The Paradox of Religion – What Emerson Had in Mind

Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel once quipped, “God and Country are an unbeatable team – they break all record for oppression and bloodshed.” You might find this statement objectionable, or you might think there can be no better description for the relationship between religion and society. Whether you agree or disagree, the idea is worth considering in the light of our class discussion on Emerson and his view on religion.

We are all familiar with Emerson’s remark on the silent church. He states that “I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching” (p. 30). Considering Emerson’s skepticism about society and conventional morality, it is reasonable to assume that he views religious practice should be more of an individual endeavor rather than a social one.

Emerson’s concern stems from the fact that though religion typically involves the divine whose teachings are sacred and benevolent, it is humans who interpret the holy words and translate them into action. Therefore, Emerson does not question the credibility of religion itself. Instead, he questions the credibility of religion as social/cultural force.

Religion – especially monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Islam and Christianity – invokes infallibility and loyalty and asks for full submission. The “absoluteness” of religion tends to influence the followers to become dogmatic and thus intolerant to opinions of others. Those who practice religion are more likely to not only rely excessively on stereotypes, but also submit to authority without much ambivalence. In fact, researchers have found that religious fundamentalism is highly correlated with authoritarian attitudes (Adorno et al., The Authoritarian Personality, 1950). Key characteristics of the authoritarian personality include conventionalism, aggression and submission to authority. Put together as a whole, this means that the authoritarians may actively seek out violators of conventional values and respond more eagerly to opportunities of hurting others, if that is what the authority they perceive as legitimate demands. Religion renders an individual susceptible to external influence as well as expression of aggression.

Powerholders of human society have always been aware of such effect religion has on people’s minds; and of course, they play it to their advantage. Knowing that the “believers” are an obedient bunch who would easily surrender to the will of authority, the powerful use religion as a means to effect their private, selfish ends that are often incompatible with the religious doctrines. Emerson states that we should be wary of asking for “some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue” (p. 33). He must have known the manipulative trick religion plays on human mind. After all, we know how destructive religion can be when it needs to be as such; human history is full of religious violence.

I want you to chew on some disturbing facts that will follow. Before you do that, I also want to make sure that the purpose of this post is not to undermine any particular religion – FYI, I’m a Christian myself. I simply want to provoke you to consider how religious culture can turn into abusive force. The following discussion is from one of the lectures in my Political Psychology class(PS 330) by Professor Winter.

A paradox: Strong support for Iraq war came from President Bush and the religious right who adhere to a religion founded on the teachings of a “Prince of Peace” (Winter, Ideology and Organization of Beliefs, 2011).

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God." (Matthew 5:9) - The Sermon on the Mount

"Christ, because he changed my heart." (1999); "The God I know is one that promotes peace and freedom." (2004)










Well, so much for promoting PEACE  and FREEDOM…


Is this mere hypocrisy?

Or “believing in belief” versus specific beliefs?: “The president doesn’t care what faith it is, as long as it’s faith.” – Andrew Card (former Bush White House Chief of Staff)

Or differentiation of beliefs?: “The Sermon on the Mount…didn’t have a realist, pragmatic understanding of what is possible.” – Michael Gerson (evangelical Christian and former Bush speechwriter)

I don’t have an answer to this problem. Frankly, I don’t think anyone does. I do know, however, that manifestation of religious culture is not always congruent with the original teachings of religion – be it Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. Therefore, we should be careful when society tries to take advantage of religious belief as a means to sway our minds against what is right.

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6 Responses to The Paradox of Religion – What Emerson Had in Mind

  1. vanessabarton says:

    I think you are arguing that the first statement, “God and Country are an unbeatable team – they break all record for oppression and bloodshed” is objectionable. That you think religion as a social culture is a problem and using Emerson to establish that. I am having problems like that while planning my wedding. I am catholic and my fiance is Lutheran. Yes both are christian but they are vastly different. I didn’t think it would be a huge problem initially, planning a Lutheran wedding, but my Dad and mutual family friends are sickened by it. I had my first obstacle when trying to review bible readings from a list. My bible had different names for some of the books. Emerson believes that a higher meaning or being lives within each of us, thus you would think that being both Christian we would have no trouble uniting in a ceremony.

    So I agree social constraints on religion remove some of the meaning and faith we should have and sometimes force unfavorable or unholy behavior from followers, especially around times of elections.

  2. jlpach says:

    I definitely agree with the statements made in this blog post. Emerson seems to define conventional morality as being associated with traditional religious views. Emerson states, “If, therefore, a man claims to know and speak of God, and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old moldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not… Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence, then, this worship of the past?” (“Self-Reliance,” 28), indicating that he believes individuals should not resort to believing solely the traditional views of their religion because they might not necessarily be the right views for society. They would follow the conventional morality because such traditional religious views have been agreed upon by many over time. When we did our last In-class Writing Assignment, Jennet asked what government policy really offends you or one that you strongly disagree with. I chose the policies that prohibit gay rights, such as the non-legalization of gay marriage. In regards to this policy, I believe that religion has too much involvement in determining government policy. By following the traditional morals as perceived by these religions (I guess specifically Christianity), the moral convention leads to discrimination and inequality among individuals based on sexual orientation. I believe this discrimination and inequality are completely wrong and are a complete hindrance not only to equal rights but to the freedom of accepting oneself as an individual in society.

  3. jonhntns says:

    I think when you say that “manifestation of religious culture is not always congruent with the original teachings of religion” you make a strong point that not only holds true but is a standard impediment to why many individuals today neither identify with nor respect the institution that is religion. I myself have heard the diatribe ‘religion is the main cause of war’ and ‘without religion there would be no wars’, but I still don’t think it is OK to generalize that many members of the American citizenry who are devoutly religious are either uniformly in favor of one policy over another and that their religious beliefs are the main determinants of whether they support a certain policy proposal.

    I don’t think all ‘believers’ of this or that religion are “an obedient bunch that would easily surrender to the will of authority”. One can’t say that all members of the Christian faith adhere to the principles of the War on Terror. Neither can it be said that all of the Jewish citizens of the country (members of a religion that arguably may be inherently more democratic in political leaning) are in the public eye against the War on Terror and submissive to the ‘will of authority’ that supports such wars. I think it is unfair for politicians or orators to use an individual’s religious heritage to justify policies or legislation by claiming that our religious ancestors would deem them suitable to the demands of a particular religion’s belief system. I also think it is a two-way street. While members of a particular religious sect may be brainwashed into thinking that War or other policy programs are definitely following ‘what Jesus would do’, there are many other policies that would never fly because of an individuals religious inclinations. As well, there are many supporters of such polices such as the War not due to their religious background but instead their own personal belief system.

    Members of all religions are on both sides of the fence. There are Lutheran Democrats, Jewish Republicans, and Christian Buddhists. The absoluteness and dogmatic nature of religion does not necessarily mean one will not hear out the opinion of another just because he or she is part of a different religion. We are all individuals, and these are the innumerable factions we have created without our knowing it.

    People may form their stances and overall policy objectives as a group, and as Emerson may disagree, these motivations may be created as a social endeavor, but it is the individual opinions of members of a certain religion or social background that fasten the views of such factions. To Emerson, this may appear as ‘conventional morality’, to others it may simply be described as conventional wisdom of one’s religious or ancestral denomination.

  4. davehopkins2 says:

    I think you bring up several great points in this post. I especially liked your question regarding the nature of “belief in beliefs” rather than true beliefs. There appears, at least to me, to be a way to reconcile the seemingly contradictory notions of independent thought and dogmatic belief. If religion makes the tenets of a given faith seem more optional and less exclusive, independent thought can become the only true requirement for members of a given faith. Imagine what would happen if a significant portion of religious doctrine was dedicated to the importance of independent thought. However, as you have pointed out, religious institutions have an incentive to keep believers indoctrinated in a system of belief that they can control. Without this control, the benefits that many leaders and institutions have received throughout the ages would be lost. This may not be the only way to solve the problem that Emerson sees with religion, but it would be a way to reconcile dogma and independent thought. I do see a potential problem with the idea I have put forth. Just as world leaders use religious doctrine to justify horrific actions such as war and genocide, some leaders might use a doctrine that influences independent thought to go against some of the better ideas that religion often contains. For example, a given leader may use an emphasis on independent thought to override the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”. I can only hope than an emphasis on independent thought would cause other members of a given religion to rise up against any atrocity in the name of religion.

  5. palaie says:

    I enjoyed reading this post because unfortunately religion is not a common topic that we discuss now awards. You are absolutely correct in saying that people wrongly use religious doctrine to justify horrible acts such as wars. I think what many people fail to realize is that the problem is not with the religion, but the people who claim to follow it. To say that we are Christian or Muslim means that we follow a certain way of life and that the entire content of our holy book is used in our lives. However there are many people (especially world leaders, sadly) that take verses of these books out of context and use them to justify whatever it is that they want to do. And what is worse is that you and I fall for it despite the fact that we know better. True, those who follow a religion are more obedient, but they are definitely not naive. It is those that listen to them that need to do their own research and watch for inconsistencies.

  6. eskylis says:

    Considering the discussion that we have had on Lincoln recently, there is a quote from Lincoln that is directly relevant to this discussion. Lincoln states that “my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” These words may shed some light on the alleged relationship between “god and society”, as those religious leaders who “interpret the holy words and translate them into action” might spend more effort examining whether or not they are really on the side that they claim to be. This would appear to be precisely the critique that Emerson levies on the institution of organized religion.

    This discussion gets particularly interesting with the consideration of authoritarianism. Psychologists originally dove into authoritarianism and the accompanying f-scale as a result of the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps. It is incredibly interesting to consider authoritarianism in a religious light. Just as people with highly authoritarian personalities are more likely to be able to push a button flooding a chamber with gas, highly authoritarian members of a religious community might indeed be far more likely to support a war given its endorsement by their priest or bishops. To blindly follow orders without regard for consequences similarly removes some of the guilt felt by those blind followers; the common defense given at Nuremburg in fact was that “we were just following orders”.

    The book “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland” by Christopher Browning explores this topic in great detail, and is easily the most influential and captivating book I have come across during my time here at the University. I highly recommend this for anyone who’s interest is sparked by this discussion.

    It is likely that Emerson was very low on the f-scale. His championing of autonomous values, particularly in these circumstances, is a priceless contribution to our discussion.

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