Religion is Not Essential (Coronavirus)

Western Wall in Jerusalemnot essential1not essential3

Whose labor is essential? Whose labor is not essential? That’s the question. In modernization/secularization theory a lot of ink gets spilled about the public sphere in relation to the religious sphere. There’s the notion contested this way and that way in the scholarly literature that, in liberal society, the public sphere is or should be empty of religion, that the public sphere should be free of religion, that religion belongs or should belong to the private sphere. Conservatives argue and some liberals concede that without religion the public sphere has none of the value, meaning and purpose that, putatively, only religion can give to it. In Political Theology and Post-Secularism, the converse argument is that religion is always social, and that society is always “religious,” that the so called liberal public sphere fills up with crypto religious messaging and meaning about sovereign power, that the the secular as a “separate” sphere is just an ideological illusion or political construct peculiar to the Christian west.

But now as societies begin to adjust their response to the contagion of Coronavirus we see a new thing, secular to the nth degree. The religious public sphere is now empty and emptied out. There’s no one there. Everyone is at home, or supposed to be. It might only last for a moment. But for now there’s the ghastly emptiness of  sacred space. Without the crowds of people and their animating presence these places are corpse-like. Religion no longer “matters,” not even inside its own “distinct” place. Conservative religious authorities resisted in their initial responses the social-distancing health protocols demanded by secular authorities to secure human life because they understood something important. Religion is a social phenomenon, but society is not religious. Religion was always “ornamental.” Religion is not essential.

[[PS: I am noting on the FB conversation to this post the liberal implication in the implicit move made by some of my friends and colleagues in their critical push back, appealing as it does to what is effectively “private” religious domains and experience. Am I putting too much attention to institutional, i.e. organized, religion? According to one friend-colleague, avodas ha’shem (the service/worship/labor of God) is anywhere, i.e. “wherever.” Two others point to the genuine succor of religion for patients and families suffering the pandemic. Another notes the rise of domestic Judaism after the Hurban. I’m citing by way of contrast this line from Proverbs because it captures the social, i.e. mass, aspect of the religious life of religion: In the multitude of people is the king’s glory; but in the lack of people is the ruin of a prince (14:28)]]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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2 Responses to Religion is Not Essential (Coronavirus)

  1. Charles Cohen says:

    ” Religion is not essential.” Sure, we can do without public religious gatherings for the length of a plague. Whether religion is essential _in the long run_ — that’s a whole other question.

    I participate in a Hebrew chant group. We just had our largest-ever attendance (around 40 people) last Sunday — all through Zoom! Nobody had to drive anywhere! We were located mostly in Vancouver BC and Ottawa. It would have been nice to sit in the same room, but one learns to make do with the possible.

    • zjb says:

      yes, yes, but the question is whether the tech can stand on its own or if a tactile person to person modus vivendi is essential to religion in its lived communal dimension

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