In Praise of Unthinking National Religion

I think those chest-crossing Orthodox drivers are far more ontologically sophisticated than Socrates.
Image: Easter on Santorini: Georgios Michos, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons: Link to image here.
This isn’t an apologia for Orthodoxy in particular. Identical observations might be made about the mainstream of any of the great religions – from which I exclude hysterical fundamentalisms. It is a suggestion that good acts most naturally flow from good being, and good being isn’t necessarily, or even typically, informed by the kind of deliberation that philosophers usually encourage.
The Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has described Orthodoxy as the place where the Orthodox live. It is, in other words, where one has one’s being. Barring a few tortured philosophers, probably with a damning psychiatric diagnosis, nobody thinks about all or even most of the things connected with being: most of what makes life worth living by-passes cognition completely. There are intellectual pleasures and intellectual mandates, but those pleasures are dim besides those of surf, sex, the B Minor Mass, and messing about with the kids, and those mandates less urgent than that of responding impulsively and, yes, reflexively, to the sight of pain or unkindness. The idea that cognitive activities are higher than non-cognitive ones is perhaps a bequest from the notion of the Philosopher King. It has certainly been urged by philosophers ever since Plato. Well, philosophers would say that, wouldn’t they?
I’ve contended elsewhere (see here and here and here) that far too little attention is given to the rather obvious fact that almost nothing that really constitutes us and motivates us is conscious. This fact is the foundation not only of psychoanalysis but of all our understanding of ourselves and others. Someone who calculates everything is a freak. You certainly wouldn’t want to sit beside him (it would almost certainly be a him) at dinner – let alone be married to him. It is plainly nonsense to say that the unexamined life is the life not worth living – not least because almost nothing of what we are can be examined: it is below the water line.
But I’m not so sure. Religion is part of the web and weave of these Greeks: a way primarily of being, and only secondarily of doing, and often not at all of thinking, in the sense that philosophers typically mean by ‘thinking’. It’s a reflex – or at the root of a reflex –  which has ethical consequences. If one sees the right result (rather than the means to that result) as the most important thing about ethics, a reflex which produces the right result fast, invariably and unconsciously might be preferable to a process of highly cognitive deliberation which could be derailed before it produces the ethically appropriate end. And if what matters is general moral character, who is more praiseworthy: someone who is constitutionally altruistic (for instance), or someone who decides on a case by case basis whether or not to be altruistic?
The consequence of all this for practical ethics? Well, thinking about practical ethics (for instance by reading a blog like this) might sometimes diminish one’s ability to be practically ethical, by suppressing (usually because articulable reasons appear to be absent or inadequate) a reflex that might have resulted in a good act. Praxis, in most cases, surges up from subliminal regions whose processes cannot be interrogated using our usual philosophical methods. Good praxis (since we are habit-forming animals) generates further good practice.
‘Superstition, not true religion’, sneers the ardent Protestant – for whom, drawing on a Puritan tradition, diligent examination of conscience and the deliberate orientation of the will towards God are the only completely acceptable mental states. The professional philosopher typically agrees: what is philosophy, these days, other than the disciplined examination of propositions and reasons – and of course disciplined examination demands strenuous, conscious attention.
This piety isn’t reserved for Easter. Almost everyone wears a cross around their neck. Drivers, without interrupting the high volume argument with their passengers, cross themselves when they pass a church.
I mustn’t cherry-pick. There are, of course, plenty of recent and deeply depressing examples of Orthodoxy giving its name and authority to chauvinism and toxic, murderous nationalism. Yet it’s arguable that at least some of those examples are examples of behaviour that goes against the grain of the Orthodox constitution. The Orthodox reflex is of extravagant, sacrificial hospitality to strangers, for instance – a reflex wholly at odds with the xenophobia of the right wing with which institutional (as opposed to constitutional) Orthodoxy has sometimes  been allied. I’ve very often been the beneficiary. The reflex might have its roots in the mores of the Mycenaean court, but its current inflection is distinctively Orthodox. Where Orthodoxy has gone wrong, it’s often been by becoming less Orthodox – and it has done that by a deliberate, cognitive, reflex-suppressing, policy-propounding process.
I spent Orthodox Easter in Greece. Then, and for the week afterwards, the neon displays over the main roads announced ‘Christ is Risen’, and the shopkeepers wished me a ‘Good Resurrection’.
If we’re really concerned about good ethics, we should cultivate good character. There’s nothing new about that observation. The ancient and august tradition of virtue ethics is where the observation is most commonly voiced in today’s academy. Religion is out of fashion in the western academy, but it has been studying the development of character for a while, and sometimes it might be worth listening to what it has to say.
By Charles Foster