the spiritual impulse. This is humble curiosity towards what all religions can offer us in terms of personal guidance, as well as a willingness to extract the figurative from the fictional.
Thus far, I’ve been speaking in relatively abstract terms. How can one tangibly act upon these impulses? One of the most accessible ways also happens to be appealing to the scientific, evidence-based mind: meditation. Proven health benefits aside, the history and literature behind meditation in both a religious and non-religious context is fascinating. This short TED talk by Hedy Kober would be a good introduction for those who are interested in learning more.
Another illustrative example of the spiritual impulse is Carl Jung’s concept of the ‘collective unconscious’. Although libertarians are likely to shun anything involving the word ‘collective’, I interpret Jung’s notion of humanity’s interconnectedness as a beautiful and poetic metaphor for the free market’s remarkable capacity for organisation without central planning: of the same ilk as Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ and Hayek’s notion of spontaneous order.
As for my own beliefs, I’m a ‘Russell’s teapot’ agnostic atheist. I can’t be sure that there isn’t a supernatural deity, but I also can’t be sure that there isn’t a celestial teapot orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars. To me, neither seems within the realms of reasonable possibility. Yet burning the entire Bible because certain parts of it are patently ridiculous would be folly, as many valid and valuable insights into personal morality would also perish in the flames. In this increasingly secular age, it is worth noting that alongside escaping the clutches of organised religion, we are at risk of shedding our openness to metaphor. That would be a catastrophe.