Marx famously said that the obsession of the Germans with religion testified to their political and economic backwardness. But maybe it would be simpler to point out that people who are interested in ideas but have no connection to power naturally gravitate to subjects that sound important. The vanity of these earnest small timers calculated that the loftiness of the topic would compensate for their own insignificance. Hey, works for me. But there are perhaps better excuses for thinking about religion now if not in 1848. I don’t refer only or especially to the power of religious pressure groups in the U.S. or the salience of religious language in expressing cultural dissatisfaction. To use, not without premeditation, a Levi-Straussian expression, religion is good to think.
One can learn a lot about mankind from a consideration of the history of science or mathematics, but those cognitive enterprises are contaminated with authentic, non-human content. The errors of science may teach us about ourselves, but its truths teach us about triangles, moths, or neutrinos. For the philosophical anthropologist, theology is a much better object of study because its development has not been deformed by non-human input. In the absence of real gods, spirits, and devils, theology’s elaborate doctrines have been prepared in a vacuum like the especially pure chemicals they crystallize on the space shuttle.
I’m aware that this take on religions sounds rather like a well-known thesis of Feuerbach. In part it is, which is rather inconvenient granted Feuerbach’s dubious reputation. On the other hand, Auguste Comte was also right about several very important issues; and he’s even duller than Feuerbach. If they’re right, they’re right. But I draw more modest conclusions from all this than Feuerbach did. In studying the sociology of religion I don’t expect to discover a grand, though alienated human essence because I don’t see much evidence that there is such a thing. I expect that the realities that underlie the fictive rationality of religion comprise a pretty irregular collection headlined by the immutable laws of marketing.