Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Rise of the Welfare State and the Death of Religion

One more take from the Pew Forum interview, this time from Ross Douthat's comments. Douthat makes this interesting correlation between the rise of the welfare state in Europe and the death of religion there:

Maybe these things are completely unrelated, but it is true that the European model of society seems to be at once – it seems that Christianity – let’s put it this way – it seems that Christianity has flourished much more intensely in a more freewheeling, free-market, capitalistic society than it has in the welfare states of Europe, which were often designed – I mean the leaders of Europe in the 1940s and ’50s from Clement Atlee to Konrad Adenauer and so on were often intensely Christian politicians who had a Dionne-ish view, shall we say, of the obligations that Christians in the public sphere have.

And I think 50 years on, you can look at their work and say, well, to a certain extent, Europe is a model for Christians in terms of how it treats the poor and how the welfare states work and so on. But at the same time, it seems to have completely drained the life out of religion in Europe. And it’s drained the life, to a certain extent, out of European society I think, the declining birthrates of Europe –. Again, you can overstate this problem, as many conservatives do, but it is a real problem and particularly a problem for Christians who look to Europe in any way as a model.

I think Douthat is completely wrong about this. I think the "death" of religion in Europe came about because Europe was home to hundreds of years of religiously inspired wars followed by religious complicity and/or silence in the face of the hideous crimes of the Nazis. I think the argument can be made that religion needed to die in Europe because it had lost its soul.

Douthat, though, is making the interesting argument that if the welfare state does too good a job taking care of people they won't need religion. In other words religion thrives best in a society more like America where "freewheeling" capitalism creates economic losers and a perpetual state of fear and uncertainty about the future - what happens if I lose my job, will I have healthcare, will I be able to feed my family, etc. In this fearful environment people will turn to religion to make them feel better, and religion will have something to do - feed the poor. This is all good for religion.

What rubbish.

Any religion that is worth its salt cares about the welfare of the people, especially those living on the margins. While charity is an appropriate response to immediate suffering and need, it is clear that the welfare state is much better equipped to improve the economic lot of whole swaths of the population and lessen the angst of living in an uncertain world. Any religion worth its salt ought to support this.

If religion needs suffering to survive, or worse, if it actively supports an economic system that creates poverty and suffering as a natural part of its DNA, then that religion is morally bankrupt and it, too, needs to die.

Can we not move beyond a guilt-ridden, fear-based expression of, and purpose for, religion?

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