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The Role of Religion Today

The Role of Religion Today

Dr. David Kelley

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.

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.

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.

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