Politics, recent, Religion

Religious Progressivism

Almost 40 years ago I read Nikolai Berdyaev’s The Russian Revolution, in which he makes the case that Soviet Communism was essentially a religion in the mould of Christianity, with its concept of original sin (expropriation of labour), priestly class (the Communist Party), The Final Judgement (The Revolution), purification through penance (communal labour), holy scriptures (Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto), and so on. The book had a great influence on the subsequent development of my thinking about politics, morality and society.

The power of this book’s message has probably been much diminished by the collapse of Soviet Communism nearly three decades ago now. But, like the famous aphorism attributed to G. K. Chesterton that, when men stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything, Berdyaev’s core insight that when religion is displaced it tends to be replaced by religion in another form retains its validity. Of course, I am not here interpreting religion in the narrow sense of belief in an all-powerful deity who commands our obedience. Rather, I am looking to consider religion from a more functional perspective, seeing the role it serves in the inner life of a human being and of the community he or she belongs to.

I want to argue here that the essence of religion, what impels people to believe in God and what causes that belief to impact on how they live their lives, is the fact that it addresses a fundamental human need for moral certainty. It is not only religious “zealots” who get obsessed about good and evil. All human beings do: some more, some less, some in the name of this God some in the name of that, and others in the name of some other cause, which might even be atheism, or atheistic communism. For, ultimately, how are we able to make value choices? Plato famously argued that we cannot, since we always choose that which we prefer. To transcend personal preference, values must in some way be exogenous. But then we encounter the famous aphorism David Hume laid out in A Treatise of Human Nature that we can’t derive an “ought” from an “is.” The rules of morality which govern our behaviour would thus appear to arise in some sense ex nihilo.

Indeed the mythologies of how religious codes evolved tend to have such a character. Moses comes down from the mountain with ten commandments; Mohammed received dictation from the archangel Gabriel; the brass plates bequeathed to Nephi become the basis of Mormon scriptures; Jesus as God’s son was privy to knowledge of the will of the Father. But it is not these myths of origin which give moral force to the “commandments” but rather the commitment of a moral community. This is the truth to which David Hume alluded. Our moral compass takes its bearings not from abstract reasoning but from our life experience, which is more than just our own inner world and personal desires, but also our perception of the inner world of others and of their desires and expectations. In the words of Sir Roger Scruton, in his Gifford Lectures:

The metaphysical loneliness of the subject is not a historically transient condition. It is a human universal. As I have argued, the creature with “I” thoughts is accountable to others, and sees himself from outside, as an other in others’ eyes. The endless striving to unite the self who judges with the other who is judged is the religious way of life, and all the great religions are formulae for conducting this strife, through which we seek to be “restored by that refining fire/Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.”

When we think of religion, as Scruton does here, as that which we embrace as the means to address this fundamental human need to transcend ourselves and our natural state of metaphysical loneliness, we understand better the dynamic which drives the development of human society. We seek meaning and value but these things only come in our relationship with the world beyond. We require moral certainty because doing “the right thing” usually comes at some cost to us and we want the assurance that our efforts will be appreciated as such.

But more than that, we also become evangelists for our moral framework. In the event that not everyone recognises our actions in pursuit of our values as worthy, we seek to dissuade them from their criticism, first by entreaty and then if necessary by coercion, usually in collusion with like-minded others. Similarly, we engage in polemical criticism of those whose behaviours we see as not aligned with our moral compass, although rarely to their face; instead we share our views with those whom we expect to be sympathetic to them on the premise that the amplification of criticism of the behaviour may eventually result in its modification. However equally important for the person making the criticism is on many occasions the burnishing of credentials (also known as “Pharisaism”), whereby public demonstration of our commitment to the highest moral standards serves mainly as a means of enhancing or protecting our reputation (usually at the expense of those being criticised).

It is not difficult to detect such behaviours these days on social media where more and more people (probably yourself included) spend voluntarily an ever-increasing amount of their free time (and sometimes of their work time). We also see this in the way social issues are increasingly portrayed in the media. For example the way those on the left classify themselves as “progressive” is clearly intended to imply that anyone who disagrees with their political agenda is regressive. But a moment’s thought allows this tactic to be seen for what it is: a self-serving strategy to occupy the moral high ground without having to engage in any real moral discourse.

A common game plan is generally followed along the lines of what used to be called a “witch-hunt.” First some selected “facts” are adduced. These are interpreted as evidence of discrimination, disrespect or some other injustice perpetrated against a victim, or more often a group with designated victim status. Notably the behaviour is frequently deemed to be offensive to the group (so intrinsically not capable of detection or measurement), rather than any evidence being adduced that any offence was actually caused to any real people. Further, such “offence” as is taken to views purportedly expressed is more often than not attributable to selective second-hand reporting, broadcast in a shotgun manner, by the witch-hunters themselves seeking to stoke the fires.

A classic recent case was that of Roger Scruton’s peremptory sacking from his role on a government housing committee earlier this year, following what was recognised subsequently as selective dissemination of a few out-of-context excerpts from an interview by George Eaton, the deputy editor (until subsequent demotion) of the New Statesman. This was reported at the time as “intellectual bigotry mak[ing] everyday racism more acceptable.” Following his reinstatement three months later and full apologies both from the government official responsible and from the New Statesman, Sir Roger’s side of the story has been made public in the pages of the Times and of the Spectator; in both cases behind a paywall, so there is little risk that any of his detractors would have their tranquility disturbed by being made aware that their rush to judgment may have been precipitate.

And, as with moral crusades in the past, virtue and vice having been distinguished and the latter having been exposed, it is for the high priests who are the custodians of moral certainty to prescribe how atonement and salvation are to be achieved. So it is that, following each new scandal or injustice uncovered, the clamour increases for a new commission or regulatory body with quasi-legislative inquisitorial powers. For those charged with such onerous responsibilities as custodians of public morals, it is never enough that the letter of the law is adhered to or duties half-heartedly discharged. The public must be seen to celebrate and take pride in the new moral framework which has been imposed on them, join in chorus to condemn those who hold to the old ways and testify to the great social improvement and enhancement of justice which is being achieved thereby. And, should they fail to do so, they should be “called out” as the collaborators and facilitators of wrongdoing which they are.

So what we are seeing in society today is not really a new phenomenon. We could perhaps learn something from the past here, observing that it has rarely been the case that those who diagnose the illness are at the same time the best qualified to prescribe the cure. So it was in Old Testament history that the prophets criticised the moral failings of society and its rulers, but a different kind of wisdom or disposition was seen as being required to rule as king or emperor: Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon, not themselves, as king. Similarly in Christendom, the Holy Roman Emperor was anointed and admonished by the pope but it was he not the pope who governed.

We may like to believe of ourselves that we have “moved on” in dispensing with the need for prophets or a priestly class who sit in judgment on those who wield power in the secular realm. But to what extent have we merely changed one problem for another?


Colin Turfus has a Ph.D in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and works as a quantitative analyst in financial risk management. He is co-founder of the website www.societalvalues.co.uk

Featured Image: “Examination of a Witch” by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, 1853 (Wikicommons)


  1. I want to argue here that the essence of religion, what impels people to believe in God and what causes that belief to impact on how they live their lives,

    Not all religions have gods.

    When one actually takes a moment to think about what the word “religion” means, one realizes that there is no characteristic that draws a clean line between “religious” and “non-religious”. Rather, the only workable definition of “religion” is “belief set.”

    This understand renders absurd a host of common tropes, such as “separation of church and state”, the very term “non-religious”, and “religious freedom”.

    There is no “separation of church and state” because “religion” encompasses any and all reasons for anyone to believe anything. Not coincidentally, many people also want the state to govern, or meddle in, everything, so the Venn Diagram of the religious domain and the state domain ends up being two giant circles with perfect overlap.

    “Religious freedom” is stupid even if you don’t agree that all beliefs are religions, because freedom is just freedom; the very concept implies that your reason for making a choice doesn’t matter. If there are allowed and not-allowed reasons for being able to make a choice, you don’t have any kind of freedom at all.

    The term “religion” may have had value in the past, but in the modern world it is simply the atheist equivalent of the Muslim word “infidel” or the Christian word “heathen.” The use of the word is to reduce the heretic to second-class citizen status via “separation of church and state”.

    Using “religious” as your word for heretic doesn’t make you less of a heretic-burner.

  2. No, religions are based on faith. They almost always have a holy book or texts that they believe are wiser than current thinking. If they don’t have a god (and nearly every one does), they have some other spiritual and extra basis of powers outside of our reason and experience and ability to detect directly.

    If you have faith that scientists are best and always correct, you have left the realm of science and entered the realm of scientism, a religious conviction.

  3. The difference is critical and real.

    What evidence does a Christian have that Jesus rose from the dead? Is it an account by the Romans or Jews who were so amazed that the person they put to death rose to life? Not even an eyewitness.

    If you only believe in gravity because you have a textbook about it, you are not basing it on evidence, you are basing it on faith. I can write any idea down, but that’s not evidence of it being real.

  4. So you read it, ergo it’s true. I’ve read about acids leading to ulcers, so I guess that’s true.

    I’ve read about Zeus, so he must be true. There are thousands of religious groups out there with texts, so they are all true. I’ve read about a magic teacup on the far side of the moon, so it must be true. I’ve read about flat earths and round ones, so both must be true.

    That I believe things I’ve read is faith-related, to be sure, though I do look at the source and how others refute or support matters. I cannot actually judge Einstein’s work or that of any modern physicist, for example, but have faith he’s closer to reality than before because many people who do experiments and understand the math concur and show evidence.

    For me to deny Donald Trump exists would be to refute nearly all the evidence around me, despite my not having ever seen him in person. Besides, seeing with my own eyes wouldn’t be sufficient as I’ve seen a man cut a woman in half. I prefer to believe in real magic (tricks) than fake faith-based magic (religion, super-natural, etc.).

  5. Yes, but regarding something as a fact and it being a fact are not the same. Believing that you’ve been visited by a dead relative may be regarded as evidence of spirits, but the criteria for what is considered evidence in a science is rather more stringent than subjective perceptions and beliefs.

  6. Um, there were over 500 hundred witnesses to seeing Jesus alive after resurrection. If that doesn’t count I am unsure what is meant by an eyewitness. If you want to argue over unimpeachable sources then that is an entirely different question but it will be one that is tough to navigate.

  7. The thing is that the evidence is also fact and itself often needs to be proved as such before it can be used as evidence. Secondly, many people’s idea of what constitutes evidence is very sketchy. The law has developed a very good set of rules around ascertaining facts through the rules of evidence. It’s a pity more people don’t use those rules in everyday life.

  8. @Thersites @jdfree49 The biggest difference is that real knowledge provides predictive powers. The scientific method is a great process to test ideas rather than simply point back to the same texts as evidence that text is valid. What’s the religious process that enables predictions based on special knowledge of the super natural, versus the predictive powers (and untold hugely useful realized technologies) of STEM?

  9. To say nothing of their bewilderment over the difference between evidence and proof.

  10. @jdfree49 You stated “We are disagreeing as to whether so-called “religion” is truly a distinct process for discovering truth. I am arguing that it is not.”

    And I disagree - religion and science use different/distinct processes to determine truth. The empirical process tests ideas (hypotheses) against the real world through systematic observation - if the observations confirm (support) the idea being tested (& repeatedly so), that tells us we may be on the right track to understanding. Confirmations through repeated systematic observations of the real world are the discovered “truths” in science, and they are always uncertain (subject to possible disconfirmation).

    Religious belief exists in a different methodological domain and does not use systematic observations of the real world to determine a truth. Truths in religions are constructed, but those constructions are not repeatedly and systematically tested against reality to discover their empirical truth.

  11. @jdfree49 “You’re making the same mistake Nancy made - conflating whether something is true with the question of whether it’s “religious”.

    Not at all conflating - a truth in a religion is arrived at in a different way than a truth in a science. Different methodological domains, each capable of generating “truth” - but not the same kinds of truth.

  12. I could not disagree more that this commentary is “trite”… By my lights this article is profound (also I feel no compunction to explain why I think the commentary is profound as you have not defined why you think it “trite”)

  13. While I am at the keyboard and while the thought occurs…

    It seems to me that politics is the grounds upon which is and ought battles. Government policies are always based on “oughts” it would seem, but fail if their implementation does not respect the “is.” Of course the ideologues (ie the religious) think this is because they did not drink enough purple Kool-Aid, not that they were drinking it in the first place. California comes to mind.

    Which illustrated another thought - people seem to vary upon an “is” and “ought” continuum. The Kavanaugh confirmation hearing was something I was thinking about last night. The number of people that KNEW Kavanaugh was guilty because we “ought” to believe all women was staggering to me. Of course, there were multitudes that said there “is” no evidence as well. It points to the duality of human nature and how the two different ways of processing the world lead to two different conclusions about what is “real.”

  14. I always got the feeling that argument was used as an after the fact rationalization, rather than a reasoned cause. They wanted Kavanaugh out simply because Trump, and the #believeallwomen was about the only thing they could come up with when pressed as to why.
    In terms of the Carl Sandburg maxim:

    If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.

    they were just pounding the table, and yelling like hell. It’s all they had.

  15. One example not mentioned yet is when the religious priesthood expiates sins of the wealthy in return for “donations”, er indulgences paid to the “church”. Modern examples would include such things as carbon credits, donations to the Southern Poverty Law Center, purchasing the Washington Post, etc.

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