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Figure and Ground

Looking back over my post from yesterday questioning whether human rights require a theistic “grounding,” (and thank-you to Rod Dreher and to Michael Brendan Dougherty for their comments, and to Daniel Larison for weighing in on his blog), what I notice is a strenuous quality to my argument – a quality that, in my opinion, I share with many of the people I’m arguing with. That’s a quality that I’ve learned to interrogate: I find I often learn more by asking “why do you care so much about this?” than by simply pursuing the argument on its own terms. So I want to put myself back in the picture, by way of justifying (or at least explaining) the strenuousness of my argument. Apologies if what follows feels like “me! me! me!” – feel free not to read it if you don’t like that sort of thing.

I’m very familiar with the line of argument that the “D” brigade – Douthat, Dreher, Dougherty – are taking, because it’s a line of argument I bought and promulgated not that long ago. And I’ve come to view it with suspicion because I feel it failed me in my own life.

I went through a fairly religious phase in my late-20s to mid-30s, and one of the primary motivations for that phase was, precisely, to have a kind of “grounding” for living rightly. That grounding was both philosophical – how can I know what living rightly means? Religion will provide me with a guide – and social – how can I sustain a rightly-lived life? A religious community will provide me with support.

The problem is: I am not an island. And the necessity of following this guide to life resulted in persistent and unresolvable conflicts within my family. These weren’t so much conflicts over specific religious issues – those can always be negotiated. Fundamentally, they were conflicts over precisely the fact that I now had a “ground” for my reasons, an authority I could appeal to that, from an outside perspective, looks arbitrary. Tyrannical, even.

Now, if I had been a more mature person, I would have recognized that this was going on, and I would have also recognized that my own religious tradition places a very high value on shalom bayit – peace in the home – and that what I needed to do wasn’t to order my household but to order myself, and set a positive example of what the life I wanted to lead meant. If that attracted others in my life to join me, well and good; if not, then I would have to navigate the inevitable compromises with good cheer. That’s what I should have done if I had been more mature.

But I wasn’t more mature. Indeed, that desire for religion as a “ground” strikes me as prima facie evidence of my emotional immaturity. I was turning to religion as a short-cut to maturity, a substitute for the hard work of knowing myself.

There is no such short-cut. I feel that very strongly now. That doesn’t mean that religion is valueless – quite the opposite. But when somebody says what sounds like “it’s only religion that keeps us from behaving like savages” I think: that person is afraid he will behave like a savage. And if he is turning to religion to save him from himself, he will find no salvation. He must first know himself, because only by that route can he allow himself to be saved (and I use “allow himself” deliberately; even if you don’t believe in God, and believe that all these dynamics are happening inside an individual person, there is such a thing as getting out of your own way). Religion may or may not help in that process; that, I think, varies between individuals. But there’s no short-cut. My text on this topic, as I think I’ve mentioned before, is Tolstoy’s short novel, Father Sergius.

I think the arguments I made in my original post and in the comments are strong ones, but that’s not why the topic matters to me. It matters to me because it’s personal. That’s usually the way it is with things that matter.

Arguing that people “need” religion strikes me as an enormous waste of time. It will not convince anyone who really believes otherwise, and the people it does convince will have been convinced out of fear. And fear is a cancer; it is no stable ground for faith. The only thing – literally the only thing – to do if you care about your faith – including the faith that you don’t need God to be good, if that’s what you believe – is to live it, for its own sake. If you do that, you don’t need to do anything else. If you don’t do that, nothing else you do matters.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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