24 Feb

Is religion just moralistic therapy after all?

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/24/16

Alexander Schmemann on the secularization of religion

“[E]ven the most traditional, confessional and ‘exclusive’ churches accept the idea of a modus vivendi with other religions, of all kinds of ‘dialogues’ and ‘rapprochements.’ There exists — such is the assumption — a basic religion, some basic ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual values,’ and they must be defended against atheism, materialism and other forms of irreligion. Not only ‘liberal’ and ‘nondenominational,’ but also the most conservative Christians are ready to give up the old idea of mission as the preaching of the one, true universal religion, opposed as such to all other religions, and replace it by a common front of all religions against the enemy: secularism. Since all religions are threatened by its victorious growth, since religion and the ‘spiritual values’ are on the decline, religious men of all faiths must forget their quarrels and unite in defending these values.

“But what are these ‘basic religious values’? If one analyzes them honestly, one does not find a single one that would be ‘basically’ different from what secularism at its best also proclaims and offers to men. Ethics? Concern for truth? Human brotherhood and solidarity? Justice? Abnegation? In all honesty, there is more passionate concern for all these ‘values’ among ‘secularists’ than within the organized religious bodies which so easily accommodate themselves to ethical minimalism, intellectual indifference, superstitions, dead traditionalism. What remains is the famous ‘anxiety’ and the numberless ‘personal problems’ in which religion claims to be supremely competent. But even here is it not highly significant — and we have spoken of this already — that when dealing with these ‘problems’ religion has to borrow the whole arsenal and terminology of various secular ‘therapeutics’? Are not, for instance, the ‘values’ stressed in the manuals of marital happiness, both religious and secular, in fact identical, as are also the language, the images and the proposed techniques?

“It sounds like a paradox, but the basic religion that is being preached and accepted as the only means of overcoming secularism is in reality a surrender to secularism. This surrender can take place — and actually does — in all Christian confessions, although it is differently ‘colored’ in a nondenominational suburban ‘community church’ and in a traditional, hierarchical, confessional and liturgical parish. For the surrender consists not in giving up creeds, traditions, symbols and customs (of all this the secular man, tired of his functional office, is sometimes extremely fond), but in accepting the very function of religion in terms of promoting the secular value of help, be it help in character building, peace of mind, or assurance of eternal salvation. It is in this ‘key’ that religion is preached to, and accepted by, millions and millions of average believers today. And it is really amazing how little difference exists in the religious self-consciousness of members of confessions whose dogmas seem to stand in radical opposition to one another. For even if a man changes religion, it is usually because he finds the one he accepts as offering him ‘more help’ — not more truth. While religious leaders are discussing ecumenicity at the top, there exists already at the grass roots a real ecumenicity in this ‘basic religion.’ It is here, in this ‘key’ that we find the source of the apparent success of religions in some parts of the world, such as America, where the religious ‘boom’ is due primarily to the secularization of religion. It is also the source of the decline of religion in those parts of the world where man has not time enough yet for constant analysis of his anxieties and where ‘secularism’ still holds out the great promise of bread and freedom.

“But if this is religion, its decline will continue, whether it takes the form of a direct abandonment of religion or that of the understanding of religion as an appendix to a world which has long ago ceased to refer itself and all its activity to God. And in this general religious decline, the non-Christian ‘great religions’ have an even greater chance of survival. For it may be asked whether certain non-Christian ‘spiritual traditions’ are not really of ‘greater help’ from the standpoint of what men today expect from religion. Islam and Buddhism offer excellent religious ‘satisfaction’ and ‘help’ not only to primitive man, but to the most sophisticated intellectual as well. . . . And the spiritual preoccupations of [various] esoteric groups are, in the last analysis, not very different from those of the most emphatically Christ-centered preachers of personal salvation and ‘assurance of life eternal.’ In both instances what is offered is a ‘spiritual dimension’ of life which leaves intact and unaltered the ‘material dimension’ — that is, the world itself — and leaves it intact without any bad conscience. It is a very serious question, indeed, whether under its seemingly traditional cover certain forms of contemporary Christian mission do not in reality pave the way for a ‘world religion’ that will have very little in common with the faith that once overcame the world.”

—from Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973)

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