Religion and Politics

“Faced with change, those who feel threatened by it turn to religion as a source of stability, an expression of the things that do not change. The global market tends to reduce all things to economic terms. Religion offers a different kind of solace. It speaks of the dignity of the person and the power of the human spirit. It tells us that we are more, or other, than what we earn or what we buy. In the fast moving world economy there are winners and losers. Life takes on a ruthless, Darwinian struggle for survival. Religion reminds us that there are other sources of self-worth. We are not necessarily set against one another in a win-or-lose competition.”

“Most importantly, no other system does what religion has traditionally undertaken to do, namely to offer an explanation of who we are and why, of our place in the universe and the meaning of events as they unfold around us. The great post-Enlightenment systems – science, economics, and political ideologies – have all retreated from their earlier roles as overarching philosophies. Science has become descriptive, economics transactional, and politics ever more managerial. They tell us what and how but not why. We turn to them to get what we want, but not to know what we ought to want. That is their power, but also, from another perspective, their weakness. Never before have we been faced with more choices, but never before have the great society-shaping institutions offered less guidance on why we should choose this way rather than that. The great metaphors of our time – the supermarket, cable and satellite television and the Internet – put before us a seemingly endless range of options, each offering the great deal, the best buy, the highest specification, the lowest price. But consumption is a poor candidate for salvation. The very happiness we were promised by buying these designer jeans, that watch or this car, is what the next product assures us we do not yet have until we have bought something else. A consumer society is kept going by an endless process of stimulating, satisfying, and re-stimulating desire. It is more like an addiction than a quest for fulfilment.”

“The twenty-first century has arisen on the ruins of the twentieth, an age in which many of the great political ideologies – fascism, socialism, communism, even nationalism – were discredited. In Fukuyama’s vision of the future we sense the return of a hope once expressed in the eighteenth century, that trade would do what politics did not: tame passions, domesticate man the fighter into man the producer and consumer, and lock nations into a win-win network of mutual exchange. The amalgamation of the nation states of Europe, which had spent the previous centuries in intermittent war, into the European Union seemed to be one augury. The collapse of the Soviet Union was another. What this overlooked, then as now, is that homo sapiens is not only, or even primarily, a maximising animal, choosing rationally between options. We are uniquely a meaning seeking animal. Our most fundamental questions are Who am I? and To which narrative do I belong? The great hope of the liberal imagination, that politics could be superseded by economics, replacing public good with private choice, was bound to fail because economics as such offers no answer to the big questions of ‘Who’ and ‘Why.’ Religion does, and that is its power in the contemporary world. The politics of ideology may have died, but it has been replaced not by ‘the end of history’ but by the politics of identity.”

The Dignity of Difference, Chapter 1, p. 34