The preceding analysis of religion, although it is illustrated mainly by Christianity, may enable us in a general way to distinguish the rational goal of all religious life. In no sphere is the contrast clearer between wisdom and folly; in none, perhaps, has there been so much of both. It was a prodigious delusion to imagine that work could be done by magic; and the desperate appeal which human weakness has made to prayer, to castigations, to miscellaneous fantastic acts, in the hope of thereby bending nature to greater sympathy with human necessities, is a pathetic spectacle.…
No less useless and retarding has been the effort to give religion the function of science. Mythology, in excogitating hidden dramatic causes for natural phenomena, or in attributing events to the human values which they might prevent or secure, has profoundly perverted and confused the intellect; it has delayed and embarrassed the discovery of natural forces, at the same time fostering presumptions which, on being exploded, tended to plunge men, by revulsion, into an artificial despair….
Through the dense cloud of false thought and bad habit in which religion thus wrapped the world, some rays broke through from the beginning; for mythology and magic expressed life and sought to express its conditions. Human needs and human ideals went forth in these forms to solicit and to conquer the world; and since these imaginative methods, for their very ineptitude, rode somewhat lightly over particular issues and envisaged rather distant goods, it was possible through them to give aspiration and reflection greater scope than the meaner exigencies of life would have permitted. Where custom ruled morals and a narrow empiricism bounded the field of knowledge, it was partly a blessing that imagination should be given an illegitimate sway. Without misunderstanding, there might have been no understanding at all; without confidence in supernatural support, the heart might never have uttered its own oracles. So that in close association with superstition and fable we find piety and spirituality entering the world.
Rational religion has these two phases: piety, or loyalty to necessary conditions, and spirituality, or devotion to ideal ends. These simple sanctities make the core of all the others. Piety drinks at the deep, elemental sources of power and order: it studies nature, honours the past, appropriates and continues its mission. Spirituality uses the strength thus acquired, remodelling all it receives, and looking to the future and the ideal. True religion is entirely human and political, as was that of the ancient Hebrews, Romans, and Greeks. Supernatural machinery is either symbolic of natural conditions and moral aims or else is worthless.
Now my primary argument against the hostility toward religion manifested in Objectivism and other brands of uncompromising or intolerant atheism is that it clouds the understanding. Disbelief in God becomes bigotry against all forms of theism and most adherents of religion. It introduces into the intellect a pernicious astigmatism which causes the individual to see far more of the bad than the good side of religion. Religion, when seen through this astigmatism, becomes a kind of bogeyman. A form of unbelief that began in rationality terminates in a kind of prejudice and dogmatism that is contrary to the scientific spirit. Atheism soon becomes a kind of obverse religion. In its zeal, it adopts some of the most extreme views found in the rubbish heap of outmoded scientific theories, such as physicalism, determinism, and a dogmatic form of Darwinism that would turn natural selection into the sole principle behind the evolution of human life.
While Rand and her apologists managed to avoid the absurdities of the materialistic atheists, this did not prevent them from stumbling into other absurdities, the worst of which is Rand’s ideal man, who experiences “no inner conflicts” and whose “consciousness is in perfect harmony.” The ideal man was the object of Rand’s religious worship. Her fictional heroes were her gods, the principle objects of whatever piety existed in her.
Although she disliked religion, Rand nonetheless appreciated religious emotion. She recognized its importance. Yet one must question the objects to which she addressed these emotions. Consider Santayana’s view of the rational elements of religion. He identifies piety, which he describes as “ loyalty to necessary conditions,” as one of the two phases of rational religion. Santayana’s piety, then, his religious emotions, are focused on the sources of his being: on nature, the past, his innate talents and abilities, and his “mission” in life—the goals to which his organism are naturally directed. In short, Santayana’s piety is focused on things that are real. Rand’s piety, on the other hand, is focused on a figment: on her ideal man as portrayed in such extravagant works of fiction as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
By remaining friendly to religion, Santayana was able to recognize those aspects of religion that could enrich his naturalist philosophy. In the essay “Ultimate Religion,” Santayana outlined his basic method, which involved, as he put it, an “examination of conscience” in which he found “a sort of secret or private philosophy perhaps more philosophical than [my public philosophy]: and while I set up no gods, not even Spinoza’s infinite Deus sive Natura, I do consider on what subjects and to what end we might consult those gods, if we found that they existed: and surely the aspiration that would prompt us, in that case, to worship gods, would be our truest heart-bond and our ultimate religion.”
In other words, theology, for Santayana, becomes a Socratic exercise in determining what we really value. If a God or gods did exist, what kind of ideals would they represent? What kind of ideals would they wish us to pursue? Those theists who look to theology to provide matters of fact about an existing God or gods, and those atheists who are hell-bent on denying the factual claims of dogmatic theists, have both missed the point. Theology is not about facts, it is about ideals and plumbing the depths of the human heart. But it requires a true naturalist who harbors no animus against religion or religious believers to understand and appreciate the extent to which religion, when surveyed rationally and without rancor, can enrich one’s existence and deepen one’s philosophy.