I need to distinguish between “religion” and a moral sensibility that is more general. Santayana famously pointed out the problem of using the word “religion” to refer to something shared by all human beings:
“Any attempt to speak without speaking any particular language is not more hopeless than the attempt to have a religion that shall be no religion in particular . . . . Its power consists in its special and surprising message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life.”
The moment we use the word religion to refer to something common to human beings we strip the concept of any significance; in that general sense the concept is vapid, insipid, jejune. It is not “religion” that inspires, justifies and animates extreme commitments, it is particular religious ideals associated with Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Krishna and heroic figures whose causes seem worth embracing: Sayyed Qutb, Mother Theresa, etc.
Moral sensibility is, on the contrary, something that we all as human beings share. We all as human beings share it. We can all be outraged. Human beings everywhere share, I assume, the sense that some things going on in our world are outrageous and reprehensible. Assad’s gassing of his own people – 426 children, we hear – was an act so monstrous as to require worldwide opprobrium. And for some of us the inability of the great powers in the world to punish his regime for gassing his own people – scarcely worse than the thousands of his own citizens he has murdered through more conventional means – is equally scandalous.
Analytically the failure to distinguish between the moral sensibility that we all share as human beings and the specific religious traditions that give specific shape to such feelings had led to such nonsensical notions that religion should be avoided because in the name of religion so many atrocities have been committed.
The moral imagination expresses itself in many more forms than mere “religion”. It is a powerful device in politics, specifically political rhetoric. The great speeches of public leaders are great because they put into verbal form the sentiments of many ordinary people. The great memorials “work” because somehow in their form they express the collective sensibilities of a people: the Vietnam memorial is still an effective vehicle of collective and individual grief, evident in the number of people who come to that black wall of granite, place their hand on a name and weep. You don’t have to be religious to share in that experience but you and I are able to recognize the deep feelings that some folks attach to the scratchings on a block of stone.
Deep feeling, expressed in whatever form, is moral in a fundamental sense. And in that sense words for it are hard to come by. That people call it “religious” is understandable but it is better referred to as moral imagination. Bruce Kapferer has stressed that religion and patriotism are fundamentally similar. Yes, they are alike in their ability to enlist through various forms – flag, statues, songs, gestures, poetry – the moral sensibilities of a people.
Somehow we are born with it, all of us. And it colors our judgment of each other and even ourselves, at least when we can be honest with the truth. This is why we all love to be self-righteous: moral outrage is a privilege we all indulge in. But it is as fundamental as the pre-language qualities we were born with. Through experience we learn how to give vent to such feelings, those fundamentally moral sentiments that inform and animate our experiences. We acquire those devices of moral expression as we acquire articulate speech and other conventions of sociality.
Moral imagination: this is the fundamental animus of human sacrifice and significance. Can this term in a more exact way capture what it is to be human?