Why Religious Commitment Is Critical for a Satisfying Life

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Second Mountain" by David Brooks. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How did Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn endure life in a Soviet gulag? What happened when Mother Theresa’s faith wavered?

In The Second Mountain, David Brooks identifies religious commitment as one of the four major commitments we should make in life. He argues that religious commitment is crucial for leading a selfless and fulfilling life.

Keep reading to learn why Brooks believes this is true and to get his recommendations for sticking to such a commitment.

Religious Commitment

Historically, Brooks notes, religious commitment has been a source of internal peace amidst external hardship. For example, he cites the experience of Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was imprisoned for his critique of the Soviet Union. Although he frequently suffered cruelty from guards, Solzhenitsyn’s faith in divine providence helped him weather these cruelties and view his oppressors with compassion, rather than scorn. 

(Shortform note: Though religious commitment has helped believers like Solzhenitsyn weather external difficulties, the same is true of philosophies like Stoicism. For instance, in Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, he argues that hardships themselves don’t harm you; rather, it’s how we perceive these hardships. In turn, stoics like Aurelius claim to handle even the most rugged situations with equanimity.) 

Moreover, Brooks claims that religious beliefs provide guidance for leading a morally upstanding life. In short, he argues that religious stories reveal underlying moral truths that show us how we ought to live. For instance, the Biblical story of Job—who retains his faith in the face of extreme suffering and loss—illustrates the importance of patience, persistence, and trust. 

(Shortform note: Some argue that even if religious beliefs do provide moral guidance, they aren’t required for leading a moral life. For example, in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari argues that secular people can likewise have well-formed moral compasses, making religious belief superfluous in this respect.)

Christian commitment in particular, Brooks argues, squashes believers’ pride through its emphasis on unearned grace. Specifically, mainstream Protestant theology holds that the good works we perform cannot earn us God’s grace. Rather, God’s grace is given through our faith alone, not earned through our actions. (Shortform note: Though Brooks’s discussion focuses mainly on his own experience with Christian faith, he implies that any form of religious belief conveys the benefits we discuss here.)

In his own case, Brooks writes that this doctrine hurt his pride, as he arrogantly believed that his actions were sufficient for securing his salvation. Because he had become proud of his worldly accomplishments, the notion that they weren’t enough was an affront to his identity. In turn, committing to this doctrine forced Brooks to abandon his pride and cultivate humility—in other words, it helped him become more virtuous. 

(Shortform note: Though Brooks writes as if the view that salvation comes through faith alone is standard in Christianity, it’s worth mentioning that this view is distinctly Protestant. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, however, God’s grace helps us to perform works that contribute to our ongoing justification—the process by which we are saved and made righteous. So, while we cannot earn our salvation through good works alone, these works nonetheless play a larger role than they do in Brooks’s preferred Protestant account.)

Lastly, Brooks argues that religious faith teaches us the importance of long-term commitment, even when doubt infiltrates our minds. To show as much, Brooks cites the story of Mother Teresa, a Catholic saint who dedicated her life to caring for society’s most vulnerable. Although Mother Teresa was a devout Catholic, she suffered long bouts of doubt in which her faith felt hollow and her connection with God felt severed. Indeed, for 40 years she endured these doubts. 

Yet, although Mother Teresa’s belief wavered, her commitment didn’t: She continued to serve the poor, which she saw as an expression of her faith. And although few of us will reach the commitment of Mother Teresa, Brooks argues that her story carries a general point—religious commitment teaches us to be steadfast, even in the face of doubt

(Shortform note: Some philosophical accounts of faith argue that, as in Mother Teresa’s case, one key purpose (and justification) of faith is its ability to support long-term commitments, even when our beliefs and enthusiasm waver on a day-to-day basis. So, for instance, faith in our spouse can help us to remain committed to them, even on days when we feel doubtful about the relationship.)

How to Make Religious Commitment Easier

Brooks recognizes that religious commitment is difficult in practice. However, he argues that several factors make this commitment easier: rituals, prayer, and a rich religious community.

First, Brooks observes that religions are rife with rituals, such as communal liturgy, taking communion, and bowing in submission. These rituals, he claims, remind us of key truths. For instance, liturgy reminds us of the core doctrines that we believe; communion reminds Christians of Jesus’ death on the cross; bowing reminds us of our lowliness before God. So, by performing rituals consistently, we’re better able to remain committed to our faith.

(Shortform note: French philosopher Blaise Pascal goes a step further than Brooks, arguing that religious rituals—like taking communion and going to church—don’t just help us become more committed, but can even foster religious belief among non-believers. In turn, for atheists and agnostics who wish to become religious, but feel incapable of doing so, Pascal recommends that they consistently perform such rituals.)

Next, Brooks argues that prayer fortifies our relationship with God since it brings us into conversation with him. In particular, he claims that prayer helps us overthrow our selfish desires and instead adopt the selfless desire to glorify God. So, he concludes that consistent prayer helps us establish a steadier religious commitment. 

(Shortform note: Strengthening your religious commitment might not be the only benefit of prayer; one study finds that trust-based prayers in particular—those which confess trust in God, rather than petitioning him for something—are linked to greater life satisfaction over time.)

Finally, Brooks argues that a community of dedicated believers—those who have embraced a life of faith, serving the marginalized rather than pursuing worldly desires—shows us how to lead the religious life. These people provide the paradigm for religious commitment, and Brooks implies that by imitating them, we can also have such commitment.

(Shortform note: For elderly people in particular, belonging to a religious community is correlated strongly with increased mental well-being. However, this correlation is stronger for men than women, who benefit equally from low to moderate religious involvement as they do from high religious involvement.)

Why Religious Commitment Is Critical for a Satisfying Life

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of David Brooks's "The Second Mountain" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Second Mountain summary:

  • The negative consequences of the West's focus on individualism
  • Why you should embrace relationalism to lead a fulfilling life
  • The four commitments that constitute relationalist living

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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