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The Role of Religion Today

The Role of Religion Today

May 23, 2023

“What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” That was a question asked by Tertullian, an early Church father. In his time, Athens and Jerusalem were symbols of philosophy vs. religion, reason vs. faith. Tertullian wanted nothing to do with Athens. But the legacy of ancient Greece—especially the works of Plato, Aristotle, and others—have always played an important role in Western civilization. Reason and religion have had changing roles and degrees of impact throughout the history of the West. Today, Athens is represented by the Enlightenment culture of reason and science; its impact is exclusive in some areas. But Jerusalem—the Judeo-Christian outlook—is still part of Western culture.

What is the Objectivist Position in Morality (Ethics)?

The table below is my assessment of the respective roles of religion and other cultural influences in serving human needs. If we draw a broad distinction between material, spiritual, and social needs, then we can say, equally broadly, that the economic dimension of society serves man’s material needs, whereas culture serves his spiritual needs. Culture also serves social needs, but these are also strongly shaped by the economic division of labor (as well as the political structure).

Throughout most of the history of civilizations, religion has provided the core of culture, but it has been losing many cultural as well as social functions over the centuries. The table is a list of various needs and of religion’s role as a provider—the main, significant, or minimal one—and the other forms and institutions that also serve these needs.

My assessments in each row are based on decades of observing and analyzing our culture, but they are only my intuitive assessments. There is abundant data, from Pew Research and other sources, and I have reviewed a lot of that data over the years. But the table is not based on the systematic evidence currently available. Please do not take my assessments as anything more than the judgments of an intelligent observer.

Hicks: Are there absolute truths in morality?

Religion remains a powerful cultural player a) because it is still the main provider of certain important needs; and b) because no other institution or cultural form has taken its place in any unified way. Indeed, one aspect of modernist civilization has been precisely this fragmentation of culture, a greater degree of division of labor in the cultural “industry.”

In principle, Objectivism is capable of providing for all of these needs, either directly (e.g., morality, understanding man’s place in the universe) or indirectly (setting basic standards in education, art, logic of science, etc.) My table may be a guide to the level of difficulty Objectivism faces in becoming a major provider for our various needs.

Can You Love God and Ayn Rand? | WSJ
David Kelley Ph.D
About the author:
David Kelley Ph.D

David Kelley founded The Atlas Society (TAS) in 1990 and served as Executive Director through 2016. In addition, as Chief Intellectual Officer, he was responsible for overseeing the content produced by the organization: articles, videos, talks at conferences, etc.. Retired from TAS in 2018, he remains active in TAS projects and continues to serve on the Board of Trustees.

Kelley is a professional philosopher, teacher, and writer. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, he joined the philosophy department of Vassar College, where he taught a wide variety of courses at all levels. He has also taught philosophy at Brandeis University and lectured frequently on other campuses.

Kelley's philosophical writings include original works in ethics, epistemology, and politics, many of them developing Objectivist ideas in new depth and new directions. He is the author of The Evidence of the Senses, a treatise in epistemology; Truth and Toleration in Objectivism, on issues in the Objectivist movement; Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; and The Art of Reasoning, a widely used textbook for introductory logic, now in its 5th edition.

Kelley has lectured and published on a wide range of political and cultural topics. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, On Principle, and elsewhere. During the 1980s, he wrote frequently for Barrons Financial and Business Magazine on such issues as egalitarianism, immigration, minimum wage laws, and Social Security.

His book A Life of One’s Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State is a critique of the moral premises of the welfare state and defense of private alternatives that preserve individual autonomy, responsibility, and dignity. His appearance on John Stossel’s ABC/TV special "Greed" in 1998 stirred a national debate on the ethics of capitalism.

An internationally-recognized expert on Objectivism, he has lectured widely on Ayn Rand, her ideas, and her works. He was a consultant to the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, and editor of Atlas Shrugged: The Novel, the Films, the Philosophy.


Major Work (selected):

Concepts and Natures: A Commentary on The Realist Turn (by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl),” Reason Papers 42, no. 1, (Summer 2021); This review of a recent book includes a deep dive into the ontology and epistemology of concepts.

The Foundations of Knowledge. Six lectures on the Objectivist epistemology.

The Primacy of Existence” and “The Epistemology of Perception,” The Jefferson School, San Diego, July 1985

Universals and Induction,” two lectures at GKRH conferences, Dallas and Ann Arbor, March 1989

Skepticism,” York University, Toronto, 1987

The Nature of Free Will,” two lectures at The Portland Institute, October 1986

The Party of Modernity,” Cato Policy Report, May/June 2003;and Navigator, Nov 2003; A widely cited article on the cultural divisions among pre-modern, modern (Enlightenment) and postmodern views.

"I Don't Have To" (IOS Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, April 1996) and “I Can and I Will” (The New Individualist, Fall/Winter 2011); Companion pieces on making real the control we have over our lives as individuals.

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