Prominent public intellectuals, as opposed to us obscure private ones, often brashly castigate religious thinking. They may be aware that the vast majority of the world’s population is religious, but there’s a kind of arrogance that comes with public adulation, I suppose. I was just reading about the European Middle Ages and I was reminded once again just how seriously religion was taken and how the very foundation of civilization is based on it. During said Medieval Period everyone knew—note I don’t say “believed”—knew that human beings had eternal souls. They also knew there were eternal consequences to our actions and therefore correct religion was absolutely essential. The Enlightenment began to change some aspects of received wisdom, but not all. Many intellectuals who led the charge still believed in God and Heaven and Hell.
Whenever I consider the sorry state of academic religious studies today, and look at how politics are unfolding, my thoughts turn to history. Just because we no longer think in a certain way is no reason to forget just how formative religion is to human life. The Republican Party has cynically accepted this as a means to power. While leaving left-leaning intellectuals to debate their choices, they roll toward electoral victory. They acknowledge that people are religious, and that’s what it takes to win their trust. Where was Dawkins when Brexit was decided? It may not have been religiously motivated, but nationalism is closely tied to religious thinking. While religious thought may be gullible it’s not necessarily so, and without those who think religiously there’s no way to a true majority.
I’ve always had more questions than answers, and one of my largest unanswered ones is why prominent public intellectuals don’t think studying religion is important. Religious thinking isn’t going away just because they say it is. In fact, the data show exactly the opposite. The Middle Ages are quite instructive for understanding the way people behave. Although belief in the religious structures may be eroded, people still want to find a way to continue their impact beyond their earthly lives. Modern Nimrods are just as concerned with image as religiously motivated Nimrods were. To understand where we are it’s necessary to look back. Looking back entails a certain comfort level with ways of thinking that many moderns find embarrassing. Religion is part of who we are. Looking around we can see the consequences of denying it.