Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Religion and Peak Oil: The Twilight of Fundamentalism

The contemporary predicament of industrial society, as I suggested in last week’s post, is among other things a religious crisis. The religion of progress, the defining faith of today’s industrial nations, staked its claim to the allegiance of the human spirit on the material benefits it offered its votaries. For the last three centuries, that offer was backed up with an astonishing expansion of wealth that left few lives in the western world unchanged, and gave the religion of progress a strength none of its rivals could easily match.

With the coming of peak oil, however, the religion of progress is headed for a pitfall of its own digging. As cheap abundant energy becomes a thing of the past, the material gifts the great god Progress has heretofore given his votaries will likely be in short supply from here on. As living standards slide, wages fall ever farther behind prices, and whatever technological advances still find their way to the market are restricted by cost to an ever smaller fraction of society, the religion of progress may have little to offer the majority of its current adherents.

Thus the likelihood of major shifts in the religious allegiance of the industrial world, it seems to me, is a factor that needs serious assessment in any attempt to make sense of the deindustrial future. As the aspect of human society that relates our lives to the realm of ultimate concerns, religion sets out the narratives that members of a society use to make sense of the world. As the religion of progress crumbles, its narratives will crumble in turn, and the new faith or faiths that seize its current place in the western imagination will likely have a dramatic impact on how we and our descendants respond to the challenges of a world after oil.

One of the apparent candidates for a successor to the religion of progress is contemporary Christian fundamentalism. As one of the very few religious movements to meet the challenges of industrial civilization head on, it’s an obvious candidate. While most religious denominations in the western world struggle to maintain themselves and many have seen epic declines in membership, fundamentalist churches have displayed an impressive ability to gain members and exert influence in the social and political spheres. Thus it’s reasonable to ask if Christian fundamentalism will be in a position to take over from the religion of progress in America, at least, as we begin sliding down the far side of Hubbert’s Peak.

The answer, however, is “almost certainly not.” The reasons for this can best be grasped by looking back over the neglected history of modern Christian fundamentalism itself.

Many people outside fundamentalist circles these days use the term “fundamentalism” as a simple synonym for “zealotry,” but it has a more specific meaning. The word actually comes from a 12-volume series of tracts titled The Fundamentals, released between 1910 and 1915 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles and funded by two wealthy oilmen. These tracts offered readers a simplified Protestant theology pitched in popular language. Marketed using the most up-to-date methods of the time, they were enormously popular, and by the 1920s had sparked a huge social movement; H.L. Mencken famously remarked in 1925 that if you threw an egg out a train window nearly anywhere in America, you could count on hitting a fundamentalist.

By the end of the 1920s, though, the fundamentalist movement was in headlong retreat, for reasons that observers of today’s American scene may find highly familiar. In the early 1920s, a very large number of fundamentalist churches and leaders entered into alliance with the revived Ku Klux Klan. From its refounding in 1915, the Klan wrapped itself in a rhetoric composed of equal parts Protestant Christianity and xenophobic Americanism while pursuing a campaign of reactionary social change aimed at rolling back the reforms of the Progressive era.

The appeal of this agenda to the fundamentalist movement can be easily imagined. During the 1920s, some 40,000 fundamentalist ministers became Klan members, and more than two-thirds of the national Klokards (paid lecturers who traveled around the country on the Klan’s nickel) were ministers of fundamentalist churches. One minister-Klansman, the Rev. E.F. Stanton of Kansas City, earned a minor spot in the history books with a 1924 book entitled Christ and Other Klansmen, which presented the Klan as America’s best hope for returning to “old-fashioned” (that is, the newly coined fundamentalist) Christianity.

This alliance backfired explosively, though, when a series of lurid scandals broke over the Klan’s head, most notably the 1925 conviction of Indiana Grand Dragon David Stevenson for raping and murdering one of his office volunteers. Similar scandals racked the fundamentalist scene; open the pages of Sinclair Lewis’ scathing novel Elmer Gantry, or for that matter any of the colorful newspaper stories that inspired it, and you’ll find events right out of today’s headlines. By the beginning of the Second World War, fundamentalism had become a bitter minority estranged from the wider American religious scene, and kept that status until the political dominance of the liberal agenda in the Sixties allowed the same cycle to launch itself again.

Now as it happens, this same cycle can be traced back well before the fundamentalism of the 1920s. Upsurges of socially conservative Protestant piety have appeared on the American scene at something close to regular intervals from the Great Awakening of the 1720s to today’s receding fundamentalist tide. On average, there are two of them a century. Each one starts with a bang using the popular media of the time, whether that’s the letterpress that carried Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God to audiences across the colonies or satellite TV dishes scooping up the latest offerings from Trinity Broadcasting System. Each one, without ever quite seeming to notice the fact, gradually reduces the complexities of Christian theology into what we would now call sound bites, loses in depth what it gains in numbers, and ends up becoming a sock puppet for some political faction or other. Each one finishes its trajectory by imploding in on itself, often with an accompanying drumbeat of sexual and financial scandals

At this point we’re well into the diminuendo phase of the current cycle, to the familiar tune of fundamentalist leaders being outed for practicing six days a week the sins they denounce on Sundays, and parishioners beginning to object in noticeable numbers to the gap between Christianity and the political agenda pursued in its name. A growing number of evangelical Protestants are moving away from the big fundamentalist churches to home Bible study circles or to more traditional forms of Christianity, and recruitment – the lifeblood of a movement in which new members, on average, leave within three years – has been in decline for more than a decade.

Yet this also has to be seen in its wider context. In 2005, in one of the most dramatic and least discussed social changes in recent history, the percentage of Americans who call themselves Protestant Christians dropped below 50% for the first time in the history of the republic. The decline has been astonishingly rapid – as recently as the 1970s, the figure was above 72% – and widespread, affecting all regions of the country to one degree or another. With Catholicism holding steady between 20% and 25% of the population, and most branches of Judaism struggling, the number of Americans outside the religious mainstream is at an all-time high.

Thus peak oil could not have come at a worse time for the fundamentalist movement. As America lurches toward a time of crisis likely to be at least as traumatic as the ordeal by depression and world war that followed the boom years of the 1920s, fundamentalism faces the same situation it did then: hamstrung by scandals, hobbled with an oversized infrastructure of churches and institutions its shrinking membership can no longer support, and tarred by its links to a extremist political movement that seems to be doing everything in its power to ensure its own implosion as a significant political force in the near future.

Perhaps the clearest sign that today’s fundamentalism is circling the drain comes from the widespread popularity of Rapture theology: the claim that at some point in the near future all devout Christians will suddenly teleport to heaven en masse, leaving the world to perish in their absence. The dubious exegetical tricks needed to extort this belief out of scripture have done nothing to keep it from becoming a hugely popular belief. Yet the whole Rapture narrative is a lightly disguised fantasy of mass suicide – when someone tells their kids that Grandma has gone to heaven to be with Jesus, most people know what that means – and bears an uncomfortable similarity to the ideologies of recent suicide cults such as Heaven’s Gate. Its dominant role in today’s fundamentalist movement says much about the desperation of those who see the tide of their success flowing back out to sea.

Still, might the old cycle keep on turning, and spark a new version of fundamentalism sometime in the future? Of course. If past performance is anything to go by, we can expect another socially conservative Protestant revival beginning around 2020, though if the drop in Protestant numbers continues at its present pace, that future revival may be a relatively modest affair by present standards. Even if that shifts into reverse, earlier revivals did surprisingly little to change the religious outlook or social norms of American society, and it seems unlikely that any future repetition of the same cycle will have any more lasting effect. Much more likely at this point, it seems to me, is an irruption from outside the contemporary religious mainstream altogether – a possibility I’ll explore in the third and last part of this series.


Loveandlight said...

Back in the 80's, there was a series of movies that began with a movie called Porky's. It was a pretty lowbrow teen sex comedy set in the mid-50's. In Porky's II, our intrepid teen sex-fiends match wits with a fundamentalist minister named Bubba Flava who wants to shut down the high school's production of a play by William Shakespeare. The Reverend and his followers plead their case to the high school principal in the principal's office, where the religious zealots repeatedly underscore their point with the Reverend saying, "So sayeth the shephard!" followed by the congregation chanting, "So sayeth the flock!" After hearing this a few too many times, the exasperated principle exclaims, "Well, get the flock out of here!"

The Rev. Flava finally alienates the school gym teacher who has been siding with the congregation when he publicly accepts the support of a local Ku Klux Klan chapter for his "moral" crusade. Our horny heroes expose the Reverend for the hypocrite he is by revealing the fact that he has been providing the corrupt city fathers with pornographic films (and of course, the Klansmen are duly humiliated with the assistance of a tribe of ticked-off and fed-up Native Americans from a nearby reservation).

While hardly any sort of factual account, if the producers if this mostly forgetable comic farce were in fact teenagers during the 50's, what this movie might have been portraying was what most people of that era expected from fundamentalist crusaders. I only mention it in such lurid detail because it seems to dovetail pretty well with your description of former-day fundamentalists.

Seaweed_Shark said...

Another fine essay! My only quibble would be that you may have missed an opportunity to say more clearly what you alluded to in the first part: that protestant fundamentalism, as it is practiced in much of America today, is just the religion of progress by another name, and its ministers often make promises indistinguishable from those of the snake oil salesmen of commercial capitalism. You have a great opening to this argument when you mention that the "Fundamentals" books were published by a couple of wealthy oil men, but you don't pursue that. However, I may have misinterpreted your intent. Your comments about the relationship between American nativism, the Klan, and 20th century fundamentalism are all excellent.

John Michael Greer said...

Hmm! Loveandlight, I never saw the Porky's movies -- my education is clearly lacking in some respects. In the South, especially, the old alliance between fundamentalism and the Klan never quite faded away, and I suspect the perpetrators of the movie knew that. I recall a very funny play from the early 80s, The Foreigner, the villain of which was a fundamentalist minister with Klan connections and a mistress on the side.

Seaweed Shark, these essays are by way of first drafts, which may help to explain why I don't always get where I say I'm going! The relationship between fundamentalism and the religion of progress, though, is a good deal more complex than the simple identity I'd suggested earlier. Of course fundamentalists are influenced by the progressive faith, like the rest of us; the people who use them as sock puppets in political intrigue usually share the common faith in progress; and one of the two poles between which fundamentalist theology oscillates, the postmillennial pole, played a not insignificant role in creating the religion of progress in the first place. It would take a small book to really explore all that adequately, though, and I'm not sure it has all that much to do with the themes of this blog.

LizM said...

Fundamentalism originally funded by wealthy oilmen? Truth really is stranger, more ironic, and far more interesting than fiction.

FARfetched said...

I was an obnoxious fundie in high school — how else do you rebel when your parents are agnostic? — up to my college years in 1980, when the "right-to-lifers" endorsed Reagan for president.

Having said that, I think I'm qualified to say that Rapture theology is nothing new. Back in the 1970s, with a Mideast war and an oil embargo, my fundie buddies and I figured we wouldn't have to worry about graduating. 'Course, we must not have really bought that since we kept at our studies instead of dropping out to wait for Jesus to come get us.

You make some good points, JMG, about the fundies imploding and their Klan ties (they make a show of hiding it on Planet Georgia, but just a little). However, I still know quite a few of them & I wouldn't be too quick to write them off. First off, a lot of them take plenty of pride in their “unshaken faith" in the midst of all the scandals.

Second, they're pretty well programmed: I've shot down some of their arguments, which shut them up for no more than a week before they were back to spouting the exact same stuff.

Finally, they're all about pat answers (ignoring Paul's advice to Timothy to "test everything"), and people in a crisis are going to look for people with answers. It doesn't matter how w0rnG the answers are, fundies can provide their answers with complete confidence. That's why I expect a fundie "bubble" that could well lead to a short-lived theocracy before it pops.

BBC said...

Not exactly farfetched of Farfetched to mention a brush with theocracy about to pop...

Loveandlight said...

When you say that many converts move on after three years, I can't help but wonder what you mean by that. Do they discard Christianity entirely or simply join a more mainstream Protestant church? If the latter, I would think these people would have the effect of making the mainstream denominations closer to fundamentalism, wouldn't they? I was just kind of surprised to read that because when you watch fundamentalist television broadcasts or encounter one of them who's trying to convert you and just won't take a freaking hint, you really get the impression that once in, most of their converts are lifelong cult-members now that they're "saved". And since fellowship with other born-again believers is required, the cult-like nature of fundamentalist life would make the fundamentalist congregation into a new convert's only remaining support-system.

e1-c579-z6mw-nggr said...

As the host of a folk music program on KBOO Portland, I can't resist spicing up your narrative with the lyrics of a song that Pete Seeger sings on his album 3 Saints, 4 Sinners, and 6 Other People. It tells the story of Aimee Semple McPherson, a charismatic lady preacher of the 1920's, and the scandal she was involved in.

Aimee McPherson

Oh have you heard the story 'bout Aimee McPherson?
Aimee McPherson that wonderful person.
She weighed a hundred-eighty and her hair was red;
She preached a wicked sermon so the papers all said.

A hi-dee hi-dee hi-dee hi ho-dee ho-dee ho-dee ho!

Now Aimee built herself a radio station
To broadcast her preaching to the nation.
She found a man named Armistad who knew enough
To run the radio while Aimee did her stuff.

Now they had a camp meeting down at Ocean Park
Preached from early morning till after dark
Said the benediction and folded up the tents
Then nobody knew where Aimee went.

Now Aimee McPherson got back from her journey
She told her story to the District Attorney
She said she had been kidnapped on a lonely trail
And in spite of a lot of questions she stuck to her tale.

Well the grand jury started an investigation
Uncovered a lot of spicy information
Found out about a love nest down at Carmel-by-the-sea.
Where the liquor is expensive and the loving is free.

Oh they found a little cottage with a breakfast nook
A folding bed with a worn-out look,
The slats was busted and the springs was loose
And the dents in the mattress fitted Aimee's caboose.

Well they took poor Aimee and they threw her in jail
Last I heard she was out on bail.
They'll send her up for a stretch I guess,
She worked herself up into an awful mess.

Radio Ray is a goin' hound
A-goin' yet and he ain't been found
They got his description but they got it too late
'Cause since they got it he's lost a lot of weight.

I'll end my story in the usual way
About a lady preacher's holiday;
If you don't get the moral then you're the gal for me,
'Cause there's still a lot of cottages down at Carmel-by-the-sea.

Caryl said...

An excellent post - although one detail you do not mention is the fundamentalist-evangelical support for the Zionist cause. The commentator William Lind mentioned an incident back in the 1990's when Pat Robertson or someone of that ilk was spouting nonsense, and the editors of the Weekly Standard, I think it was, were told to refrain from attacking him. The Zionists already had their sights on gaining the evangelicals to their cause. These fundamentalists - which is another name for Old Testament Christians - have provided a good cover for the Zionist infiltration of American foreign policy. The Jewish-Protestant alliance has historically been a marker for a destructive mission couched in messianic terms- look at the regicide of Charles I and Crowmwell and the Puritans. This stuff goes way back.

John Michael Greer said...

Lizm, yes, the universe has quite a sense of irony, doesn't it?

Farfetched, the Rapture was invented in the early 1820s in a British sect called the Plymouth Brethren. Their other significant contribution to cultural history was Aleister Crowley, who grew up in a Plymouth Brethren family and included a good many of their ideas in the theology of his newly coined religion of Thelema.

More generally, though, I think you overestimate the momentum they have left. At this point their tide has turned and is flowing out. Look at the recent flurry of mutual denunciation caused by the very prominent evangelical organization that embraced environmental protection as a Christian duty...

Loveandlight, the research I've read suggests that most people who join fundamentalist churches ditch the doctrine when they leave. Some of them go into other denominations, many turn their backs on Christianity altogether, and nearly all reject the doctrines they embraced as fundamentalists. As for your suggestion that they'll be able to capitalize on the approaching crisis, well, they didn't do very well in the Great Depression, which also occurred on the downslope of a fundamentalist revival.

E-1, good for you! Yes, Sister Aimee was a classic 1920s example of the pray to heaven on Sunday, sin like (ahem) the other six days of the week sort of fundamentalist preacher we've all seen displayed in the media recently.

Caryl, I don't generally choose to discuss Zionism because it's a subject about which nobody, on any of the various sides of the issue, seems to be capable of reasoned discussion. It's a pity, since the nation of Israel looks to be headed straight toward one more of those ghastly episodes of mass death that punctuate Jewish history.

Without getting into questions of who's to blame, which are pointless at this stage of the game, it's clear that Israel's relationships with its Arab neighbors are caught in an intractable spiral of mutual hatreds. Meanwhile the Israeli military is as dependent on petroleum-fueled high technology as any military on earth, and Israel's entire political and military system also depends on huge inflows of financial and material support from overseas, mostly from the US.

It's not too hard to predict what will happen once those sources of strength run dry, as they inevitably will as peak oil unfolds. I wish I could see a positive outcome to the situation, but I can't. That ugly prospect, it seems to me, ought to be much more central to discussion than the current flurry of fingerpointing between the Israel lobby and its enemies.

tRB said...

Re: Fundies leaving the fold...

Mr. Greer and Loveandlight (and everyone else) might be interested in the research of a Manitoba professor of psychology named Bob Altermeyer. One of the things he has looked at is recruitment and retention among various religious denominations and movements, including Christian Fundamentalists. In his (free, online) book "The Authoritarians", he reports that during the time that he was studying the question, the numbers of Protestant fundamentalists increased, but they did so through conversions. By the time they had reached middle age, almost *half* of the now-adult people sampled had left the fundamentalist denominations in which they were raised. (pages 128-129)

The fundies have a harder time holding onto their kids than the liberal Protestant denominations. Altemeyer also explains why he thinks this is. These studies support what our host is saying about a possible decline in their power (but I still don't think we can relax yet).

Altemeyer has been researching authoritarianism and its followers for decades, and he was a key source for John Dean's recent book "Conservatives Without Conscience". Altemeyer describes the fearful quarter of the U.S. population that could cause a lot of trouble in times of scarcity, and he examines the authoritarian leaders who rile them up and feed off of them. People interested in the social aspects of peak oil (and even "normal" times) may want to read this book.

Loveandlight said...


That's very interesting, because, as I've said, their leadership is really quite good at portraying the fundamentalist movement as this unstoppable zombie-cult. I have to wonder if the experience of these quickly-disillusioned converts is similar to my experience as a New Ager. (I held on for quite a while, but after about four years I was mostly paying lip-service because of my exhortations to myself early in my conversion experience not to be a "fair-weather" believer.)

On a bit of a tangent, I can see why fundamentalist literature and broadcasts attack the New Age with the army of straw men that they do (i.e., claiming that New Agers believe things and work for goals that New Agers in fact do not): The New Age Movement is the primary competitor with fundamentalist Christianity for new converts. What these fundamentalists fail to realize, however, is that most people who are predisposed to become New Agers are intelligent enough to recognize such fantacism-driven straw-man approaches and are generally very turned off by it. Of course, it's also possible to use the exact opposite behavior as an intellectual cop-out as more than a few atheist-skeptics do and just scream, "Straw man! Straw man!" like a parrot on crystal methamphetamine every time somebody says something the atheist-skeptic doesn't want to deal with. If one must accuse someone of using a straw-man contention, one should be able to provide something minimally approaching a coherent explanation as to why the claim is a "straw-man" argument.

So I guess the moral of the story is that one mark of a true zealot is being so sure that one is absolutely right and everybody else is absolutely wrong, is a tendency to grant oneself license to resort to rhetorical fallacies and cop-outs. (Apologies if I'm doing more than my share of simply thinking out loud, here.)

Rabbit Mountain said...

This is one of my favorite "collapse" blogs, I don't agree with everything here but it's definitely always a worthy read. However, this post does not square with my personal experiences.

I would be interested to know the sources of your statistics, and whether this research is based on statistics for self-professed fundamentalist Christians only.

Fundamentalist Christianity is a small piece of a much larger, fervently nationalistic Christian Right pie that includes Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Charismatics, a significant number of very conservative Catholics, and probably some smaller fragments that I'm overlooking. It is a common enough mistake among folks who have never been a member of the fundamentalist flock to be unaware of this overlap, and I can't help but wonder if your statistics overlook the wider scope of Christian Right influence.

I have also been interpreting the enormous popularity of the "Left Behind" series differently. You've written a lot about the need for new stories -- to me, "Left Behind" looks like a disintegration of the "myth of progress" facade, exposing its true mythological roots. It seems natural to me that this would happen now. In our culture, science is dualistically posited against religion -- that is, Christianity -- as a contender for "truth," and as the evidence for science's failure to deliver utopia becomes more apparent, people will start looking to its opponent for leadership into the promised land. "Left Behind" is very dangerous, in my opinion, because it is the only mythology going that addresses peoples' sense that the wheels are coming off. This might not be so bad except that "Left Behind's" utopia specifically requires the nuclear destruction of Israel, the US, and most of the Middle East as a precondition.

It is worth considering, too, that the language and rhetoric of Dominionism -- arguably, the present hard core of Christian fundamentalism -- permeates every nook and cranny of Protestant beliefs, with the exception of the mainline churches, which have been in steep decline for a long time now. The notions that evolution is a political stance, that America was founded to be a Christian nation, that a "homosexual agenda" exists, etc., etc., are the everyday worldview of countless millions who would not consider themselves fundamentalist -- they may not even go to church. It is, for them, simply how things are. These beliefs are a given across huge swaths of the country.

The number of self-professed fundamentalist Christians may be shrinking, but is this because people don't recognize that they are fundamentalists, due to the mainstreaming of fundamentalist beliefs?

The reason it has been possible for such a total moron to get elected to the White House, for a small cabal of fascists to take over the operations of government, for a tiny, Evangelical law school to infiltrate the DoJ, is because people perpetually underestimate the Christian Right. That movement gets away with almost anything it wants because no one believes what it does is of any consequence. Ever since I was a kid in the 70s I have been hearing about how Christian zealots are a shrinking fringe, yet their influence grows and grows, regardless of scandals -- scandals don't matter, because as long as the person repents, it makes no difference. Jeffrey Dahmer, I think it was, got "saved" in prison by James Dobson, and was widely celebrated as a miracle. There is no scandal too big for this crowd to overlook.

Also, notice who the people are who are most likely to hold to Christian fundamentalist memes. They are the poor and downtrodden, the losers in our economic paradigm. Their numbers are going to explode over the next decades as the socio-economic pressures of collapse affect more and more people. Those memes will replicate more quickly as more people are pushed into the "loser" class. They are not going to allow themselves to get ripped off of their promised utopia without a fight. If science and technology can't deliver, then Jesus will.

Journalist Chris Hedges has done some excellent work researching the Christian Right in all its myriad manifestations. His Wikipedia page has numerous links. I especially recommend this article. I really urge everyone to be more informed about the Christian Right.

Danby said...

Rabbit Mountain,

Wow, a full-blown paranoid rant!
The theocons are coming! The theocons are coming!

The Christian Right is a large and broad political coalition that certainly includes fundamentalists, but is not defined by them.

Fundamentalism is what it is. The fact that some Evangelicals and some Catholics make common cause with some fundamentalists in order to implement their agendae does not make those Catholics and Evangelicals fundamentalists. It is like saying that labor unions leaders are all homosexuals because they are part of the vast homosexualist conspiracy.

As far as dominionism, it's a fancy word for saying that some groups think they should be able to run society. Since all political groups believe this to one degree or another, and this is a normal and expected feature of ANY democratically-derived system, it's hardly a reason to panic.

Oh, and the whole thing about the Left Behind series, it's a straightforward exposition of premillenialist biblical interpretation. A premillenialist is literally no danger at all to Jews or Israel, as all premillenialists believe that they will be taken to heaven in the "rapture" before the Greater Holocaust event can take place. In fact, the political danger of premillenialists is that they is far too accommodating of Israel, putting it's interest ahead of the interests of the US, as they believe that Israel is favored of God.

Do you really believe there is no homosexual political agenda? If so, you are either woefully ignorant or willfully blind.

As we used to say in my youth, "Eat some reds and mellow out, man."

Loveandlight said...

Do you really believe there is no homosexual political agenda?

And there needs to be one because if homosexuals don't fight for their rights, then certainly nobody else will do so. The problem as I see it is that this agenda moves at a snail's pace accomplishing things in a very piecemeal fashion because of the utterly crippling internalized homophobia that nearly universally afflicts gay men.

Joe said...

One point left out of most discussions of this sort is that a person's power of reasoning is the LAST thing targeted by any salesman. Arguments don't sell. Emotions do sell. That's true when selling a car, and it's true when selling a religion.

This is why you can logically shred the arguments and theology of a proselyte on Monday, and will find him back on your doorstep on Tuesday with exactly the same arguments and theology.

I don't get accosted by proselytes often. But yesterday, moving my father's belongings out of the assisted-living facility where he had been living, an old gentleman came to the door of his unit passing out Baptist church service tracts, insisting on giving my son and I each a tract. He then commented that he needed this kind of thing right now, because he would be dying soon, and needed "someplace to go."

This illustrates one of the several basic emotional appeals that religion, particularly simplistic religion, addresses: fear of death. Our culture has a deeply-ingrained, deeply-taught fear of death, combined (of course) with a fixation on death and its counterpoise, youth, and the subject is rarely discussed openly with any personal feeling. Simplistic religion waves death away as "going to be with Jesus," and thus relieves the fear. That is a powerful emotional motivator.

Another powerful motivator is faux community. Humans evolved within extended family and tribal settings. When I went to Burning Man in 2000 as part of the Poly Paradise polyamorous theme camp, and slept for the first time in a communal bed with perhaps 12-15 other adults, what astonished me was how peaceful and completely natural it felt. It was as though some wakeful, watchful, worried part of my mind, something I'd never noticed, suddenly relaxed and slept for the first time in my life. It occurred to me in retrospect that this was how people - and pre-people - lived for many hundreds of thousands of years before "civilization" came along. An issue of Science News a year or so back reported on one of the few comparative/historical studies of sleeping patterns, and the "eight hours in a dark box alone" pattern we impose on our children is very anomalous. The normal pattern in a tribal setting is a series of short naps through the day and night, staggered in time, so that at least a few people are always awake, and people normally sleep surrounded by the quiet noises of the village.

I go into such detail only to emphasize how distant our modern civilization is from what we evolved to be comfortable with. As a result, there is a constantly unmet desire for some level of community that simply does not exist, anywhere, for us. However, religious groups (and perhaps secret societies?) provide a substitute. I call it a faux community, because (in my experience) most people in a church do not know each other very well, and their "Sunday faces" are usually quite different from their weekday faces. They also usually do not have any interdependence, in the sense of needing to rely on each other for basic needs, like food, water, and shelter. Even so, it is a weekly ritual of comfort to come together every Sunday morning to see the same faces, use the same liturgy, sing the old familiar songs, etc. Again, a powerful emotional motivator.

One of the brilliant strokes of the Moral Majority and its inheritors was giving the congregations a taste of power and voice in the world. Granted, it was power based on lockstep fascist groupthink, but it was power nonetheless. They got Reagan into office, and they got Bush II into office twice. It was what they set out to do, and claimed it was what the "moral majority" wanted. Even if large majorities of their congregations were mildly appalled by their choices, there was no internal venue in which to expose that disconnect, and in the end the thrill of "winning" almost certainly overrode any sense that maybe the wrong thing had been won.

By contrast, our secular religion of Progress is remarkably unsatisfying at the emotional level. It tells us that youth is good, old people are useless, and death is simply The End. It promotes radical social disconnection and maximum mobility (geographic and social), and minimizes or even ridicules the role of ritual in human life. It places us in broad egalitarian classes that are, effectively, completely powerless.

In discussing what might replace both secular and fundamentalist religious movements in the wake of peak oil, the emotional appeal is going to be of critical importance.

David Constantine said...

It seems to me that you underestimate the explanatory power/cynicism of fundamentalism. Adroitly shifting from the prosperity gospel to 'the end-times are coming' is simple enough: if things are getting worse, than God is angry with us. (And we must find the sinners and punish them!) Christianity thrived during the decline of the Roman Empire; I see no reason it shouldn't do so during the decline of ours.