Modern Freedom and Its Discontents

Also in the Boston Review, George Scialabba on modernity and religion in the thought of Philip Rieff:

Prescribing religion without specifying any particular theology has become commonplace among social critics, particularly communitarians. They have a point. No society—for that matter, no individual—can flourish without a great deal of trust, devotion, solidarity, and self-discipline. Religion often fosters these things, and not only among coreligionists. But not all forms of freedom are equally dangerous, as Rieff seems to imply. Although untrammeled sexual freedom is not a requirement of human flourishing, any more than the untrammeled freedom to accumulate money, untrammeled intellectual freedom most certainly is. Unquestioned authority is not merely undesirable, it is impossible, a contradiction in terms. Authority is what remains after all questions have been asked, all objections posed, all doubts explored. Until then, there is only superstition or cowed silence. Religious orthodoxy, and in particular the theistic hypothesis, has had many centuries to establish its intellectual authority. Its prospects are dwindling. If trust, devotion, and the other requisites of community depend on a general belief in supernatural agencies, then the triumph of the therapeutic is probably permanent.

Well, then, can we be good without God? Certainly some people can. Marcus Aurelius, David Hume, George Eliot, John Stuart Mill, and William James—undoubtedly (all right, it’s just my opinion) the five most perfect human beings—were not theists. But of course, the existence of exceptions has never been at issue. The question is about the rest of us, run-of-the-mill humanity. What can motivate ordinary men and women to behave decently most of the time and heroically in emergencies?