Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Two Aspects of Religion

Originally posted on March 16, 2008

Traditional religions combined law and spirituality, but in the modern age, law and civility in general has become separated from the more mythic elements of spirituality. Where there has evolved a rather vigorous sense of civility, secularism shows its more progressive side, and law and civility is a sort of secular religion—in the sense of deeply being linked (the Latin word root of religio imples yoked or tied, and related also to the Sanskrit word, Yoga) to values. People steeped in cultural values of waiting your turn, being fair, helping those who need help, including a sense of the therapeutic where it is called for, following the rules of order in meetings, traffic rules, public duty and service, giving charity, and the like, can have a very strong sense of morality without any recourse to other mythic or supernatural images or stories. Secularism, well-developed, in the sense of its commitment to values, might be thought of as quasi-religious.

An intermediate form is hinted at in Buddha’s eightfold path, which expresses an ethos of moderation, closer to the Greek philosophical sensibility. The more pure forms of Buddhism don’t involve concerns with after-life (much less previous lives), nor images or doctrine about “supreme being(s), and recognize these as unnecessary, distracting stories that tend to re-embed people in illusion. Of course, the folk religion that grew up around Buddha’s teachings have tended to restore much of the supernatural myth-making, ritual, magical thinking concerns because they are demanded by and appeal to the more immature, childish needs of a culture. If a religion is to appeal to children it tends to pander to their mentality.

In an era where civil law is insufficiently established—and that would apply to much of the world before the 18th through the 20th centuries—and even then only in small sub-cultures, for the most part, until around the mid-20th century—, then traditionalism makes more sense. It fights the forces that slip back to barbarism, a lack of civility or thoughtfulness.

More recently, as the struggle in some circles for mere civility has been settled, psychological energies are released so that new types of desires are encouraged such as personal relevance and spiritual connectedness (and even more connectedness as mysticism). Another value is ths added, that of the esoteric or the goodness of penetrating the obvious to reach to the more subtle essence of things.

However, the quest for personal relevance or mystical experience tends to require some accommodation with the questor’s unique and personal combination of background, temperament, thinking patterns, other interests, tastes, and abilities—in short, the individuality of the questor. As a side effect, the images and mythic figures used as tools along the way tend to accumulate equally individualistic elements so that it may be correct to use the term, “personal symbol system.”  For example, a person might integrate the story or imagined personhood of Jesus in a way that is unavoidably and perhaps inexplicably different in certain minor or major ways from anyone else. As a result, a religion that would work with this kind of individuality of personal symbols or meaning would have to move beyond literalism or dogma and work mainly with deeper, more abstract principles. (On my website I have a series of lectures on inter-faith spirituality that holds this idea as one of the root assumptions.) I think the traditionalists who mix a measure of legalism (and who need to extend their influence into the civil domain or law) operate in a different worldview from the individualists who seek an increasing separation of the legalistic elements in religion with the established civilizing power of a mature secular culture.

The problem involves those who are in-between. Lacking sufficient passion for self-discipline and a willingness to be modest in desires, many people live excessively. If they don’t actually become engaged in irresponsible sexuality or violence, they indulge in it in their imaginations—they lust and kill in their hearts. To these folks, the traditionalists invoke the persuasive power of myth to lure them back into a more disciplined fold. The secularists tend to preach the abstract values of rationality and being sensible, but there remains a degree of permissiveness—a side effect of the highly-valued freedom—so that those less passionately devoted to ethics can regress into more childish self-indulgence, cheating, manipulating, egocentricity, laziness, and other forms of subtle barbarism.

This contemplation is in reaction to reading a satirical piece about the Roman Catholic Church in the Onion; and then reading another piece that was quite serious about a middle-of-the-road Catholic bishop who is trying to apply the implied wisdom of the structure of the church to the world. Recently, I encountered a presentation of a neighbor, an orthodox Jew, and felt similarly inspired to experience community, sacredness, meaning, and involvement through following the traditional laws and customs. I realized that although I didn’t feel similar attractions, these folks had a passion about life that I found attractive—more so than a more casual and slightly alienated attitude of many other contemporaries.

My Own Biases

I realized that indeed, one aspect of my “secular religion” was the ethos of mid-20th-century America, of rationalism, courtesy, a duty to community, a strong sense of propriety regarding voting, giving blood, following the traffic laws, and so forth. If caught fudging, one should feel appropriately guilty and apologetic. I realized in my contemplation that this is sort of an ethical yet very deeply experienced, quasi-religious, attitude. It was reinforced by the American propaganda and mainstream media of World War II and then the post-war elevation of bourgeois values.

While many people were portrayed as going to church, this was a gesture more of community than of an individual desire for spiritual or mystical connection. Indeed, such concerns were “off the table” for most people, and politicians were not probed as to their degree of devotion or belief. My point here is that civility itself had become a sufficiently powerful religion.

In my life, there were three or four other reinforcing civilities: One was my Jewish, second- or third-generation Jewish immigrant ethnicity which, for the most part, had adapted and adopted the values of mainstream, tolerant America. Less-observant and non-observant Jews seemed to be in the great majority. (That began to shift again back towards orthodoxy in many quarters in the 1970s and beyond for reasons too complex for comment here.) Point is that being a “mensch” was a high value. Mensch is Yiddish for man, person–beyond gender–someone solid, with good character. I use the term to refer to the kind of person you’d like your kid to marry when she or he grows up.

Another value for me was medicine, being a doctor, helping people, being dedicated, not charging too much money, being willing to get up in the middle of the night, respond to those calls for help, and stuff like that. Medicine in the 1950s seemed to me to be a very idealistic field, and I loved it. It was also supremely interesting to me. Looking back, it carried this secularist, rationalist religion and some of the passion I felt needed to go with it.

The 1950s were themselves a time of nobility and high ideals. Authority still possessed integrity in the minds of young people. Experts were believed and there were no “un-intended consequences.” Again, this reinforced the sense that secularism was highly moral.

Overshooting the Mark

I see the pattern of trends over-shooting the mark in individual lives and in culture. Kids try to avoid being like whatever qualities they found obnoxious in their parents or teachers, and often go too far. Their kids then have to try to go back while avoiding going “too” far back—but they, too overshoot the mark. Permissiveness and rigidity is only one dimension. Respect for authority and suspicion of corruption by those in power—another swing of the pendulum. (The analytical psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung called this tendency of things to go back and forth between extremes “enantiodromia.”)

The 1960s instituted such an era, richly reinforced by the growth of scandal magazines, the reduction among journalists of the constraint of “discretion” regarding public figures, the blatant bigotry of many adults who otherwise claimed to be worthy of respect (especially during the civil rights struggle), and of course, the generation gap occasioned by the Vietnam War—hawks versus doves. Around that time, corporations began to buy each other out, leading to downsizing and a reversal of the ethos of loyalty—i.e., the sense that believing that the company as “big brother” would take care of you was violated repeatedly, generating a sense of betrayal and an abrogation of the inner obligation to be loyal. The list goes on and on, but suffice it to say that the ethos of civility has become far more ambiguous, and into that ambiguity have poured cheaters and scam artists. Into the sexual revolution has come not only feminism but also excess. By the 1980s, a reaction to this vacuum in “values” was beginning to gather energy.

Analysis: Two Types of “Religion”

This analysis notes that three subcultural streams have emerged, each articulating different values: One stream involves secular civility mixed with a passion for ethics. (These folks are troubled by the word, “religion,” and so would deny the quasi-religious elements in their ethos. For them, the problems of authority, purity, and loyalty are less pressing because they’ve been absorbed into a well-functioning social fabric. This divergence has also been commented on by Jonathan Haidt, speaking of five foundations for morality: ( podcast:   or paper: ).

The second stream, between the secular and traditional, is turbulent and confused. It is immature and flailing around, amoral and not infrequently immoral. This stream is flourishing between the streams of noble secularism and traditionalism.

The third stream, traditionalism, considers the danger of the second stream to have been provoked by the laxity of the secularist stream. The second stream is viewed as a kind of neo-barbarism, and needs to be addressed by the traditions in which loyalty, purity, and authority are meaningful values. Here secularism is simply seen as too flabby and the edge of supernatural authority needs to rein in these backsliders. Orthodoxy makes more sense with such a worldview. This has also become part of the tension between liberals and conservatives. From the conservative point of view, liberalism is not really effective, it is illusory, it doesn’t evoke sufficient actual loyalty and respect. It would be nice if it did, perhaps, but it doesn’t. So a bit more of an authoritarian approach really is needed.

I see in this analysis an echo of Ivan’s story of The Grand Inquisitor embedded in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. What if the Inquisitor is right? What if Jesus’ desire that people should love His message freely is indeed premature, and that for this epoch, humans still require the Church’s benign yet firm dictatorship based on miracles, the capacity to provide food, and its marriage to civil power? (And perhaps liberals believe that the Inquisitor is wrong: If you give humanity freedom, it will rise to the occasion.)

Finally, I see this analysis as also reflected in the writings of Don Beck and Ken Wilber on “spiral dynamics”—describing the different sub-cultural stages—particularly the “blue” traditionalists, the “green” liberalists, and the in-between “orange” modernists who lapse into thinking like “red” hyper-individualists or tribal competitors—the kinds of folks the more organized-religion-civilizations think of as barbaric.


This essay may help to explain the tensions between the more traditionalist, fundamentalist, or orthodox religious advocates in culture and the more secular and modern (or even postmodern) advocates. I am suggesting that the latter group has an implicit religious-like commitment to values apart from any supernatural reference, and finds the former group too caught up in unnecessary dogma. In turn, the traditionalist group finds the liberal group unrealistically lax and permissive. Neither group supports the amorality of those who are lax, a group that, on closer inspection, may well be divided between those who give lip service to traditional religion and those who claim to be more secular.

Open to comments.

3 Responses to “Two Aspects of Religion”

  • Stephen Rose says:

    Interesting essay and blog. In my time I worked at the children’s ward of the NY State Psychiatric Institute and at Austen Riggs Center (when both Erikson and Rapaport were there) so I consider myself a sort of Zelig when it comes to your field. 🙂 Found your blog because I have a google alert out for Ken Wilber whose Spectrum of Consciousness I value but of whose color coded system I am critical. Cheers, S

  • In reality, no single religion could guarantee us a place in Heaven. In the end, what matters is how we a treat other people.'”.

  • what matters most is the good deeds that we do on our fellow men, it does not matter what religion you have as long as you do good stuffs :.`

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