Wednesday, April 17, 2013

An Aside To My Readers

I’ve commented several times in these essays about the way that Americans in particular, and people throughout the industrial world more generally, like to pretend that history has nothing to teach them. It’s a remarkably odd habit, not least because the lessons of history keep whacking them upside the head with an assortment of well-aged and sturdy timbers, without ever breaking through the trance.

My favorite example, not least because I’ve profited personally by it, is the way that the lessons taught by speculative bubbles never seem to make it out of our collective equivalent of short-term memory. It  happens that in my adult life, I’ve had a ringside seat at four big speculative frenzies, and it happens also that the first of them, the runup to the 1987 US stock market crash, got started right about the time I first read John Kenneth Galbraith’s mordantly funny history The Great Crash 1929. I then got to watch a stock market bubble indistinguishable from the 1929 example unfold in front of my eyes, complete with the usual twaddle about new economic eras and limitless upside possibilities. It was quite a learning experience, though I didn’t have any money of my own in the market.

A decade after the 1987 crash, the same twaddle got deployed a second time as tech stocks began their ascent to ionospheric heights. At the time I was living in Seattle, one of the epicenters of the tech stock mania, and I got approached more times than I can easily remember by friends who worked in the computer industry, and who wanted to give me a chance to cash in on the new economic era and its limitless upside possibilities. I declined and, when pressed, explained my reasons with reference to Galbraith, 1929, and the 1987 crash. The standard response was condescending pity, a lecture about how I obviously didn’t know the first thing about tech stocks, and enthusiastic praise of books such as the wildly popular and wildly delusional Dow 36,000. Shortly thereafter, the market crashed, and my friends’ intimate knowledge of tech stocks didn’t keep them from losing their shirts.

Fast forward to 2004, and the same twaddle was deployed again. This time the investment du jour was real estate, and once again I was approached by any number of friends who wanted to help me cash in on the new economic era and its limitless upside possibilities. Once again I declined and, when pressed, explained my reasons with reference to Galbraith, 1929, the 1987 crash, and the tech stock bubble and bust. The usual response? You guessed it—condescending pity, a lecture about how I obviously didn’t know the first thing about real estate, and enthusiastic praise of books such as David Lereah’s epically mistimed Why The Real Estate Boom Will Not Bust. I was confident enough this time that my wife and I stayed out of the real estate bubble, waited for prices to plummet, and bought the home where we now live for an absurdly small amount of money. Meanwhile the people I knew who planned on becoming real estate millionaires got clobbered when the bottom fell out of the market

Tune into the media these days—not just the mainstream media, but the alternative media as well—and you’ll hear that same twaddle clustering around several different asset classes.  Among those that have risen parabolically in recent years, and have now seen steep declines, the same rhetoric being hawked by David Lereah and the authors of Dow 36,000 is all over the place: don’t worry about those falling prices, they’re the result of some temporary factor or other, they don’t reflect the fundamentals, and so on. You’ll find that same rhetoric chronicled by Galbraith, too, among the promoters and victims of the 1929 crash; it appears like clockwork as soon as a speculative bubble begins to lose momentum, and increases in volume as the bottom drops out.

Try to tell the people who are about to get crushed by the current round of bubbles that that’s what’s happening, though, and you’ll get the same condescending pity and the same lecture about how you obviously don’t know the first thing about whatever asset is involved this time around.  No matter how precise the parallels, they’ll insist that the painful lessons taught by every previous speculative bubble in history are irrelevant to their investment strategy this time around, and they’ll keep on saying that even when your predictions turn out to be correct and theirs end up costing them their shorts. What’s more, a decade from now, if they start talking about how they’re about to get rich by investing in thorium mining stocks or what have you, and you point out that they’re doing exactly the same thing that cost them their shorts the last time around, you’ll get exactly the same response.

There are any number of factors feeding into this weird and self-defeating blindness to the most painful lessons of recent financial history. To begin with, of course, there’s the widening mismatch between the American dream of endlessly improving economic opportunity and the American reality of steadily declining standards of living for everyone outside a narrowing circle of the well-to-do. Our national mythology makes it impossible for most Americans to conceive of a future of accelerating contraction and impoverishment, and so any excuse to believe that happy days are here again will attract an instant and uncritical audience. Consider the extraordinary fog of misinformation surrounding the current fracking bubble—the increasingly loud and frantic claims that the modest temporary gains in oil production driven by the fracking phenomenon guarantee a future of abundant energy and prosperity for all.  It’s the same twaddle about a new era with limitless upside potential, but it’s even more popular than usual, because the alternative is facing the future that’s taking shape around us.

There are plenty of other forces pushing in the same direction, to be sure. One of them is particularly relevant to the theme of the current series of posts here on The Archdruid Report. It’s the general neglect of a style of thinking that is of central importance in modern science, but remains curiously unpopular in American culture.  At the risk of scaring readers away by using a long word, I’ll give it its proper name: morphological thinking.

Morphology is the study of form. Applied to biology, it was the driving force behind the intellectual revolution we nowadays associate with Charles Darwin, but was under way long before his time.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe showed in 1784 that the the bones of the human skull are modified vertebrae that still retain their original relationship to one another. In 1790 he extended the same logic to plants, showing that all aboveground parts of a plant are modifications of a primitive leaf structure. Two generations of scholars built on Goethe’s work to show that every living creature has deep structural similarities with other life forms, living and extinct: the bones of a cat’s foreleg, a dolphin’s flipper, and a bat’s wing all have the same structure, and a close study of all three makes it impossible not to see the ancient mammalian forelimb that, over millions of years of deep time, evolved into each of them. Darwin’s achievement was simply that of providing a convincing explanation for the changes that earlier biologists had already sketched out.

The major source of opposition to all these claims was the unwillingness to apply the same morphological principles to human beings. Goethe's researches into the skull, like Darwin's studies of natural selection, both ran into heated challenges from those who were unwilling to see themselves included in the same category  as other animals: to notice, for example, that the same bone patterns found in the bat's wing, the porpoise's flipper, and the cat's foreleg are also present in your hand. Even so, the morphological approach triumphed, because even the opponents of evolutionary theory ended up using it. Georges Cuvier, a famous biologist of the generation before Darwin, was a fierce opponent of theories of evolution; he was still able to take a few bones from an extinct creature, sketch out what the rest of the animal would have looked like—and get it right.

Morphology is especially useful in fields of study where it’s impossible to know the causes of change. Evolutionary biology is a great example; we don’t have the opportunity to go back into the thinning forests of East Africa five or six million years ago, scatter instruments across the landscape, and figure out exactly why it was that several kinds of primates came down from the trees and took up a life on the open savannah around that time.  What we have are the morphological traces of that descent, and of the different adaptations that enabled those early primates to survive—the long legs of the patas monkey, the hefty muscles and sharp teeth of the baboons, your upright posture, and so on. From that, we can figure out quite a bit about what happened to each of those primate lineages, even in the absence of videotapes from the Pliocene. 

Science has its fads and fashions, just like everything else human, and morphology has accordingly gone in and out of style as an analytic tool at various points down through the years. The same rule applies to other fields of scholarship where morphology can be used. History’s among the classic examples. There’s a long tradition of morphological thinking in history, because the causes of historical change are generally hidden from scholars by the lapse of time and the sheer complexity of the past. Giambattista Vico, Oswald Spengler, and Arnold Toynbee are among the most important historians who put civilizations side by side in order to trace out common patterns of rise and fall. These days, that approach has fallen out of fashion, and other analytic tools get much more of a workout in historical scholarship, but the method remains useful in making sense of the past and, in certain situations, of the future as well.

That’s the secret, or one of the secrets, of morphological thinking.  If you’ve learned to recognize the shape of a common sequence of events, and you see the first stages of that sequence get under way, you can predict the outcome of the sequence, and be right far more often than not. That’s what I was doing, though I didn’t yet know the formal name for it, when I considered the tech stock bubble, compared it to the stock market bubble of the mid-1980s and to previous examples of the same species, and predicted that it would end in a messy crash and a wave of bankruptcies—as of course it did. 

That’s also what I was doing in the early days of this blog, with a little better grasp of the underlying theory, when I compared the confident rhetoric of contemporary American life to the harsh realities of overshoot, and predicted that the price of oil would climb and the American economy stumble down a ragged curve of contraction papered over by statistical gimmicks and jerry-rigged financial engineering—as of course it has. That’s also, in a different sense, what I’m doing in the current sequence of posts, in which I’m placing today’s popular faith in the inevitability and beneficence of progress side by side with other civil religions and, more broadly, with theistic religions as well.

Over the weeks just past, as I’ve begun to make that comparison here, I’ve fielded quite a few comments insisting that the comparison itself is inadmissible.  Some of those comments assume that calling the modern faith in the inevitability and beneficence of progress a civil religion must amount to a criticism of that faith, or perhaps a debater’s tactic meant to justify claiming various unsavory things about it. It interests me that those who made these comments apparently didn’t consider the possibility that a religious person, the head of a religious organization and the author of quite a number of books about religious subjects—all of which I am—might not use the word “religion” as a putdown.

Another share of those comments comes from people who apparently either didn’t read or didn’t absorb the paragraphs at the beginning of my two latest posts explaining that religion is not a specific, concrete thing, but rather an abstract category into which a diverse assortment of human beliefs, practices and institutions can reasonably be fitted. These are the comments that insist that faith in progress can’t be a religion because religions by definition believe in things that can’t be proved to exist, or what have you.  Now of course it’s worthwhile to ask where such definitions come from, and how well they actually fit the facts on the ground, but there’s another point at issue here.

Human beliefs, practices and institutions rarely come into existence with the words “this is a religion” stamped on them. People whose cultures that have the category “religion” among their higher-order abstractions are generally the ones who make that judgment call. All the judgment call means, in turn, is that in the eyes of the people making it, the things gathered together under the label “religion” have enough in common that it makes sense to talk about them as members of a common category.

When we talk about individual religions—Christianity, Druidry, faith in progress, or what have you—we’re still talking about abstract categories, though they’re abstractions of a lower order, reflecting constellations of beliefs, practices, institutions, and the like that can be observed together in specific instances in the real world: this person in this building praying to this deity in words drawn from this scripture, for example.   Those specific instances are the concrete realities that make the abstractions useful tools for understanding. To borrow a useful quote from the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset: “The abstract is no more than an instrument, an organ, to see the concrete clearly.” Now of course it might be claimed that a given abstraction can’t be used to see some specific concrete reality clearly, but it’s hardly reasonable to do so in advance of making the experiment.

One interesting wrinkle on this last point comes from a commenter who insists, quoting a scholar of religious studies from India, that the concept “religion” is purely a modern Western notion and can’t be used outside that context. Since I’m discussing faith in progress as a civil religion in the modern Western world, it’s hard to see how this criticism applies, but there’s a deeper issue as well. It so happens that a noticeable minority of the world’s languages have no word for the color that, in English, we call “orange.” Does that mean that speakers of those languages don’t perceive light in the relevant wavelengths? Of course not; they simply use different words to divide up the color spectrum.

In the same way, some of the world’s languages and cultures don’t find the higher-order abstraction “religion” useful. The phenomena assigned to the category “religion” in English still exist in those languages and cultures—you’ll find, for example, that good clear translations of words such as “deity,” “worship,” “temple,” “prayer,” “offering,” “scripture,” and the like can be found in a great many languages that have no word for “religion” as such. Since we’re having this discussion in English, in turn, and talking about a pattern in contemporary American society, it’s not unreasonable to use the resources of the English language to provide useful categories, and the word “religion” is one of those.

Finally, there are the comments that assume that anyone who doubts that progress can continue indefinitely must hate progress and long for a return to primitive squalor, or what have you. I get comments of this sort regularly, and so do other writers and bloggers who ask the sort of questions I do.  For so popular a notion, it’s remarkably weird.  It’s as though someone were to claim that anyone who notices the chill in the air and the first yellow leaves on a September morning, and recognizes that autumn is on its way, must hate summer, or that the person who pounds on your door at two in the morning shouting “Your house is on fire!” wants you to burn to death.

Too much of the talk about progress in recent decades, it seems to me, has focused obsessively on labeling it good or bad, and stopped there. That sort of simplistic discussion doesn’t interest me. What does interest me is the relation between the three centuries of drastic social and technological change immediately behind us, and the impact of those three centuries on the shape of the future immediately ahead.  The widespread faith in progress that shapes so much of the cultural mainstream in most modern industrial nations is a crucial part of that relationship; while it retains its present role in public life, it has a great deal to say about which ideas and projects are acceptable and which are not; if  it implodes, as civil religions very often do under certain predictable circumstances, that implosion will have massive consequences for politics, culture, and the shape of the future.

Thus I’d like to ask my readers to bear with me in the weeks and months ahead, whether or not the description of faith in progress as a civil religion makes any obvious sense to you, and try to see the modern faith in progress through the abstract category of religion, using the same sort of morphological thinking I’ve discussed above.  I grant freely that a porpoise doesn’t look much like a bat, and neither one has much resemblance to you.  If you put the bones of the porpoise’s flipper next to the bones of the bat’s wing, and then compare them with the bones of your hand, it becomes possible to learn things that are much harder to understand in any other context. In the same way, if we put the contemporary faith in progress side by side with the belief systems that have defined the basic presuppositions of meaning and value for other societies, certain patterns become clear—and those patterns bid fair to be of immense importance in the years ahead of us.

154 comments:

Robert Martini said...

John Michael Greer,

absolutely beautiful post this week!

As the rusty cogs and spokes in my brain started turning with this weeks post, something clicked. I have been really examining the role of "the church of progress" in my ever day life as a college student. Well, ever since you introduced the idea a few weeks ago. I know you plenty more to conclude this and the previous post with. However, I keep finding that faith in progress has deeper roots.

At first I started to blame sci-fi culture and the age of magical devices. Noone truly knows how a refrigerator works or has all the knowledge to build one from literal scratch. One could almost say a refrigerator is an emergent feature of complex economies in the age of plentiful energy.

But is there not something deeper here? I started school off in engineering but abhorred the idea after a while, because of the focus on complex rather than simple ideas. Somehow in my generation, the KISS (keep it simple stupid) principle had been forgotten. It got me thinking, what about those who worship the complex? Is the religion of progress just the popularization of the cult of complexity? Why do we consider complex as beautiful and simple as primitive? There is some sort of weird dichotomy in the fact, nature and life is a million times more complex than the greatest pinnacle of technology. Yet, we see technology as the superior usurper to "primitive" nature. When did the beauty of simplicity lose its luster?

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

Sadly, the thing that history teaches best is that no one learns from it.

Vesta said...

Long-time lurker, first comment. Thanks, as usual a great post, and a welcome pit-stop and look about.
Morphological thinking has the great benefit of allowing insight even where mechanistic understanding is not possible. That is why it often predominates in the early stages of endeavor.
In scholarship and science particularly morphological thinking diminishes as exploration and discovery give way to technology and application. Perhaps the difficulty many of us have in recognizing the repeating patterns of history in our own lives is related to the ascendence of technology these last centuries.
Odd though, since pattern recognition is our greatest intellectual attribute...

Ares Olympus said...

John, your morphological thinking, if I understand it, seems quite natural to me, not that it seems dependable source of prediction, and even worse where you have no power to test its accuracy, and worse confirmation bias can make you see exactly what you want to see, and miss the counter-evidence that doesn't fit the framework.

For instance physics teaches of simple harmonic motion, and so many oscillatory systems can be reduced to this, a simple transfer of energy between two states, between alternating positive and negative feedback loops. On the other side Chaos theory says the opposite, so with resonance and perturbation of the planets, we can't (so far) numerically "prove" the Earth won't be flung out of the solar system in 10 million years. The Gaia Hypothesis works similarly not only with chaos, but like simplistic black/white Daisy World, as a living self-regulating system much more stable than you'd expect from all the periodic drivers, and along with an ever warming sun.

So I just bring up those fun ideas to suggest morphological thinking can speculate great things, but we still don't know, and can't use this knowledge easily for planning.

So we can guess collective progress will HALT at some way, because it has in the past, but we still don't know when or how or how to prepare.

My personal focus of late is the idea of divestment, basically that positive feedback systems continue by support, and generate surpluses, so some of those surpluses need to be directed in ways that don't simply generate more surpluses, but reduce the need for surpluses, the need for growth.

So since I heard of Peak Oil, the only focused personal response I've found is to avoid and reduce debt.

And today, I see yet another article, discouraging people from paying down mortgage debt, and I despair, because on the surface its sensible advice in status quo, and so the only way I can tell people its wrong is to say "Who do you trust to spend money well? You or someone speculating with your money?" And so whatever foolishness we can do, in the least working to own what you need seems a starting point.

http://homes.yahoo.com/news/why-paying-off-your-mortgage-early-is-actually-dumb-174007929.htmlhttp://homes.yahoo.com/news/why-paying-off-your-mortgage-early-is-actually-dumb-174007929.html

Thijs Goverde said...

Your talk of bubbles reminds me of the time you asked me if the proud Dutch, inventors of the renowned 'Tulip Bubble', couldn't come up with a new bubble of equal silliness and harmlessness (this was in relation to the fracking bubble, which of course creates terrible environmental havoc, as well as the more traditional financial variety).

Well, some anonymous internet guy beat us to it, I recently learned. For those of your readers even further behind their time than I am, I present: The Bitcoin (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-03-28/bitcoin-may-be-the-global-economys-last-safe-haven).

It's hard to properly describe the enormity of this phenomenon, except in words deemed improper here.
Let's just say it is an... interesting concept.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I'm feeling anecdotal tonight and the Darwin reference brought this to mind:

After Darwin published The Origin of Species the wife of the Bishop of Worcester supposedly reacted: "Descended from monkeys? Let us hope that it is not true. But if it is true, let us hope that it not become widely known."

On a different note I took some upper level courses in economics recently. One of them culminated in a presentation by me about peak oil and the economy. It had very little original thought in it; it was mostly a rehash of great thinkers from the past. I cited William Stanley Jevons's The Coal Question 1865, one of the three founders of the marginalist revolution in economics, about the importance of coal to the British empire. I cited Svante August Arrhenius's On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground 1896, Nobel prize in chemistry 1903, on the greenhouse effect He concluded that human industrial activity would eventually result in a doubling of CO2 which would cause a 5 to 6 degree increase in global mean temperature. He was pretty much spot on according to modern sources). I concluded that modern economic theory had been developed, overwhelmingly, in the last three hundred years of exponential growth brought about by the tapping of fossil fuels. And that the decline in that finite resource would not be happening in accordance with those rules.

It felt good at the time, but the next year indicated that no one had updated their world view in any meaningful way. I have the feeling that if I had cornered a professor in a forced discussion I would have received this answer: Let us hope that it is not true. But if it is true, let us hope that it not become widely known.

Thanks,
Tim

sandy said...

Bravo John M. Another well researched and recent comparison of different civilizations is Carroll Quigley's 'Tragedy and Hope', written at the end of WW2. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks, it is valid to compare it to a duck. Labeling an object or belief with any kind of emotionally tagged word is a crude attempt at neurolinguistic programming and should be avoided. As in 'Progress' or A Belief in Progress' is 'Good or Bad'. Instead try for the concept of 'it just is' or 'it exists' and go from there. For those whose cradle language wasnt English, your brains became linguistically wired different, according to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. You cant help that. I have been lurking and reading Mr. Greer's blog for two years now, and he speaks the truth. There is a Buddhist saying in Pali, 'Sabadhanum damadhanum jinati.' which roughly translates as 'The greatest gift is Truth.' I thank Mr. Greer for his gifts.

RabbleBabble

Kevin May said...

Growing up in Ireland in the eighties we were still a nation of predominantly practicing Catholics. The church was infallible, priests were respected and no one ever spoke ill of religion. Thirty years, a financial boom and many scandals later we are a nation of predominantly lapsed Catholics. People are angry with the Church. It's not unusual to hear people ridicule those who still believe. Priests are not only no longer respected as any kind of an authority but are dismissed as being fools or wicked or both. Two things I've noticed is that it's not indifference that's being expressed here. It's anger, hurt and resentment. And the other is that there is no dialogue happening between believer and lapsed. Regardless of which side you are on the other side is wrong and has nothing to offer.

So... as Progress fails to deliver on it's promises and the curtain is slowly being pulled back I wonder will those who have unwavering faith in her now react much the same? Will people polarize and split into those who still champion progress and those who champion some kind of anti-progress. I suspect dialogue will break down, names will be called and babies thrown out with bath water.



Thijs Goverde said...

On a more serious note, one of the reasons I've been objecting to the way you play fast and loose with the idea of religion is that it enables the somewhat dumb trope that 'Atheism is a religion'. A notion that I am sick and tired of in very much the same way that gays hate it when straight people tell them that homosexuality isn't something that really exists.

They especially hate it, I'm told, if said straight people then go on to say: 'Hey, I didn't mean anything bad by it - how could I? I'm straight myself, you know!' Make of that what you will.

Ruben said...

Morphology.

Elizabeth A. Lynn is probably my favourite sci-fi/fantasy author (she has written both). In the Dancers of Arun, she has a character whose gift is reading patterns. This makes him a great dancer and a great fighter.

Though I can only dance the ska, and am no kind of fighter at all, I do think my gift is seeing certain kinds of patterns.

But maybe it is not the seeing of the pattern that matters. As you say, truthfully acknowledging the shorter days and autumn chill does not mean you hate summer. So, for all I know, maybe everyone can see patterns. Maybe the gift is being able to sit with the truth of things. The days are getting shorter and colder. Plants are dying. The birds are flying south.

Let us all hope this is not the fimbulvinter.

Mr O. said...

It strikes me that one of the reasons religions, civil and otherwise, are so pervasive and powerful is that they are a structure that gives meaning to life. Just as a Christian has the belief of being part of the divine plan and the ultimate consolation of Heaven, the believer in Progress gets a feeling of being a vital piece in a grand design that has lifted humanity out of the jungle and will eventually take them to the stars etc etc. The communist sees themselves as participants in a glorious march towards the workers paradise. Not to have a religion of some sort is to stare into the icy void, that life is essentially pointless, death is inevitable and nothing matters. Considered with the decline of conventional religion during the industrial revolution, you can see why civil religions might hold such an allure, to give new meaning to lives shorn of meaning.

Richard Larson said...

Maybe you should write a flowery book entitled, "Why most Americans will go to Heaven", or something. Using your gift of writing to make enough money to completely solarize your neighborhood would be honorable! You can always end the book with word not in very very small print. Just kidding!

Anyway, I am sure you understand for most people to consider a negative outcome in their lives is to lower a high they are getting from optimism. I'm sure you have seen it too, most people will turn their heads from the conversation about the negative consequences of.., well, whatever, and say they have to go.., now. They can't listen and consider any idea that turns the mind from optimism - their idea of the positive easy life they will lead. Even those people who have already got whacked in the head with an old oak 2" by 6" plank!

Oh, that reminds me, I had better click a donation in your kiddie...

Looking back at the highlights over 3000 years must be wildly entertaining, and finding patterns in them is enlightening. Keep on sharing please.

There are a few of us who are getting it.

Fidelius said...

Thank you for posting this. I found the part that one can and has to explain western phenomena with western concepts (like religion) especially helpful. I'm not sure if civil religion is something specifically western, but even if it's not, I would imagine it's more profound in the western world and maybe especially in the United States.

Which brings me to another part of your post: market bubbles and the US. From what I gather, it's common in the US for "common people" to own stocks or invest in real estate, at least to the degree they can afford it. I get this impression from media reports and now also from your blog post, since you refer to people you knew who invested in stocks.

In central Europe, where I live (specifically in Austria and Germany), this is not the case. Less than 5% of the population own stocks. If you tell people that you own or bought stocks, most would look at you as if you had gone completely insane. I dabbled in stocks a few years ago with a small sum because I wanted to see how that whole stock thing worked. Setting up a stock account with my bank was a hassle. I had to sign several forms that yes, I wanted to freely select which stocks to buy and yes, I was aware that I could lose the money and no, I wouldn't hold the bank responsible for it. All the while, the bank clerk looked at me with pity – "poor guy, he'll lose his entire life savings". At first, he even tried to talk me out of it.

Same with real estate, by the way – most people don't own the place where they live, they rent it. Apartment buildings are mostly owned by the municipalities, who are not interested in profit, only in covering costs. Tenancy law is strictly in favor of tenants – landlords cannot cancel rental contracts as long as the tenant pays the rent more or less regularly. Those people who live in family homes usually buy or build them with the intention of living there for the rest of their lifes, so they don't care much about property values.

Pension funds are another thing: They don't exist here, at least not as part of the state pension system. The retirees' pensions are directly paid from the pension contributions of the non-retirees.

I wonder if these organisational and cultural differences are the reason the financial crisis has had no noticeable impact on everyday life around here? It's in the media, of course, with bank bail-outs and Cyprus and what-not, but common people have been asking "where's that crisis everyone's talking about?" for the last five years. The only real impact has been the oil price, which has reduced road traffic and increased the use of bicycles and public transport, at least in cities – but this is more and more seen as an increase in quality of life, not the opposite. Even mainstream newspapers now run articles on "Neue Bescheidenheit" (new modesty, referring to economics), the end of growth and the need for a steady-state economic model. Could these be signs of the future ahead? Do you think it would be culturally more difficult for Americans to accept concepts like "the end of growth/progress"?

(Sorry for the long comment, but I find the cultural differences always very interesting, as I've never been to the US and have grown up in a quite traditional Austrian/German family.)

OrwellianUK said...

Description of faith in Progress as a Civil Religion makes perfect sense to me John and I'll be looking forward to your next set of posts while watching the latest bubble head towards implosion with wry amusement.

The United States and associated Vassals of the Empire currently seem to be experiencing a bubble of hubris. I don't think we will be too surprised at how that turns out.

Kevin Frost said...

Greetings to you sir, and all, from Tasmania. First post: Progressive Time

As we know, or roundly assume, the idea of progressive and linear time is modern. It seems to be strongly associated with the establishment of the Westphalian states system, which itself was then and subsequently associated with the clockwork mechanics of the day, then the cutting edge of the natural sciences. In the wake of the disastrous 30 years war and the terrible wars of religion more generally, the architects of the system believed that they had achieved something unprecedented. Their system of order was predicated not upon ideas of virtue and spiritual values as was the case with all previous constitutional orders, but rather they conceived the ‘mainspring’ of human actions to be staked on notions of ‘rational self interest’ within an overarching system which automatically moderated each and all actors in a general balance of power mechanism which was thought to be self equilibrating, and indefinitely so. Now it is possible to speak of ‘linear’ and hence progressive time. Regarding all this three points could be made.

Firstly it is notable that the Westphalian states system appears to be the grand model for systems developed afterwards. The economic society conceived by B. Mandville, Adam Smith and numerous others, the segmented governmental ideas of Montesquieu, and later theories of competitive plural party based representative government all share a family or morphological resemblance.

Secondly it is arguable that the general systems considered here are inherently expansive. I don’t think this aspect of things occurred to the original architects. They were really dreaming of a perpetual motion machine and were unconcerned with the marginal context of their creation. Still, most of the state players were mercantile powers and already engaged in overseas maritime empires. History records how the European system indeed globalised itself just as our economic order has and presently we see dubious attempts to do the same with the political order.

Third: It’s this tendency to expansion that ultimately undoes the system and we see the veracity of this in numerous ways most of which were indicated by the Reports to the Club of Rome decades ago.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. A well constructed clock, adequately maintained, should tick away indefinitely, like Stewart Brands’ 10,000 year monument to wishful thinking. But we see the system is failing us. Questions of all sorts arise but not least this one which I pose to you as a question. We moderns cherish ideas of liberty and freedom and have done so since our Anglo ancestors basically won the war that was concluded with the treaty of Westphalia long ago. Is the end of freedom’s time already in sight?

Thank you for your patience, Kevin Frost

Avery said...

JMG,

I can't help thinking that this would all be so much easier if you imitated Guénon and named "progress" as the Anti-Tradition!

Anyway, here are some rough tips, since my B.A. thesis involved this subject. Both Indian and East Asian civilizations lack a native conception of a religion; that is, they will agree that the world has many ethnicities and cultures, and that there is more than one way of seeing the gods, but they don't see "religions" as systems that exist separately from one's culture. This makes sense, because it's Christianity and Islam that claim that spirituality can be a cross-cultural dogma.

But every language on earth has a way to express that someone is devoted to unlimited growth, and that they preach growth religiously. If you want to go the full nine yards and compare the forms of devotion to progress to the forms of devotion to Christ, well, I don't know if it will work completely, but it will definitely be worth a read.

Furthermore, every language has at least a word for something like "immaterial beings", like the pesky hard-to-spot cats in your A World Full of Gods. You should be pleased!

Avery

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Surely the access to energy that we currently enjoy is also a bubble, albeit on a longer time frame of course?

The early adopters can often make money in a bubble, which is often enough the reason as to why the herd follow. The difficulty is resisting the temptation to re-enter the fray and spin the dice one more time. Upon studying statistics at university, I had a light bulb moment when I realised that the only people that win at a gambling are those that gamble once, win and then walk away, never to gamble again. My take on the subject is that money is too hard to earn to throw it away gambling, of course this may also be due to an inherent parsimonious nature.

Deep down, people are tempted by these things because they don't want to work. Mind you, I've been excavating the new water tank flat site by hand this past week or so, so I hear them. Still, the excavations don't magically appear by themselves.

One of my favourite film quotes is from the 80's comedy Caddyshack, "Son, the world needs ditch diggers too"! I've had ample opportunity to ponder the wisdom of this quote in recent times.

Regards

Chris

ando said...

JMG

Another good start to Thursday morning. I enjoyed that greatly and learned quite a bit. Looking forward to the rest of the trip.

Les said...

Fascinating.

Last year you redefined magic into something even a trained physicist can accept with barely a murmur of dissent.

This time you need a whole blog post to try and get people to "go with the flow" with some fairly obvious similarites between progress and other religions.

Seem's you've really hit a nerve this time...

Cheers,

Les

PS: how's the solar greenhouse progressing? Have you been starting all your early veggies in it?

derekthered said...

good read, well written. if faith in progress is not a religion? then one must wonder why those who blaspheme this faith are put upon so viciously.
despite any quibbles with specifics that i have expressed, i must say you are certainly correct.

the concept of the "city of god", and the entire perfectibility of man (using the colloquial term)project is at stake. anyone who disagrees with the latest cause du jour is cast as heretic. doesn't matter what is being pushed, whether google glasses or neutering your pet, be cool or be cast out.

i call it the tyranny of reason, i believe it is first cousin to he religion of progress. woe to the "knuckledragger" who dares question the almighty reasonable argument.

John Maiorana said...

Since you are interested in morphological thinking, perhaps the branch of mathematics known as category theory, which can be described as the study of "morphisms", would be of interest to you.

Odin's Raven said...

What is the origin of this fanatical belief in material 'progress'?
Might it derive from the Biblical timescale of 6,000 years and then the Judgment at the end of time, filtered through the Puritan searching for outward signs of being 'saved' and amongst the 'elect', which then became an obsessive desire to control the physical world as justification for existence?

sgage said...

@JMG,

You wrote:

"If you put the bones of the porpoise’s flipper next to the bones of the bat’s wing, and then compare them with the bones of your hand, it becomes possible to learn things that are much harder to understand in any other context."

Sounds like something Gregory Bateson would have said.

This week's essay may be an aside, but it's a useful aside...

Nestorian said...

JMG,

I continue to enjoy and profit from your current series of posts. I would like to raise a basic issue that I thought about raising previously, but that seemed a bit too tangential to the central themes of your previous posts. It is the classic philosophical issue of nominalism versus realism.

I am sure you are aware that your remarks about how to define the term “religion” are fundamentally nominalistic. That is, the term “religion” designates a concept or thought-category that is, in the last analysis, purely a matter of human invention (or of “social construction,” to employ the fashionable postmodernist terminology). To be sure, the invention is not completely arbitrary; but neither is the proper definition of terms such as “religion” univocally fixed. Rather, the conceptual content designated by the term may be varied freely in discourse and reasoning, based on whatever conceptual content happens to be most useful or clarificatory given the context of the discussion or discourse within which the term is employed.

In contrast, I hazard to advance a realist view of what the term “religion” means. Along with many other terms denoting concepts basic and universal in human experience (such as love, justice, beauty, anger, etc.), “religion” may properly be said to denote a phenomenon of human experience that inherently possesses an essential unity among the elements comprising it. The essential unity of the psychological phenomenon that the term “religion” denotes, moreover, is real independently of human efforts accurately to encapsulate that fixed essential unity in definitional terms. As such, there are objectively correct and incorrect ways of defining religion.

Perhaps it goes without saying that I would endorse the etymologically-derived definition of “religion” that I proposed two weeks ago as an accurate denotation of what lies at the core of the true essence of the religious in human experience. That is, any human experience meeting the criterion that it relates to what a person existentially “binds herself” to as the ultimate source of meaning and value is thereby essentially religious.

I thought that this particular juncture in the discussion might be a suitable moment to put these considerations on the table, since the nominalism vs realism theme strikes me as less tangential to this weeks post.

Nano said...

General Semantics FTW!

Wonderful allegories and explanations.


kjboro said...

Thanks for the post. All very well put.

One question and, by all means, use morphology for any sort of response:

What is/are the shapes of 'faith' as opposed to 'certainty'? And, what are the possible implications of the distinctions?

What, e.g., would distinguish a 'faith in progress' from a 'certainty that there is/will be progress?'

Yupped said...

The effects of religious belief on a person can vary immensely. For some people, working with a set of beliefs and spiritual practices can lead to expansion and growth beyond the limits of the self, a liberation of sorts. For some other people, religion can become a trap, as they get stuck on the beliefs and practices themselves, and become more dogmatic and fixed in their outlook. I suppose it depends on what the person is looking for, and the extent to which they are able to consciously let go of fixed beliefs and grow. If, probably unconsciously, you are looking for something around which to strengthen your sense of identity then you might go one way. If, though, you are looking for some way to get over yourself then you might go another way. I've experienced both sides of this equation myself.

I suppose this effect must play out with civic religion as well. If belief in certain things is a big part of your sense of self (whether it be a belief in socialism or progress/technology or humanism or the primacy of the Red Sox) then you're going to react quite negatively when those things are challenged. But if you are ready for change, to go beyond yourself, then having the limitations of these things pointed out to you should be quite freeing and allow you to move forward into a new space.

So it's not necessarily about the logic of the argument, it's about your inner state and readiness for change perhaps?

Hal said...

I'm having mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I'm feeling cheated out of the progression of this series of posts, because you have had to make this aside in the face of all of the strident nit-picking that's been going on.

On the other hand, it' a pretty darn good restatement of a lot of basic principles that I haven't seen all together in one place before. It will be a great introductory post to which to direct my friends.

Michelle said...

THANK YOU for the exquisite timing of this installment. My 14 year old 9th grader has been wailing about how irrelevant his World Civilization class is to his life. He will be reading this essay before he gets to have a turn on the computer today!

Jesse Herbert said...

Pardon my lack of editing, here is the more grammatically correct version:

Great post once again JMG. One thing that I have been thinking about lately is that while our near future here in the US is likely to have much less in the way of material excess, the increase in manual labor along with a decrease in industrial food consumption and time not spent in front of a computer or iphone could be considered a form of progress in another light. Will this idea be latched onto by the prophets of progress as proof that it is still in play? Perhaps, but either way I am interested in such 'progress', as losing my own previous corporate scientist position in a fuel cell (fool cell?) company--for being honest about the limits of the technology no less--has resulted in much deeper explorations into permaculture, ultra energy efficient living, and personal development via dream work and book reading. And yes, of course still some computer based learning. These days my hands show signs of this type of living, and I am so grateful that I was heartily rewarded for being honest about the limits of a 'too complex to succeed' technology. If more people realized that the concepts of progress & evolution can in fact be broadened to include the changes that are looming, might it help us psychologically to collectively get on with the making do? Again, thank you JMG for such lucid contemplations on these matters. Your blog is a wonderful garden where ecological awareness and open eyed reflecting on crucial historical lessons are flourishing, bravo!

GHung said...

Thanks, JMG. I was taught early on that one doesn't need to assign a label and a value to everything. As my Grandfather used to say; "It is what it is. Whether or not you like it has little to do with understanding it. It usually gets in the way."

How much 'progress' could we make if we could only stop equating "assessment" with "judgement"? What is the evolutionary function of our approval-seeking super-ego? The process of reward and punishment works quite well when training a dog. Seems we're not alone in our need for validation; powerful stuff.

Humans are so deeply invested in Progress, on so many levels, I think it's an idea that defines how they label themselves. It's one reason I stopped referring to myself as a "Progressive". From the movie Gladiator:

"You must kill your name before your name kills you".

What then? Seems we're not wired for this sort of freedom.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- sally forth.

I personally prefer to call it the "mythology of progress" rather than the "religion of progress" because (in my personal lexicon) the term "mythology" -- as a broad collection of stories and both critical and uncritical beliefs that serve to place the human species, the tribe, and the individual in the cosmos -- is a more general form than the more-technical "religion" implies. It would certainly be an error to call it the "Judeo-Christian conservative techno-fascist creed of progress," because the category is so narrow that, if anything fits in it at all, "progress" certainly does not.

But both "mythology" and "religion" are broad categories, my preference is personal and idiosyncratic, and re-categorizing from time to time is a useful mental exercise. Plus, putting a common object in a different light lets you see it differently, which (usually) gives you a better understanding of it.

I'm all for calling it the "religion of progress." Let's see where that leads....

Don Plummer said...

Well, John, you're asking us to consider whether we should consider the modern "faith in progress" to be a religion, but by your very asking of the question, you describe it in what I would consider unambiguously religious terms: I refer to your use of the word "faith." Because use of that word takes the question out of the realm of abstraction, it seems. And by our unquestioning acceptance of your use of the word "faith," we have just as unambigously accepted that what you are tlking about is indeed a religion.

In other words, given that we clearly can regard peoples' attitude toward progress as a "faith," then we are desrcibing something that just as clearly fits into the absraction we call "religion."

At least it seems so to me.

John Gossett said...

I have enjoyed reading your posts of the last few weeks regarding civil religions as it had never occurred to me to think of "Americanism" or "Communism" in the context of religion. This multi-week build up of context to support the coming discussion of progress as religion makes for thought-provoking reading.

In today's discussion of morphology you mentioned and I have read of using morphology to compare the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to our American Empire as many people of late seem to see our country's imminent collapse in the morphological tea leaves of the Roman collapse. If one can at some level predict the rise and fall of empires, or the blowing and popping of bubbles through morphological examination, can one not also compare the life cycle of the civil religions you've mentioned? Are there interesting civil religions from times past that could be examined to provide some level of predictability of the future events of the current religions of Americanism, or most importantly the religion of progress? (progressionism?)

I find my thoughts jumbled when it comes to envisioning a world in which the faith in progress ceases to exist. To my thinking people always endeavor to better their and their family's lives which leads to incremental progress if even on a small scale. Am I an adherent of progressionism if I believe that even in the much reduced energy availability future that people will still find ways to make their lot in life better through invention and adapting to circumstances?


Renaissance Man said...

Data point for decline.
Canada Post has just ordered its workers to adhere to a strict delivery schedule from 10 to 8, even if it means going out after dark in winter. Workers will no longer be allowed to start early and skip the heat of a scorching summer day, or start early and avoid darkness.
For years, they have been delivering mail to new subdivisions and rural roads via a single mailbox location where everyone goes to pick up their post.
So, they have become increasingly "efficient" at processing volumes of post, but they cannot afford to hire more staff to cover all the area the way they used to.
Pattern Recognition
This is why I've always been fascinated with history, particularly of war, which, no matter how the tech improves, remains a gruesome business and the "story" of any war sounds exactly the same, from the "massacre of orphans and nuns" in August 1914 right to the "incubator babies" of 1991 and the (preemptive)"mushroom cloud over New York" of 2003. It's the same story.
I can perceive patterns in my workplace, certain behaviours, that tell me that what is said and what is done are no longer coincide. It explains the increasingly poisonous and frightened atmosphere as well as the lowered morale that I can also see across society as a whole, since this unpleasant fact is also true of governments of all stripes at all levels of late.
The ability to recognize patterns is crucial, yet so few seem to be able to do it at all, let alone do it well.

Bill Pulliam said...

Thijs -- I don't see that your analogy fits at all. No one is denying the existence of Atheism; most are not even challenging its validity as a belief system. They're just placing it in a category (using logic and reasoning, I might add) that you don't like.

I think the more appropriate analogy would be that stating that Atheism is just another religion is like stating that heterosexuality is just another sexual orientation, on par with homosexuality and bisexuality. And I think you will find a lot of heterosexuals bristle at that statement as well.

Jasmine said...

Dear Mr Greer
I can understand why people get confused by your use of the term “progress”. This is such a loaded term and has so many meanings. I remember that some philosopher (I think it was Russell) said that most of the arguments in philosophy arise, because people get into a muddle about the meaning of words. This is why it’s so important to define the terms you use. John Gray is fairly good when it comes to examining the different kinds of meaning we apply to the term “Progress”.

There is what you might term moral/ethical progress. This might encompass things like ending slavery, better rights for women, treating people more humanely and alleviating the worst kind of poverty etc. This is the kind of progress I would sign up for and I am sure that you would as well. Many of these goals are down to earth and realistic and there are many examples of societies that have achieved them. However people often make the mistake of thinking that these achievements are set in stone and cannot be reversed. This is wrong as such, achievements are fragile and history has many examples where this kind or progress has gone into reverse. Weimer Germany was quite a liberal regime. The regime that followed was not so liberal. The problems really start when people treat moral/ethical progress as a god and lose their grip on reality. They start to think that they can alter human nature and create a utopia or a new heaven on earth. When people start thinking in this way it is perfectly permissible to kill or torture anyone you perceive as being in the way. Communism and the worst excesses of the French revolution are examples of this kind of progress. Even the Nazis where in their own way guilty of this kind of progress. The only difference is that their utopia was limited to bond blue eyed Aryans. This is not the kind of progress I would sign up for.

Then there is what you might call technological/scientific progress. This kind of progress is very real and has completely altered how we live since the industrial revolution. Some of this progress is certainly beneficial. The only problem is that many people treat it as a God. They fail to accept that technological advances often bring about negative outcomes such as machine guns, poison gas or environmental destruction etc. In their worship of technological progress they lose all grip on reality and think that there are no limits on what we can achieve; we can have endless growth on a finite planet and there are no problems that our technology cannot solve. Some people seem to think that endless growth will also solve our ethical/moral problems, which is a complete delusion. They are incapable of questioning technological progress and think that we should always choose the most high tech solution to our problems. This can really skew people’s judgements, as sometimes low or intermediate technologies can provide the better solution. To the worshippers of technological progress peak oil is not a problem, as technology will find the solution and we don’t need to do anything apart from invest in R & D. This worship of technological progress is leading our civilisation to disaster and it is not something I would sign up for. However this does not mean that I don’t appreciate many of the benefits of technology. I am just more realistic about what it can and cannot do.

Thank you for your blog, it makes great reading.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Thijs Goverde:

I want to suggest that part of the difficulty you are having with JMG's use of the term "religion" is rooted in the very different experience of religions on the two sides of the Atlantic.

Living in Europe, you may not know that people in the United States have been creating and spreading, on the average, several dozen (literally!) new religions every decade since at least the middle of the 1700s. The total number of new religions created here has to be more than a thousand by now. Relatively few of them fit all that comfortably within the traditional constraints of traditional religions as they have been and are practiced in the rest of the world.

And we export these new religions in significant numbers to the rest of the world. New religions are a major form of cultural creativity with us, and their creation has also become a kind of growth industry since the 1800s, with the rise of the Protestant Missionary movement. Eventually they were incorporated into many of our nation's wealth pumps, or developed into wealth pumps in their own right.

Many of these new religions found at least a few followers within several years. Many of them found a much greater number, and a few of them came to have hundreds of thousands of followers. On the whole, they change over time, and many of them eventually shrink down to mere handfuls of followers -- and a fair number of them die out. But, again, a good number have proven viable, and have endured (though with few followers) through the generations.

And the process is still going on.

Despite their impermanence, most of our new religions deal in some way or other with the Divine, the Numinous or the Transcendent, and thus they count as "religions" even under many traditional definitions of the term. A few of them do not deal with these things, but they do exhibit all the external trappings of other religions: regular meetings, standard rituals and ceremonies, revered texts to be read, etc. etc.

There are, on this side of the Atlantic, even professed Atheists who have these things: regular meetings, rituals and ceremonies, revered texts, etc. In sociological terms, if not in theological ones, these things serve exactly the same role for those who follow them that similar meetings, rituals and texts do for followers of older religions like Christianity.

The academic field called Sociology of Religion, as it has developed here, naturally focused on North America at first, and so it worked out most of its terminology and accepted results on the basis of this effervescent and extravagant panoply of newly created religions that so characterizes culture in the United States. This is the context for such things as "civil religion" and even "sheilaism" as scholarly terms.

Naturally enough, this terminology -- and JMG's use of it -- will fit European circumstances rather poorly. But he is not presuming to write about Europe, and his terms work rather well for North America. And theories need not have world-wide validity to be valid within a particular part of the world: we are not talking about a natural science with universal applicability here.

Andy Brown said...

When I traveled to Kazakhstan in 1994 to do fieldwork as a cultural anthropologist, I was witnessing a dry run for collapse. Before I got there I was most interested in what was going to take the place of the great ideologies (and civil religions) of the Soviet Union. But when I got there I quickly realized that people in the midst of economic free fall had no interest in any such questions - being much more active on the questions of how to put food on the table, a roof overhead - how to keep their daughter in school and their son out of the army. I think this was encouraged by a neglectful state leadership who nevertheless discouraged any destabilizing enthusiasms on the part of the struggling population. Contrast this with the Balkans where cultural and political entrepreneurs were given free reign to whip up genocidal fantasies upon the stresses of economic collapse. Morphologies, indeed.

Jon said...

Mr. Greer,

I've lost my faith in Progress and Growth. Maybe it has something to do with not having a substantial pay increase in 6 years and being tethered to a cell phone all day.

I hope that during one of the posts in this segment, you could provide some hints as to where we might find some adequate replacements for that old time religion.

Phil Harris said...

JMG
I was fascinated by Fidelius comment from Austria/Germany. He describes a situation pretty much the polar opposite of the changes resulting from deliberate policies set in motion by Thatcher more than 30 years ago. Massive increases in ownership of houses and stocks and shares investment were prominently encouraged by Thatcher, and, I would add, loss of manufacturing capacity was dramatically accelerated.

I guess Thatcher convinced a lot of people that there was a ‘magic’ way (in the Harry Potter sense) they were going to get rich, even if mysteriously a great many of them actually found the reverse was true. It was enough to still have the carrot dangling in front of the collective nose. Still, that’s Progress for you! ;)

Pensions seem to be more complicated in Britain than in Germany. Pensions funded from 'investment' of contributions (an investment fund) are becoming difficult to get in the private sector, and existing schemes for many local government employees appear 'at risk' from failed investments if a collapsed bubble translates into a stalled economy (well … its 5 years now and GDP is still 3% down on 2007). As you can imagine pensions funded directly from taxes in our present British state are very much ‘under scrutiny’! I guess it is the young folks who will take the big hit.

The Reagan/Thatcher 'model' or business plan seems to have accentuated the outcomes in our respective countries. You, JMG, suggested a little while ago that Britain could expect a very hard time when America goes down. I agree.

best

Phil H


sgage said...

Here is an essay that I somehow stumbled across just now that presents some interesting thoughts on the intersection between what we might call theistic religion and civic religion:

http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2013/04/9883/

Kevin May said...

@RobertMartini

Last week I brought up a similar point to yours about how more complexity is deemed as progress except I was talking about it in relation to making music.

It seems to me that neither complexity nor simplicity is 'better'. Can we say that an elegant ensō is any less beautiful than the sistine chapel? Each has their place. Once we decide on one approach as always the best approach we start to become dogmatic about it and force it into roles it doesn't necessarily suit.

In Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game music composition, philosophical thought and science subjects are given space within the game to be developed and explored, striving towards increasing complexity. Meanwhile Hesse paints a picture of a society that appears simpler when compared to our own, one with minimal use of advanced technology. And yet advanced technology hasn't been given up on entirely either. I thought that was interesting. Perhaps it's a case of knowing when and where best to apply complexity (or simplicity for that matter) rather than a case of either or.

Ric said...

Through the booms and busts of the last century, it has still been true that stocks rise nicely over periods of several decades, and you'll do fine if you are not forced to make large sales in panic situations. Therefore, a young person starting out would be well advised to gradually sock away a financial nest egg incubated by Wall Street.

Unless, of course, there were some factor that would make this century different at the core from last. Some guy on a blog was trying to convince me of that, but I think he was just being Arch.

hapibeli said...

Hallelujah! Errr, that is to say, you are often a breath of fresh air. :-) :-)

das monde said...

A majority of sophisticated bankers got burned by the 2008 crisis, often in a personal way. How they could have been so dumb not to see the same 1929 pattern? One factor is that Wall Street is a competitive market of narratives - and some narratives foul most of the people, including bond traders and policy makers. Spreading fallacies might be in interest of some shrewd teams, regardless of background stability.

And besides, the morphologies that lead to Great Depression and other calamities appear to be repeated deliberately - more openly under Bush, with more involved tales in other recent times.

Frankly, the whole politics, economy, media are covered by myths. The American Dream, Government by the People and for the People, Audacity of Hope, Cyclic Economy, Free Trade, Austerity or Keynesian Promises, Hyper-inflation Scare, New Oil or Alternative Energies, and then Scare for Global Warming Alarmists and what not. Wherever you look, you are pushed by some biased myth. They keep you running in the rat race, pay off mortgage and trust normalcy of this heating hell.

There is something more than ignorance, vain folly, developed media technologies, marketing techniques behind this ubiquitousness of mad myths. I guess that growth problems and predicaments are clear but appear nasty to some elites for some time already. An open discussion of vital problems does not appear a good idea to them, probably. What are they to do then? Blurring the picture for slightly less astute or resourceful people, keeping myths alive until an overshot point is reached that only They would follow - that is quite a possibility.

Myths had been ruling the world for ages. Why should some expect less mythology around this breaking for the civilization point?

Brian said...

Okay, now can we all stop bothering the Archdruid with semantics so he can get back to showing us the way forward? Seriously though, I appreciate the parallels you illustrate here.

Also, I'm relatively new to the blog, so I'm reading through your (appreciably-sized) backlog of posts. I just finished "Principles for Sustainable Tech" (http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2007/01/principles-for-sustainable-tech.html) and I just wanted to say that, in addition to 7734, you can put 58008 on that TI-30 and amuse your friends. That was always a winner in grade school.

artinnature said...

Fidelius, thanks for your description of how things are in Germany. Yes, that is a dramatically different picture compared to any place I have lived in the US which includes west coast, middle and east coast.

I consider myself one of the "common people" and I have bought and sold several homes and have had investments in stocks for many years. My brother owns four homes and many of my neighbors own more than that. My wife and I currently own none.

The concept of municipalities owning apartment buildings and only seeking to cover costs made my jaw drop. There is some "rent controlled" housing in larger cities, but I think rental units are mostly owned by capitalists (usurers?) here.

And speaking the words 'steady state economy' in the mainstream media? Forget about it.

Unknown said...

Mr. Greer,

Your blog demonstrates considerable insight and broad reading on social and technical subjects, but I really don't understand how you got to Druidism or where you're going with it. Could you briefly explain?

Isis said...

On the subject of whether or not atheism is a religion... I am not opposed to the idea that atheists can be religious, and one could even argue that, being human, all atheists are religious. But in and of itself, atheism is not a religion, and it is certainly not one religion. Sartrean existentialism is hardly the same thing as Dawkins' New Atheism, to say nothing of Confucianism and certain forms of Buddhism. Saying that atheism is a religion (one religion) is like saying that monotheism is one religion, or that polytheism is one religion (making Hinduism and Druidry one and the same thing!).

This raises another question: does merely believing in one or more gods make one religious? Let's suppose a person, when pushed, says that he thinks that there is exactly one god in the world, but he doesn't particularly care one way or the other, and he certainly doesn't worship, make offers to, or pray to this god. Does this form of monotheism constitute a religion? I would be inclined to say that it doesn't: belief alone will not suffice, some sort of emotional investment (at a minimum) would be necessary. Also, it is my understanding that until not so long ago, saying that one believed in god essentially meant that one had trust in god. (In fact, US money has "IN GOD WE TRUST," not "IN GOD WE BELIEVE," stamped on it.) These are very different things! For instance, I certainly believe that liars exist, but I most definitely wouldn't trust them! Perhaps our host has an opinion on the matter?

Thijs Goverde said...

@Bill Pulliam: oh nonononono, you are not using logic when you place atheism in the category of religion. If you were, you would start by giving a definition that describes religion (and only religion), and then demonstrate how atheism fits that definition.
This, I have never seen done.

In contrast, what I have often seen people make bland assertions that it could be done, or even that it has been done. However, when the time came to either put up or shut up, these people invariably chose the latter option.

Mr. Greer has very good reasons for his sally into morphology and his emphatic refusal to give a definition of religion, I think. His beef in these essays is not with atheism but with Progress (Which is fine by me: I have no stake in that game, as I identify with neither progress nor religion); I merely mentioned that his somewhat generous use of the word 'religion' might encourage the kind of sloppy thinking that considers atheism a religion.

@Robert Mathiesen:
That may be so; I do not know enough about the Sociology of Religion as it is practised in the USA to make an intelligent comment on that.
If the last few essays have indeed been the very American remarks, aimed at a very American audience, that you describe - well that would certainly explain why I found them so much less interesting than his earlier writings on Peak Oil, which adressed issues affecting us all.

James Bodie said...

Of all the generations living concurrently on the earth, we were all born into the hydrocarbon bubble. That is the hardest bubble to see. I thank you for seeing the Malthusian situation we occupy.

Matthew Lindquist said...

Excellent post! I myself have wondered at the baffling, sputtering rejection of the "progress as religion" that you fielded in your comments- I can only imagine that it was worse in those that didn't make it through!

I think that part of the problem is that our culture seems to categorize religion as "something you can choose to believe or not believe"- while Progress is considered to be self-evidently true.

This distinction holds true even for people who ostensibly believe in one of the recognized-in-polite-society religions: I've noticed that I can tell a member of any number of Christian denominations that I don't believe Jesus was a divine incarnation of God on Earth, and the worst I'll get is a polite acknowledgement that I'm entitled to my own opinion. But if I say that all our pomp of yesterday will soon be one with Nineveh and Tyre? Then they will argue with me until they are blue in the face, because we got through the sixties with the threat of nuclear war hanging over us gosh-darnit, and how dare I irresponsibly refuse to take out a mortgage to buy a home?

What I'm wondering, however, is this: Do you consider that the phenomenon I just described is what you mean when you say that Progress took over from Christianity "in much the same way that a hermit crab takes over the cast-off shell of a snail"?

It seems to me that everyone has at least some level of acceptance of the core principles of Progress as self-evidently true along with that attendant emotional investment, while simultaneously lacking such conviction with regards to the traditional tenets of Christianity.

On a slightly separate note, I think that the coming collapse of the Progress narrative will take down quite a few other "-isms" with it; liberalism, neoconservatism, libertarianism, even communism all derive a great deal of their core raison-d'etre from the belief that things will get better. What in the world comes next, when all of that is shattered? I tremble to contemplate.

Ensena said...

Been lurking a few months - I love your blog, and in particular, I'm excited to see what comes up in the next few weeks! I wanted to pop in to offer something that has been helping me talk about these issues with friends - that our belief in progress is a belief in quantitative progress, as opposed to a qualitative progress. A quantitative progress sees a numerical increase as progress - "more is better" - while a vision of qualitative progress recognizes that "more is better, sometimes."

Quantitative progress is abstract. It has no sense of place - it is focused on a single quality of an object - its quantity. Therefore it ignores all the related issues bound up in producing quantitative progress - the energy it takes to bring resources to a location to create it and the waste that may be produced, the source and sink issues - are the two most obvious.

Qualitative progress takes account of these things - if producing an additional widget is harmful to a person, it is not progress to produce it; if having an additional object is harmful to a person, it is not progress to have it.

Think of a cow - the offer of a free cow is not useful to most people. It could be food, it could be transportation, but it requires care and produces plenty of waste.

Quantitative progress would say sure - it's better to have the cow, more is better, it can be useful later. This seems obviously incorrect here, but when it comes to communications devices (for ex.) we're always impressed by being able to send more info, faster, rather than asking if the production and development of the devices, and the maintenance of all the necessary infrastructure, is worth it. A proper evaluation of progress is qualitative, because only individuals use technology - not organizations or groups, which are only collections of individuals - and the problem with vision of quantitative progress is it doesn't ask "who benefits?" but assumes it is a sort of social or collective progress.

I use a "belief in a higher power that gives life meaning" as a working definition of religion, and I mean no insult - that higher power could be one or many Gods, it could be the state, it could be science - and it may place more or less demands on individual action.

The religion of quantitative progress is a collectivist religion - hence we speak of a workforce, rather than workers, and technological progress as opposed to individual progress. I think what sends people into apoplectic fits and scream "Luddite!" is because they see progress as linear, much like many Christians seem unaware that there is more than one version of the Bible. They think there is one version of progress, and that people are opposed to it, or in favor of it, rather than in favor of a different progress.

Anyway, thanks for writing - I'm so grateful for the insights and facts!



Ensena said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
dowsergirl said...

I agree with the problems associated with definitions and semantics. It is what we have to deal with in basic communication with one another. L. Ron Hubbard wrote many of his books utilizing the secondary definitions of words, and in order to be understood, had to have copious footnotes on each page.

It all just reminds me of the joke, what is the opposite of progress? Congress...

And I agree with Jasmine, we define progress by what is our focus and our goal. So the faith I have in progress is the faith I have in my self and my understanding of where I would like to see us all go.

BrightSpark said...

Fascinating. There's a weird synchronicity going on here. I've just finished reading possibly the greatest morphological work produced in the modern era - Christopher Alexander's "The Nature of Order". By reading, I mean skimming, and then probably going back months later and finding something new, as is the nature of these deep works.

Alexander's main interest is in looking at the deep geometric structure of natural life and the built world, and he's arrived at some stunning (and to the right mind, world-changing) conclusions.

Jonathan Byron said...

I usually reserve the term 'religion' for belief systems that attempts to answer the big philosophical questions, while progress seems to silence those questions with the promise of more stuff. Such questions might deal with the existence of god(s), what happens when a person dies, how did the universe get here, and what is the meaning of life. I would distinguish religion from science, as religion tends to work in one direction (starting with answers), while science starts with observations (and forms and reforms answers in response to new observations). I would also place honest philosophy outside the confines of religion.

I use the term 'world-view' (weltanschuang) to refer to mental frameworks that are decidedly more mundane and secular, even when they are a stronger influence on the day to day thinking and decisions.

But, of course, when either of use a word, it means just what we choose it to mean - neither more nor less!

Kevin Frost said...


Progressive Time and ‘Civil Religion’

In a previous post I called attention to the development of the modern states system in the mid 17th century as crucial to the emergence of our modern notion of time as something linear as distinct from the cyclic understanding that preceded it. Soon afterwards the now familiar idea of progress arose in a broadcast way that set one of the major agendas for the subsequent era of Enlightenment. In the late 17th century a Frenchman, Bishop Bousset, wrote a text entitled ‘Has There Been Progress in Human Affairs?’ The good bishop answered his own question in the affirmative: Christianity has made a difference in this world for the better. His thesis provoked discussion and controversy. The great adversary of this view was Voltaire who opined in his Essay on the Moeurs that while the natural sciences of contemporary Europe were far in advance of any other age, yet in the all important moeurs the Chinese may be credited with having written reasonable histories ‘when our ancestors were swinging from trees’.

Now we come to the idea of a ‘civil religion’, somewhat complex this one. I don’t know how old the phrase is but do know that it was set into circulation by Jesuit missionaries working in China. To get their converts to give up the ancestral rites was quite out of the question so they came up with the phrase ‘civil religion’ to explain the context of what their converts were doing. This didn’t wash with their enemies, the Dominicans and Augustinians, and the issue came to a head during the famous ‘Chinese Rites Controversy’ of the Sorborrne in the year 1700 where the Jesuits were condemned. Nonetheless the Jesuits carried on with their endeavours, the most important fruits thereof were not foreign converts but rather the dangerous effects their first hand accounts of China had on their own ruling class students whom they taught in their schools all over Catholic Europe. The most notorious product of this education was Voltaire.

During the Enlightenment it was something of a standing joke that it was the leading missionaries of the Christian religion that had supplied unbelieving humanists with the most potent arguments against theistic belief. They were referring to the descriptions of this ‘civil religion’ of China, Confucianism basically and it’s governmental practices. In this context it was understood that ‘upright men’ do not stoop to low practices. Only ‘low men’ resort to sticks and carrots. With the distinction created between Confucianist humanism and the manipulative ways of legalism, the doctrine of rewards and punishments, the stage was set for the most devastating critique of Christianity to date. Previously it had been possible to criticise theism. Epicureans had (somewhat dogmatically) denied the existence of metaphysical substances while sceptical empiricists had denied the possibility of knowing anything beyond sense experience, but this criticism took the form not of an ontology or epistemology but of ethics. Christianity stood accused of low minded manipulation with it’s reliance on a cosmology of heavens and hells – primarily to keep the masses in line, a consideration well known to the ancients. For the first time in European history it became possible to mount a sweeping critique of the old estates. The priests pull the wool over the eyes of the people while the nobility fleece them. This was Voltaire’s answer to Bishop Bousset’s assertion of Christian progress: ‘superstition and barbarism’. (Note in passing: this is very different from John Grey’s Voltarian straw man)

There’s a great deal more that could be said but what’s crucial here is that from this moment onwards the search for a ‘civil religion’ or a ‘natural religion’ has been a front burner Enlightenment project, contrary to the received interpretation. Everybody and his uncle during the 18th century was a deist. That search goes on to this day. Enough for now. A long post. I thank my reader for the patience to wade through all this, best, Kevin Frost.


Bill Pulliam said...

Thijs -- OK, how about this definition pinched from the first sentence of the wikipedia page:

"Religion is an organized collection of belief systems, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values."

So let's apply this to atheism, in its modern western scientific form:

Belief systems: yup. There are no gods, science if the one true path to understanding.
Cultural systems: yup. Atheism is strongly associated with particular cultural attributes and beliefs about the relationship between human and society.
World views: Undeniably.
Relating humanity to spirituality: Yup. Spirituality is a fantasy and humanity should have no relationship with it.
Moral values: Absolutely.

Of course any definition is somewhat arbitrary and subject to criticism; which is precisely the point, as expressed in this post, last week's post, and the one before that. You are free to offer your own definition if you can come up with one that somehow excludes western-style scientific atheism but still includes the non-theistic branches of buddhism, hinduism, etc.

How about we just see where our host is going with this?

Chris G said...

Fascinating topic. I think it's worth adding a couple points.

A lot of what religion is about is sort of getting the subjective experience on the same page with the objective experience. What people believe is important to what they do; in turn, the power of what we do is exponentially increased when we do it together. the root of the word religion is "binding": re-binding. We grow out, then we bind ourselves back together; we grow in.

Our idea of progress is inherently subjective - that is, seen from this moment in time: we see ourselves on what looks to be the upward trajectory of the control of the material world by human consciousness. When we use the term "progress" presently, we really mean material progress - power over the material world - and that depends on energy. A barrel of oil is the equivalent of something like 25,000 hours of manual labor. Now it's certainly possible that we'll gain access to some new form of energy, and an increasing degree of control of the matter of the world. But it's worth questioning whether that would even be a good thing. When it comes to happiness, that power over the material world has questionable results. People need food, air, water, and shelter, some sense of safety and freedom; but beyond the basics, our power has quickly diminishing returns.

There can be immaterial progress, and that would break our current definition, but it still would be meaningful. It's noteworthy that Charles Darwin consistently denied that evolution meant progress - it only meant adaptation to change. For instance, there is scattered evidence now of non-industrial agriculture that is more productive than industrial, without all the energy inputs. That is, with a commonly-shared belief (a "religion") that human life and the consciousness residing therein (or something like that) is the highest value - rather than human ability to control vast reserves of energy - it can be done. And that would be another form of progress. But it takes a new kind of social organization, a new religion.

I see a lot of promise in the eastern non-theistic traditions' responses to industrialism - that there is divinity in all consciousness. There is a lot of power (a non-material energy) in meditation, that can be called most simply "happiness and compassion." This is morphologically analogous to Christianity's criticism and eventual co-optation of the Roman Empire, as the latter lost power to maintain empire.

KL Cooke said...

Renaissance Man

"The ability to recognize patterns is crucial, yet so few seem to be able to do it at all, let alone do it well."

As one who has spent a great deal of time looking for patterns, the problem I have encountered is my tendency to see patterns that turn out to not be there.

PhysicsDoc said...

I look forward to your blog post every week, but am a little puzzled by the lack of content relating to climate change or environmental issues in general. I realize that this is not the focus of this blog but surely these issues will play a significant role in determining the future trajectory of our civilization. Your thoughts?

John Roth said...

On whether athiesm is a religion.

If I understand JMG's argument, one difference between a set of propositions that's a religion and the exact same set of propositions that isn't a religion is that the first is regarded as self-evident Truth, while the second is regarded as contingent on evidence.

Since an atheist regards it as self-evident that there is no God (or gods), atheism is a religion.

Your definitions could come out to a different place.

faoladh said...

People looking for a definition of religion could do much worse than looking to the late Clifford Geertz's excellent The Interpretation of Cultures, wherein he defined religion as, "(1) a system of symbols (2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic". He then proceeds to spend some 30-odd pages unpacking that concise definition.

Leo said...

So discuss and understand the abstract so the concrete is clearer.

Or see the similarities so the specific can be seen in context.

On the previous topic of color revolutions, I think the opening stages of that may have started.
Some conspiracy theorists have said the governments planned it as a false flag operation. Whiles its more likely a nut-job or terrorist, the last half of that theory is the next most likely cause.

Some nation wanting to stoke the anti-government fires could easily fund this sort of operation. And the conspiracy theorists do the rest. It's a simple plan.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

I accept your point of view as the truth. It also accords with historical events and my own experiences and observations.

I too have witnessed the bubbles rise and fall with a sense of dismay at the goings on.

The property bubble is tottering along here, whilst at the same time I see that manufacturing businesses are reducing their workforces. The infrastructure investments from the mining boom have peaked and are now declining. Many large infrastructure projects have been shelved just recently due to a lack of projected return (interesting that you blogged about this).

Economists blame the high Australian dollar, and yet at the core of the problem is unreasonably high property prices and unsustainable wages. It is an unmentionable topic here. Many people are too highly geared as a result of the high property prices and they will suffer the biggest fallout when it eventually collapses, as it inevitably will.

It sounds just like Florida land sales in the 1920's...

An excellent post too. Years back on an article series, I became sick of the negativity the article series was attracting and so wrote an article which allowed commenter's to vent their spleens so that we could all move past that sticking point. It was a very effective strategy and gave me peace of mind.

People, I believe are looking for solutions that do not impact their day to day lives (or are perfect) and in so doing miss the acceptable solutions. Self-interest is such a strong motivator in our society that people ignore the big picture and instead focus on their perquisites.

I spent another day digging in loam and clay improving the water infrastructure here. It is nearing the end of this stage.

Thanks for taking the time to write this blog and your books.

Regards

Chris

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@John Gossett
--You wrote, "To my thinking people always endeavor to better their and their family's lives which leads to incremental progress if even on a small scale."

I don't think this is the case except in cultures that have been touched by modernity.

If what you are referring to is economic betterment, there are only two ways to achieve this, social mobility (which changes one's family's share of the pie) and wealth acquisition by the society as a whole (more to go around).

Before the Industrial Revolution, societies with high social mobility were rare. In any given society there might be one or two meritocratic institutions that provided a few people opportunities to excel and rise, but most people were expected to die in the class they were born into. Attempts to better one's lot were not admired; they were regarded as antisocial.

If the society was relatively eqalitarian, the norm was that whatever you got had to be shared out with everybody, so there was never a chance to help one's immediate family get ahead by sheer hard work.

One reason for discouraging people from trying to rise above their station is that acquiring wealth in a traditional society tends to be a zero sum game; more for you means less for me. Only so much land to go around, only so many government posts, manufacturing concessions, trading partners.

When technological progress is slow, increases in total societal wealth usually happen too slowly to be noticed in one person's lifetime, except if the wealth comes from raiding one's neighbors.

In rural places where a pre-industrial economy still prevails, the American Dream and its precursor the Protestant Ethic are not even imaginable. Rather, people are taught to be fatalists. What happens happens because God wills it. One cannot evade fate; on the other hand, misfortunes may be easier to bear because people do not blame themselves. Nor should they, since there are severe limits on individual freedom of action.


Phil Harris said...

@Thijs
Religion / atheism.
I have followed your debate with Bill & John.

I am European. However, being also a Brit I needed to work in North America (1974) for a short while in order to grasp the morphological distinctions etc.

I raise the matter of dogma. (This raises also the matter of so-called 'first principles' or assumptions. These are tricky. Even Euclid has required some revisionism! But where there is dogma – which is a kind of test (?), there is division. Division is itself a kind of semantics ‘on the ground’ and this in our world plays both to ethnic identity and to attempts to universalise or group us under one heading. [So we get Hindu nationalism that seems a contradiction in terms, at least from outside the heterogeneity of historic India, but fits with 'modern India’?]

Question: atheism seems to develop dogmas, but prefers 'universalism' to 'nationalism'? I tend to lump ‘scientism’ with atheism in the church of Rationalism, as being perhaps the equivalent to rationalism that 'clap/happy' evangelism is to Christianity. It might seem paradoxical that having a religious faith (conventional church or whatever organisation) does not bar one from belonging to ‘scientism’, because conveniently a unifying principle of Progress can tolerate both ‘rational atheism’ and church-going and will reduce dissonance arising from more dogmatic stances.

Personally I find it difficult to navigate according to semantic rules. Defining oneself by assertive dogma seems more like being trapped in a hall of mirrors. But atheism and other secular developments seem to derive a lot of energy by defining themselves in terms of the things that they believe they are not. There is a perfectly respectable argument for instance that The Enlightenment defined itself very much in terms of the eschatology of Christianity (progressive utopianism). Well, it would have to, wouldn’t it? Whence sprang America?

best
Phil H

SquarePeg said...

Dear JMG

The following report came out today, jointly researched by the London School of Economics. I'd like to draw your attention to it, if somebody else hasn't already, and would be interested to hear what you think:
This new research from Carbon Tracker and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at LSE calls for regulators, governments and investors to re-evaluate energy business models against carbon budgets, to prevent $6trillion carbon bubble in the next decade.

http://www.carbontracker.org/wastedcapital

Isis said...

Bill said:

So let's apply this to atheism, in its modern western scientific form:

Belief systems: yup. There are no gods, science if the one true path to understanding.
Cultural systems: yup. Atheism is strongly associated with particular cultural attributes and beliefs about the relationship between human and society.
World views: Undeniably.
Relating humanity to spirituality: Yup. Spirituality is a fantasy and humanity should have no relationship with it.
Moral values: Absolutely.


Well, perhaps, as long as we are only considering atheism "in its modern western scientific form." There are other kinds of atheism, including those that don't make much appeal to science (these exist even the West: consider atheist existentialism). Are those religions as well? I'll leave that question open for the moment, but what should be clear is that they are not the same beast as what Dawkins and his crowd are espousing! Suggesting otherwise is equivalent to describing Evangelical Christianity and then applying the conclusions indiscriminately to Judaism.

Unknown said...

John Roth & Bill Pulliam:

You seem to be discussing a simple, strawman form of atheism.

I and many of my friends self-identify as atheists, or sometimes agnostics if we're feeling nonconfrontational, but more properly we should be called igtheists. In other words, we consider it meaningless to distinguish atheism from agnosticism without a better definition of the word "God".

Typical beliefs are:

-There is no omniscient, all-powerful deity acting benevolently toward man. This conclusion is seen not as self-evident, but is concluded from even a cursory examination of humanity's history. We think that if this sort of God existed, the world would be different.

- We know enough about human brains, the defects that sometimes arise in brains, and the correlated defects that arise in the minds of people with defective brains, to make some conclusions. It seems to us, on balance of the evidence, that the mind (or soul or spirit if you prefer) exists only as brain activity. Therefore we consider any "afterlife" implausible.

- About deist-style universal creators we have nothing to say, except that if one exists it doesn't obviously matter from a human point of view.

Whether or not this is a religion is not a question of fact, but of what boundaries should be set on the category "religion" to get the most useful categorization for any specific purpose.

Mountain said...

Unrelated to this post, but interesting in relation to the whole:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/apr/19/carbon-bubble-financial-crash-crisis?INTCMP=SRCH

Christian Smith said...

"Does that mean we don't periceive light in the relevant wavelengths? Of course not!"

This concept doesn't merit complete dismissal. Language shapes perception, ie neural pathways can be culled or cultivated to dismiss or enhance variance. Its far from certain that we all see the same colors. The people of the Himba Tribe has the same word for Blue and Green, and have a hard time picking blue out from a collection of mostly green and one blue square (look up the brief BBC Horizon Youtube piece on the phenonema if you're interested). They have more words for Green however, and can pick out slight variations in hue that appear invisible to us westerners. We learn to distinguish shape, color, object (the supposedly concrete) via a lens carved from concepts, as you rightly describe.

I have read convincing accounts that Native Americans could not see the large colonizer ships on the horizon, because they did not have a concept of the object first. I wonder how many concrete things are invisible to us now because we don't yet have the language for it and how many supposedly concrete things are illusions, artifacts of language.

To make a loosely related point: If we make the mistake of certainty, describing our representation of reality as reality, we lose the open stance needed to adapt to rapidly changing eternal circumstances.

Steve Morgan said...

The unwillingness of people to play along with this thought experiment is really interesting. I'll have to go back in the archives and check if your introduction to the series on magic got this many spluttering, cantankerous declarations of resistance to think the unthinkable, but I don't recall such a phenomenon off the top of my head. It seems like the concept of Progress as a religion hits a little close to home for too many people, as does (apparently) discussing atheism in the same category, despite all of the caveats and "bear with me" statements in the last two posts and now this one.

I've encountered in my own mind the habits of being unwilling to agree to a set of assumptions to follow an argument through, and it happens most frequently in areas where my confidence in my own beliefs exceeds my knowledge of the subject at hand. Lately I've been finding it worthwhile to set the confidence aside for a moment and just follow an argument anyway, and I find that I can learn more that way.

Anyhow, in the midst of the fracking bubble, the stock market bubble, the Bitcoin bubble, and who knows what else, I managed to get a peach tree planted in between the spring snowstorms here. That way, if there's a peach bubble sometime in the next couple of decades, I won't notice.

Thanks for soldiering on with this thread, as it seems to me that the resistance you're getting is a sign of how important a seed it is that you're trying to plant. My guess is that several years hence, many people will be citing this blog (or your books) with the benefit of hindsight much the way people talk about past financial bubbles differently than they discuss current ones.

GreenEngineer said...

Finally, there are the comments that assume that anyone who doubts that progress can continue indefinitely must hate progress and long for a return to primitive squalor, or what have you. For so popular a notion, it’s remarkably weird.



Yep, very common and very weird. Except it's not really so weird: the priests of progress really, really like this trope, because it creates a false dichotomy in which their prescription is the lesser of two evils; more importantly, the widespread acceptance of this dichotomy crowds out any discussion of a viable third path: a regenerative economy. (This of course is one manifestation of a general topic you have discussed in the past.)

You have noted that we had a window of opportunity to shift relatively painlessly to an ecologically sound economic and industrial system, one which we squandered. I would submit that this specific trope, as much as any other single thing, is responsible for that failure.

DeAnander said...

Speaking of religious feeling and its roots in antiquity, I've been thinking lately about CEOs and why they think they are worth so much, how they take the credit for a period that is, essentially, a physical resource bubble. The great prosperity bulge in the colonising countries (Euroland, followed by its ex-colonies the US and Canada) seems to me more of a product of (a) gold and silver extorted from the New World kickstarting the mercantile/industrial wildfires of the 1700s, and (b) fossil fuel kickstarting and feeding the industrial megafires of the mid 1800's until now.

The great prosperity boom for the US starting in the 1950's had a lot to do with being "last man standing" after WWII and with the exploitation of rich fossil reserves w/in national boundaries. Yet it's the CEOs (not just of oil majors but of all companies), business owners, etc. who take the credit for "creating prosperity" and "providing jobs" and so on. I think they were just dumb-lucky to be at the helm during an era when technology and resources temporarily outstripped demand.

Makes me think of the dawn of shamans and priests... there's a good year and a bumper harvest, and some bright soul tells the rest of the tribe that it's all because *he* had a personal chat with the gods, and if they give him power and prestige he will go on interceding and deal-brokering to ensure more good harvests... fast forward and you've got monumental temples, priest-kings, and ritual sacrifices. I've been thinking about our contemporary CEOs, financial wonks and so on as similar shamanic figures, boldly claiming the credit for a "good harvest" that has lasted a while now. I wonder whether they will be as happy to take the blame when it fails?

So that's my morphological pattern match for today.

BTW, the tendency of the human brain to detect pattern has a name -- "patternicity" if I recall correctly, and its weakness is indeed in the generation of false positives :-)

Bill Pulliam said...

Isis -- of course I am discussing atheism of the sort that Thijs and some other commentors here have espoused, as that is who I am debating the point with.

Unknown -- this sort of atheism is hardly a straw man; it is what has been promoted by a couple of the self-described atheists in this forum, which, again, is who I am debating. As a scientist myself (lifelong, professional for many decades, Ph.D. level) I can attest that this sort of atheism is probably the majority belief system amongst American academic scientists. It is so pervasive [oppressive] that those who disagree with it usually feel the need to be in the closet and hide their beliefs for fear that exposure might damage their careers.

Thijs Goverde said...

@ Bill Pulliam: oh, now you're just being hilarious.
I'll just take you definition for granted, and work with that.
I reach a conclusion radically different than yours.

First of all, I find fault with your statement that saying 'X is not related to Y' is a way of relating X to Y. That's like stating that painting a fence red is a way of painting it green - because hey, red is not-green, and therefore a shade of green, right?

Secondly, saying that atheism implies the view that 'science is the one true path to understanding' is quite false. Case in point: myself. I'm an atheist and I certainly don't think there is any one true path to understanding. There are many paths to understanding. None of them are true. (That's just how I see it, mind you. Many other atheists probably disagree with me. That's what you get when you have no central, 'sacred' text to turn to, you know)

But your attempt tom make atheism fit this definition fails even before that, namely at the moment you accidentally forget the crucial word 'organised'. Atheism, sir, is not organised in any way. Literally the only thing that all atheists agree on is that they do not believe in any gods. After that opening statement, we're on our own.

By the way: I'll grant you that 'There are no gods' is a belief. What it is not is a belief system.
Plus also: my own view isn't that there are no gods. There may be gods; I cannot know the truth of it. However, I can actively choose not to believe in them, and that is what I choose to do.

I can only conclude that atheism doesn't even begin to comform to the definition of religion you chose.

@ Unknown: our atheisms seem slightly different, but related.
I would like to follow up your closing statement with: '... and what useful purpose could be served by a definition of religion so broad as to actually include atheism?'

Bill Pulliam said...

As just an extension and generalization of my last comment...

As someone who possesses non-Abrahamic and non-atheistic religious beliefs, I can say that being on the receiving end of the Academic Scientific Atheocracy and the Bible Belt Evangelical Theocracy feels, well, almost exactly the same. So categorize yourselves however makes you feel good; but from the outside, your effect in society for those who are not a member of either relig.. oops, I mean group is of the same form.

XYZ said...

Hello,

Everything is in the definition.

In response to Thijs:
If atheism consists of an overt denial of the existence of a superior being, than it is at least the mirror image of a religion because that affirmation cannot be demonstrated. The only sensible approach is to admit that we do not know whether gods exist or not.

In response to Robert Mathiesen:
For what it is worth, JMG's use of words and his ideas make perfect sense to me, a French European. As you probably know, we have the notion of "laïcité", i.e. a studied neutrality toward religion and belief systems in general (particularly on the part of the State). That may help in being quite finely tuned to what John is saying.

The socio-economic situation here is similar to Germany (as per Fidelius), however more families own their home than in Germany and particularly Austria. Very few people own stock, except through instruments such as life insurance. Social housing is very common and a law (not fully respected) requires that towns ensure that 20% of rental stock is social housing.

However, the main factor that sets Europe apart from the U.S. is the medical system designed (with some exceptions) essentially to cover costs. To my mind, that is a game changer.

Ciao,
XYZ

mczilla said...

Indeed. And at some point in the process, usually later rather than sooner, it becomes apparent that the trajectory of an individual life itself has a bubble-like nature. We are born into the situation, become inflated with our own hubris and pursuit of possibilities, and eventually either burst or deflate more slowly towards our inevitable end. That is the lesson of history. Meanwhile, place your bets strategically.

Unknown said...

@Bill: Apparently you ran into some atheists who are also assholes. You have my sympathy. As far as I can tell the traits are not related, but of course I'm biased.

@Thijis: You reminded me of an old Emo Phillips joke. Here it is from Wikiquote:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!"

He said, "Nobody loves me."

I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"

He said, "Yes."

I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?"

He said, "A Christian."

I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?"

He said, "Protestant."

I said, "Me, too! What franchise?"

He said, "Baptist."

I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"

He said, "Northern Baptist."

I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist."

I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region."

I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."

I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.

Mark Rice said...

The Scientific American has a blog post / op ed piece / book promotion on how technology and innovation is going to save us. This part 2 where part 1 describes the problem.

This looks like an expression of the Religion of Progress. Scientific progress aided by our big brains will race ahead of resource depletion like it has for the past 200 years.

Bill Pulliam said...

Thijs -- and you're being condescending and insulting. Enough. Done.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Thank you for the information, XYZ. It does seem as though France might resemble the USA in this respect much better than, say, Germany or Russia, the two European countries with which I am most familiar.

xhmko said...

Well said.

John Michael Greer said...

Greetings all -- I'm on the road, and have limited email. Still, I've made time for one note. I'm drawing a line under the "is atheism a religion" discussion at this point, as it's off topic and has gotten far too close to the edge of courtesy. Thijs, I'll have a specific response to your comment to me when time permits, but beyond that, the topic is closed and further attempts to post concerning it will be deleted. More when I have a bit of spare time.

don bates said...

Perhaps "religion" is not the best word to use here, only because it requires so much clarification in order to get everybody on to the same page. How about "Weltanschauung"?

Myriad said...

To begin with an analogy here: one complicating factor in arguments about evolution is that even within the specific context of discussing changes in species over time, there are two meanings of evolution. There is the body of observations of such changes taking place and having taken place, which which had already become massive before Darwin. Then there is the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection originated by Darwin, which is a particular explanation of how and why such changes take place. If Darwin's theory had proven wrong, there would still be the observable phenomenon of evolution which would still need an explanation.

So it is with progress. There is progress as an observable phenomenon, that (however intermittently or haltingly) has spanned all of known human history. Then there is the "Religion of Progress" being explored in this series of essays. Whatever the conclusions regarding the latter, the former remains a clearly observable historical phenomenon. The fact that we communicate over digital networks is a reflection of recent progress, but so (if your definition of "recent" reflects evolutionary time scales) is the fact that we communicate by showing one another sequences of shapes.

The Religion of Progress, then, cannot be the mere belief (or acknowledgment of the obvious) that historical progress exists, but rather, a set of beliefs, narratives, experiences, and practices concerning how we relate to it: what we think it actually is; where it comes from; where we think it will take us; and what we think it means. (With the latter likely being the most important.) That's why it's necessary to take a much culturally broader view of religion than "the belief that God or some deity exists" in order to make the analogy work.

The ultimate point of the exercise appears to be that JMG is proposing (over the course of many past and future writings) an alternate narrative of progress; that is, not straight-up "strong aprogressism" but a different and more viable understanding of it. That is to say, an alternate religion that encompasses the hitherto reality of progress but shifts it out of the pantheon, or at least to a lesser standing within it.

One reason for the push-back that necessitated this week's "Aside" is that it's become commonplace, in Internet rhetoric about many topics, to see terminology relating to religion (including "religion" itself) used to accuse one's opponents of closed-mindedness or being incapable of reason. A skeptic, for example, will tell a 9/11 conspiracy theorist "The facts won't change your mind because conspiracies are your religion," while the conspiracy theorist accuses the skeptic of "worshipping" the "holy" government or Fox News. Characterizing something as a religion as a line of argumentation has thus become somewhat tainted.

There's nothing wrong with making the comparison, though, if it's being used as a framework for a case, rather than as the case itself. (Conspiracism, for instance, certainly can be a religion, though it takes a lot more than a "neener neener" to show it,) So, at present my reaction remains "let's see where this is going."

jeffinwa said...

JMG, Thanks for the side trip; silly that it was necessary but glad for the perspective.

I come here to learn and find I'm learning to think as well.

Best Wishes

Thijs Goverde said...

Dear sirs,

my use of the word 'hilarious' was quite uncivil and it certainly didn't help de discussion go in any useful direction. I apologise.

Approliving said...

@ Mark Rice. That Scientific American blog article definitely has a pro-technology, pro-growth stance and bias. Nonetheless, the author of the blog appeals to reason and real-world evidence to back up his assertions. If he really was espousing a “religion of progress” he would not do this; instead, he would appeal mostly or entirely to the authority of sacred scriptures, church proclamations, and the divine wisdom of holy prophets. Of course he can’t do this because the “religion of progress” has no sacred scriptures, no church to issue divinely-authorised fiats and proclamations, and no holy prophets deemed exempt from criticism. That’s because the “religion of progress” is itself a fiction.

Holding a point of view and being prone to confirmation bias doesn’t mean that a person is religious; it just means that they’re human. Furthermore, the author has the humility and honesty to admit that his assertions might be wrong. From the end of part 2, with my emphasis in asterisks:

“*Or perhaps I’m wrong*, and on that hard path we simply won’t respond in time, in the way that other cultures of the past failed to respond to the disasters that ultimately led to their collapse. It’s not a chance any of us should be eager to take. Easy way or hard way. The choice is ours.”

When was the last time you heard a Catholic priest or an Islamic imam end a sermon by saying “perhaps I’m wrong, and there really is no God and no afterlife”?!

The author also admits that his proposed “easy way” of proactive progress is not guaranteed to succeed. My emphasis in asterisks:

“We invest in action to reduce the risk of even worse future disasters caused by our unwise past. *Nothing is certain in life. But on that path, the most likely outcome is that we’ll solve the problems that plague us* and grow progressively richer even as we reduce and eventually reverse our negative impact on the planet.”

Again, how often do you hear a priest or imam proclaim “nothing is certain, but the most likely outcome is that God will finally vanquish the forces of evil at the end of time”?

The author is clearly not trying to espouse a religion of any sort. If anything he is trying to shake people out of the complacent, stupefying notions that the solutions to our problems will simply fall from the sky like manna and that They will just sort it all out for the rest of us.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Fidelius,

Quote: "I wonder if these organisational and cultural differences are the reason the financial crisis has had no noticeable impact on everyday life around here?"

It all depends on what you mean by the term "around here".

If you ignore the massive unemployment rates (particularly youth unemployment) in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, then your worldview is correct.

Unfortunately for you, history has shown that to ignore these risks is an error of judgement.

Economically, Germany has been served very well by the European Union. It is fascinating to read about the change in lifestyles that occurred to people in other countries before, during and after their acceptance into the European Union.

Beware of strangers proffering gifts!

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Thijs,

Quote: "sloppy thinking that considers atheism a religion."

Perhaps I am old fashioned, but that comment can be construed as insulting to our host.

It is quite OK to disagree, but I would perhaps not phrase it in those terms as it seems disrespectful.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Wow. I just made it to the bottom of the comments. Wow.

Peoples emotional investment in the concept of progress and/or atheism as a religion quite surprised me.

Perhaps it shows a vulnerable side to these schools of thought and in doing so shakes those peoples invested worldviews?

For if people understood that the belief in progress was in fact a religion, it then brings the possibility that the people involved were on unknowable ground and progress has only one story to tell. Should that story ever falter...

Perhaps this is their fear, for the heat in the comments this week seem to me to be based on fear.

Regards

Chris

Bill Pulliam said...

Myriad -- interesting thoughts. Pondering the evolution/progress thing, I think I can actually see a parallel between the Faith in Progress and a common misunderstanding of biological evolution.

Evolution is simply change over time. Organisms evolve, societies evolve, technologies evolve. The biological concept of evolution does not imply any direction, goal, or advancement. No organism is "more evolved" than another; the correct (scientifically speaking) term for an organism that is more specialized to a particular lifestyle is that it is "more derived." Hence a hummingbird is more derived from the early dino-birds than is a megapode. But it is not "more evlolved;" both have been evolving for the exact same amount of time, and both are extremely derived from the original one-celled ancestor of all terrestrial life. Similarly, evolution has no goal; more complex life forms like us share the planet with unicellular life forms that are very similar to that priomordial Great Ancestor Of Us All. So if evolution has created hummingbirds and butterflies, but has also retained tiny prokaryotes that can metabolize almost any molecule you put in front of them, how can you say that it has a "goal" of greater complecity, more specialization, etc.? An insect that has evolved to become an almost featureless sack that lives as a parasite within another insect is also a highly derived form that has experienced a very complex evolutionary past that has lead it to become a legless,eyeless, nearly motionless blob.

I think the same thinking gets applied to cultural and technological evolution. Here I would perhaps distinguish between the evolution of (some) technologies towards greater complexity and the concept of overall Progress in technology as a whole. Technology evolves, and some branches of it evolve towards greater complexity. Some others don't. But the view that this represent Progress (advancement, movement towards a goal, improvement) is a value that is placed on it by belief. Many can argue that increases in the complexity, lethality, and accuracy of weapons technology, for example, are not Progress in this subjective, moral sense. Others would argue that ithey are.

So to me it feels like the same phenomenon of beliefs about both biological and technological evolution. Evolution happens, in a simple objective sense (as much as anything can actually be "objective"). Progress is a subjective, personal, moral belief projected on to evolution.

John Michael Greer said...

Greetings all,

This is your friendly neighborhood temporary moderator, piggybacking on our host's account.

A couple of the comments that came in overnight seemed to me to edge a bit close to JMG's request that the "is atheism a religion" debate be closed, so I haven't put them through. I didn't delete them either, though; I left them for JMG to look at and decide when he returns. So if you don't see your comment, it's waiting for his decision today or tomorrow.

Bozack said...

Hi all,

Very enjoyable series of posts and also very stimulating comments section. While I would love to weigh in again on the "atheism is a religion" debate I suspect that people are getting ahead of themselves. The key point of JMG's recent posts seems to be establishing that there are some striking similarities between different concept/behaviour/social meme clusters that we can learn something from, not trying to tweak the nose of atheists...

What I found most interesting so far was the reminder that the "civil religion" of Communism could collapse so quickly.... this leads us to ask if the "civil religion" of Progress could collapse equally quickly, and which combination of theism or "civil religions" might rapidly rise to fill the hole (since theist religion seems to be quite durable I imagine that we would see a rise in theist religiosity)

Probably lots to be learnt from Dimitri Orlov since he has witnessed these transitions in Russia...

Looking forward to the next post!

Mark Douglas said...

John G.

Great post!

Some additional thoughts on our declining standard of living.

Our standard of living is not declining, its that we have created a uniform jurisdiction that favors creditors. The same creditors that lobby Washington for inflation are also the majority stockholders in most major US corporations. So in our debt based monetary system every dollar has to be borrowed into existence, we have to borrow those dollars from the creditors who are taxpayer subsidized, in turn the creditors are favored in all jurisdictions over the debtors.

Mark Douglas said...

John it's not that our standard of living is declining, it is that there is a preference for the monied interest in the United States.

The creditors are preferred to debtors in the legal system to the detriment of the debtor class, who are taxed in a plethora of ways.

The creditor class owns the financial system, it owns the corporations which form the industries where the debtors work at, it lobby's for tax policies which favor corporate policies which it has used to move the industrial base of the nation, it lobbies for inflationary policy, while living off of borrowed value, paying debt off with inflated value, which is a constant drain on the debtor classes earnings. The debtors are enthralled to the creditor class through biased legal system.

onething said...

The resistance is all the more surprising as it is evident to me that JMG has been preparing his audience for several years. As I am going through the archives, he has mentioned that progress is somewhat like a religion numerous times at least 3 years ago:

" Still, there are deep issues at work that also need to be addressed. One of them, which I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, is the way that progress has taken on an essentially religious value in the modern world, especially but not only among those who reject every other kind of religious thinking."
March, 2010

faoladh said...

@approliving: By your criteria, obvious religions like Shinto, Santeria, and our blog host's own Druidism are not, apparently, "religions". They, none of them, include "sacred scriptures" that are deemed inviolable, "holy prophets" whose words are taken as given beyond any rational assessment and criticism, or "churches" that present absolute proclamations.

This is part of the problem. People in the West who are not actually competent in the field run around proclaiming that "religion" has certain characteristics, when those alleged characteristics actually only apply to a small subset of religions that happen to be dominant in the West. And not even to all forms of those religions! I refer everyone again to Geertz's definition, which has the advantage of having been developed by someone who specializes in the field.

faoladh said...

Also, I want to be clear: I don't much care about the argument of whether "atheism" "is" or "is not" a "religion". These are words used to describe things, not the things themselves. If it serves a purpose to place "atheism" in the category "religion" for a particular line of argument, then it seems like a good idea for that line of argument. However, those arguing so far against the idea in this thread are bringing up lines of argument that are entirely irrational, and based on (at best) misconceptions born of an ignorance of the subject matter.

Mark Rice said...

@Approliving. I largely agree with you. There is a lot to praise in the Scientific American article.

First, the Ramez Naam realized we are not on track to close the gap between resource depletion and the innovation that in his estimation can move us to new sources of food and energy.

Second, the author was numerate and able to give a lot of calculations to back up what he was saying.

Third, the author correctly pointed out that we do not yet even have the power of the free market pointed at these problems. Many of the costs of fossil fuels do not show up in the bottom lines of those who produce or consume them.

But .. Yes there are buts.
First there was too much faith in the power of the human brain. The illustration on the cover of the book alone shows this bias. Quotes such as "I believe in humanity's ingenuity" sound uplifting but is this realistic. The novel Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut may give a more balanced view of human wisdom.

A bigger problem is shown in this line "Ending growth isn't a realistic option. " Does this mean growth goes on forever? Or does this mean than any governance that slows growth is not politically possible?

A carbon tax substantial enough to bring in the power of the free market into play also is not politically possible. Ironically the strongest opposition will be from those who worship laissez faire "free market" economics. But I give Ramez Naam credit for pushing for this. If we can not even do a serious carbon tax then there is no chance for this go at civilization to hold it together for more than a few decades.

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

@Approliving:

You're taking the "Middle Eastern desert religions" (as JMG so wonderfully puts it) as the paradigms of religion rather than the exceptions that they are.

Even within that category, you might look at Judaism, where doubting the existence of God is accepted and common. There's a passage in the Talmud where God says something like, "Let them forget me but keep my Torah."

Within Conservative and Reform Judaism, many if not most adherents no longer even believe that a messiah will come and fix things.

I've even heard a story of a rabbi, teaching at a seminary in Israel, who told the class that if they believed Moses literally received the tablets at Mt. Sinai, they were wasting their time in his class.

DeAnander said...

I think our standard of living is declining, but in ways that many people don't notice. Consumer goods get shoddier and less robust, more failure-prone, less repairable. High-quality raw materials become more expensive, scarcer, then finally unobtainable.

I just bought some flat-pack particle board storage furniture for a work space. Yeah, it was cheaper and quicker by a long shot than buying plywood and building the identical design; but the particle board is thinner and coarser-textured than it was 20 years ago, and the "arborite" style finish is not even arborite, it's a super-thin plastic film that can easily scuff or peel off. There's a general decline in intrinsic quality of most goods (the exceptions are things like iPads and iPhones and other tech toys); every possible margin is being cut, and ever lower material quality is showing up everywhere.

I know I've harped on this before, but try to buy nominal 1-inch pine planking these days -- you get something glued together out of pencil-pines with rings about a quarter inch apart -- farmed trees barely out of the sapling stage, millable into 2x4s at widest. Plywood, don't even get me started -- full of voids. What we used to call real marine ply doesn't seem to exist any more: the trees they made it from are gone. In our boat shop we dither over whether to use our precious remaining stock of tight-grain yellow cedar on a project or not; we know we'll never get more.

You used to be able to go out in a hand troller off Nanaimo or Campbell River in the afternoon at the right time of yeat and be guaranteed to catch a good size salmon before suppertime. Now there are almost no salmon in those waters. So yeah, I do think that in some measurable ways, our quality of life is deteriorating and has been for a while. In other measurable ways it seems to have improved (like really effective dental anaesthetic and access to lots of cheap consumer goods).

"Progress" isn't one-size-fits-all. Progressing in one direction that seems positive might mean incurring a cost that bites you in the bum later. If you suddenly start losing weight you might think your diet and exercise plan is working great; or maybe you have cancer. Is it progress, or damage?

And is it just me, or are the captcha texts getting more and more fuzzy, ragged, and difficult?

GuRan said...

Sir and Druid,

You have your reasons no doubt, but I wonder how differently the discussion would have gone if you'd talked about metanarratives - with reference to the particular examples of christianity, atheism, americanism, etc.
A lot of readers are having trouble getting past your choice of words. Perhaps that's part of a plan...

Cheers,
Graeme

Approliving said...

@ Cherokee Organics
Are we reading the same comments page? So far the overwhelmingly majority of comments have been supportive of JMG’s Religion of Progress idea. You could probably count the number of comments that were even remotely critical on one hand!

Any heat shown by (a tiny minority of) comments is imo not based on fear, but on irritation that 1) certain viewpoints are being classified as religions when the evidence does not support such a classification, and 2) people who hold those viewpoints have not consented to such a classification.

@Faoladh I noticed your reference to Geertz’s definition. It’s one of many complicated definitions of religion that I have come across from similarly qualified people. Seeing as his definition takes him 30 pages to explain, I propose that we could just as well assess the religiosity of a worldview by seeing how many characteristic features of religion it possesses. The way I see it, there are 18 characteristic features of religion which I group into 3 sub-categories of “profound”, “machinery”, and “behavioural” features:

Profound features include 1) belief in supernatural beings or forces, 2) belief in an afterlife, 3) a vision of humanity’s grand purpose and meaning, 4) answers to other “big questions” (e.g. why does evil exist, why does the world exist at all), and 5) appreciation and seeking of mystical experiences.

Machinery features include 6) sacred myths and/or prophecies 7) sacred texts, 8) ritual and ceremony 9) holy prophets or sages, 10) sacred symbols, and 11) formal places of worship (not necessarily buildings).

Behavioural features include: 12) Reliance on authority and faith as the primary sources of legitimacy (‘it’s true because the sacred text/church/sage said so’), 13) A concept of blasphemous behaviour which can include being an unbeliever, 14) formal prayer and/or contemplation, 15) a formal code of behaviour, 16) agreement amongst followers that their set of beliefs qualifies as a religion, 17) an organised priesthood, and 18) an organised community of believers.

Advocates of progress don’t satisfy any of the “profound” features other than 3. “The Market” and “Technology” are not supernatural, and the belief that these will be sufficient to save us is far from universal amongst advocates of progress anyway. Looking up at the look up at a starry night sky or satellite being filled with a sense of wonder would be about as close as belief in progress gets to feature 5.

Of the mechanical features, the advocates of progress only satisfy feature 6. The rest of the mechanical features do not apply. Most advocates of progress would rebuke any suggestion that the writings of certain thinkers (e.g. Sagan, Darwin) are the sacred texts of Progress, as would those thinkers themselves. Such thinkers can’t really be considered Prophets of Progress either, as their works are frequently criticised and improved upon by those who profess to admire them.

Advocates of progress do exhibit features 12 and 13 under certain conditions (i.e. when they’re uninformed or intellectually lazy). But they primarily justify their views by appealing to reason and evidence, and they tend to think that the only blasphemy is the idea of blasphemy itself. Advocates of progress clearly do not exhibit any of the other behavioural features.

Some of these 18 features are arguably more important than others, and a worldview doesn’t have to have all 18 features in order to be reasonably considered a religion. Would Druidism or Shinto exhibit enough of these features to count as religions? Depends on how you score. Advocates of progress exhibit 2-4 out of 18 features of religion. Surely 2 or 4 out of 18 isn’t enough to cut it.

Approliving said...

@Mark Rice
A couple of professed and implied beliefs in human ability from scattered sources do not constitute a religion. When the blog author say ending growth is unrealistic, it is pretty clear that he is justifying that assertion by appeals to ethical and political considerations. Even if he does think that growth can or must go on forever, then wouldn’t that more likely be an assumption rather than a cherished belief?

@James M. Jensen

JMG has been doing the same thing in the past couple of weeks! His comparison has been between Theistic religions and “civil religions”, and his discussion of the former primarily refers to Christianity.

The fact that some Jews no longer literally believe in God, the 10 commandments or the messiah is entirely beside the point imo. Those are just three examples of the sort of huge concessions that religious believers have had to make in response to advancing scientific knowledge and rationality. Then again, maybe that explains why some people are insisting that there is a “religion” of progress…

Unknown said...

GuRan,

I suspect that if our host had talked in terms of metanarratives, nobody would pay much attention. Most people don't care much about metanarratives, but many people care about religions.

John Michael Greer said...

Well, I'm back home and have some time to respond at length. I note that, despite saying for three weeks in a row that I'm discussing religion as an abstract category useful for highlighting certain common features in belief systems, a number of commenters insist on treating it as a specific concrete thing with a specific definition -- and inevitably it's a definition drawn up in a way that excludes whatever belief system they prefer. It's an old gambit; a century and a half ago, for example, it used to be very common for Christians to insist that Christianity couldn't possibly be compared with other religions, because it doesn't fit (insert canned definition here).

Now of course those who choose to do this have as much right to their use of the word as I have to mine; I'd argue that they're engaging in the logical fallacy of reification, but that's sufficiently common these days that it's hardly worth fighting over. Still, it's getting very wearing to have people respond to a comparison of the common morphology of bat's wings and porpoise flippers by saying over and over again, at increasing volume and heat, "but bats aren't porpoises!"

Those of you who can't or won't grasp the difference between an abstract analytical category and a concrete existent are going to misunderstand, and probably take offense at, everything I'm going to be talking about in the next six months to a year. Your objections have been noted; I've explained, for three weeks in a row, why they're irrelevant to the points we'll be discussing; any attempt to keep insisting that I shouldn't use the abstract analytical category of religion as a way to talk about certain features that faith in progress shares with other belief systems (ahem!) will be treated like any other attempt to hammer endlessly on an irrelevant point, and deleted.

'Nuf said.

Bill Pulliam said...

Approliving -- scanning your abstracted list of 18 characters, I have to say that maybe something like 2 or 3 of them are actually general features among the self-described religions I have some basic knowledge of. The list feel quite biased towards e Abrahamic faiths (though even there, many Jews don't have much to say about the afterlife).

Taking it as given, though, I could argue for a good 9 or 10 applying to the Church of Progress. Places of worship? Mall*Wart, the Apple Store. Sacred texts, mythologies, and gurus? More than anyone could count. Shunned Blasphemers? Many of the very people who read this blog. And so on.

John Michael Greer said...

Okay, on to specific responses.

Robert, that's an excellent point. Certainly the fetishization of complexity for its own sake has a huge amount to do with one of the three main branches of the contemporary faith in progress; I'll have to do some research into the origins of the complexity cult before I can respond more fully, though.

Tim, no argument there.

Vesta, I think you're on to something important. There's a very significant difference between the kinds of science, mostly observational, that make use of morphology, and the kinds, mostly experimental, that tend to neglect it. The great flaw of purely experimental science is thus that it tends to end up studying its own manipulations rather than natural processes -- and that has a great deal to do in turn with the way science and technology have run off the rails in recent years. More on this as we proceed.

Ares, morphological thinking isn't a panacea, nor can it function well all by itself; it needs to be combined with other analytical tools, and with a search for evidence that will corroborate or contradict its findings -- for example, the fossil flippers of early whales, which look a lot more like a mammal paw than contemporary whale flippers do. On the other hand, it's a very useful tool in its proper place.

Thijs, the Dutch are falling down on the job! May I suggest virtual tulips? ;-)

Tim, thank you. You get Wednesday night's belated gold star for a neat summary of the unwelcome but unavoidable economic facts.

Sandy, I don't claim to speak truth; I'd argue that the human mind is incapable of knowing truth -- only of producing really rough and fallible models of it. You're right, though, that labeling those models with crude warm-fuzzy and cold-prickly terms such as "good"
and "bad" is a waste of time. Progress happened; the point at issue is not whether it's good or bad, or whether faith in indefinite further progress is good or bad, but whether faith in indefinite further progress is a good basis for decisions in the near and middle future.

Kevin, that's an excellent comparison, and the split is already happening. I can think of quite a few people I know who have left the Church of Progress precisely because they feel it's failed to keep its promises or live up to its purported ideals, and I've seen firsthand -- on this blog, among other places -- that communication between those who believe in progress and those who've lost that faith is a very difficult thing, and becoming more problematic by the day.

Thijs, that is to say, you're insisting that bats aren't porpoises. If the people you're talking to are insisting that porpoises fly and eat mosquitoes, that's probably a sensible point to make; if you're attending a lecture on the comparative morphology of mammals, it's a good deal less helpful.

Ruben, I remember the novel! Thank you for getting my point.

John Michael Greer said...

Mr. O., good. That's one of the features that the abstract category of religion helps to highlight -- and indeed it's one of the features I mean to discuss in detail as we proceed.

Richard, thank you! I could make at least as much money by writing a book on how all Americans are going to be eaten by zombies; it's fascinating how fixated our culture is on the extremes, and how rigidly it resists anything else.

Fidelius, oh, I wish that kind of attitude was still common over here! It used to be; for many decades after 1929, putting money into stocks was widely considered to be exactly the same as taking it to Las Vegas and betting it on the nearest roulette wheel. One of the major differences is that in the US, increasingly, the hope of a windfall is the only thing standing between many families and complete despair. With wages shrinking, jobs disappearing, pensions massively underfunded, and so on down through the litany of our national bankruptcy proceedings, doing your job and getting your paycheck is increasingly, and accurately, seen as a slow trip to destitution -- thus the hope of winning big in stocks, or what have you.

Orwellian, Peak Hubris is quite a common historical experience -- pride goeth before a what? -- and I'm confident we'll get a world-class example of it in the years ahead.

Kevin, I see you're familiar with the history of ideas, which is good. I'd point out, though, that there's been at least one pre-Westphalian version of the myth of progress, in the classical world -- I'll be discussing that at some length later on -- and that the belief in indefinite expansion is specifically a product of the experience of rapid progress during the age of fossil fuels. In large part, it's simply the projection of the experience of a brief historical window onto the rest of the future. More on this as we proceed!

Avery, exactly. Different analytical categories are useful in different settings, while the concrete existents and first-order abstractions are usually pretty much the same.

Cherokee, I've gambled on a slot machine exactly once. I was in Las Vegas for a conference, and got given a card worth 20% off the casino-hotel's restaurants -- but it had to be activated by playing a nickel slot machine. So I invested a dollar, waited until I was up to $3.35, cashed out and never went back. I ended up $2.35 plus 20% of my meal costs ahead that weekend. Mind you, gambling bores the bejesus out of me, so it wasn't exactly difficult!

Ando, thank you.

Les, yes, I noticed the yelping! The cold frame's churning away, yes -- we've got some veggies out in the main garden beds already, and others are on their way.

Derek, thank you! Yes, a case could be made that the first piece of evidence that faith in progress can be meaningfully categorized as a religion is the extreme hostility such a suggestion raises in so many people.

NH Peter said...

An old nihilist in California once told me, “The gods are what we don’t laugh about.” I’ve found this to be a very useful touchstone whenever conversations heat up, which is often the case when the topic is religion. As with all wisdom, it is not a trap or weapon to master the argumentative moment. Would that it were! After all, what better assault than to prove your opponent is merely religious! No, it is meant for introspection and that is no way to win arguments. But there is a lot of value in trotting out your own best arguments as merely religious: as impotent and prideful little gods. They have one strength, they have no doubt that they are absolutely right. Little righteous tyrants. And how could anyone prove them wrong? They have no ears for counter argument, and of course they recognize no other gods but themselves! But they can hear laughter, that is an insult they cannot abide.

My guess is before JMG is done with Zarathustra’s most difficult thoughts we will be hearing more to infuriate our gods. A great stamping and fuming parade of little gods will be pissed off that Progress is being assaulted as “merely religious.” Given the difficultly of the task ahead, we may all need to try our best to laugh a bit at our little tyrants.

John Michael Greer said...

John, thank you -- I don't have much of a head for mathematics, but I'll look into it.

Raven, heh heh heh. Been reading Max Weber, by any chance?

Sgage, it was something Bateson said, many times, and a lot of people didn't get it then, either. Thanks for the vote of confidence!

Nestorian, okay, good. You're clear on the differences between our views; I do understand why you hold a realist view, based on your basic presuppositions, and though I disagree with it -- I have a realist view of the concrete existents we might call experiences of the divine, or theophanies, or what have you, but not of the systems of explanation human beings have erected to account for those experiences and their apparent content -- given your presuppositions, it's a valid approach. Still, as you've noted, it's not my approach, just as your presuppositions aren't mine, and won't be used in the discussion ahead.

Bill Pulliam said...

About the emotions involved in the morphological analysis of religion...

One vital aspect of the form of religion is that it is subjective and experienced. Many of us are happily religious and have direct experiences with this. And we tend to view them in a positive light. Personally I had a road-to-Damascus moment 30 years ago (though the road was actually in Wyoming) where I suddenly just fell into the religious experience, and knew it was something I had not encountered before. It took me several years to begin to find any external framework for this experience that was consistent with the rest of my beliefs and personality; but the lack of this structure did not seem to impede the experience itself in any way, which continued just fine even without words, symbols, structures, or mythologies applied to it.

Why this bit of testimony? Because it makes me think that the religious experience is a corel part of the morphology of religion. Hence, perceptions of the morphology of religion as an abstract category may be fundamentally different between those that knowingly embrace and participate in the religious experience and those that do not. And I suspect the former group might be more willing to extrapolate this, and consider how the experiences that others might have when they look at the Stars and Stripes or contemplate our future in the stars could be considered analogous.. even homologous.

Bill Pulliam said...

Actually, that brings up a technical question here...

Are you viewing civil and traditional religions as analogous (same function, but different origin, like octopus tentacle:human hand or dragonfly wing:bat wing) or as homologous (same origin but often different function, like human hand:bat wing)? Or will you be discussing both aspects? The two are of course not mutually exclusive.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Nestorian wrote:

"The essential unity of the psychological phenomenon that the term “religion” denotes, moreover, is real independently of human efforts accurately to encapsulate that fixed essential unity in definitional terms. As such, there are objectively correct and incorrect ways of defining religion."

The sticking point for me lies in whether there actually is any sort of useful "essential unity" that joins all instances of the "psychological phenomenon" called religion.

I've been deeply engaged with this "psychological phenomenon" most of my life (seven decades so far), and have talked at great length with very many other people similarly engaged, who have had profound and intense experiences of it. Try as I may, I have been unable to find any "essential unity" within that huge range of experiences. Though several things come fairly close, there always seem to be outlying counter-examples. Not even such rather general terms as Rudolf Otto's "mysterium tremendum" or Paul Tillich's "matters of ultimate concern" unite everything that is out there.

In this the things that are called "religion" (in English) seem to resemble the things called "[human] language."

No one has yet found a way to define [human] language that covers all the uncommon outliers. Most human languages have a well-defined grammar, and most also serve (or used to serve) some speech community as one of its essential means of communication (and phatic communion). Yet there are a very few classes of human language that lack a well-defined grammar, though they serve(d) one or more speech communities. Also, there are other classes of human language that have a well-defined grammar, but never served any speech community.

If one absolutely must posit an "essential unity" that all human languages share, then one will have arbitrarily to exclude a few of the naturally occurring things usually called "[human] language" from the class one is trying to define -- a different few depending on whether one sees that unity in the existence of a well-defined grammar or the existence of a speech community. I think it better and more realistic to concede the impossibility of defining that natural class of [human] languages in terms of any essential unity.

And so, I think, it is also with the naturally class of things usually called "religion."

[This fact also may have theological implications, and these implications seem to push hard against any possible monotheistic theology. I think that, speaking historically, some of the efforts to find an essential unity shared by all religions have been motivated by an impulse toward monotheism.]

John Michael Greer said...

Nano, for all his faults, Korzybski's still an excellent place to start.

Kjboro, to some extent this is simply a matter of verbal categories. I use the term "faith" here to stress the nonrational aspect of the conviction under discussion -- a nonrational aspect that shows itself very clearly when people insist, for example, "I'm sure they'll think of something."

Yupped, good. Have you by any chance read Eric Hopper's The True Believer, by any chance?

Hal, we'll be back to the main thrust of the argument in the coming post; I thought it was worth making one last try to explain myself, and make sure that those who weren't getting the point I'm trying to make either can't or won't get it.

Michelle, thank you! It's one of the embarrassments of current American education that most "World Civilization" classes present history, which is among the most relevant of all studies for understanding the present day, as though it's utterly irrelevant. I'm glad to be able to help correct that, at least in a small way.

Jesse, thank you. I'll be talking later on about the way that a life change of the sort you've described, which can be understood in many different ways, gets fitted into the myth and faith of progress -- and why that might not be the most useful choice just now.

Ghung, good. Think about the political meaning of the term "progressive" and you'll see some of the ways that the myth of progress shapes our expectations about the future.

Joseph, thank you. I've already talked at some length about the mythology of progress, but since the focus of this sequence of posts will be the religious implications of the end of progress, talking about progress as a religion seems sensible to me just now.

Don, one of the common features of phenomena that can reasonably be put into the abstract category "religion" is that they become the focus of faith -- that is to say, emotional commitment to the idea that a given set of statements is true. Still, be careful of treating "religion" as a concrete existent!

John, excellent! You've just given me a fine example of the faith in progress as it expresses itself in action. Of course people desire to better their lives and those of their families. Does that automatically lead to betterment for all? Not at all; you could as easily argue that, in a steady state system, one person or family can achieve betterment only by taking something away from another person or family -- and of course historically this has happened a great deal more often than not. To a great extent, remember, our present abundance is being paid for by suffering we're inflicting on our own descendants. To assume that the striving of each person for improvement must ultimately lead to betterment for all is a faith-based statement, and reflects the faith in progress that pervades our culture.

John Michael Greer said...

Renaissance, many thanks for the data point. As for the rhetoric of war, yes, that's one of the many ways that those who won't learn from their history are doomed to rehash it.

Jasmine, excellent. We'll be talking about the varieties of progress in the next post, as it happens.

Andy, and it's worth reflecting about what can be done to avoid the latter example.

Jon, we'll get to that.

Phil H., Thatcher and Reagan were marketing the same snake oil, while central Europe seems to have had the common sense to do things differently.

Sgage, an interesting argument, if more than a little flawed. Thanks for posting the link!

Ric, if a young person invested in the stock market at the peak of the 1929 boom, those investments wouldn't have recovered their 1929 value until the mid-1950s, and that's assuming that every stock happened to be issued by a company that stayed in business through the interval -- which many didn't. Correct for inflation, and the wait time is even longer. It's only because of the immense imperial boom of the second half of the 20th century that stocks look like a good idea historically -- and that boom is over now.

Hapibeli, thank you. ;-)

Das Monde, human beings think with narratives as inevitably as they walk with feet or eat with mouths. Of course there's going to be no shortage of contemporary myths!

Brian, your school was clearly better at making calculators say naughty words than mine was.

Unknown, no, I can't briefly explain, because it's not something that can be explained briefly -- not least because of the presuppositions that pretty clearly structure your question. If you'd like to visit the website of the Druid order I head, you might get some sense of the answer.

Isis, you're treating religion as a concrete existent rather than an abstract category, so missing my point.

James, you're welcome.

Unknown said...

Bill- I can't help but think that civil and other religions are essentially homologous. Both have roots in similar human drives. Both contribute to social stability and consecrate social values. Both reduce the chaos of experience to an intelligible narrative. Both offer a reason for hope in the face of human mortality.

John Michael Greer said...

Matthew, excellent! You get Thursday's gold star, not least for remembering an earlier discussion on this blog of the same point we're revisiting here. Yes, exactly -- if a person who calls himself a Christian can shrug and say "well, whatever" in response to the suggestion that Jesus of Nazareth was not God, but launches into furious argument in response to the suggestion that history may not be headed to bigger and better things, that person is a believer in progress, not in Christianity.

That said, there's more going on with the hermit crab metaphor than this. Go into an American Christian church at random of a Sunday, and what's the odds that the sermon will be focused on making the world move in a direction the preacher defines as "better" -- whether that means, say, guaranteeing women access to abortion, or denying it? The fixation on this world, very often to the extent of converting churches into social service providers or political action committees, is another way that the religion of progress has replaced historic Christianity in most American churches.

Ensena, good. The distinction between qualitative and quantitative progress is one of many divisions between what we might call the different denominations of the religion of progress; I'll be exploring them as we go on.

Dowsergirl, to my mind, faith in progress also implies the belief that history is naturally moving in the direction of where you want to go.

BrightSpark, thanks for the reminder -- I need to reread Alexander.

Jonathan, and that's your right, but as I'm sure you're aware, that's not how I'm using the word.

Kevin, it seems to me that you're confusing Rousseau's use of the phrase "civil religion" with the different use Robert Bellah made of it in the article I cited several posts ago. I'm not talking about the various attempts to manufacture a natural religion to Deist specifications -- though I will be talking about those further on -- but about a comparative category Bellah proposed to make sense of certain phenomena in American public life.

Chris, well, of course our idea of progress is subjective. All ideas are subjective -- they exist in, and only in, a perceiving subject, for whom they serve as frameworks to make sense of an otherwise chaotic cosmos. That said, stay tuned; I'll be talking about many of these points as we proceed.

PhysicsDoc, you might go back through the archives sometime. I've talked about climate change at some length.

John and Faoladh, as previously explained, I'm not looking for a definition; still, thanks for your efforts.

Leo, nicely summarized. As for color revolutions, I don't think we're quite there yet, but I'm watching for the signs, yes.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, you get Friday's gold star for mentioning out loud the unacceptable but unavoidable: too many people want a solution that doesn't impact them. That's as true of the current discussion as it is of the more practical issues I've raised -- I suspect that most of the quibbling comes from people who are unwilling to see their own beliefs put on the same level as that of beliefs they dislike.

Squarepeg, thanks for the link! No, I hadn't seen it yet.

Unknown, that is to say, you're insisting loudly that a bat is not a porpoise.

Mountain, thanks for the link.

Christian, plenty of cultures that don't have a word for "orange" have artworks that include the color English speakers call "orange." While of course it's true that linguistic categories shape perception, they don't tyrannize over it -- there's always some degree of negotiation. By the way, can you find me a footnoted source for the claim about Native Americans and ships? I've seen the same claim, but never with references to a historic source.

Steve, no, the magic series didn't get anything like as much in the way of spluttering. Clearly I've hit a much more sensitive nerve with this discussion. Good to hear about the peach tree! May it thrive.

Engineer, oh, granted -- it makes a great tool for manipulation. I simply wanted to get people looking at their own assumptions and saying, "You know, that is weird."

DeAnander, a good point. There's much to be said about the way that contemporary upper-class culture in America shields the incompetent from the results of their own failures.

Mczilla, that's certainly one way of using the abstract analytical category of bubbles!

Mark, thanks for the link.

Xhmko, thank you.

Don, no, because this series of posts is meant to talk about the religious implications of peak oil, and so religion is a central analytical category to the discussion.

Myriad, excellent. You get Saturday's gold star, for noting the difference between the fact of progress and the belief system that's grown up around the claim that progress is inevitable and beneficent.

John Michael Greer said...

Jeffinwa, thank you.

Thijs, thank you. I'm interested in the way this whole topic has pushed you into a kind of belligerent rhetoric very uncharacteristic of you.

Cherokee, that's my take on it, certainly.

Bozack, thank you for getting it. I'm sufficiently unimpressed by the strenuous efforts being made by some to avoid getting the point I'm trying to make that I'm going to award you Sunday's gold star, simply for making the effort to understand, rather than making the much easier effort to refuse to do so.

Mark, no, our standard of living is also declining, and has declined measurably since the 1970s.

Onething, yes, I've been thinking about that. I suspect that what's motivating the quibbling is a sense -- not necessarily an accurate one -- of where this discussion will go next.

DeAnander, product debasement and product shrinkage are two ways that standards of living have fallen. Still, there's another and a far more robust sense. In 1970, a working class family in the US with one income could afford a relatively prosperous lifestyle. In 2013, a working class family with one income in many areas can't even afford to rent a place to live. I submit that this is a fairly significant difference!

GuRan, well, since I want to talk about the religious implications of peak oil, the word "religion" is going to be hard to escape...

NH Peter, yes, that's my expectation. The territory we're going to cover is going to be very hard on a lot of the conventional wisdom in today's society -- including those elements of the conventional wisdom that those who claim to reject the conventional wisdom never think to question.

Bill, I suspect you're right there -- those who have had religious experiences pretty consistently have a different take on religion than those who haven't, which is one reason why my book on the philosophy of polytheism, A World Full of Gods, focuses so precisely on religious experience. As for the analogy/homology distinction, that's a very difficult question to answer about social phenomena; an organism can have only two parents, who must belong to the same species, but a human social phenomenon can draw on many different sources that have very limited common ground, thus it's a lot harder to distinguish direct descent from convergent evolution. I'll want to mull over that for a while before offering an answer.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG re: homology/analogy... in a biological context it is pretty clear, of course. The bones in our inner ear are considered homologous with some of the jawbones of a fish because there is a documentable evolutionary line connecting how these bones migrated and were repurposed.

In a sociological context... hmm... you might think about whether the feeling an American gets when looking at Old Glory, and the feeling a Catholic gets when looking at a Crucifix, originate from similar psychological processes. And is this the same place from whence originated the feeling a believer in Progress had when s/he first saw an iPhone? Or, historically, whether or not there is a common thread that unites seemingly corresponding attributes of the different systems? You have certainly already talked about these sorts of ideas in many different posts and contexts.

p.s. Much enjoyed World Full of Gods, found it a very lucid exposition.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

JMG, based on a comment you made last week, I presume you have just returned from a trip to Detroit.

Detroit might be the American city where the effects of collapse have been the most obvious; also the process has been going on long enough that various social, political and cultural responses are observable.

I don't know whether you got out into the city at all, or only did a lecture with a question period in front of a local audience, or were engaged in purely Druidic activities. In any case, I would be interested in what you observed. If this blog isn't the appropriate venue, will you be writing about your Detroit trip anywhere else?

Detroit City Is the Place to Be is on my to-read list.

faoladh said...

Well, my presentation of a definition was mainly directed toward the people who were defining "religion" in terms that apply only to a small subset of religions with which they are directly familiar. I think that my later comment is more to the point of what I was getting at, though.

Unknown said...

I can't briefly explain, because it's not something that can be explained briefly -- not least because of the presuppositions that pretty clearly structure your question. If you'd like to visit the website of the Druid order I head, you might get some sense of the answer.

I'd looked at that, and actually that was what prompted my question. Apparently I just don't get it. No big deal; there are many cultural phenomena that I don't get.

P.S. I don't know why my Google account labels me "unknown", and apparently I'm not the only "unknown".

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, the line between analogy and homology in the life sciences is easy precisely because there are sharp distinctions between lines of descent -- you know that bats and octopi didn't interbreed, for example, so if an adaptation emerged in either line after vertebrates and molluscs separated, you know it's an analogous rather than a homologous adaptation. With culture, you don't know that. To what extent is a patriot's emotions toward a flag simply fulfilling a parallel function to devotion to a theist religious symbol, and to what extent is it the redirection of, say, childhood habits of devotion from one to another? It's a very messy question.

Unknown Deborah, I did some of all of the above, and got to see a fair amount of Detroit's deindustrial ruins. I'll see if I have anything worthwhile to say about that in an upcoming post.

Faoladh, oh, granted, and my apologies for a somewhat snappish response. A piece of advice you may find useful, though -- when people start playing definition games, don't get drawn into them yourself. It's a sucker's game, since they can quibble about the fine details of definition until the cows come home, drink themselves senseless, and pass out.

Unknown, you might think about why it is that you think it needs an explanation. If someone of my leanings turned out to be, say, Jewish, or Episcopalian, would you say "Jeez, how does that work?"

Leo said...

Just because it might interest you:

The lecture this week for the course on being an engineer, the topic was sustainability.

While there was certainly a lot that was simplistic and not what you'd agree with. It was stated that overshoot in certain materials has arrived and thresholds have been crossed. Interesting talk.

Myriad said...

@Bill Pulliam re misunderstanding of evolution -- I agree, with one caveat ahead. I can even generalize the analogy of misunderstanding evolution and misunderstanding progress to a wider sphere: the distinction between calculation and computation. Calculation and computation are usually treated as synonyms, when they're actually close to opposites.

The essence of calculation is to find the correct answer(s) that meets a set of conditions. Calculation was the original goal of mathematics, and then of computers. Figuring out where the eastbound train from Chicago meets the westbound train from New York, or how to fire the rockets to reach a lunar orbit, are calculations.

Computation, in its true essence, is merely this: given a set of rules and a state, apply the rules to determine the next state. The rules and state objects might be overtly mathematical, such as in geometry, arithmetic, and computer CPU operations; or not, such as in formal logic, the Game of Life, and Rule 110.

One of the most amazing discoveries of the 20th century is that all sets of rules, beyond a certain minimal threshold of contingent interdependence between elementary objects, have a deep equivalence: the same fundamental capabilities and the same tendency to generate complex forms.

It takes a lot of harnessing to cause a system capable of computation to do a calculation. That used to be the primary task of computer programming. It's also the source of the difficulty students often have solving "word problems" in arithmetic class, where instead of rote computation of arbitrary context-less numbers they must use computation to perform a calculation that answers a situational question.

The frequent misunderstanding of evolution that you mention amounts to regarding evolution as a calculation (a "seeking" of greater complexity or of "higher" forms) instead of as an arbitrary ongoing computation. Progress likewise becomes far more analogous to an object of worship when seen as a destiny or "driving force" in human history instead of as a contingent outcome of that history.

That said, it's also possible to err by going to the opposite extreme, with the claim that where there is no pre-set goal such as in evolution, progress can have no meaning or relevance. That stricture ultimately leads to mereological nihilism, wherein if we start out with interacting elementary particles, that's all we can ever accept as existent; after all, a particle follows the same rules whether if it's part of a gas, a star, a rock, a bacterium, or a brain. Mereological nihilism, though, is self-defeating; if we dismiss all so-called emergent objects and concepts, then there is nothing to discuss and no one to discuss it.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- oh, absolutely messy and fuzzy, and would be mostly conjecture and supposition.

Although... a curious thought occurred to me. The folks who look at the activity of different parts of the brain during various cognitive activities have identified areas that seem to be particularly involved in mystical and religious experiences. It would be interesting to know if similar or different brain regions are active during patriotic experiences, or wondrous visions of the techno-utopian future, or contemplating all the fantastic shiny stuff to be gotten from the big box store. Do Mom, Jesus, Apple Pie, and tabletop thorium reactors really trigger the same brain responses? Not sure that grant would likely get funded...

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

I enjoyed the gambling story and thanks for the Gold Star.

Material sacrifices here have rammed this lesson home, but then over time I found that the material things weren't that important anyway. Hope that makes sense? I'm genuinely left wondering why I had them in the first place.

Hope you enjoyed your trip to Detroit. Some interesting things are going on there in terms of urban agriculture, or so I've read.

PS: After 6 solid days of digging over the past week or so, I now have enough flat land and have installed the larger of the two water tanks. The smaller one requires a bit of digging still. It is great to be able to spend time outside working now without the constant threat of heat exhaustion.

ANZAC day (25th April) is usually the turning point in the seasons this far South. Maybe it is just that ANZAC Day Dawn Services are usually a very cold affair especially those held up on the tops of mountains (Mount Macedon at the memorial cross is very cold). This is a great example of a ritual too and it is interesting that it is actually gaining momentum here. My grandfather (now deceased) who was a bomber pilot in WWII used to take me as a small child to the ANZAC Day Dawn Service at the Shrine of Remembrance and afterwards his mates used to get drunk and reminisce about the old days.

Regards

Chris

Johan said...

JMG,

Good to see Goethe brought into the discussion, and to see morphology called by it's proper name - the study of form (which is not quite the same thing as pattern, or shape). I agree that it's central to modern science and think it will be even more central to a future science. As you and Vesta discuss, there's a difference between observational and experimental sciences, and I strongly suspect that the balance will shift between them.

One example: over the past few years, as ice in the Arctic has melted in a somewhat different way than the computer models say, we've seen unusual weather patterns which have made gardening more "interesting" up here in Ulthima Thule. This is a challenge to our gardening traditions, but it also makes it harder to experimentally adapt - how can you make structured experiments with variables kept constant if things like rains and droughts shift unpredictably? It's easier if the growing season is longer, but we have only a few months when temperatures and sunlight together make growing possible. By shifting towards observation - and paying more attention to morphology - you can learn much more about what the garden community is experiencing than if you just try to measure some well-behaved metrics. You can also watch the wild community in the area to see how it responds.

I expect morphology to make a comeback in technology and engineering as well. After all, it used to be a crucial engineering tool in some disciplines, but not so much after the advent of computers.

Interesting comments this week, generating both heat and light!

Odin's Raven said...

I hope that your journey was successful.

Here's a metaphysical alternative to 'progress' and 'evolution', which may be of interest.

Involution

Nestorian said...

Just a couple of brief comments:

First, I too am surprised at the controversy generated by JMG's definition of belief in progress as a religion. It was an integral aspect of one of the first points JMG made when he first started "The Archdruid Report" in 2006, namely, that Peak Oil-aware people tend to veer wildly between a religion of progress and a religion of apocalypse, rather than seeing the "Long Descent" or "Long Emergency" for what it really is, namely, a sort of "Third Way" between the two. I think it would not be too much to say that this notion is the cornerstone of all JMG's writings on Peak Oil, so I am very surprised about all the fuss.

Personally, I found JMG's insights in this vein immensely helpful at the time, and I was in fact inspired by them to write my own paper on progress as a religion a few years later, which eventually got published as a chapter in a book of papers dealing with the intersection between politics, pluralism, and religion.

Nestorian said...

The second point is a reply to Robert Mathieson's response to my earlier suggestion that religion is, properly speaking, a universal category in a realist, rather than a nominalist, sense:

I think the difference between your take on the panoply of experiences that give rise to states of mind that may properly be termed "religious" and my own is that I would further distinguish between true and false religious states of mind. In order to be strictly religious, both true and false religious states of mind need to conform with the universal essence of what religion is - however that essence may be captured in human language.

The difference between the two is that false religious states of mind are fundamentally misleading in some way, whereas true religious states of mind are not. The source of error in general might either arise in the experienced phenomena of the religious states of mind themselves, in the external causes of those experience phenomena, or in their subsequent interpretation.

I would also tentatively claim that, with this conceptual refinement, I could in principle unambiguously categorize all the experiences you have in mind in conjunction with your remarks in accordance with whether they are true religious states of mind, false religious states of mind, or non-religious states of mind.

I think you are probably also correct that this way of conceiving of the universal "religion" along realist rather than nominalist lines has, in the end, a distinctly monotheist thrust (though I haven't worked out the details of the argument). Certainly an atheist would seem to be logically necessitated to regard religion as a nominal category, since the states of mind themselves to which the category has reference are all themselves invented on the atheist reckoning.

It is an intriguing question to me whether a person who is neither monotheist nor atheist could subscribe to the view that religion is a real category without in the end contradicting some notion that is integral to her non-monotheistic religious belief system.

These remarks are clearly a digression from the main conversation, so I will say no more publicly. But if you would like to continue the conversation privately, perhaps we could make contact via the mediation of the blog host.

JP said...

@Odin's Raven:

From the article:

"It presupposes that the idea of man is ontologically prior to any physical manifestation of man in time. Time is the projection of a transcendent idea into manifestation. Hence, what we experience as evolution in time is really the involution of the idea as it informs matter. Unlike the alternatives like Intelligent Design or Creation Science, the theory of involution is perfectly compatible with the current understanding of scientific data. Moreover, it also explains how “evolution”, even though completely random, seems to arrive at man. "

This is pretty my part of my Working Metaphysic.

It also caused me to create my Theory of The Evolution of Man. Which is actually a quasi-scientific hypothesis/theory.

"That is, on any planet upon which it is possible for mankind to arise (meaning within a habitable zone, water, land, life, and a few billion years), (a) mankind will eventually arise."

However, evolution isn't random at all. Only life which can be supported by any particular planet/biosphere can arise. There has to be a niche that it can fill.

In order for a specific species to exist, it has to be able to exist.

And filling the niches takes developmental time.

Apparently you need to wait several billion years to get Man.

JP said...

@Myraid:

"One of the most amazing discoveries of the 20th century is that all sets of rules, beyond a certain minimal threshold of contingent interdependence between elementary objects, have a deep equivalence: the same fundamental capabilities and the same tendency to generate complex forms.

...

The frequent misunderstanding of evolution that you mention amounts to regarding evolution as a calculation (a "seeking" of greater complexity or of "higher" forms) instead of as an arbitrary ongoing computation."

The question is whether they "seek" man.

Life, I'm pretty confident, is always trying out other forms.

However, to me the question is whether other planets upon which man can arise always result in man.

Constants (man) and variables (the vast type of underlying life)?

Unknown said...

Nestorian: I don't necessarily think your categorization is false, but that it relies on a distinction no human could make. God, if one existed and cared enough to bother, could tell us which mental states were truly religious and which were falsely religious.

A human cannot perceive another's mental states, and cannot judge another's mental states without comparison to his own, equally fallible, mental constructs. At best I could say that your religious experiences do not match mine, within the limits of human communication. We have no way to decide who, if anyone, is correct.

Nicholas Carter said...

Perhaps this is a definition, perhaps a morphology:
In my experience with religions (as opposed to spiritualities) I see four things.
There is a community or an institution within such
That propagates a group of standards and practices
Joined symbiotically to a series of narratives
About the power/beauty/rarity or some other kind of specialness of a particular thing.

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, good. If engineers are starting to grapple with resource depletion again, we may have an easier time getting some issues dealt with.

Bill, now that would be a fascinating experiment!

Cherokee, congrats on the new water tank! Detroit was surprisingly pleasant, and yes, it's one of the Rust Belt towns that's moving out into the cutting edge on sustainability issues.

Johan, agreed -- morphology's crucial, especially when you don't have the spare resources to relentlessly quantify everything. Of course, as a student of history, I'm biased -- there's very little in history that you can quantify, and even less that makes any kind of difference.

Raven, like so much of Evola, it's a rehash of early 20th century pop occultism with a bit of Platonism thrown on top as garnish. Does that disprove it? No, but I'd like to see better arguments for it than the ones the author, or for that matter Evola, present for it.

Nestorian, thank you. For what it's worth, my perspective as a polytheist is that a nominalist concept of religion is unavoidable once you accept the core presuppositions of polytheism: grant that different deities and the religions that worship them can be equally valid even where they apparently contradict one another, and an analysis that sees religions as negotiated between deities and worshippers, and religion as an abstract category including many diverse examples related, at most, by a Wittgensteinian "family resemblance," is the logical conclusion. (I'd encourage a glance at the Pagan Neoplatonists for more on this subject.)

Unknown said...

I have always been wary of, if fascinated by, patterns and my apparent recognition of them. The concern I have is that by engaging in pattern recognition we are being subject to some kind of meta-patterning process. There is a danger that we see the coincidence of the patterns and get tricked into believing that, contrary to the prevalent mantra, "this time it will be the same".

A key point about much of what you write is that this time it will, indeed, be different. In every previous pattern match, there has been another turn of the cycle into higher and higher levels of materials and energy use. Every previous cycle has gone through its own demise and emerged as a "better" world.

This time we are facing the unique situation that our access to energy and material resources will be less as we enter the next cycle.

That clearly indicates that at some critical point, the current pattern will diverge sharply from all previous iterations. Our problem is that we have no possible way to predict, or even detect, that divergence until it is well under way. By all means be aware of the patterns, but I suspect it will be far more important to deal with the unmediated data and generate, test and discard a crap-load of new hypotheses in very rapid succession if we hope to have any change of dealing with the changing world we find ourselves in.

I have no idea, or confidence, that I will be able to pull that off, but I will be grateful for any ideas anyone has for how, in daily practise, we should do that.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Nestorian (briefly):

Like our host, I am neither a monotheist nor an atheist. I was raised pantheist, but am more a polytheist nowadays.

Since some of the many Gods are not particularly benevolent toward humans, and others delight in trickery (e.g. Coyote), of course some true religious experiences will be misleading, or on occasion even destructive or malevolent.

Also, our unconscious being what it is, some valuable and transformative religious experiences need not have much to do with any God, or at best only with a God one has called into being by one's own efforts (as in the case of My Little Pony, mentioned by another commentor, or Alan Moore's Glycon).

Certainly we can continue this discussion elsewhere. Since I post here under my real name, you could easily find my facebook page and send me a message through that. (You'll need to get the odd spelling of my last name right to find me, though. It's a Danish last name.)

onething said...

Bill Pulliam,

I wonder why you categorize your Damascus moment as religious? Why not as mystical or spiritual?
And, I'm curious as to what religion you embraced?

Nestorian,

Your comment did not really explain what you might mean by a false religious experience.

Is it one which does not fit your belief system?

onething said...

JMG! A polytheist!

So, just what is a deity then?

John Michael Greer said...

Nicholas, if you're treating the concepts "religion" and "spirituality" as though they have fixed meanings, and are trying to list the traits that distinguish them, it's a definition. If you were to say, "here are a set of phenomena that share certain common factors -- let's compare them and see what other common patterns become apparent," it's a study of morphology.

Unknown, "in every previous pattern match, there has been another turn of the cycle into higher and higher levels of material and energy use" is a distortion of history in the service of the myth of progress. Not so -- there's no general upward trend in material and energy use across most of history; it's simply that our current cycle has taken place at a vastly higher level of materials and energy use than any of its predecessors. Many other civilizations in history were followed by successor civilizations at a lower level of material and energy use -- compare Teotihuacan to the Toltecs and Aztecs, or Tang dynasty China to the Sung, just for starters. More on this down the road a bit.

Onething, many Druids are. If you'd like details, my book A World Full Of Gods discusses what deities are, and many other points of the same kind.

onething said...

Very well,JMG, as I consider myself the ultimate monotheist - God is the only thing that exists, is the only game in town, there is nothing but God - I am intrigued, but I doubt that the deities correspond to what I might call The Divine.

Apparently, I'm a monist, panentheist, advaitist.

It looks like I have to buy this book through Amazon? Isn't that a worse deal for you? I was thinking you might mail be an autographed copy from your house. But I might like one of the magic books at a later time.
So, in some commentary over there, someone said this:

"Monotheism rests on the notion that one person or group has a monopoly on not only Truth but the nature of the One True God."

That has nothing to do with my monotheism, and it is religious dogma.
I am a monotheist because, as I see it, there is and can be only one source of existence, out of which all things arise.

Nicholas Carter said...

(in reply to JMG's reply)
So the distinction then is not one of content, but process?

Heraclitus the Obscure said...

I'll be very intrigued to read your discussion of the historical roots of civil religion and the religion of progress. One of the unfortunate side-effects of three centuries of Western imperialism is that political ideology and futurist predictions are dominated by models borrowed from Christianity, rather than from any other historical faith.

It strikes me that the civil religions of 19th and 20th century nationalism, and the universalist and utopian faiths of Communism and Techno-Optimism (a category we have yet to refine but which seems to be increasingly ascendent) represent estranged cousins of a tension within historical Christianity.

Christianity has struggled since Constantine to reconcile the contradiction imposed by the non-violent and universalising statements of its founder, which extend community without restriction and reinforce a skepticism about our ability to separate the wheat from the tares on the earthly plane ("the spirit blows where it wishes"), with the heritage of Constantine's decision to deploy Christianity as a replacement for the dying civil religion of Greco-Roman paganism.

As the unifying identity wielded by the papacy as its primary implement, and the secular European monarchies as a sometimes useful tool, (especially national consolidators like Charlemagne and Alfred the Great), the ideal of Christendom inherited this Constantinian legacy. It was a form deployed to consolidate European peoples against the Saracen/Viking/Magyar Other, and a useful way of incorporating subject peoples. The pattern and the sentiment was channeled quite directly into the emergent nationalisms of an ascendent Europe trapped within a decaying Christendom at the beginning of Nietzsche's own 19th century. Perhaps the most mind-blowing example of the nationalist transposition of the Crusading Christendom ethic is the killing fields on the steppes of Kursk, where Fatherland and Motherland decided their bloody showdown.

Curiously, the universalising and inclusive elements of Christianity seem to have been assimilated by the international brotherhood of Progress and its techno-scientific apparatus. In this regard it's useful to appreciate a recent book like Peter Harrison's "The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science," which analyses the origins of experimental science in the 17th century in the Puritan ambition to hasten the Second Coming or regain the Adamic "power over nature" lost in the Fall. Curiously, this transposition of the eschatological outlook onto the earthly plane seems to be linked with the rise of literalist biblical interpretation, in opposition to the old medieval allegory. In this light, it seems we might be directed toward 95 Theses on the doors of Wittenberg Cathedral as the true starting gun on The Way We Live Now.

I really appreciate your comments on the fragility of civil religion—since literalism does seem to heighten fragility on the religious plane. And a good deal of our troubles seem to center on our inability to rally round narratives and promises other than the literal.

I hope you don't mind if I mention my own blog, since I'm hoping to explore a related set of issues here:

http://thesacrificinganimal.blogspot.com

In my own case, I'm in the ironic position of being born with a uniquely crippling and entirely modern affliction: Crohn's Disease. Without the techno-scientific apparatus in the first place, I wouldn't have the disease. And yet now that I have it, without the medical industrial complex I'd be long dead. And of course I'm screwed if a rapid downward slide occurs in the industrial world. My feelings about Progress and its gleaming silicon children are correspondingly ambiguous.

Bill Pulliam said...

onething -- A lot of people spend a great deal of effort distinguishing between things like religious, mystical, and spiritual. I don't. I'm not sure how I would have a religious experience that was not mystical or spiritual, or any of the other combinations. Others feel differently, I realize.

The labels I found acceptable for my own specific whatever include animism grading towards polytheism. I tried on Abrahamic monotheism and found it to be a very poor fit. Again, I'm, not attached to highly specific labels. I don't call myself a Druid though I find little if anything in organized Druidry that I would disagree with. I have had wonderful mystical experiences facilitated by Norse pagan revivalists and fairly traditional Wiccans, as well as American-style eclectic neo-Shamans. But I have had similar experiences facilitated by the completely non-theistic Silva Method, by being alone in a desert at sunset (and feeling anything but alone), and by guiding myself into a trance state at drum circle. And I consider every interaction I have with any other being to be part of a religious practice, even (especially) if I am about to kill and eat it.

And of course I am also a lifelong student of natural history and science, which is an integral, foundational part of my religious practice and how I view everything in the cosmos.

Matthew Lindquist said...

Many thanks for the gold star! It's been an oft-dreamed-of token to me for years now- You made a poor student's day much brighter! :)

I must admit that I'd never noticed that about the right-wing churches. You are right, they are focused on the world of this life, rather than the traditional concerns of Christianity. What drives the fear of the left(aside from the propaganda) , is that they seem so terribly passionate- about reducing women's access to abortion, and many other things I disagree with, that said passion is confused with being more religious. There are hushed whispers among the restrained and liberal: "They seem to just... *care* so much more than we do! Do you think they might win?"

But you are correct, if they are focused entirely on the myth that the world is getting better, they will have a great deal of explaining to do once it is no longer thaumaturgically possible to pretend that it is.

I admit, I might not find out in my lifetime- and if so I'll beg whatever awaits beyond death's door for an expedited reincarnation- because I would imagine that before the new faith fully coalesces, we will have to go through at least the "anger" and "barganing" phases of The Lament For Progress- and the "denial" phase has lasted three decades and counting, if you start the clock with Reagan. But, and I'll admit this is entirely based upon my prejudices- I would be extremely disappointed if all that happens is a re-hash of the religions that came before. Say, a retrenchment of Christianity, or a sweeping conversion to some other already-extant religion such as Buddhism or Islam. I would love to read a history book through a different pair of eyes a thousand or so years from now, and see a new faith blast out from nowhere and catch all the ecclesiarchs off-guard. I suppose that's my faith in progress- that I would value something new.

My faith in progress is also ultimately what still keeps me going- faith that I can preserve a little of what is necessary to make the future a little less dark in the ways that I care about the most. But your posts are a candle in the tunnel ahead. Can't wait for tomorrow's post!

- Matt

P.S. Feel free to either consider this a private message if you feel it's off-topic or to crop it heavily if you feel it rambles- I just couldn't resist the feeling that my first Gold Star deserved a "thank you to the academy", as it were :)