Religion and the Human Prospect

Alexander Saxton

Religion and the Human Prospect
(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007).

In Religion and the Human Prospect, historian Alexander Saxton asks the most vital question facing humanity today. How can humanity save itself from the twin threats of environmental destruction and accidental nuclear annihilation? He sees initial possibilities in four grand institutional structures that form the active core of our social lives. He identifies and addresses them as follows: (a) Our “scientific/technological establishment” is part of the problem itself; it created the technologies that are the threat. (b) Nation-states do not offer much hope either, as they focus narrowly on their own interests, disregarding humanity at large. (c) “Corporate industry” is, again, the source of one of the problems (global warming) and indirectly the cause of the other. And then there is (d) “institutionalized religion,” which is the focus of the book.

In examining religion’s potential, Saxton provides a comprehensive analysis of the history and role of religion in human life. He writes, “My main line of inquiry will be historical – to seek out and examine instances in the past when religion actually worked (or failed to work) as a saving resource for particular groups, or the human species at large” (24f). The book then covers a great deal of ground exploring the possibility that religion can offer some saving resource to organize humanity, particularly to alter our ecological condition. Saxton observes that religion has been constructive in some times and places, in its contribution to the historical formation of consciousness. There is good reason to believe that religion is co-extensive with consciousness, if not prior to it. This is the basis on which religion might offer relief in the current crisis.

Sadly, in the end, Saxton’s conclusion is negative for two reasons, one practical and one theoretical. On the practical side, Saxton finds that religion is not a source for morality; it serves to reinforce moral norms, not to create them. On a more theoretical level, religion cannot take our current predicament as seriously as is necessary, because religion is devoted to something other than our life today. Whatever its form, religion tends to emphasize “individual ‘salvation’ – rather than, say, preservation of our species or biological life on earth” (193). Thus religion gives priority to issues other than human survival, offering “ideological armor for the politics of denial” (77).

While this seems generally convincing,1 Saxton weakens his case by giving a narrow definition of religion. In this, he is in line with current popular critics of religion (such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens), but not with the approach used by anthropological specialists in the area. Saxton writes, “Religion is belief in superhuman and supernatural but anthropomorphic spiritual power(s) functioning in (or over) nature” (51). Compare this definition with the one widely (though not universally) used in religious studies:

…a religion is: a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in [people] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. (Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, New York: Basic Books, 1973: 90).

Saxton does indeed prove, I think, that religion as he conceives it cannot be a saving resource for humanity. But does this mean that religion as Geertz defined it also cannot? That is, must all religion be idealist in its metaphysics?

I believe that the answer to that question must be “no.” There is nothing in Geertz’s definition of religion that necessitates idealism. I believe that Saxton is correct about idealism but not about religion, because the definition Saxton used narrows his scope so far that he misses the potential that lies deep within human culture. Geertz’s more generic definition simply sees religion as the depth dimension of culture. Is culture a material creation? If so, there is nothing that logically precludes cultural transformations from being materialist in their metaphysics and therefore scientific and sober in their analysis of current conditions and prospects.

Still, religion as we observe it around us today does seem to fit Saxton’s definition. One of the many important points in the book is a brief discussion of this state of affairs. Saxton, interestingly, puts part of the blame on Marxists:

…the bottom line is that Marxism’s failure to come up with an effective hypothesis for the origin of religion [in addition to its critique] left a strategic gap in the secular (materialist) interpretation of history. Thus for those revivals of religious belief that followed the Second World War, the gates of the secular city were left standing open (164).

There is something important here, but it seems incomplete. It may be true that Marxist critiques left the job half done, but it is also true that fundamentalism is and was actively encouraged by moneyed interests in society.

But that still leaves open the question of whether religion as Geertz defined it really could be the saving resource Saxton discovered it to have been in other periods. The quintessential example Saxton relies on is that religion saved humanity from a “crisis of consciousness,” that is the existential awareness of our mortality in the face of a seemingly hostile nature. Religion, Saxton argues convincingly (following the work of Peter Berger), is what enables us as conscious beings to live with the knowledge of our own eventual death, and to organize ourselves to act in the face of what might otherwise be a crushing source of despair. This line of argumentation assumes an idealist – generally supernatural – content (because historically it was), and that is the part that might be an open question looking to the future.

Further, even though fundamentalism is on the rise, there are very interesting movements that might offer the potential Saxton identifies; these include Process Theology and Open Theology (variations on what is called Neo-Traditional Theology) and, even more so, Post-Theistic Theology. Process and Open Theologies are idealist in their metaphysics, but in a much more limited way than traditional theology (they attribute a stronger role to material reality than does traditional theology). Saxton examines Process Theology briefly but, in my opinion, not deeply enough to determine whether its mild idealism actually precludes it from being a saving resource. More interesting is the new development called Post-Theistic Theology, which is a movement that seeks to do theology from an atheist, and in some versions strictly materialist, framework.

Taking Saxton’s conclusions seriously, it may be that religion can be a saving resource for humanity if it can shed its idealist baggage – and that hope then lies in Post-Theism.

In the end, this is an important book and a valuable contribution to the study of the history of religion, because it takes seriously these most vital questions about the survival of our species. And even if religion, as Saxton defines it, cannot help us, it is vitally important that we ask the question and explore every possible answer.

Reviewed by Richard Curtis, Ph.D.


1. An example of denial – rationalized in part by religion – is the Bush administration’s suppression of concern over global warming from draft documents prepared for the June 2007 G-8 meeting (, accessed May 22, 2007).

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