In movies, religion is often assumed to be a person’s belief in a supernatural God and that the Bible is the word of God to be taken literally. Religion thus gets neatly divided into ‘good’ (progressive/liberal) and ‘bad’ (conservative) President Bartlet (Martin Sheen), in the TV series West Wing, is an example of ‘good’ liberal religion, best kept private (a bit like sex). Faith in God is here a personal moral compass that does not impair one’s ability to be President. Inspired by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the makers of West Wing made Bartlet a Catholic and, yet, his religiosity is pure liberal Protestantism of the 19th and early 20th centuries’ variety. Religion, understood as personal conviction and ethical principles, is a product of the development of Protestant Christianity after the Enlightenment.
The other sort of religious character, still to be found in the West Wing, is the conservative type all concerned with rules and depravity, like the radio host Dr. Jenna Jacobs, who is humiliated by the President in the most appalling fashion. Leaving aside Bartlet’s little understanding of the bible, his abuse of authority, and lack of basic courtesy, the scene constructs religious identity in very narrow terms. On one side, there is enlightened Protestant Christianity, reflecting a form of religion typical of post-Enlightenment Anglo-American liberalism of nineteenth century industrial (metropolitan) society. This is deemed ‘good’ because it narrows religion down making it fit well into its box. It is a portable box for a society where people are moving to the cities and breaking away from traditional communities and ties. On the other side, there is the image of traditional reactionary and ignorant religion refusing stubbornly to keep up with the times.
It is not a false dichotomy, just an extremely old one that fails to account for religious experience in the 21st century. The reduction of our conception of religion to belief in the irrational is due to a form of Christianity adapting to modern industrial society. As argued in reference to Sleepy Hollow, 19th century’s liberal utilitarianism privileged a narrow idea of rationality: instrumental rationality. Contrary to the rationality of the Renaissance and of the Enlightenment, 19th century’s instrumental rationality was merely the capacity to understand material reality, identify problems and work out technical solutions. Materialistic, reductive, and totally unenlightened, this problem solving rationality applied its tiny lens onto the entire world pronouncing all reality to be material reality. As knowledge was already taken by 19th century’s science, religion got stuck with belief. More specifically, it was belief in immaterial reality, which could not be proven and was therefore not real and rational.
This led to the rise of liberal Protestantism, which sought to adapt to modern rationalism by focussing on religion as a private faith to guide one’s moral life. That provoked a reaction in the form of Christian Fundamentalism, which ironically started to use the scientific method of observation on the Bible by reading it literally (see L. Gilkey’s Creationism on Trial). In the midst of these epochal changes, a new conception of religion took hold in Britain. Religion came to be seen by many as a flawed explanation of natural phenomena. It was ‘primitive science’ to be replaced by proper modern science. This pseudo-evolutionary hierarchy of knowledge emerged from the clouded mind of James G. Frazer (forget the Golden Bough, read Mary Douglas‘s brilliant trashing of Frazer). The first stage in this evolution was the magic of ‘primitive people’, understood as flawed attempts at controlling nature. This was surpassed by religion, as an ethical values’ system, which would then give way to science. The evolutionary idea of religion as progressing from irrational magic onto ethical religion and finally giving way to rational science was flawed from the start; yet it played to the sensitivities of a society in love with the ideas of progress and science. It is still with us today preventing any understanding of religion, ‘magic’, and even of science.