Religion and the Human Prospect

I recently read Alexander Saxton’s Religion and the Human Prospect. Very interesting. I think anyone interested in ambitious, grand-scale thinking about religion will enjoy it.

As a science-type who likes to wade into humanities territory when I think I can get away with it, I especially liked this book. Saxton is an historian who takes natural science seriously and tries to construct his theory of religion in a way that is aware of current thinking on the psychological and evolutionary basis of religiosity. But his focus is, naturally, on history and the social role of religion, and that is where I think I might have learned most from his reflections.

Saxton starts by observing that as a species, we are asking for trouble — whether by destroying our environment or by starting a nuclear war, we seem more than capable of wiping ourselves out. Worse, it does not seem implausible that if we continue in our current ways, that’s exactly what we risk doing. Our scientific and technological communities are aware of such problems, but they lack political power. Nation states and the corporations run much of the show, but they are too invested in just those practices that got us into trouble. They are not likely to initiate change. Religion, however, is another cultural institution that commands plenty of power. In these times of religious revival, when religion continues to have such a grip on the moral imagination of most people, it is worth asking whether religion can be a “saving resource” to get us out of our predicament.

To answer such a question, Saxton needs a grand theory of religion. And he takes an intriguing stab at it. I found some of his emphases very interesting. For example, he thinks the problem of evil and the effort to construct theodicies is very important, not just for Abrahamic montheisms but for all world religions. Normally, I prefer not to make much of the problem of evil as an objection to God. After all, I am most interested in the question of whether there is any personal, supernatural agency running the show. Whether this God or committee of gods or whatever is supposed to be well-disposed toward humans strikes me as secondary. But since Saxton is especially interested in religion as a moral resource, the problem of evil and how religions handle it becomes more important. So while I continue to think that the problem of evil should not get top billing in arguments agains the gods (I think a scientific case for naturalism should take precedence over more traditional philosophical arguments), Saxton convinced me that the problem of evil cannot be neglected when talking about religion from a social and historical point of view.

While arguing about religion, evil, and and morality, Saxton also touches on a lot of other issues that will interest secularists. One that I found important is Saxton’s discussion of the Marxist and leftist critiques of religion, and why these failed. (No cheap Marx-bashing here; Saxton himself hails from the left and has plenty of respect for Marxist thought.) It is an especially interesting question, because as Saxton points out, working class people have consistently been and still are significantly more religious than the rest of the population.

In the end, Saxton is pessimistic. He does not think religion is a useful resource that can get us out of trouble this time around. He suspects, in fact, that religion is much more a problem than part of the solution as we stand. Here too, I find his argument thought-provoking, even if I’m not sold on all the details. I tend to wary of moral arguments against religion — it’s too easy to indulge in superficial faith-bashing. Saxton manages to be more nuanced and ambivalent.

So I definitely recommend Religion and the Human Prospect. It’s one of the best moral arguments concerning religion I have come across in a while; not because I ended up totally convinced, but because it got me thinking. It’s one of those books you wish a couple of people around you were also reading, so you could start a discussion about it.