Statement At The Templeton Prize News Conference

Statement At The Templeton Prize News Conference

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I want to say first how deeply honoured I am to be chosen for the Templeton Prize.  I believe that the goal Sir John Templeton has chosen is of the greatest contemporary importance and relevance: we have somehow to break down the barriers between our contemporary culture of science and disciplined academic study (what the Germans gather in the term “Wissenschaft”) on one hand, and the domain of spirit, on the other.  This has been one of the driving goals of my own intellectual work, and to have it recognized as such fills me with an unstable mixture of joy and humility.

Sir John has seen, I believe, that the barriers between science and spirituality are not only ungrounded, but are also crippling.  They impede crucial further insight.  This case has been eloquently argued by the physicists, biologists and cosmologists who have been awarded the prize in recent years.  But I feel that now a further step is being taken.  The divorce of natural science and religion has been damaging to both; but it is equally true that the culture of the humanities and social sciences has often been surprisingly blind and deaf to the spiritual, and that in my case, the attempt to break down these barriers is being recognized and honoured.

The deafness of many philosophers, social scientists and historians to the spiritual dimension can be remarkable.  And this is the more damaging in that it affects the culture of the media and of educated public opinion in general.  I take a striking case, a statement, not admittedly by a social scientist, but by a Nobel Laureate cosmologist, Steven Weinberg.  I take it, because I find that it is often repeated in the media and in informal argument.  Weinberg said (I quote from memory): “there are good people who do good things, and bad people who do bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.”

On one level, it is astonishing that anyone who lived through a good part of the 20th Century could say something like this.  What are we to make of those noble, well-intentioned Bolsheviks, Marxist materialist atheists to a man (and occasional woman), who ended up building one of the most oppressive and murderous brace of regimes in human history?  When people quote this phrase to me, or some equivalent, and I enter this objection, they often reply, “but Communism was a religion,” a reply which shifts the goal-posts and upsets the argument.

But it’s worth pondering for a minute what lies behind this move.  The “Weinberg principle,” if I might use this term, is being made tautologically true, because any set of beliefs which can induce decent people, who would never kill for personal gain, to murder for the cause, is being defined as “religion.” “Religion” is being defined as the murderously irrational.

Pretty sloppy thinking.  But it is also crippling.  What the speaker is really expressing is something like this: the terrible violence of the 20th Century has nothing to do with right-thinking, rational, enlightened people like me.  The argument is then joined on the other side by certain believers who point out that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc., were all enemies of religion, and feel that good Christians like me have no part in such horrors.  This conveniently forgets the Crusades, the Inquisition, and much else.

Both sides need to be wrenched out of their complacent dream, and see that no-one, just in virtue of having the right beliefs, is immune from being recruited to group violence: from the temptation to target another group which is made responsible for all our ills, from the illusion of our own purity which comes from our readiness to combat this evil force with all our might.  We urgently need to understand what makes whole groups of people ready to be swept up into this kind of project.

But in fact, we have only a very imperfect grasp on this.  Some of our most insightful scholars, like René Girard, or Sudhir Kakar, have studied it.  Great writers, like Dostoevsky, have cast great light on it, but it remains still mysterious.  What is equally imperfectly understood is the way in which charismatic spiritual leadership, of a Gandhi, a Mandela, a Tutu, can bring people back from the brink.

But without this kind of spiritual initiative, the best-intentioned efforts to put human history on a new, and more humane footing, have often turned this history into a slaughter bench, in Hegel’s memorable phrase.  It is a sobering thought that Robespierre, in the first discussions on the new revolutionary constitution for France, voted against the death penalty. Yet the path to this peaceable republic, which would spare the lives of even its worst criminals, somehow led through the nightmare of the Terror.

We urgently need new insight into the human propensity for violence, and following the authors I mentioned above, this cannot be a reductive sociobiological one, but must take full account of the human striving for meaning and spiritual direction, of which the appeals to violence are a perversion. But we don’t even begin to see where we have to look as long as we accept the complacent myth that people like us (enlightened secularists, or believers) are not part of the problem.  We will pay a high price if we allow this kind of muddled thinking to prevail.

I’ve taken this example, of group violence and its supposed explanations, because it is so obviously raises urgent questions in our world.  But the barriers between our social sciences and the spiritual dimension of life are crippling in a whole host of other ways as well. I have recently been working on the issue of what we mean in describing our present civilization in the West as “secular.”  For a long time, in mainstream sociology this development was taken as unproblematic and inevitable.  Certain of the features of modernity: economic development, urbanization, rising mobility, higher educational levels, were seen as inevitably bringing about a decline in religious belief and practice. This was the famous “secularization thesis.”  For a long time, this view dominated thinking in social science and history. More recent events have shaken this conviction, even among mainstream scholars.

But well before this revision occurred, a minority of scholars were already turning the theory inside out.  In particular, David Martin in his epochal, General Theory of Secularization.  The main thrust of this work, and of others who have followed, is that secularization theory was not just factually wrong. It also misconceived the whole process.

It was indeed, true that the various facets of modernization destabilized older, traditional forms of religious life; but new forms were always being re-invented, and some of these took on tremendous importance.  David Martin has traced the development of new congregational forms through Methodism, and various waves of revival in the United States, through the birth of Pentacostal forms about a century ago, which are now spreading with great speed in all parts of the globe.  Equally far-reaching changes have occurred in Catholic Churches in many parts of the world.

Breaking out of the old intellectual mould opens up a whole new field of great importance: what are the new forms of religion which are developing in the West?  And what relation do they have to those which are growing elsewhere, in Asia, Africa, Latin America?  This is part of what I am trying to study in my work, drawing on the pioneering analyses of David Martin, on the writings of Robert Bellah, and on the recent work of younger sociologists, like José Casanova and Hans Joas.

Some of these forms, like those in which religion or confessionality becomes the basis of a quasi-nationalist political mobilization, have obviously assumed immense, even threatening proportions in our day.  We urgently need to understand their dynamic, their benefits and dangers, an area that the old framework of secularization theory hid from sight.  In this domain too, John Templeton’s insight turns out to be valid, a blindness to the spiritual dimension of human life makes us incapable of exploring issues which are vital to our lives.  Or to turn it around and state the positive: bringing the spiritual back in opens domains in which important and even exciting discoveries become possible.

I am happy to be engaged in this work, among a number of others: the sociologists I mentioned above, and some philosophers, like Alasdair MacIntyre.  I sense in this prize awarded to me a recognition not only of my work but of this collective effort.  This awakens powerful, if somewhat confused emotions: joy, pride, and a sense of inadequacy mingle together.  But above all I feel the great satisfaction of knowing that this whole area of work will acquire a higher saliency through the award of this Prize; and I feel the most heartfelt gratitude to Sir John and to the Templeton Foundation.