Author ORCID Identifier

Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Brandon Look

Second Advisor

Dr. Arnold Farr


This dissertation seeks to explain a certain instability that characterizes many contemporary religious communities. Why are people abandoning organized religion at an unprecedented rate? And why do so many religious people behave in vicious ways, even as they claim to preach a message of love? These phenomena are related, and they are both usually explained on epistemological grounds. According to many of religion’s recent critics, religious belief requires the suspension of rational thought, and those who abandon it have simply seen the light of reason. Meanwhile, those who remain religious do so despite the testimony of their reason, and the harms they commit against others are dismissed as a product of irrationality. However, this explanation is insufficient. Real-world data show that people leave their religions behind for a host of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with belief. These individuals recount broken relationships, disagreements over social and political issues, and feeling disconnected from their communities and their gods—despite still believing many of their religions’ basic tenets. Furthermore, belief in a non-existent entity is not directly correlated with the kinds of viciousness for which religion is often criticized. Many people believe objectively false things, but do not weaponize those beliefs to harm others. Therefore, we should not criticize religion in terms of its claims’ truth or falsehood, because these criteria do not successfully explain the problems above.

Instead, we should recognize the decline of religion as an alienation of the individual from her community. I argue that communities are strongest when their members recognize their own interests as aligning with those of the group. This synthesis of interests enables community members to trust and support one another, even in the face of difference. Meanwhile, communities experience instability when their members understand their own interests as alienated from those of the group. This perceived alienation is the product of a misunderstanding of the relationship between the universal and the particular. I draw from the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Immanuel Kant to demonstrate two particular ways in which religious communities can mischaracterize this relationship. In both cases, the result is a community where individuals find themselves unable to form relations of thick trust with subjects beyond themselves. In my final chapter, we see that Hegel suggests a distinct way of doing religion—what he calls folk religion—that overcomes the same kinds of problems as those highlighted by Nietzsche and Kant. Such a religion not only unites its adherents with their god, but also with one another. The project therefore ends on an optimistic note: religion is not something that necessarily must produce alienation and conflict. It is possible to create a religious community that fosters meaningful relationships among its members.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)