The Necessity of Religious Culture

Tanner Guzy recently tweeted this:

I actually disagree with him quite a bit here.

Religious cultures succeed because they can build systems and institutions that have non-materialistic fuel as a major impetus for their maintenance and the enthusiasm of their stewards.

Think of it this way, using the example of caring for the poor – in economic exchange, you have to provide value for value. A poor person provides little value. Caring for the poor is a net loss unless you have ascribed some transcendent value that can suffice. Otherwise, you get one of two undesirable scenarios (and frequently both):

  • The poor are leveraged by political actors whose power is dependent on their existence. This is the case with many welfare programs, and there is a problem in the American system wherein every single election cycle, a problem is yet again a dominant issue, and countless politicians are elected in pursuance of solving that problem; however, if that politician actually solves the problem, they need some other ground on which to justify their election. So, other issues or other legislative priorities arise which are more advantageous, and those usurp what should have been their priority.
  • A minimum provision is provided for the poor, but politically or economically provided options end up creating creating other barriers in the overall system, such as:
    1. A slightly higher paying job makes me ineligible for some government subsidy;
    2. The provision of these governmental options, its tax structure, or how it affects the economy as a whole ends up crowding out options that would allow the person to advance their economic status (tax havens for health insurance ended up enshrining health plans as linked to your employment, unemployment insurance and health insurance mandates on employers provides disincentives for employers to add employees or encourages the use of part-time rather than full-time work).

The only system of providing for the poor or providing resources to people to get out of such situations are charitable organizations who ascribe some non-economic, non-political value to it. If the only value you recognize as a society is economic or political (a product of the Enlightenment), you end up clipping these transcendent values by disavowing them unless they have the ability to overwhelm political and economic interests which have mutual backing with one another.

The public good provided in the monasteries of the medieval era is an example of the widespread nature of public charity provided only practically by religious institutions. There is some fair debate on the subject and some “poor laws” were passed in the later medieval era, but the fact that ~15 percent of the population was wholly dependent upon these monastic houses tells you something about how integral they were to society.

Likewise, public education used to be furnished by an army of male and female religious celibates in the Catholic tradition, whose numbers have dramatically fallen from their peak in the 1960s. This is an oft-overlooked problem in policy, since many of the gaps we are trying to fill used to be filled by highly efficient religious labor from these dedicated individuals.

Now, as for the second part of what he said – religious convictions. It is important not to fall into the trap of excessive focus on ideas as driving history; ideas only drive history insofar as men are willing to bear risk on behalf of those ideas and put flesh and sinew into incarnating those ideas. The idea itself is nothing without the action. So, it is better to think of those convictions represented by the institutions, though ideas have a bit more impact than merely measuring or analyzing history alone.

Many ideas are sterile or fruitless, but masquerade as enormously important merely because of how they strike the mind or because of how sophisticated or pleasant they sound in conversation; not because the idea effective drives men to create, to risk, or to resist evil. It is important to recognize that the institutions are inherently linked with whether an idea has willing defenders.

We live in a disposable age. Most of the houses we see, the cars we drive, the food we eat (and its packaging), our clothes – all of it is designed to last for far less than what we used to use for similar purposes in the recent past. I think this mindset of disposability causes us to devalue our stuff, as well as causing to be more transient. It is not necessary to think long-term, since everything we need is so available to us from a few taps of a smartphone.

Many don’t look at maps or directions to where they’re going in advance, or plan out finances for the medium or long term, or save up to buy a car rather than finance it, or build a house that will last a few hundred years in anticipation of building a dynasty. So, we think immediate. Technology exerts its will upon us to think this way.

In some cases, there is a lot of benefit from having super-cheap disposable items. In others, it is a devaluation of institutions which must last to sustain culture and creates long-term problems. It reminds me of my Father, a man who has worked in various construction/manual labor jobs all his life (now a skilled HVAC guy), who watches amateurs doing things that will work for about 5 years and then will create enormous maintenance problems down the road, whereas if they had followed a more time-tested procedure or known a bit more about chemistry, solvents, torque, etc. it would have lasted 15-20 years. But given transient building managers and transient employees with no skin in the game, this waste becomes widespread as each manager limps things along, doing a minimum, and no amount of “free market economics” actually changes this. It gets worse and worse, because it is a cultural problem.

Certainly, energetic entrepreneurs can fix such issues. But there is a delay to this actually occurring in reality; there are only so many of those types of people available, and they are often occupied elsewhere, usually where opportunities are most lucrative. There is a lot that goes undone. Entrepreneurs are not springing out of holes to fix such problems, and so there is a delay – sometimes a very long one – and a lot of damage done before such men arise, much less figure out what the real problem is. Entrepreneurship can be equated to economic leadership, where someone has a vision and assumes the risk of implementing that vision in exchange for others becoming his followers/employees (and partially joining in that risk). Leadership is always at a deficit – there can be situations where there are too many chiefs, but this is usually a situation where there is a lot more ambition than actual leadership going on.

To this point, our infrastructure in the US is badly out of date (which, granted, is largely a result of governmental factors, but is a similar symptom of bad stewardship and a lack of leadership). Most Americans are in a ton of consumer debt. Most do not plan very far into the future, and instead of investing in reading books or learning languages or otherwise improving themselves, they flitter their time away scrolling through social media or watching Netflix.

This relates to how we view statecraft within a nation, and the civilization of which it is a part. If you have a disposable mindset, your plans extend as far as your life or your immediate interests – not the survival of a civilization, nation, state, and sometimes even our own families. All of what is available to you is taken for granted. If something “works,” you do it – and the long-term problem with this sort of shortsighted pragmatism is it doesn’t actually work long term, and is much more expensive on that longer time horizon.

Obviously, killing your present guarantees you have no future; but placing all your resources into satisfying the present also guarantees you have no future.

With this frame in mind, the question at hand is whether religion is indispensable for the state, which I’ll tackle more properly at another time.

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