What is religion?
I have to deal with this question because my dissertation is about the desire for immortality in the liberal tradition. Basically, when you’re talking about a desire to live on after the unavoidable death of your body (immortality), you’re getting into religion. There is not physical proof that anyone lives on after the death of their body, but there are truth claims made by religions that this is exactly what happens.
Here is a passage from 1 Corinthians:
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
So when I talk about the desire for immortality, the Christian can relate this concept to salvation, the promise of heaven and eternal life.
I think that this desire is important because it influences behavior in a fundamental way. Through the Christian religion, it helps get people to church on Sundays, it helps get lovers in front of priests and preachers to commit their lives to each other, it gets some in confessional booths to reflect and take ownership of sins. It teaches an ethic that people are willing to listen to and accept, and perhaps most influentially, to pass on to their children. Some aspects of this ethic are consistent with the public philosophy of the time, some clearly are sometimes not.
But many people do not think of religion as being rooted in the desire for immortality. In ethics, yes, in obedience and submission to God, yes, but the desire for immortality? It seems to make religion something lower by saying it appeals to our fundamental self-interest.
My thinking is that religion could never take root if it did not appeal to self-interest, and when we see how much of the world is religious, presently and across history, the self-interest that religion appeals to seems quite universal.
Plato presents an argument in his dialogue Symposium that the desire for immortality is woven into our desire for happiness. Can you imagine not wanting to be happy? Can you imagine being happy and wishing that happiness to ever end? Probably not. So, your desire for permanent happiness implies that you also desire to live forever. If you die, then you’re alienated from your ability to be happy. Nobody wants that, so we all want to live forever.
Of course, it isn’t easy to believe that any of us will live forever. So it seems quite natural that we don’t think about desiring immortality, even when we are participating or identifying with religion.
There are other views of religion of course. Right now, for example, I am revising my dissertation chapter on John Dewey. Dewey thinks that religions like Christianity have artificially stimulated a desire for immortality, with bad results. He thinks we do, however, have a natural function or capacity that can be called religious. This is our ability to desire perfection in ourselves and in our society.
That seems a little bit abstract, but try relating it to our desire for happiness. Religion, in the Christian understanding or in Dewey’s understanding, relates to our desire for happiness in some way. We can feel our unsatisfied desires and comfort them in hopes of an afterlife where happiness is complete and eternal, or we can work to change this world and ourselves such that we will be happy while we live here.
Dewey still taps into the desire for immortality, I think, because this desire to perfect our world is understood by him as the work of generations. If we cannot be immortal, let our species and its environment be as perfect and as long-lasting as possible, and let us invest ourselves in that process, and live on through our contributions. And I think like the Christian religion, this understanding of natural religion can be used to influence behavior and to establish an ethic that people are willing to listen to, to accept, and to propagate.
At a time when it feels like the simplest facts are disputed, perhaps we can appreciate more than ever how profound the accomplishment has been by religions of all sorts to gather their believers. We see that people believe what they want to believe, and religions know what to tell them.