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“The Abusive Exploitation of the Human Religious Sentiment”: Michael Burleigh as Historian of “Political Religion” - Aron’s Faith Without Illusions
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Article Index
“The Abusive Exploitation of the Human Religious Sentiment”: Michael Burleigh as Historian of “Political Religion”
The Church and the New Barbarism
The Theory and Practice of Political Religion
Burleigh’s Project
The Totalitarian Political Religions
The Church Between Liberalism and Totalitarianism
Today’s World: Islam and Secular Europe
Paying Tribute to Those Who Understood
Aron’s Faith Without Illusions
All Pages

Aron’s Faith Without Illusions

Burleigh also pays his respects to “one of the finest minds in twentieth century France, the liberal conservative sociologist and journalist Raymond Aron.” He praises Aron (1905–83) for his sobriety and for his “impassioned but limpidly expressed lucidity,” as accurate a description of Aron’s voice that I have ever come across. Burleigh is particularly impressed by Aron’s magisterial two-part analysis of the secular religions (“The Future of Secular Religions”) that first appeared in the exile journal La France Libre in July and August 1944.5 Aron stands out among Burleigh’s intellectual guides in part because he was not a believer. A self-described “de-Judaized Jew,” he nonetheless had genuine respect for religion. He liked to say that while he could not affirm the truth of transcendental religion in any unqualified way, he had no wish or right to “negate” it. He was an incisive critic of Marxist “prophetism,” of Marxism’s revolutionary historicism and its conflation of facts with desires. He despised the “idolatory” as well as the fanaticism inherent in the Marxist religion of “hyper-rationalism” and pointed out its deep roots in the modern project of making human beings “sovereign lords of nature through knowledge and his own will.” In his writings in La France Libre during the Second World War, Aron took particular aim at “the pessimistic irrational religion of the Nazis.”

Writing in 1944, Aron appreciated the untenability of the ideological lie. “It is not easy,” he wrote slyly, “for representatives of homo sapiens to believe that Mussolini is always right or that Hitler’s words define good and evil.” But Aron was a chastened or conservative-minded liberal because he knew that liberal rationalism in its nineteenth- century expressions was neither philosophically viable nor capable of moving the souls of men. Human beings in every time and place need “faith in ideas and in men.” When elites in bourgeois societies succumbed to cynicism and lost faith in the rational and moral foundations of a free and decent political order, fervent ideologists guaranteed that faith would be used at the service of “barbaric fury.” Aron offered no guarantee that a revitalized liberalism, buttressed by a renewed “conservative” confidence in the integrity of a moral order above the will of man, would finally win the day against the totalitarians. But in the elegiac conclusion of his 1944 essay, he cited the words of Tacitus that had been read out to the first Free French volunteers at the end of June, 1940: “One need not hope in order to try, nor succeed in order to persevere.” “I saw,” he wrote, “in that phrase and I see still, the watchword of revolt, always vanquished yet always victorious— the revolt of conscience.”

Last Updated on Friday, 09 October 2009 13:00