Battle in Print: The quest for certainty and the question of autonomy

Stratos Ramoglou, 25 October 2007

Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto…a man’s [sic] religion might thus be identified with his attitude, whatever it might be, towards what he felt to be primal truth.
William James
1982: 53, 34

With respect to the question, ‘Is the defining conflict of our times indeed between the religious and the non-religious or does this obscure more important questions?’ (Footnote 1), it is here demonstrated why the religious/non-religious dichotomy is potentially misleading. Developing the broadest possible understanding of religiosity, this paper argues that this dichotomy is actually disorientating us from possibly profounder ones. In order to support this thesis, it is first shown that to be religious is in essence to seek the sense of certainty that ‘adjusting oneself harmoniously’ around what one accepts as true brings. We then venture to appreciate what the ‘unseen order’ might be in our mundane everyday existence, to further comment on what this ‘mundane religiosity’ could implicate with respect to our individual autonomy.

What does it mean to be religious?

In a chaotic and otherwise senseless and incoherent life, religions offer answers to otherwise paralyzing dilemmas stemming from the infinitude of choices lying ahead. If belief is the ‘conviction that certain things are true’ (Neufeldt & Sparks, 1995: 55), then a religion may be understood as a system of convictions that equips the religious individual with certainties of how the world truly is, and the idea of God captures the supreme expression of this ideal. The need for certainties is deeply pragmatic. Telling true from false involves moral implications in our choices through forging our conceptions of what is right and wrong. In short, a religion may be understood as any system of convictions that strengthens beliefs of what is and what ought to be done, thus making an otherwise uncertain life seem controllable and predictable. From this vantage point, to be religious is to have faith that a given system of convictions provides a reliable way of dealing with otherwise paralyzing dilemmas that inescapably emerge from the ambiguity of everyday life. Any inner conviction that has a ‘dilemma-freeing’ potential is a candidate to be construed in terms of religiosity.

Notably, theologies make such convenient systems. There is no possible dilemma that cannot find an intelligible answer in a theological system. As ‘epistemic systems’, theologies provide complete narratives of the unobservable workings of the world and the ways that one ought to deal with the challenges of existence. For example, Weber (2001) taught us how the ‘work ethic’ grounded in Protestant theology has provided a fairly definitive response to the basic dilemma of how one ought to organize his/her waking life. The unambiguous support for the validity of the belief that labour is a basic duty of the good Christian liberated many people from the very foundational dilemma of allocating one’s time among a set of possible activities. Not only does the work ethic free one from a dilemma concerning the meaning of labour, but it additionally rejects a set of questions that are silenced by the very act of answering questions concerning the meaning of labour in life. For example, the dilemma ‘whether life is or is not worth living’ (Camus, 2005: 1) is ‘resolved’ in silence, and the question of suicide that for Camus is the ‘one truly serious philosophical problem’ (idem) is implicitly invalidated. It is easy to appreciate how theologies make otherwise tantalizing dilemmas vanish, but what about other systems of convictions that more inconspicuously govern our ongoing activities?

The quest for certainty in mundane religions

James has argued that ‘the life of it [religion] as a whole is mankind’s most important function’ (1982: xix, see also pp. 506). More recently ‘cognitive neuroscientists have even argued for a G(od)-spot in the brain’ (Lawson, 2002: 118) to highlight the ineliminable aspect of human nature to have faith in beings that guarantee the perfectly functioning order of things. Considering the decline of the deity-centred religiosity in Western societies, however, how does the human animal satisfy the psychostructural thirst for religious faith? Being cynical regarding the Gods of traditional societies, where are the ‘Gods’ that may be liberating us from agonizing dilemmas to be found?

It is here argued that it is the secular institutions of knowledge and power that have significantly superseded the religious ones that have traditionally satisfied our need for certainty. Consider for example the academy. The most obvious example of an academic discipline validating given beliefs with respect to the workings of the world of unobservables is medicine. Informed, for example, of the nature of invisible viruses, we do not now have to perform the rituals that our predecessors used in order to dispel imaginary demons and spirits (see Fraser, 1922). And instead of having to seek advice in the wisdom of God as conveyed by the priest of the tribe, we now turn for guidance to our doctor, who commands our epistemic attention, if not religious devotion. Doctors are thus in an important sense ‘mundane gods’. The convictions innate in medical discourse relieve the faithful patients of a multitude of dilemmas.

Consider as well the legal system. Does it not provide clear-cut answers on ethical matters that many philosophers would not even dare call solvable? If we trust Lerner’s (1980) social phenomenology, then it is the contingent socio-political arrangements of the legal institution that equip the citizen with the soothing conviction of a smoothly-functioning and ‘just world’ (cf. Tyler, 1990). The judge is in many respects an earthly god capable of delivering divine justice in our world. The same is largely applicable to the political institutions of government. If we feel ‘secure in his [God’s] parental hands’ (James, 1982: 517), do we not need to feel secure in our leaders’ parental hands? Do we not need to believe that our leaders ought to have taken care of what may be threatening our well-being? Is it not the deeply-held conviction that some governmental agency guarantees that I am not going to get poisoned by the food that I buy in a store that liberates me from an otherwise petrifying situation?

If the strengthening of our faith in secular institutions has counterbalanced the demise of traditional god-centred religions, we may now consider other sets of questions regarding what it means to be ‘secularly religious’ whilst not being conscious of this religious state. Having argued for a broader understanding of religiosity and having utilized its epistemic function for meaningfully filling the residual conceptual space, we here frame the religious/non-religious dichotomy as a question of ‘epistemic autonomy’. Differently put, conceding the unavoidability of religiosity, the question of faith now may be conceived as an issue concerning the independence of judgment that our quest for certainty tends to bestow on the supposedly superior judgment of secular institutions.

The question of autonomy

Having already considered some practical effects of having religious faith in medical opinion, we may now consider some ‘darker’ implications following the relinquishment of our judgmental autonomy to the medical authorities. In this spirit, one may easily appreciate the variety of aspects of everyday conduct that are prescribed by the medical institution. For example, the ethics of sexual contact have been significantly shaped by the dominant discourse concerning the unobservable threats associated with sexual relations. Shaping the mindframe of the ‘healthily’ functioning individual and the construction of the portrait of ‘the mad’ are also made possible on the basis of medical testimony (Foucault, 2001; Porter, 2002).

Medicine is of course a scientific improvement if we consider that witch-hunting once was accorded ‘scientific’ status for responding to similar anxieties and ensuing dilemmas. Regardless of the functionality of our institutions of knowledge and power, what is here argued is that it is the religious devotion of the individual that may implicate undesirable effects for its autonomy, if not the ‘fitness’ of institutions whose practices are ‘immunized’ from critical assessment. In other words, the problem is not our pragmatically rooted need for moral guidance. It is the forfeited autonomy that may easily be surrendered in subordinating our judgmental autonomy to mundane systems of conviction. In effect, it is the inauthentic individual who does not even imagine questioning the superior functionality of ruling societal institutions that conspires in the reproduction of meaningless, if not dangerous, states of being. Furthermore, a collective submission of individual autonomy may in turn form societies into passively tractable masses (Castoriadis, 1987).

In Conclusion

If the religious/non-religious dichotomy is distracting us from more important questions of freedom and autonomy, we need to reflect more thoroughly on the modern forms of religiosity that may be so silently affecting our lives. The call for intellectuals capable of uncovering covert forms of conformity and emancipating consciousnesses cries out for attention (Fuller, 2005; see also Furedi, 2006). In addition, even if interest in religious matters has been resurrected, religiosity has not revived because we have never been irreligious. Phenomena of religious fanaticism are simply manifestations of what the complete submission of epistemic autonomy may beget. Finally, the rise of ‘faith-based politics’ (Footnote 2) does not signify the departure from secularism, in the same fashion that the decline of traditionally understood religiosity did not signify the end of religious life.

To conclude in a Heideggerian spirit, transcending dichotomies between traditionally religious people and ‘atheistically religious’ ones, we may better appreciate the constraining leverage of religious certitudes in caging the individuality of people who unnecessarily forfeit their opportunity to fulfil their unique possibilities for an autonomous existence.


Stratos E. Ramoglou is a member of Downing College, University of Cambridge and a doctoral researcher at the Judge Business School.


Secularism vs. Religion


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