Reinhold Niebuhr’s Does Civilization Need Religion remains a seminal classic, relevant today as ninety-four years ago when it was first published. In 1929 he wrote:
“Religion is not in a robust state of health in modern civilization. Vast multitudes, particularly in industrial and urban centers, live without seeking its sanctions for their actions … There are indeed many forms of religion which are clearly vestigial remnants of another day with other interests.”
Today, we see rising secularism and declining in church attendance. Niebuhr reminds us unequivocally of our spiritual needs because “it is difficult to imagine man without religion; for religion is the champion of personality in a seemingly impersonal world.” Religion is the faith that sustains us when worldly circumstances fail. It is the value that humanity is indeed cherished and worthy of a golden rule. A rule to love thy neighbor as thyself, because the resources of love and goodwill in politics are often in short supply.
Niebuhr believed religion “tries to prompt man to ethical action by the sublime assumption that the universe is itself ethical in its ultimate nature, whatever data to the contrary the immediate and obvious scene may reveal.” Today, many espouse the naturalist assumptions of men like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, that we are DNA robots driven by a biological program. But that estimate of the self fails the test of moral responsibility and credibility, if you can insert the safe assumption that humans are, in part, free creatures. Free with a will that is not shackled to biological machinery; free to choose democracy, if so enlightened, or an oppressive tyrant if so foolish. Niebuhr refuted natural determinism in his latter work The Nature and Destiny of Man, viewing humans as essentially a transcending free spirit housed in the limitations of a human body. So, a religious ethic is still relevant, to help protect human beings from the corruption and abuse of our most cherished gift: moral freedom, the freedom to choose our own good as expressed in religion.
The foreign policy of such a free nation necessarily wills that other nations also have this freedom. As early as his 1929 work, however, Niebuhr contended that even democracies develop an imperial arrogance by attempting to coercively foist their values on the world. Ironically, however, as Mark Tooley wrote in a recent piece on The Politics of Jesus, when a religious ethic is imposed by any political force it tends to backfire. A similar idea might apply to foreign policy and a nation’s freedom to self-determine; nations will inherently resist an idea that is perceived to be imposed by a foreign power. Hence, when Ayatollah Khomeini violently rejected the secular authoritarianism of the Shah he could credibly argue to be fighting Western (cultural) imperialism. A Shia religious police state later ensued, but Iran’s youth have risen in opposition to this theocracy; as Lizzie Jacobs rightly states, democracy is a key need of Iranians today. Democracies require the freedom of belief to foster the best values, on which they then become dependent for the health and vigor of a just society.
This then leaves many nations with the freedom to choose between beliefs, and the question which brings us back to Niebuhr’s book: Does Civilization Need Religion? Well, does it? And what kind of religion might civilization need? How is it properly nurtured in a free society? Throughout his career, Niebuhr harbored a long-standing conviction that Christianity mattered greatly, and contained less errors than many rival creeds or political philosophies. He answered the question of his 1929 title with “yes, it does,” but also a caution about what philosophical ramifications followed from this belief.
In his conclusion, Niebuhr revealed his thesis that religion will become more relevant to society if it meets two tests: A) it expresses an idea, a metaphysic, that is credible to the modern world, and B) that it has a genuine stake in the moral regeneration of humankind. Clearly, the latter is slightly more important in his view. Better the overall theological picture of a religion remains fuzzy than its moral efficacy be rendered impotent. As Niebuhr wrote:
It is in fact better for religion to forego perfect metaphysical consistency for the sake of moral potency. In a sense religion is always forced to choose between an adequate metaphysics and an adequate ethics. That is not to say that the two interests are incompatible but that they are not identical. When there is a conflict between them it is better to leave the metaphysical problems with some loose ends than to develop a religion which is inimical to moral values.
Why does morality trump metaphysics? Because of the immediate strength of its present need: “If we are not less ethical than our fathers, our happiness is certainly more dependent than that of our fathers upon the ethical character of our society … We have developed so complex a society that it cannot be made ethical by moral goodwill alone.” This moral need elevates the worth of human personality; in religious terms to argue that it has value beyond our genetic components: “The final test of any religion must be its ability to prompt ethical action upon the basis of a reverence for personality. To create a worldview which justifies a high appreciation of personality and fails to develop an ethic which guarantees the worth of personality in society, is the great hypocrisy,” wrote Niebuhr.
To accomplish this, religion must be in sync with the world, yet paradoxically also in opposition to its injustices. Niebuhr remarked, “A religion which is perfectly at home in the world has no counsel for it.” Aptly said, for it shows that a religion must not only be free from the state, but also free from cultural assumption that the status quo is the highest justice. The status quo, as Niebuhr well knew, is only an approximation of justice, not justice itself. The love demand, and the “reverence for personality” requires an ever-higher approximation of justice. There is, in the poll Tooley referred to, an ironic American tendency to interpret Jesus Christ as a representative of our own political powers. That, however, seems to betray a sense of too much complaisance with our religious and political identity; a caution which Niebuhr warned us of nearly one hundred years ago. It is peculiar, as political history plays out, how the more things change the more they also remain the same. In this writer’s estimation, Niebuhr’s book still bears much relevance and testimony to this simple fact: love and justice are perennial needs, as is the struggle to find the right views to realize them. In a world even more interdependent and complex than Niebuhr’s, the anchor of faith in the shifting seabed of political circumstance is truly weighted only more firmly by a throughgoing examination of its credibility and moral impact.