12/24/2011—At this most holy time of the year, with the end of the year and the darkest days and nights, and the potential birth of new hope, I note the waning of Christian culture, at least in my neighborhood and experience. I have never heard so little of the Christian message at Christmas time. It was a shock to read the Classic Peanuts reference to the Gospel of Luke yesterday (Linus at a Christmas pageant).
We are entering a new world, it seems to me. And I was inspired to write a one-page work in progress below:
The End of Religion
The end of religion is a question rather than a statement. But I want to put the matter provocatively. The end of religion has three aspects: the secularization thesis and its implications for secularism; the special place of religion in constitutional law and discourse; and, treating the word “end” as ambiguous, the goal or telos of religion, especially as it relates to religious legal theory.
I don’t intend to debate the secularization thesis. The evidence of the decline in the power of the Christian myth to serve as the ordering principle of the West seems so strong to me as to be beyond debate. (I see it anecdotally in the classic Peanuts comic strip that still appear—when Linus quotes the Gospel of Luke in a Christmas pageant, Charles Schulz is invoking a practice of the 1950’s and 1960’s—no current mainstream comic strip would do the same.) Nevertheless, I am less concerned to convince anyone of what the future will bring, as to consider the implications of this decline. The relativism of American secularism and the ethical rootlessness of Chinese society, from which religion has been effectively banished until recently, are warning signs that secularism needs to think toward a new myth, one that takes the mystery of existence and the search for meaning as its focus. Naturalism, materialism and empiricism are not sufficient. Nor is capitalism. Nor is technology. Nor is Rawlsian liberalism, for society must be able to assert some substantive truths.
The end of religion also refers to the controversy in constitutional law about the uniqueness of religion, recently exemplified in the debate at Georgetown between Michael McConnell and Noah Feldman. Technically, this debate is pointless. Religion will remain special because the term is in the text of the Constitution, both to protect its practice and to forbid its establishment. What the debate demonstrates, however, is that the search for meaning, as Martha Nussbaum emphasizes, is a human and not a specialized, religious endeavor. But the implications of that insight are not, as defenders of religion fear, to denigrate religion, but to show its unique power. Religion is the human tradition that molds the human search for meaning into ways of life. Healthy ways of life. Where else but religion could a secularist look for aid and models in the task of forging a new myth?
But the key question about the end of religion is religion’s goal and responsibility. Attention to the protection of the believer and the continuation of the protected status of religion threaten to turn religious legal theory into a special interest group. While the religious traditions must minister to their own flocks, their primary end today is to follow the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, leading the world into a future without God. My fear is that we shall have to enter that future without the aid of the religious traditions, in which case it will be a dark future indeed.