How will religion affect the future of America and the West? Forty scholars and public intellectuals gathered at AEI on October 26 and 27 to discuss religion in relation to politics, art, science, and other topics. In sessions organized by AEI’s W. H. Brady Program in Culture and Freedom and moderated by AEI president Christopher DeMuth, participants gathered to listen to prepared papers and engage in free-wheeling discussion.
AEI president Christopher DeMuth and national fellow David Gelernter
AEI’s George Frederick Jewett Scholar, Michael Novak, commented that Europeans today define themselves not historically but by philosophical abstractions. Senator Pera replied, “Countries need historical and cultural connections to their freedoms and institutions. We cannot have a cosmopolis based on varying cultures.” Joseph Bottum of First Things added that in the wake of religious collapse, European political unification will remain problematic.
In a session on religion and politics, John C. Green of the University of Akron discussed the overwhelming propensity of religious traditionalists to vote for Republicans, emphasizing the heightened salience of social issues for traditionalists. The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes responded that “cultural conflict will continue and accelerate dramatically,” arguing that politics will be increasingly characterized by religious fissures.
AEI’s Henry Wendt Scholar, Nicholas Eberstadt, and W. H. Brady Doctoral Fellow, Christopher Levenick, spoke about demography. Eberstadt offered statistical evidence for the decreased fertility of the irreligious. Levenick described the correlation between fertility and religious fervor not as causative, but suggested that traditional Roman Catholic theology’s emphasis on the sacrality of human life and family points to a connection.
The New Criterion’s Roger Kimball spoke about the arts in three dimensions: as a handmaiden to, rival of, and substitute for religion. He concluded: “Culture is not enough. We must have religion, or else have materialism, dealing with its attendant crises.” Secularization, he said, is no guarantee of artistic quality. AEI’s W. H. Brady Scholar, Charles Murray, commented that great art endures because it taps into truth, beauty, and goodness--themes best expressed in a religious milieu, if not by believers themselves. Hence Beethoven--not a Christian but living in a Christian society--drew on transcendental beauty in his compositions.
In one of the liveliest sessions, participants addressed religion and science. Leon R. Kass, AEI’s Hertog Fellow, looked at the issue through the prism of Genesis, arguing that science can neither legitimate nor negate the creation narrative. Genesis, he said, urges humans to seek transcendence; it does not tell us how the universe came into being but rather that it came into being at all. Notwithstanding its progress and achievements, science cannot provide us with total knowledge. AEI national fellow David Gelernter proposed that we view science and religion not as enemies but as disciplines in harmony. In the discussion that followed, University of Delaware physicist Stephen M. Barr remarked that science and religion do not contradict each other but that they have become estranged over the past century.
Pepperdine University’s Douglas Kmiec spoke about how the human yearning for the divine is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and how it leads to the freedoms secured in the Bill of Rights. It is in light of that desire, he said, that the Constitution’s religious freedom guarantees should be interpreted.
The final session’s presenters addressed the “end of the secular age.” Michael Novak argued in his paper that in coming years, secular claims to enlightenment will be recognized as premature. Roger Scruton of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences responded that secularism’s failure is not intellectual but moral. Religion, despite excesses, provides answers to fundamental human desires for transcendence and community. “Remove religion,” he said, “and you will not remove the desire. You will remove the antidote to longing.”
For more information about this event, visit www.aei.org/event1406/.