Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Fate of Civil Religion

To describe faith in progress as a religion, as I’ve done in these essays numerous times, courts a good many misunderstandings.  The most basic of those comes out of the way that the word “religion” itself has been tossed around like a football in any number of modern society’s rhetorical scrimmages. Thus it’s going to be necessary to begin by taking a closer look at the usage of that much-vexed term.

The great obstacle here is that so many people these days insist that religion is a specific thing with a specific definition. Now of course it’s all too common for the definition in question to be crafted to privilege the definer’s own beliefs and deliver a slap across the face of rivals; that’s as true of religious people who want to define religion as something they have and other people don’t as it is of atheists who want to insist that what they have isn’t a religion no matter how much it looks like one. Still, there’s a deeper issue involved here as well.

The word “religion” is a label for a category. That may seem like an excessively obvious statement, but it has implications that get missed surprisingly often. Categories are not, by and large, things that exist out there in the world. They’re abstractions—linguistically, culturally, and contextually specific abstractions—that human minds use to sort out the disorder and diversity of experience into some kind of meaningful order. To define a category is simply to draw a mental boundary around certain things, as a way of stressing their similarities to one another and their differences from other things.  To make the same point in a slightly different way, categories are tools, and a tool, as a tool, can’t be true or false; it can only be more or less useful for a given job, and slight variations in a given tool can be useful to help it do that job more effectively.

A lack of attention to this detail has caused any number of squabbles, ranging from the absurd to the profound. Thus, for example, when the International Astronomical Union announced a few years back that Pluto had been reclassified from a planet to a dwarf planet, some of the protests that were splashed across the internet made it sound as though astronomers had aimed a death ray at the solar system’s former ninth planet and blasted it out of the heavens.  Now of course they did nothing of the kind; they were simply following a precedent set back in the 1850s, when the asteroid Ceres, originally classified as a planet on its discovery in 1801, was stripped of that title once other objects like it were spotted. 

Pluto, as it turned out, was simply the first object in the Kuiper Belt to be sighted and named, just as Ceres was the first object in the asteroid belt to be sighted and named.  The later discoveries of Eris, Haumea, Sedna, and other Pluto-like objects out in the snowball-rich suburbs of the solar system convinced the IAU that assigning Pluto to a different category made more sense than keeping it in its former place on the roster of planets.  The change in category didn’t affect Pluto at all; it simply provided a slightly more useful way of sorting out the diverse family of objects circling the Sun.

A similar shift, though in the other direction, took place in the sociology of religions in 1967, with the publication of Robert Bellah’s paper  “Civil Religion in America.”  Before that time, most definitions of religion had presupposed that something could be assigned to that category only if it involved belief in at least one deity.  Challenging this notion, Bellah pointed out the existence of a class of widely accepted belief systems that had all the hallmarks of religion except such a belief. Borrowing a turn of phrase from Rousseau, he called these “civil religions,” and the example central to his paper was the system of beliefs that had grown up around the ideas and institutions of American political life.

The civil religion of Americanism, Bellah showed, could be compared point for point with the popular theistic religions in American life, and the comparison made sense of features no previous analysis quite managed to interpret convincingly.  Americanism had its own sacred scriptures, such as the Declaration of Independence; its own saints and martyrs, such as Abraham Lincoln; its own formal rites—the Pledge of Allegiance, for example, fills exactly the same role in Americanism that the Lord’s Prayer does in most forms of Christianity popular in the United States—and so on straight down the list of religious institutions. Furthermore, and most crucially, the core beliefs of Americanism were seen by most Americans as self-evidently good and true, and as standards by which other claims of goodness and truth could and should be measured: in a word, as sacred.

While Americanism was the focus of Bellah’s paper, it was and is far from the only example of the species he anatomized.  When the paper in question first saw print, for example, a classic example of the type was in full flower on the other side of the Cold War’s heavily guarded frontiers.  During the century and a half or so from the publication of The Communist Manifesto to the implosion of the Soviet Union, Communism was one of the modern world’s most successful civil religions, an aggressive missionary faith preaching an apocalyptic creed of secular salvation. It shared a galaxy of standard features with other contemporary Western religions, from sacred scriptures and intricate doctrinal debates on down to steet-corner evangelists spreading the gospel among the downtrodden.

Even its vaunted atheism, the one obvious barrier setting it apart from its more conventionally religious rivals, was simply an extension of a principle central to the Abrahamic religions, though by no means common outside that harsh desert-centered tradition. The unyielding words of the first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” were as central to Communism as to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam; the sole difference in practice was that, since Communist civil religion directed its reverence toward a hypothetical set of abstract historical processes rather than a personal deity, its version of the commandment required the faithful to have no gods at all.

Not all civil religions take so hard a line toward their theist rivals. Americanism is an example of the other common strategy, which can be described with fair accuracy as cooptation: the recruitment of the deity or deities of the locally popular theist religion as part of the publicity team for the civil religion in question. In this case, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words:

I hope I don’t need to point out to any of my readers that the US constitution, that cautious tissue of half-resolved disputes and last-minute compromises, was not handed down by Jesus to the founding fathers, and that it’s even a bit insulting to suggest that a document needing so much revision and amendment down through the years could have come from an omniscient source.  I also hope I don’t need to point out that most of the founding fathers shown clustered around Jesus in the painting were Deists who were deeply suspicious of organized religion—and of course then there’s Ben Franklin, skeptic, libertine, lapsed Quaker, and sometime member of the Hell-Fire Club, standing there with a beatific smile on his face, one hand over his heart, and the other doubtless hiding crossed fingers behind his back.  Still, that’s the sort of distortion that happens when the emotions evoked by civil religion shape history in hindsight.  The Communist Manifesto and the October Revolution came in for the same sort of hagiography, and inspired even worse art.

Other examples of civil religion would be easy enough to cite—or, for that matter, to illustrate with equally tasteless imagery—but the two I’ve just named are good examples of the type, and will be wholly adequate to illustrate the points I want to make here. First, it takes only the briefest glance at history to realize that civil religions can call forth passions and loyalties every bit as powerful as those evoked by theist religions. Plenty of American patriots and committed Communists alike have readily laid down their lives for the sake of the civil religions in which they put their faith.  Both civil religions have inspired art, architecture, music and poetry along the whole spectrum from greatness to utter kitsch; both provided the force that drove immense social and cultural changes for good or ill; both are comparable in their impact on the world in modern times with even the most popular theist religions.

Second, the relations between civil religions and theist religions tend to be just as problematic as the relations between one theist religion and another.  The sort of bland tolerance with which most of today’s democracies regard religion is the least intrusive option, and even so it often involves compromises that many theist religions find difficult to accept. From there, the spectrum extends through more or less blatant efforts to coopt theist religions into the service of the civil religion, all the way to accusations of disloyalty and the most violent forms of persecution. The long history of troubled relations between theist religions and officially nonreligious political creeds is among other things a useful confirmation of Bellah’s thesis: it’s precisely because civil religions and theist religions appeal to so many of the same social and individual needs, and call forth so many of the same passions and loyalties, that they so often come into conflict with one another.

Third, civil religions share with theist religions a curious and insufficiently studied phenomenon that may as well be called the antireligion. An antireligion is a movement within a religious community that claims to oppose that community’s faith, in a distinctive way:  it embraces essentially all of its parent religion’s beliefs, but inverts the values, embracing as good what the parent religion defines as evil, and rejecting as evil what the parent religion defines as good.

The classic example of the type is Satanism, the antireligion of Christianity. In its traditional forms—the conservative Christians among my readers may be interested to know that Satanism also suffers from modernist heresies—Satanism accepts essentially all of the presuppositions of Christianity, but says with Milton’s Satan, “Evil, be thou my good.” Thus you’ll have to look long and hard among even the most devout Catholics to find anyone more convinced of the spiritual power of the Catholic Mass than an old-fashioned Satanist; it’s from that conviction that the Black Mass, the parody of the Catholic rite that provides traditional Satanism with its central ceremony, gains whatever power it has.

Antireligions are at least as common among civil religions as they are among theist faiths. The civil religion of Americanism, for example, has as its antireligion the devout and richly detailed claim, common among American radicals of all stripes, that the United States is uniquely evil among the world’s nations.  This creed, or anticreed, simply inverts the standard notions of American exceptionalism without changing them in any other way. In the same way, Communism has its antireligion, which was founded by the Russian expatriate Ayn Rand and has become the central faith of much of America’s current pseudoconservative movement. There is of course nothing actually conservative about Rand’s Objectivism; it’s simply what you get when you accept the presuppositions of Marxism—atheism, materialism, class warfare, and the rest of it—but say “Evil, be thou my good” to all its value judgments. If you’ve ever wondered why so many American pseudoconservatives sound as though they’re trying to imitate the cackling capitalist villains of traditional Communist demonology, now you know.

Emotional power, difficult relations with other faiths, and the presence of an antireligion:  these are far from the only features civil religions have in common with the theist competition.  Still, just as it makes sense to talk of civil religions and theist religions as two subcategories within the broader category of religion as a whole, it’s worthwhile to point out at least one crucial difference between civil and theist religions: civil religions tend to be brittle. They are far more vulnerable than theist faiths to sudden loss of faith on the grand scale.

The collapse of Communism in the late twentieth century is a classic example.  By the 1980s, despite heroic efforts at deception and self-deception, nobody anywhere on the globe could pretend any longer that the Communist regimes spread across the globe had anything in common with the worker’s paradise of Communist myth, or were likely to do so on less than geological time scales. The grand prophetic vision central to the Communist faith—the worldwide spread of proletarian revolution, driven by the unstoppable force of the historical dialectic; the dictatorship of the proletariat that would follow, in nation after nation, bringing the blessings of socialism to the wretched of the earth; sooner or later thereafter, the withering away of the state and the coming of true communism—all turned, in the space of a single generation, from the devout hope of countless millions to a subject for bitter jokes among the children of those same millions.  The implosion of the Soviet empire and its inner circle of client states, and the rapid abandonment of Communism elsewhere, followed in short order.

The Communist civil religion was vulnerable to so dramatic a collapse because its kingdom was entirely of this world. Theist religions that teach the doctrines of divine providence and the immortality of the soul can always appeal to another world for the fulfillment of hopes disappointed in this one, but a civil religion such as Communism cannot.  As the Soviet system stumbled toward its final collapse, faithful believers in the Communist gospel could not console themselves with the hope that they would be welcomed into the worker’s paradise after they died, or even pray that the angels of dialectical materialism might smite the local commissar for his sins. There was no refuge from the realization that their hopes had been betrayed and the promises central to their faith would not be kept.

This sort of sudden collapse happens tolerably often to civil religions, and explains some of the more dramatic shifts in religious history.  The implosion of Roman paganism in the late Empire, for example, had a good many factors driving it, but one of the most important was the way that the worship of the old gods had been coopted by the civil religion of the Roman state.  By the time the Roman Empire reached its zenith, Jove and the other gods of the old Roman pantheon had been turned into political functionaries, filling much the same role as Jesus in the painting above.  The old concept of the pax deorum—the maintenance of peace and good relations between the Roman people and their gods—had been drafted into the service of the Pax Romana, and generations of Roman panegyrists insisted that Rome’s piety guaranteed her the perpetual rulership of the world.

When the empire started to come unglued, therefore, and those panegyrics stopped being polite exaggerations and turned into bad jokes, Roman civil religion came unglued with it, and dragged down much of Roman paganism in its turn. The collapse of belief in the old gods was nothing like as sudden or as total as the collapse of faith in Communism—all along, there were those who found spiritual sustenance in the traditional faith, and many of them clung to it until the rising spiral of Christian persecution intervened—but the failure of the promises Roman civil religion had loaded onto the old gods, at the very least, made things much easier for Christian evangelists.

It’s entirely possible, as I’ve suggested more than once in these essays, that some similar fate awaits the civil religion of Americanism. That faith has already shifted in ways that suggest the imminence of serious trouble.  Not that many decades ago, all things considered, a vast number of Americans were simply and unselfconsciously convinced that the American way was the best way, that America would inevitably overcome whatever troubles its enemies and the vagaries of nature threw at it, and that the world’s best hope lay in the possibility that people in other lands would finally get around to noticing how much better things were over here, and be inspired to imitate us. It’s easy to make fun of such opinions, especially in the light of what happened in the decades that followed, but it’s one of the peculiarities of religious belief—any religious belief, civil, theist, or otherwise—that it always looks at least faintly absurd to those who don’t hold it.

Still, the point I want to make is more specific. You won’t find many Americans holding such beliefs nowadays, and those who still make such claims in public generally do it in the sort of angry and defensive tones that suggest that they’re repeating a creed in which neither they nor their listeners quite believe any longer. American patriotism, like Roman patriotism during the last couple of centuries of the Empire, increasingly focuses on the past: it’s not America as it is today that inspires religious devotion, but the hovering ghost of an earlier era, taking on more and more of the colors of utopia as it fades from sight. Meanwhile politicians mouth the old slogans and go their merry ways.  I wonder how many of them have stopped to think about the consequences if the last of the old faith that once gave those slogans their meaning finally goes away for good.

Such things happen to civil religions, far more often than they happen to theist faiths. I’d encourage my readers to keep that in mind next week, as we focus on another civil religion, one that’s played even a larger role in modern history than the two discussed in this post. That faith is, of course, the religion of progress.


Ares Olympus said...

The expression of religion and antireligion makes me think of E. F. Schumacher's "divergent problems".
On my own reflecting of issues I'm repeatedly going back to that recognition whenever I hear two sides passionately defending their ideology as self-evident, without noticing it quickly collapses without its nemesis at the table as well. The strangest conflict for me is between the good and evil of compromise. That is, "the good fight" so often comes out from insecurity that you might be wrong, so the more certain someone acts about their beliefs, the more they need to deny the opposite has any virtue for fear of losing everything. But I guess there are times when compromise has no middle ground. Centralization and relocalization are two pulls of authority, and maybe its like the dinosaurs and mammals. Resilience depends on both having some power, and centralization would appear to delay collapse our society, allowing transition time for relocalization that wouldn't happen if the central power collapsed instantly. So I think fundamentalistic dependence on either side can be resisted, and you have to live in two worlds during a time where power is clearly in one realm, and yet everything really important is happening in the hidden one.

Darren Urquhart said...

JMG your cliff hangers are taking on Game of Thrones proportions. Just have to wait for next week...

Matthew Lindquist said...

"Snowball-rich Suburbs" - I almost fell out of my chair laughing. Another great post, Mr. Greer!

I'm also waiting on the edge of my seat(hence I almost fell off) for the next installment of Star's Reach; is the theme of your next series of posts the fault of the places that story has gone, or vice versa?

Somewhatstunned said...

Hello JMG - I'm seriously impressed by your polymathy :)

I've been reading your blog for several years now - and thought it would be polite to say "hello". My general rule for committing internet chattery is that I only do so with people who I already know in actual life, or who I have a reasonable possibility of meeting in person. Given what you've written about both localization and the illusogenic properties of internet commentary, I'm sure I don't need to explain why I take this line.

Anyway, even though there is no reasonable likelihood of us meeting in person, or even of our having any real-life acquaintances in common (I'm in the UK and I don't fly), it's not a *strict* rule, and there have been a few things I've wanted to add to the conversation from time to time. As I say, it seems a bit rude to just pitch in. So I'll lay down a marker for when I chip in later, by saying "hello"!

Ben said...

@ Urquhart - Funny thing, the civil religion of Westeros looks set to end up in the same place as Americanism. Winter is coming and all that...

@ JMG - One already sees a rampant nostalgia for the 'happy days' of yesteryear. I notice it the most in county music, of all places. Which is funny, because what passes for country music nowadays is basically a flag-waving NASCAR soundtrack. Which is a shame because as late as the early 1990s country music could be both satirical, humorous and heartfelt. Now it mostly sounds like elevator music with a twang.
My guess is that the civil religion of Americanism will fall apart first, and that to one degree or another the successor states will still embrace the religion of progress. When people perceive the religion of progress has failed (perhaps in another generation or two), what fills the void? Militant Protestant Christianity? Catholicism? Druidism?
It took Europe about 1000 years to go from Roman civic religion to Catholicism to the Renaisance. Could another civil religion emerge in America in the near term with the secular faiths so thoroughly discredited?

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

A reminiscence about religious cooptation and that picture.

In the public elementary school I attended in Arlington, Virginia in the 1950s, every day began with opening exercises in the classroom. These were invariant and consisted of recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, singing of any one of half a dozen patriotic songs, recitation of The Lord's Prayer, and listening to the teacher read a couple of Bible verses.

When "under God" was added to the Pledge (spoiling the scansion), I quietly refused to say those words, on the principled basis that a pledge to the Republic should not include any religious statement. No one took notice of this. I also had to decide what to do about the Lord's Prayer.

Decades later, I asked my father about his boyhood in Oklahoma in the 1920s. He faced the same issue of whether to recite The Lord's Prayer with his classmates. My father and I were probably the only Jews in our respective rooms.

Both of us thought it over without consulting our parents, and arrived at the same conclusion. It's a Christian prayer, but nothing in it is contrary to Judaism, therefore I can recite it without violating my conscience and don't have to court martyrdom.

The Bible verses must have been innocuous as I can't remember what any of them were.

I think opening exercises of some sort are a good idea for any school. I'm old fashioned enough to approve of first graders learning to sing a verse or two of The Star-Spangled Banner; America the Beautiful; Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean; My Country, Tis of Thee and The Battle Hymn of the Republic by heart. By doing so one commits to memory through repetition some decent poetry with more complicated sentence structure than our textbooks had. (Especially our national anthem, which has fiendishly Latinate syntax as well as a range of an octave and a half.)

Also, if this practice had carried on, we would not have had the spectacle after September 11, 2001 of all the members of Congress trying to display their patriotism on the Capitol steps and being unable to sing anything together except God Bless America. Not one of Irving Berlin's better efforts, and I was embarrassed for my country.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

This is just for fun, after the serious theological discussions of last week, and completely off topic, so JMG may choose not to put it through.

The following poem from Through the Looking Glass can be sung to the tune of The Star-Spangled Banner.

At this moment the door was flung open, and a shrill voice was heard singing:

'To the Looking-Glass world it was Alice that said
"I've a sceptre in hand, I've a crown on my head.
Let the Looking-Glass creatures, whatever they be
Come and dine with the Red Queen, the White Queen, and me!"'

And hundreds of voices joined in the chorus:

'Then fill up the glasses as quick as you can,
And sprinkle the table with buttons and bran:
Put cats in the coffee, and mice in the tea—
And welcome Queen Alice with thirty-times-three!'

Then followed a confused noise of cheering, and Alice thought to herself 'Thirty times three makes ninety. I wonder if any one's counting?' In a minute there was silence again, and the same shrill voice sang another verse:

'"O Looking-Glass creatures," quoth Alice, "draw near!
'Tis an honour to see me, a favour to hear:
'Tis a privilege high to have dinner and tea
Along with the Red Queen, the White Queen, and me!"'

Then came the chorus again:

'Then fill up the glasses with treacle and ink,
Or anything else that is pleasant to drink:
Mix sand with the cider, and wool with the wine—
And welcome Queen Alice with ninety-times-nine!'

'Ninety times nine!' Alice repeated in despair. 'Oh, that'll never be done! I'd better go in at once—' and in she went, and there was a dead silence the moment she appeared.

Thijs Goverde said...

Heh. It amuses me that an archdruid should be proposing such a crudely functionalistic idea of religion. The way you strip the notion of the 'sacred' from all references to transcendence is most telling - it seems you have a couple of axes to grind there.
It leads to simplifying things too much, methinks.
For instance: the 'worship of the old gods' was never coopted by what you call the 'civil religion of the Roman state'. Roman politics and Roman religion were closely intertwined from the word go, and there was never a time that the gods were not 'political functionaries'. They were so already in the Iliad which, if I recall correctly, predates the foundation of Rome by at least a century.

Lei said...

The nature of categorization has been understood along these lines at least since Lakoff's 1980 book, drawing on cognitive psychology of 1970's, and I make use of it in my linguistic research with pleasure. But here we have some problems that are associated with categorization in concreto.

One can theoretically define religion as one wants, but since it is a tool, some definitions are more useful for certain purposes than others. And I would prefer a definition of religion as it is found in mainstream religious studies, because those people know well how they define what they study. If the definition is too broad, as appears to me is the case of this essay, usefulness of the category diminishes, because necessary discrimination of diverging features with possibly strong impacts on outcomes goes away. In the present perspective, almost any system of belief or ideology can be seen as religion in the end, which does not seem to be "right". Also, it is of course important to capture common features of let us say catholicism and communism, but the point (e.g. in cognitive linguistics) is that the whole is not just a combination of the part - we have a gestalt, or special ecology of the structures under investigation, and holistically taken, catholicism and communism work differently precisely because the elements constitute the whole in different ways, some are missing and some are present, etc. I think that this generalization and comparison is far too broadly conceived. In any case, it is a nice example of the point made in the text, that categorization is often adapted by its conscious use so that it serves his purposes :o)

Similarly, according to me, one should carefully distinguish different strata of systems of belief. Are we talking about "folk Christianity", or high-level theology? About communism as (mis)used in the states of the USSR block, or intellectual communism? These distinctions matter. They matter the more that e.g. here in former Czechoslovakia, intellectual communism or marxism is not dead at all, and these things are intensively discussed: it is now a common view in these circles (with which I partly sympatize) that the practice and history of "communist states" do not say anything about communism or marxism as an ideology. In other words, USSR and its satelites are taken not be really communist (which of course is similar to the problems with religions on one hand and historical churches on the other).

And it is a bit problematic to speak about total disintegration of "communist religion" after 1989 in these areas, because common people never really understood it and took seriously, at least in the marxist vein (a different story is that most of them really wanted social equality, emancipation etc.). In fact, many of them look back to those time with nostalgy, and many leftist intellectuals either never dismissed the belief, or have discovered it again (younger ones). So in any case, the idea of communism or at least socialism is well alive and so brittle as proposed, whatever the experience with bolsheviks was here.

Zachary Braverman said...

One of your most interesting pieces yet.

Approliving said...

Theistic and civic religions are also similar in that they both offer visions of humanity’s grand purpose and destiny.

There are also significant differences between theistic religions and civil religions. Theistic religions explicitly rely on claims of divine authority for their validity, while civil religions rely on reason and the interpretation of commonly-accepted historical knowledge. Followers of theistic religions stress the importance of faith in times of adversity, while followers of civil religions tend to have a more pragmatic attitude when reality casts doubt on their beliefs. Civil religions are more like big social experiments than actual religions because their central claims are much more falsifiable, and their followers show evidence of holding this perception (e.g. references to “the American experiment”; the voluntary abandonment of Communism throughout Eurasia when it became clear that it wasn't working).

Communism bears so much resemblance to Christianity because, as you mentioned last week, the Western imagination was thoroughly in the grip of Christianity when Communism emerged. Communism is similar to Christianity out of practical necessity: had it not been based on the Christian template, Communism probably would have been too intellectually alien to its Western audience to have ever taken off. Luckily for the founders of Communism, they were also subjected to this Christian cultural conditioning.

With all this in mind, and given that religion is evolving phenomenon, I think that civil religion is actually a distinct species of intellectual organism which has (at least in part) evolved out of religion.

skinnermichael said...

It annoys me how people always seem to conflate religion and spirituality. At least most people don't have much faith that the religion of progress provides provide much spiritual fulfilment.

J9 said...

Dear JMG, thank you for another fire cracker of a post. I hadn't heard of civil religions, but as you explained it i had an "ah-ha" moment.
Once you know about it you see them lurking everywhere!! I'm so glad you decided to explore this thread - thank you - and not for the first time i wish the blogging Greer goose would lay more than one golden egg a week.
Yours in a heightened sense of intellectual anticipation!

YJV said...

Another civil religion that comes to mind is that of the British Empire and worship of Brittannia. Maybe analysis of the quick death of that belief in the aftermath of WWII will give a good indicant of the future of the American civil religion as Britian is in effect, America's mother.

Yupped said...

Very interesting. I like to say that I'm living in my second declining Empire now, having grown up in the UK in the 60s and 70s. Back then, the UK's sense of itself, its civil religion, had clearly crashed - the sun really had set on the British Empire and the Deferential Society. And the immediate replacement, post-war socialism, was having a tough time paying for itself. So from the 80s onwards the UK rebooted itself as a kind of groovy-USA - neo-liberal but with a more caring/intellectual ethos and somewhat better beer. I would say that the UK and Europe's civil religion, at least until recently, was largely based around the conceit that they could do progress too, while being cleverer and more refined than the US.

But as you say, these are all abstractions, stories we tell ourselves to make sense of things, to frame our hopes of the future and inspire us. Most of the components of these civil religions are not actually true, in any objective way, and often don't make much sense in the context of individual lives which are always more reflective of reality, the facts on the ground. It's so interesting how important these mental frameworks are to our functioning. They're very crumbly and unreliable, and much less tangible than working with day to day reality. But still we cling.

I wonder if, as the progress religion comes undone, it will shake up more of us to accept reality as it is, with all of its rules and mysteries and limitations. Or maybe we'll all just reboot another conceptual framework in which to believe? Perhaps paradoxically I've found that the former is a much better path to something transcendent.

Nestorian said...


Once more, I find myself agreeing with much of what you write.

I would suggest that a succinct way of summing up everything you have written concerning religion can be neatly summed up in an etymologically derived definition of the term. The word “religion” is based on a Latin root that means “to bind one thing to another.” Extended metaphorically, the etymological centrality of the idea of binding emphasizes the definitional centrality of the human will as a way of binding oneself to some ultimate belief system. This ultimate belief system (or rather, the purported set of realities it references) in turn come to command all the most fundamental forms of allegiance and commitment on the part of the believer – volitionally, emotionally, intellectually, and even physically. The belief system to which a person binds herself also defines for the religious believer her system of meaning and value, due to the ultimacy and finality of the psychological and spiritual binding involved.

Just Because said...

The image that comes to mind for the collapse of civil relgion is the felling of a tree with an ax. It may take several dozen or a hundred blows chipping away, then eventually one hears that creaking sound and the tree is going down from its own weight with no more help needed.

In terms of Americanism, you can look at many chunks taken out over the years that created disillusionment for many (e.g., Viet Nam War, Watergate, Stagflation of the 70's). The question to me is what exactly does the creaking sound like, and is that what we are hearing now for the religion of progress.

Looking forward to next week's post.

DesertedPictures said...

If you follow your thesis about civil religions being more vulnarable to rapid collapse, fundamentalist christianity might be in danger. It's not incorporated in any official cappacity like the pagan-religion in Rome, but it has very strong ties to one of the two current pillars of the American system of government (the republican party). If the governemnt as a whole, or that pillar, goes down, it might take a big chunk of that religion with it.

Odin's Raven said...

I've noticed that the most anti-American people are other 'Americans'. Why does this hatred of their own people happen less elsewhere?

Bill Pulliam said...

This is what I come here for, to see seemingly tangled threads traced to help reveal a big picture that interconnects them.

So in the collapse of the Roman civil religion, the theistic religion that it had coopted was essentially obliterated as well, all the way down to its original theistic roots. Does it follow from this that the strangely warped and twisted form of Protestant Christianity that prevails here will also be obliterated in the collapse of American Empire, and is it likely that it would take all other forms of Christianity with it, even those small minority sects that preached long and hard against the civil cooptation?

I've always thought of the prevailing religion I see here in the Bible Belt, in downtown San Francisco, in Boulder, Eureka Springs, Sedona, Salt Lake City, Kalispell, and on all 298 of the cable TV channels that stream into my mother's house, as Materialism. I see people seeking identity, meaning, answers, and comfort in their stuff; and if that is not the function of religious belief, what is? I'm contemplating how this maps into the picture you are weaving. Perhaps my category of Materialism is a higher level classification, at the same level as Theism. Then, Progress, Communism, and American Exceptionalism would fit as subcategories within it, just as Christianity, Buddhism, and Atheism fit as subcategories within Theism. If this seems like a workable scheme, I wonder if the (slow, grinding, ongoing) collapse of American Empire will actually obliterate Materialism itself, or just leave a space for some other materialistic belief system to evolve into the void.

Robert Beckett said...

Esteemed JMG,
Thank you for another highly informative, thoughtful and well-written essay.
Around 1801, an early critic of the religion of progress, William Wordsworth, expressed his dismay in a famous Petrarchan sonnet, which many of us of a certain age may have memorized during our school days. It begins "The world is too much with us, late and soon,.."
Permit me to offer my own bardic take on the present topic, fashioned in the same form ten score and ten years later. The dedication is to my grandson, Jove.
Fair use policy shall apply!

Upon Recalling Wordsworth

How many winters past? Ten score and ten?
This getting and spending a madness grown,
the germs of greed and pride since sown
and power lay waste Creation; what poet's pen
can grasp? It seems beyond our human ken
to ponder. Like frighten'd birds have virtues flown.
The seas and skies run foul and mountains groan
for trade of tawdry trinkets sought by men.

Gaia! I swear by reborn pagan creed
to see sweet Reason once again betroth'd
to Spirit. Grant today my simple need
for strength to toil at such a sacred oath.
The seventh generation will be freed
to wonder and to love beneath your oaks.

for Jove, December 31, 2011

sekenre said...

As a religious person (of the Theist variety), this is one of the most awesome articles you've written.

I would suggest that religion persists on the basis of the useful predictions that it makes. Because theist religions make predictions and encourage behaviour based on knowledge of the Spirit which changes much more slowly than external conditions, their teachings and practices remain relevant for much longer than a civil religion.

Mister Roboto said...

the conservative Christians among my readers may be interested to know that Satanism also suffers from modernist heresies

Yes indeed. There are at least three different forms of Satanism I can list off the top of my head. The first, which I'll call paleosatanism, are basically the old-fashioned devil-worshipers who work black magic and gleefully embrace some very bad behavior. These exist in relatively small groupings that function largely underground. Then there are the neosatanists who embrace a very Ayn-Rand-like philosophy of life. Within neosatanism, there are the atheistic satanists such as Anton LaVey's Church of Satan, that regards Satan as an impersonal universal force in nature. There are also the neosatanist groups such as the Temple of Set who regard Satan as a dark deity they worship, rather than a demon or fallen angel. And of course, each of the these groupings think the other two are all wet.

DaShui said...


IMHO the best post ever.
Is civil religion another term for "state worship?" The state, which is an abstract conglomeration of laws,rules, procedure, guidelines administered by a bureaucracy needs legitimacy so it coopts and threatens religion.
In the USA the state uses tax exemption status to control religions. Does druidry take tax exemption?

Are you gonna say something about Greek mystery religions that came into vogue towards the end of the Roman Empire? It seems they were a radical reinterpretation of mainstream roman religion as Greek and roman religions were syncretic. Maybe Pentecostalism will explode in popularity?

Robert said...

Yes that sums up the Ayn Rand cult. I believe Ayn Rand managed to secure a relationship with Greenspan himself. Possibly the Randian religion will end up doing almost as much damage to American capitalism as Communism did to socialism.

I think a key moment in the decline of Communism was when Khruschev denounced Stalin. That was the end of Moscow's papal infallibility and things were never quite the same again. The Chinese never denounced Mao who is still well respected in China they simply reversed many of his mistakes in a pragmatic way. This is possibly one reason why the Chinese Communist party is still in power.

John Roth said...

Thank you for the reference to Bellah. That lead me to "Divided we Fall: America's Two Civil Religions" by R. Wuthnow.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Ah yes, the civil religion of the most beloved jurisdiction in human history, and the utter collapse of belief therein, from the days of Brezhnev onward...

The Canadian Estonian diaspora has as one of its principal buildings Tartu College in Toronto. In the kitchen of Tartu College I once heard the following kaffeeklatsch regarding the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. Although the klatsch may or may not be true, I at any rate cannot help passing it on.

A guy in the ESSR wanted to join the Party. He really, really wanted to join the Party. Unlike anyone else in the ESSR, he believed the general Party line: that the individual is the helpless pawn of economic determinism; that overwhelming economic forces render a proletarian revolution in the West inevitable; that the current "socialism" of the USSR is a transitional stage toward a truly communist "proletariaadi diktatuur", already close at hand; and so forth.

On reviewing his membership application, the Party said, "This guy is nuts, this guy is a whack job. Anyone sincerely holding this set of beliefs is a menace."

So he never got his Party card.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo (near Toronto)
www dot metascientia dot com

jollyreaper said...

Also playing into the "god is dead" theme from last week... My mom is very religious. She accepts all the arguments put forward by Christian promoters as fact:
1. No book is as attested to in the historical record as the bible
2. No other religion has had someone come back from the dead
3. (when pressed that resurrection is in tons of religions) No religion has had resurrection confirmed in the historic record as with Jesus
4. Every atheist who made a genuine study of the bible to debunk it came out a believer. (those who did not didn't make a genuine study.)
5. Look at how Jesus clearly fulfilled every bit of scripture in the book
6. It takes more effort and faith to disbelieve than believe

Anyway, there are tons more howlers like that -- demonstrably false claims -- but recounting them all would belabor the point. Whenever this conversation comes up -- and it does with dreadful frequency -- the final question is "What do you put your faith in? You have to believe in something, base your life around something, or you're just a gerbil spinning in a wheel."

I think that statement has a rather complex answer. People need to eat, drink and breathe -- those are the inarguable essentials. Not everyone requires higher levels of justification and rationalization. I myself want them but that does not mean my neighbor down the street would see any value in it.

The thing about these civil religions is they seem so concrete and sensible. The faith can be justified within this very life. While one could look at the failure of a civil religion as a bad thing, I think you could also consider it to be the sensible debunking of a scientific life philosophy that has been proven false. Only a fool would continue believing in something that clearly doesn't work. While a scientist might be sad that a favored theory like vitalism or the luminiferous aether has been debunked, he at least knows the way has been cleared for a better theory.

I don't see a civil religion of progress as a bad thing, so long as we can define what progress is. "I know it when I see it" doesn't really cut it. The American Dream of rapacious consumerism doesn't really seem to make people happy, regardless of questions of sustainability. But food, love, safety, using our minds to improve the world for ourselves and our fellow man, that's something I can get behind.

What is interesting is seeing how man saw nature over the ages. The Puritans who came over here saw the Wilderness not as a romantic getaway but a manifestation of hell with the Indians playing the part man in a godless state, little better than devils. A hippie talking about hugging trees would have been utterly alien to them.

Thomas Daulton said...

Wow, this is a great column. "Taking on the colors of utopia as it fades from sight," that's a powerful and accurate image there. Also loved the description of Randism/Objectivism as an "antireligion". So if Objectivism is an antireligion of Communism, then howcome it hasn't simply gone away now that Commmunism is dead and gone? Do I just need a little more patience?? :) (odious Randism can't make its exit soon enough, IMHO.)

Also thought I'd point out a fictional example of the collapse of a religion. In the interesting sci-fi novel "Hyperion" by Dan Simmons, the Earth itself was completely destroyed at some point in the future and humankind lives in space colonies. It becomes a plot point that the Jewish faith officially disbanded at that point, because its rabbis concluded quite logically that, since the Promised Land was destroyed, then God was not going to keep his promise to give them the Promised Land. The future Jewish descendants still believed in God, but no longer practiced or believed in the validity of their religion. An amusing fictional depiction.

What other faiths might be shattered if the Earth's climate really becomes inhospitable to humans? Would Druidism be affected??

jollyreaper said...

PS this is the HP Lovecraft version of the image above. Classic. :),+Under+Cthulhu.jpg

Don Plummer said...

John, were you going to give us a definition of "religion" here? It seemed at first that you were heading that way, but then you started talking about religion as an abstract category and I never read an actual definition.

Interestingly, American civil religion was the topic of a Facebook discussion I had yesterday. One person put up a link to brief blog that asserted the US Pledge of Allegiance was "idolatrous" (in the Christian understanding of that term). After reading your discussion of civil religion here, the voicing of such an opinion by the Christian faithful might be additional evidence, coming from the other direction, that American civil religion is in trouble. A generation ago, I doubt whether any Americans, not even committed Christitans, would have even considered such a question, let alone asked it in a public forum.

Zach said...

John Michael,

Well done again. The idea of an "antireligion" is new to me, but it seems an obvious and useful categorization. Thank you.

I'm familiar with Bellah and American Civil Religion. The conflation of and the co-opting by ACR of American Christianity is a long-standing irritation to me. To the point where I have days when I am sorely tempted to channel the Old Testament prophets and thunder denunciation down on the blasphemous idolatry of it all. That picture of Jesus and the Constitution being one prime example.

Another one being George W. Bush's re-purposing of "power, wonder-working power" to the American people from "the precious Blood of the Lamb." I was shocked and angered at his casual blasphemy; then shocked and saddened to see how few of my fellow Christians were likewise bothered.

Some further thoughts triggered by this week's essay:

It occurs to me that a prime tragedy of our time is that each of our political tribes is exquisitely tuned to the other tribe's attempts to immanentize the eschaton, but blind to their own.

(Thus President Obama unironically called a "lightworker" and embodying Messianic hopes; thus Frum and Pearle unironically calling their strategy for the War on Terror a means for the "end to evil." Hubris abounds!)

I also wonder now if one couldn't usefully analyze our "culture wars" from the perspective of a shift in the pieties of the American Civil Religion, and which groups follow vs. resist that shift.

Keep up the good work! I look forward to next week.


Wolfgang Brinck said...

JMG - lots of good points none of which I have any objection to. The only point I wish to argue with is what constitutes a religion. And this then leads me to contend that Progress is not so much a religion as a mythology or myth - myth or mythology as the term is used by Joseph Campbell, that is, a set of beliefs that is accepted by the majority of a culture as true and self-evident.
The myth of progress at least as far as I can tell is one of science and technology perpetually improving the condition of humans on earth by increasing both knowledge of the material universe and conquering by means of technology all the problems that vex us.
The term religion for me implies not just a set of beliefs but also a formal organization that puts itself in charge of defining what those beliefs are.
Religions also have officials and rituals that mediate key transitions such as birth, the onset of adulthood, marriage and death.
And finally, most crucially for me, religions have some notion of aspiration to wisdom that cannot be attained through intellectual exercises that is, wisdom that can only be attained by means other than rational thought.
I agree that that the term civil religion is a useful one since civil religion typically covers most of the same bases as conventional religions. However, progress in itself is not a religion in my own estimation but rather a core philosophical component of many civil religions. I imagine that the idea of Progress was as much a part of Russian Communism as it was of American Capitalism. In other words, I would regard Progress as a belief central to certain civil religions but not a civil religion in itself.

Matt and Jess said...

Non-civil religions seem like they have a lot of holding power...when a civil religion collapses, is the ground suddenly ripe for regular religion to take its place? Will established religions compete for dominance, or something newer try to rise? I guess this would be an organic process, but I can also see how the dictator portion of your cyclic view of politics could be ushered in--the collapse of american civil religion, which most every variety of american regular religion shares.

Wish history was something i'd been taught in school--I might be able to think of some precedents.

Enjoyed reading your post on this rainy morning in appalachia, which, I should mention, is supposed to be largely unaffected by coming droughts, and resilient in the face of climate change ;)

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

It IS, on the other hand, true that the civil religion of the Most Beloved Jurisdiction in Human History had a kind of mesmerizing effect. In the days of Stalin, when Estonia had just gone under, there was a fancy-schmancy encyclopedia. Some of the articles were political. Some people had this encyclopedia, in what I presume was multivolume well-bound hard-covered expensive big-format fancitude-schmancitude, on their shelves at home. I have heard that when the political climate in the USSR shifted a bit, people were given printed sheets which they had to take home and paste into those fancy encyclopedias, to correct political errors in the material as originally printed. (Perhaps the new sheets were a bit critical of Stalin. After 1953, poor Joe got categorized as an unsound, dissident, theologian, kind of like Prof. Hans Küng opposing Cardinal Ratzinger.)

What I have heard is that some people were so cowed, or so pious, as to actually take the proffered sheets home and do the required pasting-in.

I also want to remark on offences related to "paragrahv 58" or "paragrahv 68" (sorry, not quite sure of the number) in the Soviet Estonian Criminal Code.

When the civil church was really breaking down, in 1990, it was considered possible for diaspora Estonians to go back home WITHOUT being labelled collaborators. With my parents' full approval, I did just that, taking the ferry from Helsinki, and going inside for a whole week.

At some point I had the following conversation with my dear Uncle-or-Cousin-or-Whatever X and my dear Aunt-or-Niece-or-Whatever Y, at the kitchen or dining-room table near Tallinn:

TOOMAS (explaining how things are in the West, probably with reference to rallies in places like Toronto, against such things as the 1939 August 23 late-night Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, with those secret Baltic clauses that only came out after World War II): So we see all sorts of demonstrations and rallies, with anti-Soviet agitation spreading all over the place.

X AND/OR Y (at first getting the political line wrong, but quickly correcting themselves, so as to end up on the evidently winning side): Oh, yes, it really is dreadful, anti-Soviet agitation cropping up simply EVERYWHERE, simply awful....I mean, yes, it's WONDERFUL, yes, ANTI-Soviet, it's simply WONDERFUL, you get **SO** much anti-Soviet stuff these days...


Toomas (Tom) Karmo, near Toronto

PS: When one feels sad about the past, one can get cheerful again by viewing The vid relates, admittedly, not to the jurisdiction just referred to, but to a cognate one. However, the two jurisdictions are similar enough. They differ, Churchill said, only as the North Pole differs from the South Pole.

In this cheer-up vid, I particularly prize the bits from 00:57 or so onward, in which the speaker says "Tomania was down, but now he has risen", and does something rather creative with his glass of water, and the crowd dutifully reiterates the theme with its stiff-armed salute (rendering the phallic character of the proceedings explicit).

Steve Morgan said...

The point that religion is a mental tool for categorizing phenomena is a useful and important one. Much of last week's comment thread seemed to be missing a common understanding of that concept, and viewed in that light it's interesting to re-read some of the discussion.

I also see now why you've repeatedly said that you think the first political party to adopt peak oil and a considered response to it as a platform will win the future in many industrial democracies. Inasmuch as modern political parties act as religions in the US (I think there's some decent evidence for this on either side of the aisle), they too are undergoing a similar crisis of legitimacy amid their failure to deliver the spoils of imperial power. If the religion of progress is undergoing its own implosion, the faithful will be grasping for a new belief system in its wake, and an organized party that coherently points out the flaws of the departed Progress and offers an alternative vision of meaning and purpose in its absence will have a powerful draw.

Thanks for this fascinating series. I'm glad that you're bringing these ideas into the conversation about peak oil and the future of American society.

ganv said...

Your description of civic religion as brittle struck me as right on target. And the reason is exactly as you say. I would phrase it that they are relatively easy to falsify. One of the key ingredients to any successful religious system is an eschatology of what the future will bring. Religions with non-material eschatologies have been able to re-interpret actual events (temple worship ending for Jews, Jesus disappearing in the first century for early Christians, or 1914 passing for Jehovah's witnesses) as part of a bigger non-material eschatology. But civic religions have this world as a falsifier of their eschatologies that is hard to avoid.

So many threads come together here...your 'end of the world' sequence last year ties in directly.

luna said...

The impression I get from reading this, and from the commenter on last week's who had used a deity in "My Little Pony" as a thought experiment (and your response to him), is that religion of all types is a form of self-enchantment, if not self-bewitchment. Is this an over-simplification, and is it something you will be expanding on in future posts?

(Btw. I would regard myself as agnostic, but have read, and been fascinated by, writings on magic by yourself, Dion Fortune and W E Butler)

Joe M said...

This is just brilliant, JMG. Beautifully developed and argued. Thank you for your voice.

Brother Kornhoer said...

Now I know exactly what I need to make my tacky room complete - where can I get a print of that suitable for framing?

Robert Martini said...

John Michael Greer,

Darren is right, you need to tone back the quality of your writing so we will not be disappointed when it ends.

Do you have any educated guesses of which movements will gain more traction in the years ahead, for better or worse? Do folks tend you return to their roots or abandon those all together for what they feel has been "who was right all along"?

I tend to notice in myself and others, that; once you desert your faith, you tend to try and replace the void with something warm and comfy. How many liberals go to yoga for a little more than stretching? How many inner city ghetto culture are addicted to images of power, wealth and control in a world devoid of it? How many hippies have developed some sort of psuedo-nature worship who seek to cure all aliments with "positive" energy psuedo science? (be aware I not referring to druidry) I feel like I can call upon a thousand examples. But, is it those in power that define civil religions, or is it the forerunner thoughts of the group that end of taking power?

Excellent Post, I truly appreciate them.

Steve in Colorado said...

This might be my favorite post yet.

A couple of thoughts I had:

Proudhon wrote to Marx in 1846, saying "Let us seek together, if you wish, the laws of society, the manner in which these laws are realized, the process by which we shall succeed in discovering them; but, for God’s sake, after having demolished all the a priori dogmatisms, do not let us in our turn dream of indoctrinating the people; do not let us fall into the contradiction of your compatriot Martin Luther, who, having overthrown Catholic theology, at once set about, with excommunication and anathema, the foundation of a Protestant theology."

Of course, what Proudhon feared is exactly what happened... And, more ironically, Proudhon himself is now a central figure in an anarchist theology that sees him as the first in a succession of Great Prophets. First Proudhon taught us Mutualism; then came Bakunin, and taught us Collectivism; finally, Kropotkin taught Anarchist Communism, and this is the Final Revelation.

Also, the idea of the antireligion: It seems to me that civil religions often absorb the properties of the antireligions of their competitors-- and this hastens their end! So Americanism absorbs and is redefined as Anti-Communism. Now, without Communism, what is left for America?

And, of course, it works the other way around, too. America was much admired by many early socialists and communists, including Marx and Bakunin. Later, Anti-Americanism became a necessary feature of all radical Left civil religions. What will become of them when America implodes?

And of course, Proudhon's criticism of Marx still holds. He continued: "Let us not, merely because we are at the head of a movement, make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, the religion of reason." Why is it that so, so many opponents of the dominant hegemony become hegemons in their turn? How can we avoid it ourselves?

Richard Larson said...

I actually laughed when I realized the meaning of the picture. There are some who would use it... The concept of a civil religion is interesting. Is progress then a offshoot religion of Americanism?

I look at progress and think corporation, and think American as the people.

Kathleen K said...

Oh! Thank you for inspiring yet another lightbulb moment.

*This* is why I can't talk politics with my father. If I express the slightest hint that I don't think America is the best thing in history (the "other side" doesn't count), he reacts sharply, and anything like a logical conversation is over.

I think I'll pull out my copy of Thinking in Systems and see if I can figure out how to pull the lever the other way.

MawKernewek said...

Is the antireligion of progress neoprimitivism, or the apocalypse myth?

There can't be that many people who make a serious go at living a Stone Age lifestyle.

Even in the milder form of nostalgia, which many people claim to subscribe to, I don't reckon there are that many who really take it seriously to the point of denying themselves anything invented in the last hundred years, well, except the Amish. Although I'm not sure they are doing it from an antireligion motivation.

As the belief in progress falters, would the power of its antireligion fade with it, the antireligion being parasitic on the former, or would the antireligion continue to grow and form part of what replaces faith in progress?

jim weaver said...

John, you imply that atheism is a religion in the second paragraph. Now, I don't believe in gods, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or unicorns. Are all three of these (non)beliefs religions or just the first one?

Dan Craig said...

There is another Antithetical to Americanism civil religion in our society that resists naming, which consists of various minority and subgroup "rights"-being parsed and trumpeted down to ridiculous levels along with worship of multiculturalism and which has its own economic redistributionist policies often codified into law. Streets and freeways are renamed for its heroes. It also has its own mural art. To challenge the core beliefs of this civil religion in a public forum is to invoke the wrath that one might get from a Moslem who feels his faith is being attacked.
It's all quite amusing and leads to some surreal moments when you ask people why they believe in certain ideas that they express in casual conversation.

subgenius said...


On catabolic collapse...thought I would pass this on...

...heard a report a couple of days ago on the topic of transportation in Los Angeles. The decision has been taken to stop repairing the most damaged roads, and to focus all resources on saving the ones that are in a more reasonable state. Makes one think of all this talk of arterial routes and feeder lanes and cardiac arrest,IMHO...

Michael Petro said...

Thanks for that lucid description of "category" in your third paragraph. I'll most likely be stealing it at some point (with attribution, of course.)

Ian O said...

I hear your plea, Darren, I await Thursdays (when JMG's essays appear in NZ) with trepidation. What aching boil is he going to lance this week?
Here's some thoughts to fill the gap, that touch on next week:

JP said...

This is one of your bests posts.

It concisely examined some of the various issues that I've had with the concept of civil religion. I also had never though of anti-religion in the way in which you had here.

In my mind, anti-religion is parasitic off of the religion from which it draws it's strength.

Remove the religion, the anti-religion goes away.

And, as another question, I would pose to you:

"Still, the point I want to make is more specific. You won’t find many Americans holding such beliefs nowadays, and those who still make such claims in public generally do it in the sort of angry and defensive tones that suggest that they’re repeating a creed in which neither they nor their listeners quite believe any longer. American patriotism, like Roman patriotism during the last couple of centuries of the Empire, increasingly focuses on the past: it’s not America as it is today that inspires religious devotion, but the hovering ghost of an earlier era, taking on more and more of the colors of utopia as it fades from sight."

Do you think that this was the same way that people felt in the 1920's into the 1930's?

I say this because it's clear to me that we have reached a trough in terms of what one person called "national will".

Meaning we are reaching a point at which we have reached the maximum of social mood shifting in the "this world" and "individualistic" direction.

You don't really see the patriotism of the 1950's in the Great Gatsby, for example.

One of the problems that I have with history is that it's extremely difficult to capture the zeitgeist or overall culture without actually being there.

Because the past exists only between the covers of books, which often don't tell you what you really want to know, because that knowledge is experiential.

blue sun said...

I did notice you diverged from the discussion of the religion of Progress and jumped into what you’re calling Americanism. I guess we’ll have to wait to see how Americanism fits together with Progress. My guess is it’s a child/ parent relationship of some sort, because it seems to me Europe has at least as strong (or stronger) faith in Progress as America.

As for Americanism, it not only co-opted, but also directly stole from Judaism and Christianity. A recent example (I’m sure I will take enormous flak for saying this) is the treatment of Obama's arrival as that of the much-awaited messiah. The less and less he has lived up to their expectations, the louder and louder the faithful shouted (look, for example, at back issues of Time magazine). At this point, however, I think the spell is broken for most people, because we seem to have returned to the pre-messianic explanation of 'Well, at least he's not as bad as the other guy.'

Another thorny issue in this soup is what to call this civil religion. It has many names. You've called it Americanism, I’m not sure how that ties into Progress (up until today I would not have distinguished between the two), but personally I usually use the terms Secular Liberalism or International Secular Culture, and I recently was reading a book by a devout Christian who was grappling with trying to understand this competitor with no name, who deemed it the Doctrine of Evolution. (Not a bad attempt considering the muddy waters surrounding this concept. Thanks to you I knew he meant the religion of Progress.) Certainly E.F. Schumacher has referred to “Evolutionism” in a slightly different context. I also love a term Wendell Berry has used for the modern version of the faithful: “doctrinaire pluralists.” We’ll all have to agree to some name if we want to simplify our conversation.

I also suspect you won’t be able to conclude this discussion without returning to that most fascinating of topics, thaumaturgy. Certainly thaumaturgy plays a role in preventing us from even seeing this civil religion as a religion.

And, of course, I think another thing you’re going to have to address somewhere along the line is the common misconception that religion can be successfully separated from culture (which of course, despite our many attempts in the recent centuries, it cannot). Some may disagree with me on this point, but based on humanity’s recent experiments, I am completely convinced that religion and culture cannot be separated successfully.

Joel said...

Thanks, this is a productive conceptual framework.

I guess the implosion of the civil religion of Rome could have helped early Christian evangelists in Europe, but after Constantine, I think the situation was inverted: the civil religion was co-opted to serve a theistic religion. Later the likes of Jan Hus and Martin Luther and Jean Calvin each worked to advance an anti-Roman religion that was not an anti-religion to Christianity (at least, not from the Protestant perspective I was raised with).

Robert Martini said...

@ MawKernewek

There is no way possible that primitivism in the "lifestyle" sense could be a result of progress, simply because it existed before the age of progress. However, I think an over "idealization" of primitive lifestyles could be a result of the anti-religion of progress. I would also agree, apocalyptic ideologies are somewhat anti-religions of progress.

As a primitivist myself, I seek knowledge of our ancestral past to identify what makes optimal sense in lifestyle terms. I follow a "paleo" diet point of view, which is a loaded term in itself. The stone age lifestyle is impossible to recreate and I don't think many would want to recreate completely. However, I think lower reward ancestral diets and more physical lifestyles with simpler focuses can be very rewarding.

I am as much anti-technology as the rest of neo-primitivist, however, I hold no illusions of a re-wilding hunter-gatherer utopia.

Overall I would say the ideological resurgence of primitivism has been a result of the decline of progressivism (?), but only the utopian believing primitivist, like the uptopian anarchist could bear a title of anti-religious to progress.


Quos Ego said...

"Just as medieval society was balanced on God and the Devil, ours is balanced on consumption and its denunciation."

Jean Baudrillard

Will our future be balanced on progress and its denunciation?

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: the antireligion of progress in this framework (which I am sure we will get to more)...

In my mind it is clearly dystopian futurism. It buys into the technological-advancement-can-conquer-all foundation, robots and spaceships and war machines, but makes this an evil thing. It throws away harmonious technoparadise and revels in dysharmonious fantasies of warlords and zombie hoardes. I think I know almost as many people who are preparing for the zombie apocalypse as the rapture...

Dystopianism also kind of gives itself away in its very choice of name -- confusing "U" with "Eu," thinking "utopia" meant "good place," so inverting it to what they thought meant "bad place" but was really just a nonsense construction.,. which has of course come to mean exactly what was intended.

John Michael Greer said...

Ares, of course it's possible to find constructive middle ground between centralization and relocalization. First, there's the question of what functions are best done on a centralized basis and what are best done on a local basis; then there's the question of just how central, and just how local -- in the US, for example, you've got state and county governments between the central and local ends of the continuum. That said, your broader point about compromise stands.

Darren, I'm going to guess that that's a compliment -- since I don't own a TV, I'll have to guess!

Matthew, good. It's not a matter of one defining the other; both are being shaped by reflections that I've been mulling over for many years.

Stunned, thank you! I may be in Britain next year -- if so, I'll post something.

Ben, it's worth noting that the western world went through a lot of intermediate territory between the twilight of classical Roman religion and the emergence of the Renaissance. We'll be discussing that, too.

Unknown Deborah, agreed -- it's not a good sign when a nation's political culture has decayed so far that nobody in Congress can even manage the national anthem. By the way, you can also sing any of Emily Dickinson's poems to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" -- try it sometime.

Thijs, I haven't proposed a theory of religion; I've simply discussed one aspect of religion, using a commonplace of sociological theory to do so. As for classical religion, I'd encourage you to reread the Iliad; the Greeks and Trojan leaders all had to worry constantly about whether what they were doing would please or displease the gods. In late Roman civil religion, the assumption was that Jove was always on Rome's side, the way so many people over here insist Jesus is on America's. There's one solid measure of the difference between an uncoopted and a coopted theist religion.

Lei, I'm not surprised to hear that the rehabilitation of Marxism is well under way on your side of the pond; it's also happening here. It'll be interesting to see how far it gets. As for the broader question of definitions, of course -- but then every religion, civil or otherwise, includes a great diversity of viewpoints and levels of understanding.

Zachary, thank you!

Approliving, it's always possible to draw category lines elsewhere. My point is that seeing civil religions as a species of the genus "religion" reveals things about them that most other analyses obscure.

Lei said...

Looking at the commentaries, it is precisely what I am afraid what. In the original text, it is still accept the broadened concept of religion as a metaphor (but as we know, metaphors are typically incomplete and complex extensions of the core of the category), though it is accoridng to me a bit too much to label atheism as a religon without a god. But now you see where it leads: people then begin to call "civil religion" simply any belief, system of though, conglomerate of ideas - even "International Secular Culture" is supposed to be a name for this religion. Then, the word "religion" becomes meaningless and loses all diagnostic potential.

One of the points of atheism is that one accept a full-fledged system of thought that ascribes the world and live a meaning without needing religion for this purpose. By calling any such system of ideas/belief/thouht a religion, one conflates these crucial distinctions.

As for other points, which I was thinking about - many systems of thought become "civil religions" only after being coopted by political structures as orthodox state ideology (still, one should distinguish between religion and ideology, again). On other words, it was not that communist religion was coopted by USSR and others, but the other way round - only there in the hands of the ruling class and its ceremonies and rituals it became something very close to a religion. Of course, this a common fate of ideologies and philoshophies exploited by political structures. This is the same with anarchism mentioned above: anarchism is not a religion, which naturally does not prevent at least some "organized" anarchists to establish a schematic myth of transmission and evolution (which is however nothing inherently religious).

Talking about Americanism - my experience is too indirect to have the right to speak about it to this audience. In any case, as far as I can say, Europeans (and Czechs in particular) tend to be much more skeptical, not only regarding theist religion, but also "religion of progress". Of course, you have in newspapers, economists and politicians must talk that way, but ordinary people usually do not take it too seriously. In fact, people here in central Europe, beacuse of their rich historical experience, have been long used to disregard official religions, and it is actually quite hard to find anyone among the people I know who would share the believes described here as a "religion of progress".

mallow said...

If you go to Britain next year would you come to Ireland too? I could help organise it if no one else is.

derekthered said...

ah yes, the old USSR, you just couldn't win.

get to work early? you're a saboteur.
get to work late? you're undermining the Soviet system.
get to work on time?

everybody wants to know where you got the watch.

derekthered said...

good point about civil religions followers being unable to graduate to the elysian fields, hence the collapse being so much the quicker.

round where i live there are many clinging to their faith in america. then there are those who join the miltary in hopes of a better life. its own sort of faith.

many still cannot come to terms with our defeat in vietnam, undoubtedly due to the fact that to do so would shake the very foundations of their quasi-religous belief in this country.

leoeris said...

Once again, genius work. You have once again mapped out territory that I was stumbling through, making clear what I was sensing but had not yet crystallized.

JP said...


"There is no way possible that primitivism in the "lifestyle" sense could be a result of progress, simply because it existed before the age of progress. However, I think an over "idealization" of primitive lifestyles could be a result of the anti-religion of progress. I would also agree, apocalyptic ideologies are somewhat anti-religions of progress."

I always thought that primitivism was a product of Faustian/Western civilization for whatever reason it arose

I guess that it could be the anti-religion of progress. I never thought about it that way.

But in any event, it's distinctly Western cultural product.

DeAnander said...

Where, oh where did you get that image, that brain-curdling bit of artsy agitprop? It's priceless. I so want to know who painted it, and where the original hangs...

John Michael Greer said...

Skinnermichael, "religion" is a category and so is "spirituality." They're not self-evident objects of perception. Where are you drawing the boundary?

J9, once a week is as much as I have time to write and research!

YJV, square on target. That was a very popular civil religion in its day.

Yupped, good. Nietzsche's hope, and terror, was that people would face reality without overlaying it with narratives, religious or otherwise. Things turned out differently then; I'll have some thoughts later on about what may happen this time around.

Nestorian, that's certainly a workable analysis.

Just Because, good! I'll be discussing this as we proceed; in the meantime, keep an ear tuned for that creaking sound. It's getting pretty loud.

Pictures, fundamentalism is toast, in the fairly near future, for reasons largely unrelated to the impending colllapse of American civil religion. I'll be covering that down the road a bit.

Raven, for the same reason that so many Americans have what Mitterand, I think it was, mocked as "a nearly messianic sense of national destiny." One is the inevitable flipside of the other.

Bill, that's certainly one workable way to categorize things. I'll be suggesting a slightly different one as we proceed; I'd point out, just as an appetizer, that if Americans were actually materialistic, in the strict sense of the term, it's hard to see how they would be able to stand the shoddy, cheapjack nature of so many of the material things with which they surround themselves. Wouldn't a materialist demand things that gave more sensual pleasure and material gratification? More on this soon...

Robert, thank you. The Wordsworth poem still brings tears to my eyes.

Sekenre, that's an interesting hypothesis! Another factor you might consider integrating into it is that theist religions confer benefits, nonmaterial but real, that civil religions generally don't.

Mister R., exactly. Then there are the Luciferians, who are Gnostics, and believe that Lucifer is the god of light, freedom, and reason, contending with the evil demiurge Jehovah who holds humanity in slavery, and the darkside lodges, who do various pastiches of Satanism, Luciferianism, and Nazi and neo-Nazi occultism. It's a complex and rapidly evolving scene.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG re: Materialism... hmm.. so you are maybe hinting that the cheap shoddy junk from the Mall*Wart is seen as a symbolic embodiment of something else, in the same way that a devout Catholic can sincerely worship a cheap plastic crucifix... Will be interested to see where this goes!

Oddly, folks like me who value the actual quality, durability, and integrity of a material thing and will spend much of our lives making and restoring these sorts of objects are generally viewed as "less materialistic" in the mainstream mind that those who hoard piles of plastic crap, disposable fashions, and throwaway devices. Clearly a word that is used to mean quite different things in different circumstances.

John Michael Greer said...

DaShui, no, state worship is only one kind of civil religion. Civil religion is religion that directs its reverence to social phenomena in the ordinary world. As for the mystery religions, yes, we'll get to those in due time.

Robert, that seems like a reasonable analysis.

John, definitely worth reading.

Toomas, funny! Thank you.

Reaper, your mom's correct in a sense -- human beings have to have some set of presuppositions, some faith in something, in order to function in the world; it may be faith in Jesus, or faith in reason, or faith in dialectical materialism, or just faith that the sun will come up in the morning and the world will still be there, but there's got to be some level of what Piaget called "basic trust" or you can't function at all. More on this as we proceed.

Thomas, why do you think the Republicans are so obsessive about calling everything they don't like "socialism"? They've got to have their devil, or they're lost. If nobody gets around to reviving Marxism as a significant force in America within the next decade, I'm pretty sure that Objectivism will dry up and blow away, the way so much traditional Satanism did after Vatican II.

Don, no, I explained in the second paragraph why proposing an abstract definition for a category such as "religion" is not necessarily that useful.

Zach, one could indeed analyze current US cultural politics in terms of who's trying to seize control of which set of religious imagery!

Wolfgang, I haven't yet set out my arguments for why progress is not merely a myth but a religious faith. I'll be getting to that, and perhaps you can respond then.

Jess, it's an organic process, and a very complex one. I'll be exploring some earlier examples of the same process a little further on.

Toomas, two for two!

Steve, exactly! When a civil religion collapses, any alternative that can offer a convincing explanation and a way to make sense of the chaos has a good shot at a mass following.

John Michael Greer said...

Luna, it's a good deal subtler than that, though it can be approached that way. I don't plan on addressing that in this sequence, since any discussion along those lines goes deep into the other side of my work, which this blog is not really intended to address.

Joe, thank you!

Brother K, I don't know -- but it certainly belongs on the wall right across from the poker-playing dogs and the black velvet glow-in-the-dark Elvis, doesn't it?

Robert M., those questions go to the heart of what I'll be talking about as we proceed. Stay tuned...

Steve, and you'll notice that it was Marx's ideology that became the raw material for a powerful civil religion, while Proudhon et al. have been ignored ever sense outside of vanishingly small circles of intellectuals. Human beings share with other social primates a potent innate craving for power, and for a place in a hierarchy. I don't think that this craving can be abolished, though it can be domesticated.

Richard L., we'll get to that.

Kathleen, you might as well try to tell a medieval peasant that heaven isn't there any more.

MawKernewek, excellent! There are several different churches or denominations in the religion of progress, and thus several different antichurches, but theoretical neoprimitivists of the John Zerzan/Derrick Jensen/Daniel Quinn variety are certainly one of them.

Jim, a god isn't a religion; a religion is a structure of faith, thought, and practice that centers on a god or some other object of veneration. That I know of, there isn't any such structure around unicorns, and the one that focuses on the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a joke, last I heard. The focus of veneration in atheism is, of course, human reason.

Dan, I've encountered the same thing, of course.

Subgenius, thanks for the heads up! This sort of thing is crucial to notice -- that's where you can see past the facade of prosperity to the real disintegration proceeding behind the scenes.

Michael, by all means.

Tracy G said...

Let's see if Blogger will let one of my comments through, since I've had a lot of difficulties with that recently...

The art is "One Nation Under God" by Jon McNaughton, and yes, you all can purchase your very own print of it, if you want one.

The artist's interactive explanation of the symbolism is here:

S P said...

What I personally notice in America is that there is nothing to believe in anymore.

Even as late as 2006/2007 one could perhaps still believe in the economic mission, or the mission of making the world safe from Islamic terrorism. I did not subscribe to these, but it was plausible.

Now America is at an existential loss of belief. You can see it everywhere you look. People don't know what's going on, they can't make heads or tails of it.

Then the unpalatable truth becomes clear: America long ago stopped being a country. It's now a multiracial, multicultural Empire run for the benefit of elite banks and corporations. Everything is up for sale to the highest bidder.

That's all, that's all it is. There's nothing else left. And unfortunately human beings need more than to just be workers and shoppers.

Glenn McCumber said...

For those of you who have wondered about the origin of the painting, here you go:

My favorite part is that there is no need for reflection or interpretation. You simply mouse over the picture, and a zoom image appears in the sidebar with the truth of the symbolism explained.

My second favorite thing is that there are many such paintings.

My third is that, though at first one may think these are satire, they are not. This man is in ernest.

Andy Brown said...

Very nice essay. I can hardly find anything to quibble with. It was nice to be reminded of Bellah, who I read many years ago. Another parallel between civil and theistic religions is the way in which the high practice and low practice can go their separate ways - as the common people reject or ignore or choose to misunderstand the prescriptions and demands of their elites. I'm sure you can name a dozen different ways this can play out - including collapse, reform, inquisition, revitalization, or the rolling out of the tumbrils. It really is an interesting way to think about the ongoing failure of the American polity. Thanks again for the though provocation!

dowsergirl said...

We in the library profession label materials all the time. And put them into categories. It's loads of fun.

When people ask me where on the shelf our bibles are, I point them to the religion section. Some people are horrified by the fact that the bible has a Dewey number just like the Koran has it's own Dewey number. It's a book. We slap a number on it and stick it on the shelf. Your books have numbers on them too, depending on what you are writing about. :)

Yoga is particularly interesting to me. Postures and asanas, the "physical" aspects of yoga are classified in exercise or 613.7.

The principles or etheric aspects of yoga are classified 181.45, the category of religious philosophy.

Most yoga books have aspects of both, so why not just put them all into one section? Dunno. Is one civil and one theist?

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Don Plummer--Jehovah's Witnesses regard the flag pledge as idolatry. Around 1940, they lost a Supreme Court case asking for the right not to be forced to recite the pledge. In 1943, they sued again, and the Supreme Court reversed itself, on grounds of free speech rather than freedom of religion.

Since then it has been illegal to compel students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The 1943 case is West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette.

CWT said...

This may have been answered earlier but what is going to happen to the forms of christisnity not twisted into the american civil relligion. From my perspective it seems like the Roman polythesist religion was much less likely to be divorced from the civil religion than christianity is today.

Sean Cosmist said...

I wanted to add another religion to this interesting discussion, which many of you may not be familiar with: Cosmism. This is the “cosmic religion” Einstein spoke of and people like Tsiolkovsky, Stapledon, Sagan and Clarke promoted. It began in Russia in the 19th century, and seems to be making a comeback there in the wake of Communism’s failure. Basically Cosmism is the Religion of Progress taken to an extreme, but it is also a form of pantheism – treating the vast Cosmos itself as an object of religious awe. Cosmism isn’t so different from Druidry – it shares the druid’s keen interest in and quasi-mystical respect for what Sagan called “the awesome machinery of nature,” but expands it to cosmological scales. There is a nice quote by Arthur C. Clarke which captures the Cosmist perspective on the future:

“There is no way back into the past; the choice, as Wells once said, is the universe—or nothing. Though men and civilizations may yearn for rest, for the dream of the lotus-eaters, that is a desire that merges imperceptibly into death. The challenge of the great spaces between the worlds is a stupendous one; but if we fail to meet it, the story of our race will be drawing to its close. Humanity will have turned its back upon the still untrodden heights and will be descending again the long slope that stretches, across a thousand million years of time, down to the shores of the primeval sea.”

Here is another relevant quote by the astronomer Fred Hoyle:

“It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned.”

If one accepts these quotes, then to give up on the Religion of Progress is to admit that our “long descent” down to the shores of the primeval sea and eventual extinction has begun. Personally, I don’t accept this fatalistic mentality, and will do what I can to ensure that the human adventure in the Cosmos continues indefinitely.

If anyone is interested in learning more about Cosmism, you may enjoy these posts:

Thank you for hosting this high quality discussion of these vitally important matters.

Zach L-R said...

It surprises this atheist that an Archdruid would capitalize Catholicsm, Pax Romana, Satan, Americanism, Communism, even Black Mass, but leave Earth lower-case. Please give us a sense of what the Ancient Order of Druids in America hold as their main tenets.

onething said...


"One of the points of atheism is that one accept a full-fledged system of thought that ascribes the world and life a meaning without needing religion for this purpose. By calling any such system of ideas/belief/thought a religion, one conflates these crucial distinctions."

I can see where you might find this a bit insulting, or muddling. And several other posters have objected to the conflation of societal belief systems with religion.
At the same time, if there is a religious impulse, or if religion serves the same basic human needs, then has such a person really escaped? In the case of atheism, I listen to people and try hard to understand where the reward lies, and what the thought system is about. Many atheists are a kind of nature worshiper, or pantheists, because the universe of matter is all that exists, and there is a kind of reverence and awe that chance and necessity has wrought such wonders. Existence itself, and what has become of it and within it, is very like a god methinks.

There is the question posed as to the difference between religion and spirituality. It might be worth considering that atheists come closer to my definition of spirituality than to religion. Not the indifferent ones of course, but the ones who seek and think.

My take: Religion may contain a lot of spirituality, or almost none at all. Religion is a body of teachings one may subscribe to that may contain some very close approximations of truth, or be entirely off base, but spirituality is a subjective and personal experience that requires no dogma, but may be described within understood categories. The mystic is spiritual, and often loses their religion.
Spirituality refers to things of the spirit, which includes conscience, soul, God, and all things numinous. Then again, one can see all things as spiritual, as this Native American did: "Every pine needle is sacred, and every step is a prayer."

Now that, is spirituality.

But on reflection, you say atheists "accept" a full-fledged pattern of thought which comes from communal sharing of books and ideas, leading to common expressions, so there is a little more going on than just not happening to believe that there is a god. It's like you kind of join the club and start getting filled in on the thoughts and arguments so that you can incorporate them.

In addition, atheism "has a way to ascribe life and the world a meaning"...this is also what religion does.

Robert, the poem was wonderful.

Renaissance Man said...

I did not have anything to say about last week's post, or this one, as I found this line of discussion self-evident years ago, until I caught this gem that I just couldn't resist passing on from Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science Official Photo which kind of sums up the religion of progress, the cult of scientism, American Exceptionalism through innovation, and the blithe ignorance of the energy question one neat package.
Especially the worshipful comments below it.
I shake my head....brrrrr.

Thomas Daulton said...

Hey again JMG, I hope I'm not a pest, and thanks for answering about Objectivism.

But I notice you didn't answer my second question, about Druidism. I don't mean to get too personal, but after all, you speak for your Order. If, hypothetically, mankind pollutes the environment to such a degree that the Earth becomes much less hospitable to human life -- global warming, ocean acidification, or whatever -- how will the Druid faith react? Would that be a blow to the idea that the Earth is powerful and Earth abides -- given that Mankind is capable of messing it up -- or would Druids look on that as a kind of Sin that mankind must do penance for?

I can't help raising multiple issues in the same post, sorry. This time I will also point you towards a recent article that, if you know what to look for, really shows very plainly the gaping hole in the religion of Progress... while at the same time tying in to what you've previously written about space travel. Justin Wade, another frequent commenter here, pointed me to this one:
Humanity's Deep Future

It starts with an overlong recitation of the all-to-real threat of extinction, and the risks of an amoral AI. But then about halfway through the essay, Ross Anderson says that the lifetime of the Sun "should be long enough for us to develop star-hopping technology". Then, after re-hashing Asimov's The Last Question for 7 paragraphs, he ponders on the "sinister" "mystery" of "Where are they?" He speculates that the Universe is "very bad at nurturing star-hopping civilizations" because intelligent life may inevitably be "self-annihilating" or there may be "catastrophic events that science cannot predict". Meanwhile almost completely glossing over the idea that "they" aren't "here" yet because it is simply not possible to hop across stars! JMG, you have ruined me as a sci-fi fan, because I can no longer just take it on faith that interstellar travel will someday be so cheap and easy that it can be taken for granted as a plot point.

SLClaire said...

I don't have anything to add to the discussion right now but I do want to send out a big thank-you to JMG and all of you who comment! Next week I'll probably have more to say, as I am meditating on the trinity of Progress, Science, and Growth you (JMG) mentioned in response to a comment from last week and why Science is where it is. (I have an idea and it will be interesting to see if it accords with your thinking, JMG.)

SLClaire said...

Well, I did think of something to say after all. Bill Pulliam's comments and JMG's response to the first suggested to me one thing that hordes of cheap plastic items might mean: the more one can go shopping, and the more one can buy (especially of whatever is advertised as the latest and greatest), the more one properly worships at the Church of Progress. The cheaper (monetarily) that each item one buys is, the more one can buy, thus the more one can shop and the more Growth we get. And Growth is Good!

Ruben said...

Subgenius, could you give a link or a station you saw that reprot of road (dis)repair on?

Thank you.

John Michael Greer said...

JP, my read on The Great Gatsby is that when Nick Carraway heads back to the Midwest at the end of the book, he's going back to "America" -- meaning here the half-imaginary country that's the focus of American civil religion. There was still the sense then that you could get there by leaving the urban coastal strips. Now, at least in my take, that sense is gone; the America of the old songs -- "Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears" -- is a fading mirage of a past that never was.

Blue Sun, I used Americanism and Communism as examples of civil religions, because it's easier to make sense of the phenomenon in those contexts; next week I'll be mapping the same points onto the religion of progress.

Joel, nah, Constantine set out to coopt Christianity to bolster Roman civil religion, and largely succeeded, with substantial and unhelpful impacts on Christianity ever since.

Quos Ego, no, I think the future will be balanced between decline and its denunciation.

Bill, nice. Do you happen to recall what "somewhere" (as in, the opposite of nowhere) would be in Greek?

Lei, no, treating atheism as a religion is not conflating the distinctions, it's arguing that the distinctions in question are polemic rather than real -- that atheism properly belongs to the same category as other religions, but that atheists reject that placement as part of their polemic against other, non-atheist religions. It's a familiar gambit; for a long time in the western world, the word "religion" was only used of Christianity, and other religions were labeled "superstitions" instead.

Mallow, it's a possibility -- drop me a comment labeled "not for posting" with your email address, and we'll see what can be worked out.

Derek, exactly. The mythology says that America always wins; that's one of the reasons that I'm convinced that if this country ever suffers a solid, unmistakable military defeat, the result will be a national nervous breakdown of epic proportions.

Leoeris, thank you!

DeAnander, see below -- I scooped it off the internet, but a couple of commenters have found the source.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, exactly! You get tonight's gold star. I've often thought that Americans may be among the world's least materialistic people -- they get less physical, sensuous pleasure out of their lives and wealth than just about anybody else, and they pack their lives with representations of wealth, happiness, passion, and so on, rather than actually having any of these things.

Tracy, thank you!

SP, that's exactly what I'll be discussing as we proceed.

Glenn, thank you also!

Andy, exactly -- and we'll be discussing some of the ways it might unfold as this sequence of posts continues.

Dowsergirl, nah, one is body and one is mind, and our culture has a nervous breakdown any time anybody tries to show that those aren't two separate things.

CWT, we'll get to that.

Sean, yes, Cosmism as you describe is is the religion of progress taken to the point of absurdity, and no, it doesn't have much in common with any form of Druidry I've encountered. By the way, weren't you pretending to be a Sith Lord the last time you posted here?

Zach L-R, you can visit the order's website if you're interested. No, I don't always capitalize Earth, but I do quite regularly capitalize Nature.

Renaissance Man, par for the course. I wonder how many of the commenters believe in the Singularity.

John Michael Greer said...

Thomas, I only speak for AODA on matters of the order's policies; nobody can speak for any other Druid on matters of belief and practice. My personal faith as a Druid assumes, as a matter of course, that the earth is going to become lifeless in another two billion years or so, as the sun continues to increase in heat output, and will eventually be blown to smithereens when the sun lets out its first helium flash.

That is to say, the planet, like all its inhabitants, has a finite lifespan. The fact that I will die does not make my life meaningless; the fact that the earth will die does not make its existence meaningless, either, or its beauty less worthy of reverence. It's probably necessary to point out, though, that the physical planet is not the focus of my personal worship; it's the vast body of which my little body is a part, that's all.

As for spoiling you for science fiction, egads, man! There are whole realms of science fiction that have nothing to do with interplanetary travel -- and it's past time that more people remembered those, and started having more fun with them.

SLClaire, good. I'll be interested to hear if you've reached the same conclusions I have about the cultural function of science, and especially of the institutions of science, in an age that worships progress.

John Michael Greer said...

Jael (offlist), sorry to hear about your computer troubles. Your final attempt to comment went to the post before this one, which I doubt was what you had in mind, either. To answer your question, though, I'd like to offer you a piece of advice that was given to me a long time ago by one of my teachers: the only way out is through. That is to say, it's because you're still clinging to the fantasy of solid ground, when that ground has dissolved around you, that you haven't yet found out that you can spread your wings and fly. We've got more analysis ahead, to get to the point where the synthesis can begin; I think you'll find, when we get there, that the trip was worth it.

godozo said...

JMG, Subgenius (relating to the road news in LA): There's a similar dropoff is service going on in Chicago right now as we speak. The Chicago Police Department has been directed by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel to concentrate only on the more severe crimes, leaving robbery calls unvisited. The Cops don't like it, nor do many residents like it (nor do I, who had long wished to move there. Wished, not Wishes).

DeAnander said...

Re: Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science Official Photo

Woo hoo, note the hugely gendered subtext in the caption: "Science works (bitches)"

In other words, if you are not firmly seated on the bandwagon of techno-worship and progress, and cheering all the way, you are a girly-girl and hence despicable. Couldn't be more overtly gendered or (much) more misogynist [I guess even more insulting terms could have been used] or more pathetically transparent.

How very mature, eh?

Bozack said...

While I enjoyed this post just as I always enjoy JMG's work I think it is important to note that there is sometimes a bit of a sleight of hand in the discussion of atheism as a religion.

While individual atheists or atheist groups may have many of the traits of religion: strong faith in something that they cannot prove for sure, Saints such as Dawkins or Russell, lots of unspoken assumptions, group-think etc. this should not provide too much comfort for a theist.

We can imagine Bozack, a creator god who rewards Yankees fans with eternal life. We cannot know for sure that he does not exist, so if we believe that he does not exist despite the lack of certainty then we are Bozack-atheists.

Theists need to build a case that they are not just Bozack worshippers by using some form of evidence (possibly personal experience): noting that atheists cannot definitely prove that a god does not exist doesn't really provide evidence for the existence of any specific God....

Maybe atheists should be re-branded as people who just think God is really, really, really unlikely....

goedeck said...

The Greatest Nation the World has Known [mirror upload]

Johan said...

Plenty to think about here, but two themes stood out especially:

Categories: what you didn't write, but I read anyway, is that the category you're talking about is a category of *stories*. Religions, whether or not they include gods, are backdrop stories -- the kind that shape and colour the meaning of all other stories. And of course, I mean stories in the sense of narratives through which we live our lives, and not arbitrarily made up fairy-tales. The structure of Americanism and Christianity would then place them in a sub-category of the larger category of religions. (I know, you're not trying to explicate a complete explanatory scheme here.)

Americanism and communism: I find it interesting that the two parallel each other so closely. America was supposed to be a paradise of religious freedom, and the Soviet Union an atheist worker's paradise, and yet both ended up with very similar, very dominant, and clearly very inspiring, belief systems. Both broke free from a dominant story, but remained trapped in the same structure. Echoes of "what you contemplate, you imitate", perhaps. I'll have to meditate on this issue of structure in stories and in thinking -- I've been more focused on the issue of meaning.

To end, I'll keep my fingers crossed hoping that you will cross the ocean next year. I'd like an excuse to try the high-speed train links to the UK!

Thijs Goverde said...

@ John Michael:
You state: In late Roman civil religion, the assumption was that Jove was always on Rome's side...

Well, hardly! Heliogabalus and Aurelianus supplanted Jupiter with Sol Invictus, Commodus associated himself with Hercules (and with Jupiter, true enough) and I'm not even mentioning Constantine, whom you cannot seriously be considering to be post-Late Roman...

The point is: different emperors presented themselves as allies of different gods. Much like the kings in the Illiad do, actually. You paint Roman religion with far too broad a brush, I think.

Phil Knight said...

Here's a useful quote from Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy:

The Jewish pattern of history, past and future, is such as to make a powerful appeal to the oppressed and the unfortunate at all times. Saint Augustine adapted this pattern to Christianity, Marx to Socialism. To understand Marx psychologically, one should use the following dictionary:

Yahweh=Dialectical Materialism
The Messiah=Marx
The Elect=The Proletariat
The Church=The Communist Party
The Second Coming=The Revolution
Hell=Punishment of the Capitalists
The Millennium=The Communist Commonwealth.

The terms on the left give the emotional content of the terms on the right, and it is this emotional content, familiar to those who have had a Christian or a Jewish upbringing, that makes Marx's eschatology credible. A similar dictionary could be made for the Nazis, but their conceptions are more purely Old Testament and less Christian than those of Marx, and their Messiah is more analogous to the Maccabees than to Christ.

Adapting this to the Religion Of Progress, I'm guessing:

Yahweh=Human Reason
The Messiah=Science
The Elect=Secular atheists
The Church=Humanism
The Second Coming=The Enlightenment
Hell=Theistic Religion
The Millennium=The Singularity.

das monde said...

This civil religion looks very much like (somewhat traditional) propaganda, social political PR. That would explain the sudden USSR collapse, as it basically happened with the party elites stopping pretending seriously. Where do we draw boundaries between individual beliefs and social political pressure? Would we say that religions evolved primarily for social control, motivation? Would it be a good PR to formulate peak oil, catabolic collapse concerns as a civic religion?

If I am an atheist, there is very little veneration for reason or anything in atheism. There actually lies a psychological hole, lack of wish-making, self encouraging rituals. And what collective rituals do you notice? Atheists tend to be enthusiastic for discussion, surely. But they adopt to the modern apartheid of opinions, asymetric sensitivity standards.

Historically, the first anti-communism was fascism. This was more transparent in Spain, Latin America. But even in Italy and Germany, the big fascism role was to cut or push Maxism out of ideological space.

Cherokee Organics said...


Yes, a civil religion. It should have been an obvious conclusion, but it wasn't for me.

Thanks for taking the time to make these matters accessible.

Please forgive my ignorance, but when I think back on my reading of the Druidry Handbook I don't recall getting a clear understanding of the Druid pantheon. I'd overlooked this at the time, but now I'm wondering about it. Was this the intent of that particular book? Am I mistaken altogether? Or is dissensus the order of the day? I'm confused.

The forest here can be a bit alien sometimes, but there are other times when it can be a profoundly beautiful and spiritual place.

The weather has turned cooler here (26 Celsius or 78.8F) so I've been outside doing lots of projects that have been clamoring for my attention. I'm struggling to even get time to read all of the comments!

I picked up a massive second hand water tank today to increase the water storage capacity here. You can never have too much water storage capacity and like everything else, you have to have enough storage to get through the worst of times, not the best of times. This summer pointed out the weak spots.



Lance Michael Foster said...

The problem of cultural misappropriation, well, there's a lot to learn about, through the example of the sweatlodge deaths in Colorado. I'm an enrolled member of the Iowa tribe. I have seen over and over certain situations.

For example, if you are having a sweat, say, a nonnative person wants to participate. So you might say ok, if you are friends or at least know them. So they go, try to follow what is told to them, what to do. It's a good thing. A blessing. But then the next thing you know, this person is running a sweat themselves, without having been given the training, the right and responsibility, because it comes with both. It's like a pipe, not everyone in an Indian community is a pipecarrier, but every white guy or woman who is interested, thinks by definition, they have the capacity and the RIGHT to do it. Indians don't think that. Not every native person is a shaman, so why does every white person think they can be one? A shaman mainly serves the community.

..ok, so let's go back to that first guy who went to a sweat. Now that guest suddenly decides he has the knowledge to run a sweat. To make things worse, he starts charging people MONEY to go to it. (Isn't that what this culture is all about anyways? Money and the SELF?) That's the next stage. That lack of being humble. That greed. Now this guy calls himself some Indian/native sounding name, and he (or SHE) is running workshops to TRAIN OTHERS. A guy who had no training, now he purports to train others and charge hundreds of dollars, maybe linked workshops that add up to thousands of dollars. Sounding like cultural misappropriation yet? But wait, that's not the final stage.

The final stage is when this guy, maybe he calls himself Red Buffalo Thunder or something, he starts collecting his followers like some kind of guru, has workshops, has written a couple of books, has a 501(c)(3), etc. And THEN he starts criticizing the very same Indians who out of kindness, invited him in the first place. He starts saying how they really don't understand the truth, or that they misunderstand things, they don't do it the right way, that they have no right to say anything about him because he has his rights, dontcha know? That the INDIANS are the ignorant, bad ones because they tell him he should be doing that, that he is doing cultural misappropriation.

Now, do you understand? No, I figure some might and some still won't. They will still justify their rights, to do what they want, make the money they want, and write the books they want. And then people wonder why Indians don't want to talk to them anymore... Except of course for those Indians who have become shysters themselves, raking in the bucks themselves from ignorant nonIndians so eager to get some real Indian spirituality. Sad.

The intent in the guy's heart from Colorado (I was corrected, the event was in Sedona...figures!) was about money obviously. Having said that, the other part is that when you do those things, you assume a spiritual role of responsibility in that person's life...not being a big shot or a boss or a guru, but someone who is responsible for them. And whatever blowback occurs. It amazes me when people get mad about a priest or minister "having authority" and the same people go running to someone else who bosses them around spiritually.

But the main thing is, hey, if you are doing any of that stuff in private, for yourself, only, and you are experimenting with your own spiritual path, that's on you. Fine. That's between you and the spirits, you and the Creator. The problem comes when you (anyone, not talking about JMG) assume any role of responsibility for others, or representing yourself as a spiritual leader.

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: space-ship-free science fiction... Even Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel (preachy though it may be) is a work of science fiction, though reviewers seem to have missed this. She extrapolates scientific findings and hypotheses to imagine a fictional consequence in the not-to-distant future, and uses this as the core to structure her narrative (and speeches).

And one should never forget Margaret Atwood, who disdains the label "science fiction," but "Oryx and Crake" is one of the most magnificently horrifying pieces of space-ship-free near future dystopian sci-fi I have ever come across.

Per Flaatten said...

I am in the process of reading "God is not One" by Stephen Prothero. Its thesis is that religions do not necessarily have deities, and even if they do, those deities are quite different from each other, if only because the problems the religions purport to solve are different. How does this relate to your concept of civil religions? Well, it seems to me that Confucianism is in fact very close to a civil religion. It does not have the nationalist bias of Americanism (or "Frenchism," with which I'm quite familiar) but is worth a study: it may well be in our future in a world dominated by China. And it has many redeeming features.

NH Peter said...

Confusion of language of good and evil; this sign I give unto you as the sign of the state. Verily, the will to death, indicateth this sign! Verily, it beckoneth unto the preachers of death!
Many too many are born: for the superfluous ones was the state devised!
See just how it enticeth them to it, the many-too-many! How it swalloweth and cheweth and recheweth them!
"On earth there is nothing greater than I: it is I who am the regulating finger of God"—thus roareth the monster. And not only the long-eared and short-sighted fall upon their knees!
Ah! even in your ears, ye great souls, it whispereth its gloomy lies! Ah! it findeth out the rich hearts which willingly lavish themselves!
Yea, it findeth you out too, ye conquerors of the old God! Weary ye became of the conflict, and now your weariness serveth the new idol!


This is from Chapter IX of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, try out the rest here: (Kaufmann is a better translation, this one is Common who gets a bit carried away with the “-eths”)

For Nietzsche there is every reason to categorize civil and theistic religion together. This is true of all the better philosophers, simply because it makes the task of differentiating what is not religion easier. Here Nietzsche is railing against the state as the secular successor to folk religion. If you read through this chapter you can see that Zarathustra is trying to pull the special few from this psychological crematorium. Got to say, it has been awhile since I read him, what a trip! Thanks for that JMG.

I’ll post in a moment a couple thoughts about what is not religion. Might be helpful for those special few out there on the ADR blog.

Kathleen K said...

( DeAnander said...
Woo hoo, note the hugely gendered subtext in the caption: "Science works (bitches)")

Hmm, actually that looks like a different usage. I don't know how old you are, but for my generation (20s), 'bitches' can't be used as a very minor, almost entirely ungendered insult...though it does depend on context.

It's even less an insult than an expression of a triumphant, "we win, you've got no comebacks, deal with it" attitude.

NH Peter said...

So a couple thoughts on what is not religion. At this point we have lumped civil and theistic religion together in the same Venn circle. Does anything remain beyond this boundary? For Aristotle, “Only beasts and gods live beyond the polis.” To which Nietzsche later quipped, you forgot yourself Aristotle! Alas, probably not, Aristotle was a god in his own mind. But it makes a great point of departure! What do we have beyond the confines of the polis? Again to Aristotle, politics (the logos of the polis) is the master science of the good. Political power is the arbitrator of all human activities within the polis, including of course, the practice of religion. As my previous post indicated, this fact was once much more obvious. Political intolerance has a way of clearly demonstrating the limits of religious freedom. But the problem runs deeper: political power is much more effective on minds than bodies.

Here are two common and connected problems found in modern philosophers, importantly including Nietzsche. First, they tend to place a great deal of emphasis on intellectual and spiritual freedom, second they tend (for that reason) to be fairly absolutist by which I mean they tend to arrive at all or nothing conclusions about freedom, political power, human knowledge, beauty, etc. In some ways these habits make it really hard for them to remain philosophical in the old fashion meaning of that term. (If you like that, consider how serious the influence of Christian theology must have been on the development of these habits.)

The ancient philosophers (and importantly also Taoists and the simpler Zen practices) did not fall into these habits (probably because political power was exercised so much more brutally.) For instance, for Socrates the mind is the public sphere, the body is private. The mind is language, and language is a political activity. If you begin here you will not tend to arrive at the conclusion that your thoughts are free to fly away from it all (think of Thoreau sitting in jail while his mind is free to contemplate pure conscience). The body, of course, is private. No one feels your stubbed toe like you do! This starting point reveals the mind as already formed by political power by the time you are old enough to understand that you are a chump. This is why Socratic dialectic is so infuriatingly unproductive, because producing wisdom is really not the point of philosophy. Also, this is why eastern philosophy begins by silencing the crowing roosters of theory and ideas, those guys need to shut up if we are to have any peace! Political power is persecuted by either logic or paradox, but the real point is the persecution, not the method of torture.

There is something beyond the polis. Though it is very difficult to appreciate from within the city limits. All too often the second thought here is overlooked and what wanted desperately to escape returned with scorched wings as a more sinister and sophisticated political power. It is so hard in this world of endless cities of glass and mirrors to even think of escape!

Oh yes, one last and encouraging point on absolutism. The best part about starting where the ancients (and easterners) start is that you also don’t have to have a pure and complete theory of everything. There are no unmixed souls! That means that on a good day even the worse denizen of the lowest sewer beneath the cave of the polis can see that there is indeed another way. And that is a reassuring thought to me.


Ian said...

Great post--like everyone else, I am looking to forward to the rest that follow.

One of the peculiarities I've noticed about religions (civil or otherwise) is that the 'antireligion' component tends to become less and less pronounced the more vital the religion itself becomes. Contrariwise, we seem to seek after antireligions as the vitality fades. U.S. civil religion began as a sort of anti-monarchism, after all, but has become something quite different.

(I found it utterly fascinating to learn about how the American Revolution pivoted away from the civil religion of England to form its own and of how many soon-to-be rebels held on to their faith in the King of England right up until the point they decided it was time for a change. They really believed he would swing in and fix all the things the mean Parliament were doing!

I suspect Progress will follow a similar trajectory to the King.)

Nicholas Carter said...

To synthesize several perspectives JMG has used on religion:
>A religion is a community of meaningful narratives, >which structure life beyond the communal present or >the individuals' future. Structurally these narratives >focus on an object or concept as worthy of reverence >or veneration.
In which case there are several religions that are atheistic (lit. Godless) while still meeting this definition, both traditionally (Zen, Taoism) and unorthodox (Cosmism, Rationalism) but there are also some forms of atheism and traditional religions that don't venerate anything (Waiting for Godot).
A second thought I have is that the Materialist disparaging of the Immaterial is an Antireligious reaction to theistic orthodoxies that disparage the material, either because something is wrong with the world (Christianity, some Bhuddhism) or BC the world isn't real (Gnosticism, some Bhuddhism, Hinduism).
To echo an earlier question I don't see the answer to: is the Myth of Apocalypse an Antireligion to Progress or a rival religion?

Odin's Raven said...

That painting and McNaughton's explanation of it is interesting.

It seems to show that the American civic religion is a weak, late, debased version of the old belief that the arrangement of state and society is and should be a manifestation and reflection of divine and cosmic order. For instance, the ancient Egyptian belief in Maat, or the supposedly world encompassing and ruling divinely ordered empires of China, Persia, Rome or Islam. That also provides a model for the American belief that they have the right way of life and a divine mission to make the world conform to it. Naturally this is expressed in the prevailing religious imagery of their time and place.Christ handing down the Constitution is like Moses delivering the Commandments, or Gabriel supposedly dictating the Koran to Mohammed. As belief in the Constitution and in Christianity weakens, it seems that Islamic belief strengthens and they are less squeamish about the use of force as a reflection of divine disapproval.

The artist is very hesitant to distinguish between good and bad people in his painting, probably a reflection of the strength of evil in modern America. A more spiritually confident people might have something like Rogier van der Weyden's Last Judgment on the walls of their hospital wards, showing the sinners on the left hand of Christ being led to the hell that they have made of the modern world, whilst the righteous are escorted to the holy city that America was supposed to become!

Last Judgment

onething said...


What sort of evidence could you imagine?

MawKernewek said...

Another system that could be described as a civil religion I suppose is psychiatry.

It does suffer from issues around categories, because as I've read in the book "Madness Explained" by Robert Bentall, the categories separating one mental illness from another, and indeed from the "sane", are quite arbitrary, and don't correspond to clearly identifiable disease processes. Yet these same categories affect the way someone is treated, with someone who has "bipolar" typically treated with lithium or other "mood-stabilisers", whereas those labelled with "schizophrenia" are encouraged to take antipsychotics long-term.

It has its own kind of worldview, heroes, sacred texts like DSM V, it has its acolytes in the form of psychiatric professionals, and its antireligion too.

5keptical said...

JMG - I'm not getting a clear idea of your concepts out of this entry. (or is this thaumaturgy in action :-) )

So that I might have a better idea of what you're aiming at, would you please give some examples of systems just outside (or near the end of the broad blend of characteristics) of your definition of religion, and specifically what characteristic(s) they lack or fail to exhibit strongly?


mallow said...

Where is the line though between having political beliefs and those beliefs being a religion? As an anarchist I've experienced people dismissing my opinions instantly on the basis that my beliefs are a religion (usually because they mistakenly believe we follow the gospel of Marx...), that my beliefs are therefore irrational and everything I say is motivated by my desire to convert others and so should be ignored. The dismissers never seem to consider their own political views to be religious. While any belief system (including of course anarchism, socialism, Marxism etc.) can be a religion, it doesn't follow that it must be so for everyone who holds those views.

For example, I know people who would describe themselves, among other things, as Marxists, on the basis that, as someone said, most of what he said about capitalism was right, while acknowledging that most of what he said about communism was wrong. I know a lot of anarchists and many,if not most, have never read Proudhon, Bakunin or Kropotkin and, if asked, would only vaguely know what they wrote about. It's not just the equivalent of a Christian being too lazy to read the bible, they just don't consider them the source of our ideas or their legitimacy so have no interest in reading them. Anarchism to them is something they come to through their own experiences at work or from being involved in campaigns or union organising. Even among the more intellectually inclined, there's an anti-authoritarian bent to anarchism that very consciously rejects treating any such thinkers as defining the tradition. The real religion of most anarchists is the myth of progress as far as I can see.

What I'm trying to say is that there is an already common bad habit of using the religion card to dismiss people's political views and I'd hate to see these posts used as justification for that.

Ben said...

In Erie, they refer to the are of upper Peach Street (which if chock full of big box stores chain stores) as 'the miracle mile.' I'm sure Erie is not the only place in America that conflates supply chains, third world wage slavery and mindless consumerism with a 'miracle.'
Civic religion in action!

Nathan said...

If you haven't already check out:

Awesome satire. It's frighteningly accurate especially in the light of this weeks post.

Robert said...

@Phil you beat me to it. Russell could be very creative at his best and I think that insight is spot on.

Also applies to the Ayn Randian anti religion

Yahweh= The Market
The Messiah=John Galt
The Elect=Entrepreneurs
The Church=Corporations
The Second Coming=the Return of John Galt
Hell=Taxes and the welfare state
The Millennium=The destruction of socialism.

Christianity, communism and Randite libertarianism also have their holy cities; Jersualem, Leningrad and Chicago and their icons; the Cross, the Red Star and the sign of the dollar.

As a socialist my emotional reaction to Randism is similar to the way a devout Christian might feel about the Church of Satan. Possibly that's unfair but I don't think so. Like Nietzsche the fatal flaw is a total lack of compassion. Also in the real world creative inventors are usually not primarily motivated by money. Witness Tim Berners Lee the inventor of the hyperlink. The corporations that market their ideas certainly are but they are gatekeepers.

DeAnander said...

[re: implicit sexism of techno-geek triumphalist web page]

QUOTE It's [calling someone "bitch"] even less an insult than an expression of a triumphant, "we win, you've got no comebacks, deal with it" attitude. " /QUOTE

Ummm, and it doesn't seem to you that using an expressly female-gendered slur (even a mild one) to express exactly that triumpant "you're such a loser" attitude, is still an implicit slap at women? Can't resist a bit of linguistic analysis here 'cos it just jumps out at me...

Just because a slur can be tossed at a person of either gender doesn't mean it's not sexist, if the slur itself relies on gender for its impact... say a guy calls a guy a c**t or a p*ssy -- the insult is not only to the male recipient, it's also to women in general -- because if there were not a disdain for women in general, the female-gendered slur would have no negative connotation, no "female=icky-bad" presupposition.

I believe the contemporary "bitch/loser" usage derives from (a) prison rape jargon, in which men who suffer rape at the hands of other men are referred to by the perps as "my bitch", by obvious analogy with their domineering relationships with women in the outside world [cf the urban slang "prison bitch"], or (b) the language of pimps who, we're told, often refer to the women under their control as "bitches". Hence to "make someone your bitch" means to dominate or exploit them, to crush their spirit, to physically rape or otherwise vanquish and humiliate them; the metaphor is one of sexualised domination, and in the discourse of what my buddy Stan Goff calls "probative masculinity," bitch=female=loser.

The metaphor, at heart, is a rape metaphor; there are plenty of other such slang expressions, like "to rip [someone] a new one" (meaning "to get really angry with or punish" -- which again refers to prison-related or other forcible anal rape). So nah, I can't buy the argument that "bitch" is a gender neutral locution, not even close. No more than "fag" is a gender-neutral insult on the playground; it's part of our universal training in gender policing, in contempt for the gendered Other, that results (when taken to extremes) in the suicide of gay teens.

Similarly if one whitefella says to another whitefella on the job site, "jeez man, you're as lazy as a n*gg*r," that's not a race-neutral slur just because it can be applied between same-race speakers. There's still the implicit message: "dark-skinned people are inherently work-shy or lazy." Or, in the case of "bitch," that women are inherently losers, rightfully destined to be dominated and bullied. Speaking of icky-bad, that's icky-bad by me.

DeAnander said...

BTW, I think I can defend this digression into speech and gendered social power as relevant; there's a persistent conflation of masculine self-definition, in our culture, with fossil power, military might, and industrial technology; and warrior/brute masculinity is central to the Randian (and Nietzschean) ideology we've just been discussing. Atlas Shrugged, of course, contains the obligatory rape scene in which the "uppity woman" is tamed by brute force and consequently falls in slavish love with the dominant alpha male; that could be dimissed as mere lazy genre writing for the commercial market... but more disturbingly, Rand openly admitted that one of her great heroes and inspirations was William Edward Hickman, a sociopath notorious in his time for murdering and dismembering a little girl.

“Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should;” [that's Ayn Rand writing about Hickman, who had] “no regard whatsoever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. He has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel ‘other people.’”

This is also the essence of the traditional, imperial warrior/alpha male archetype, whose deficiency in empathy makes him capable of "hard" behaviour like warfare, torture, massacres, conquests: even the extermination of whole peoples and species in the search for kingship/domination/power/wealth/glory. It's an ideal to which -- at great psychic and emotional cost to themselves, as well as incalculable cost to humanity at large -- legions of boys and young men are pressured and coerced to swear allegiance. This is also the pimp/mafia-don archetype, to whom all women, all defeated opponents, and all the natural, living world, are just "bitch" -- something to dominate and exploit for profit.

For any substantial number of men to see women in this way is arguably dangerous to women, and crippling to the emotional development and life of the men in question; but to see the entire natural world (by extension) in this way, is demonstrably dangerous to our survival as a species. Hence I would argue that the decoupling of a validating, satisfactory masculine identity from this puerile, insecure contempt and hostility towards women-and-nature is a high priority :-) and a first step would be to become more aware of the problem, which saturates our culture, even unto our daily, unexamined use of the vernacular.

John Michael Greer said...

Godozo, thanks for the heads up. This is the real news; the antics of politicians are entertainment.

DeAnander, if Dawkins is actually responsible for that, it's certainly cementing his status as atheism's equivalent of Rev. Fred Phelps.

Bozack, okay, now perhaps you can explain to me what relevance your argument has to the theme of this week's post.

Goedeck, thanks for the link.

Johan, stories are important to religions, civil as well as theist, but religions include more than stories. More on this later on.

Thijs, of course emperors had their personal patron deities; so did their subjects. That's standard practice in a mature polytheism. The point that I'm trying to make is that by the empire's heyday, the blanket assumption was that the old Roman gods as a group were always on Rome's side, no matter what, so long as the traditional observances took place. No Roman emperor thought he had to worry about annoying the gods the way, say, Agamemnon or Priam did; that's what I mean in saying that in imperial times, the gods had become part of the imperial publicity team.

Phil, elegantly done. The Singularity, of course, is the recent, apocalyptic version of the heaven of Progress; the older version was humanity's grand destiny out there among the stars, to which we would inevitably progress if we just funded science adequately...

Das Monde, my take on fascism is a bit different; it doesn't share the same presuppositions as Marxism, the way Objectivism does, and its opposition to Communism was a matter of competitive exclusion: it was the same kind of totalitarian society as Soviet Communism, though it had a different ideological foundation.

Cherokee, Druidry doesn't have a fixed pantheon. Openness to the diversity of religious experience has been a central value in the Druid Revival tradition since it was founded, and that doesn't leave room for anybody telling anybody else what to worship!

Lance, er, perhaps you can explain to me what all this has to do with the theme of this week's post. I don't recall mentioning cultural appropriation at any point.

Bill, true enough. I'm hoping that sometime soon, somebody will take on the challenge of writing a work of speculative fiction, sans spaceships and rayguns, that makes the future we're likely to get look as interesting and exciting as -- if not more so than -- the standard SF vision of humanity metastasizing across the galaxy.

John Michael Greer said...

Per Flaaten, I've read Prothero's book, and he makes a very strong case. I'll be discussing Confucianism in detail later on, as an example of a different mode of religion than the ones we've discussed so far.

NH Peter, good. Nietzsche was very clear on the religious dimensions of what I'd call nationalism, the genus of civil religion of which Americanism is a species. As for what isn't a religion, I'd draw the Venn diagram a good deal less broadly. Religions have, among their most visible functions, the function of propounding a set of basic presuppositions about life in the world, which believers consider self-evidently true, and use to judge all other claims -- you can use the word "sacred" about such presuppositions with reasonable precision.

While religions do many other things as well, it's safe to say that anything that doesn't do this isn't a religion. Thus the common experience in complex societies of a distinction between sacred and secular spheres: those institutions directly involved in propounding the core presuppositions of a society belong to the sacred sphere, while those that accept those presuppositions and then go off and do something else with their time are secular. (Those that openly reject the presuppositions, in turn, belong to the sphere of social deviance.)

Ian, good. The antireligion is where people go when they're dissatisfied with the religion but don't have the independence of thought to discard its presuppositions, so as the religion becomes less and less appealing, membership in the antireligion would tend to go up, yes.

Nicholas, all in good time!

Raven, there were plenty of more strident visual portrayals of the apocalypse of Americanism back in the day; you're right that it's faded a bit in recent decades.

MawKernewek, pur dha!

5keptical, you might find my response to NH Peter above useful. Other than that, stay tuned; we'll be exploring this territory in much more detail as we proceed.

John Michael Greer said...

Mallow, granted, that's an issue -- and of course any category at all can be used invidiously as a means of glorifying one point of view or dismissing another. If one distinguishing characteristic of religion is that it proposes a set of presuppositions that are seen as self-evidently true and beyond dispute, though, the difference between a nonreligious political stance and a religious one might be defined simply enough in terms such as these: under what circumstances would your preferred political system be a very bad idea? If you can provide concrete, meaningful answers to that question, your political stance isn't a religion.

Ben, also the last and basest form of the religion of progress. We'll get to that shortly.

Nathan, funny. It would be even funnier if I hadn't read fundamentalist claims that God will miraculously replenish America's oil reserves because he loves us so much.

Cherokee Organics said...


That is elegant. I understand. Thanks for the clarification.



Thijs Goverde said...

of course emperors had their personal patron deities...

That may work for Constantine, but I would hardly describe the stunts Aurelianus and Heliogabalus tried to pull as 'having a personal patron deity'. Same goes for Constantine's predecessors, who actually pulled it off and made Christianty the de facto state religion.

No Roman emperor thought he had to worry about annoying the gods...

That may or may not be true; I have no way of knowing what a Roman emperor thought. Especially on the subject of the gods, I mean really... how do you feel about the gods if one of the perks of your profession is having the very good chance of actually becoming one yourself?
That the senate could effectively vote someone into or out of godhood shows how utterly enmeshed Roman religion and statecraft were, of course.
The idea of a 'civil religion' that was not the 'theist religion' seems a bit forced in this case, think.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

This comment is a follow up to last December's essays about democratic responses to industrial collapse.

A few weeks ago, the governor of Michigan appointed an emergency manager to take over running the city of Detroit, overriding all the powers of Detroit's elected mayor and city council.

Some residents are resigned to the situation; there are also protests and threats of lawsuits. Here's a news story about another way some city residents are responding to the emergency manager.

Lei said...

I would argue that a set of presuppositions that are seen as self-evidently true and beyond dispute is a defining treat of any ideology, and that there are good reason for keeping religions and ideologies apart. There is moreover a problem with the word "beyond dispute", and also with "sacred", which is IMHO not applicable with reasonable precision. It has actually much to do with the issue of under what conditions those presuppositions can be disputed and who or what grants them their alleged indisputability.

One such difference between religion and ideology could be that the core presuppositions are supposed to be grounded (at least seemingly) in rational argumentations why they are true in ideologies, and so they are more open to evidentially based criticism and even debate, whereas they usually are revealed and excluded from any rational and evidence based criticism in religion. In this sense, the word "sacred" really applies to religious shere; again one can use it as a metaphor, but then we end in journalistic style and the things Mallow depicts.

This openness to criticism has of course much to do with the brittleness of "civil religions" in comparison to true religions, as proposed here. However, I would not see it negatively. I prefer brittle (or flexibile, if you want) systems of thought that can be more easily adapted or substituted by another system to those "ever-true" and everlasting religious systems that, simplistically said, do not have to bother much about reality, since you either belief or do not belief. In these, I am still a pure modernist :o)

das monde said...

It was a common Marxist view that fascism developed as anti-communism. Incidentally, unmatched amount of blood was spilled between those two sides. One big difference between them is that communism was really threatening and inconvenient to traditional elites, while fascism was mostly friendly to them, even protective.

On the progress religion: it helps people to assume that the past was even more terrible (socially, economically, environmentally) than now. This premise will continue for some time.

mallow said...

Oh good that's easy. The biggest one is if people don't want it or don't want it enough to be willing to do the work to create and maintain it. Like representative democracy, it takes more work to participate in it. And if people don't maintain it then, as you've said before, new hierarchies of power will be created by force. I have no idea if it would work in other cultures, that's for them to decide.

Also it might just not work at all at scale or with people who aren't temperamentally suited to it. People might be unwilling or unable to recognise the will to power in themselves or others and so unable to maintain structures to keep it in check or to do the work of participating in decisions that affect them - I know many who prefer someone else to make all the decisions for them and are content to live the consequences of that. Or enough people may be unwilling to give up the dream that capitalism will allow them to some day become a millionaire. Also it wouldn't work if people try to do it overnight- too many anarchists value innovation for its own sake and are ignorant of how current structures actually function.

Jason said...

JMG: If one distinguishing characteristic of religion is that it proposes a set of presuppositions that are seen as self-evidently true and beyond dispute, though, the difference between a nonreligious political stance and a religious one might be defined simply enough in terms such as these: under what circumstances would your preferred political system be a very bad idea?

Only of course, "God" or "Nature" et al. may be the source of all good, but they are also in some way the source of great human difficulty, and this doesn’t make them any less unquestionable, rather the reverse. That's one reason they last longer if they are made into religions. One can't imagine the Book of Job in civil-religious form. Once civil religions fail, they are wrong, because their workings are assumed to be basically known and beneficial.

Not that I want to get into "theodicy", but broadly speaking these civil religions are bereft of discussions like that because they assume the good will result -- unlike Agamemnon, yes -- or that it already has resulted, and that lack is one of the reasons for the inability to notice peak oil. “Civil religions” are late (they are civilised in the Spengerian sense) and that accounts for their hubris, just as “the late city defies the land”.

Scientism actually takes Nature for its god just as Druidry does. It is simply the kind of religion which believes in stamping on your god if it doesn’t perform to your liking, which is no new thing -- Chinese religions have seen underperforming deities whipped through the streets.

Since any discussion of religion as primarily social rules out most spiritual experience, it also rules out any real engagement with the source of meaning. Spiritual revelation doesn't exactly "propose presuppositions", after all! But it has to be translated into a social form.

When the “source of all” (which in Western religions has so often been the central aspect) becomes the social “known source of inevitable benefit” in a civil religion, then a good faith :) attempt to engage with the source of meaning becomes impossible; this and their lateness in the cycle are also part of what condemns them to brevity. They are based on what JMG would call a “confounding of the planes”, or an “immanentisation of the eschaton”; it could also be seen as a “projection of a mistaken Ultimateness”. They are thus losing propositions before they even begin.

Phil Harris said...

JMG & All
Great essay comments and replies … thanks

I have been moved to think of something graceful I had found in ‘religion’; thinking of those ongoing world-sized faiths, rather than worrying too much about the latter-day Cargo Cults that pretend reality but are a bit short of the real thing. (This is despite my knowing the big old ‘churches’ and their revealed truths have very much been a part of politics, with enduring consequences. Even Buddhism, for example and not only the ‘religions of the book’, was integral with some thumping big empires off and on during its history.)

I thought rather of the Orkney & Shetland Islands in the far north of Britain, and stories retold by the poets George Mackay Brown and Hugh McDiarmid (Chris Grieve). It’s worth noting that climate (and weather) varies dramatically across Britain and that our north projects steeply into the fickle North Atlantic and the streaming dark.

Brown, native to Orkney, had many stories from the old days and this is one of them if I remember correctly. A croft perhaps on a solitary island would prepare carefully for Christmas, as for guests, thoroughly cleaning and setting to rights the house and themselves. Then they would set a light in the window and unbar the door before going to sleep. Hot water, fire and light, like food, were very precious in mid-winter in those days, but guests of the spirit arriving anxious and in need would be more so.

I prepared just now a story from MacDiarmid, but it made this comment too long. Sufficient to say that this poet was both an idealist and a robust ‘materialist’ – in the sense of a faith in the ‘recurrence of being’ across what passes for the vast empty reaches of eternity - living as he did for years in relative poverty and unknown outside literary circles, writing much poetry in a crofting / fishing community whose craftsmanship and quality of mind he much admired. I’ll save Grieve / MacDiarmid for another day. Even though my mind is too cluttered I was lucky enough to have experienced some of what I read later in MacDiarmid.
Phil H

John Roth said...


I believe Latin has two different words that translate to "god" in both Greek and English. One was used to refer to the immortal gods: Jove/Zeus, etc, the other to humans whose deeds entitled them to be worshiped as gods. This appears to confuse a lot of people when reading certain passages in the NT. I suspect a better rendering of the second term might be "saint."

Kathleen K said...

@DeAnander Re: Sexism
We're getting pretty off-topic here, so Ill keep it short.

I'm not going to dispute that 'bitch' can have any and all of those connotations, whatever then gender of the person it's used on, nor that it has a pretty overtly sexist origin. And yes, when it's used to describe *a particular person*, that's almost certainly what it's going to mean.

But I still say I've observed a different usage, where it's actually not being directed at anyone at all, and has a much higher chance of being neutral.

But then, my experience is in linguistics, not gender studies, so I'm sure your mileage will vary.

Cathy McGuire said...

I'm hoping that sometime soon, somebody will take on the challenge of writing a work of speculative fiction, sans spaceships and rayguns, that makes the future we're likely to get look as interesting and exciting as -- if not more so than -- the standard SF vision of humanity metastasizing across the galaxy.
Sooo much easier said than done! I think your Star's Reach is heading in the right direction. As someone who's constantly noodling with such ideas, the challenge is to be able to make a bridge between the mindset of the religious Progressives (Progressites?)and this new world - everyone I talk to wants things as instant and "easy" as they have it now - and I've been racking my brains for something that might make them give that up (except, of course, necessity - convince them it's inevitable and they might start to listen). And as long as you are completely blind to the moral problems with such a lifestyle, instant comfort is addictive. ;-\ I'll keep trying, and hope that some really good scifi writers will put their minds to it.

wall0159 said...


I was having similar thoughts to yours (regarding the word "religion" vs "ideology"). I don't think that JMG is (for example) saying that Americanism _is_ a religion. Instead, he's saying that if, for a while, we think about it as though it was a religion it will show is something interesting about it. This is a tool.

Personally, I don't agree that atheism is a religion (at least for me -- I'm not part of any atheist groups, etc, so don't know how other atheists think), and I'm likewise unconvinced that progress is a religion (myth or ideology I can go along with), but I can nonetheless see that considering them as religions might be a useful way to understand other aspects of the movements.

Kieran O'Neill said...

@Deanander and Kathleen, regarding that Dawkins Foundation post, and getting back onto the topic of religion and science: the saddest thing about it is that the comic they are referencing is actually a good example of science doing what science is good at, and almost justifies the flippant and mildly sexist smugness of the statement. The image Dawkins page used has much less to do with science, and much more to do with the worship of progress and an attitude of scientism.

@JMG: As someone very much embedded in the world of science, I am very interested in seeing your views on the role of science (or perhaps more accurately scientism) in the religion of progress. I've certainly noticed a certain dogmaticism on some topics (like nuclear power or organic agriculture) from (some) people who otherwise consider themselves scientifically minded. On the other hand, I feel like more senior scientists, as well as the really big journals (Science and Nature) take a more measured approach, and are even quite sceptical of progress, at least in terms of its impacts on the world.

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: the real end of the world...

The couple of billion years or so we still have for life on this planet is actually about twice as long as the time since complex multicellular life first exploded into its enormous diversity here. So even under this scenario, the story of complex life on earth is not even half over. Imagine what another billion or two years of evolution might bring, especially as the planet's geography, atmosphere, and oceans continue shifting. A billion years is 60 times longer than it has been since the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, and the evolutionary changes in that brief time have been huge. Many entirely new classes of organisms may come and go. Whole new body plans will likely arise and be replaced many times over. Descendants of octopuses may indeed some day fly through the air on six intricately synchronized wings, and compose poetry with their other two limbs while they ponder the fossils of bizarre long-extinct ancient hairy creatures with only four limbs and weird rigid calcified poles all throughout their bodies. So even if it has an end date, terrestrial life still has an unimaginably long way to go before then!

Re: a perfectly decent name for a female canine...

Attitudes towards this word (when applied to humans) at present show a HUGE generational divide, at about age 30-40 or so. Younger than that for many men and women it is just another word. Older than that it remains supercharged with deep cultural meaning, gender and power issues.

Les said...


An interesting series of essays, thank you.

Contrary to some posters' opining that you are being too inclusive in your definition of a religion, secular or otherwise, I think you are not being inclusive enough.

When you consider nearly every human's inability to change an opinion in the face of mere facts (excepting thee and me, of course...), just about every thought a human has seems to have religious overtones.

For example, in all the little tribal groups that I've noticed within the society I inhabit (Ford vs. Holden, Melbourne vs. Sydney, Ubuntu vs. Redhat, this sports team vs. that sports team, this brand of hydrogenated vegetable fat vs. that one and Dog nose what else), the way the self becomes defined by the tribe's beliefs makes any alternative belief a direct attack on the self, which in turn tends to make the believer cling all the more tightly to the belief, in much the way you've described in the bigger "world" religions.

So, maybe Bill Pulliam's overarching religion of materialism is itself a sub-structure of the religiosity that seems innate in human thought.



valekeeperx said...

RE: Exchange with @Bill Pulliam about Utopia and Dystopia.
You asked about the Greek word for somewhere cf., nowhere. Why not everywhere? Or, anywhere?
Seems like somewhere is part of the current paradigm? cf., Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

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

At the risk of stirring up controversy, especially since the issue of gender has already come up, I'd say one religion/antireligion pair that's emerged recently is feminism and the Men's Rights Movement.

From what I've seen, it's quite a bit like Christianity and atheism: feminism is the established religion with at least some political clout and a fundamentalist problem (radical feminists who are deeply transphobic and/or genuinely hate men), and the MRM are the upstarts who seem to prefer to spend as much or more time trashing feminism as actually advocating for men's issues.

Bozack said...

JMG, to be honest my point was just scratching a mental itch regarding the definition of religion.

Maybe the relevant point was just emphasising that passion (when one's own religion is challenged), certainty and inability to countenance alternatives are important psychological components of what makes something a religion. It seems that we would want to say that a religion is fairly central to a person's world-view whether it be theist, atheist or civil.

So my disbelief in Bozack is not religious because there is no element of self definition (nobody believes in Bozack), no strong feelings and nothing at stake.

So maybe what I'm interested in is a psychological definition of religion in terms of its function: noting the parallels
between different types of religion is one way of getting at this but the next step is describing the common role that these different religions have in the human mind.

Thanks for responding to my post, I am a long time fan of your work.

Mark Angelini said...

These last few posts I've found most constructive, at least in my own internal dialogue and thought-processes.

The other day I was having a conversation with an elder about the myth of progress. He proclaimed to me how much better everything has gotten in his life. But when I asked him about where the world was going, he retracted a bit, realizing that while during his 70 years things seemed to get better, for him, that this experience is not universal and that current circumstances appear to be promising quite the opposite for present and future generations... Just as you illustrate, it is memory that drives the civil religions of both progress and americanism. There aren't any contemporary examples that support these dogmas.

Another interesting observation I've gathered about the twilight of industrialism (might this be another civil religion?) is that many individuals cling to the slightest "upticks"--slight increase in housing prices, slight increases in the number of new employees at GM, or the speed and complexity of "new" technology development--as signposts of how much better everything is getting and that, regardless of downturns, something will happen and everything will "get back on track" towards progress. Are we not dressing up brick walls?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Deborah,

I enjoyed your reminiscences. When I was a young lad back in primary school in the 70's the whole school had to line up and stand at attention and sing, "God save the Queen" to a portrait. True story. Unfortunately now that they've changed the national anthem I never learned the words to Advance Australia Fair. Mumbling helps a lot in such situations.

In later high school as a result of disciplinary problems, I attended a strict Anglican school and my fellow classmates and I used to attend chapel twice a week (non-optional). It was a bit irreverent but we used to rebel by shouting the words to the hymns. Quite stirring sometimes, and yet at other times much like a drunken football crowd. Yes, after school detention was a regular feature of such experiences...

A bit silly really.


NH Peter said...

I agree with your functional description of religion and your emphasis on basic presuppositions about the world as a necessary characteristic. What I find most useful with this starting point is the defined category can easily include religious thinking not associated with traditional religion, for example Americanism. I also agree with your description of sacred work as that involved in the maintenance or establishment of said core presuppositions. And of course, combined, these ideas allow the establishment of non-traditional sacred work in the service of clarifying core presuppositions. I do wonder, however, how you understand the activities you call secular, which are in acceptance of core presuppositions, but not actively engaged in their promulgation. Do you think of these secular activities as essentially aligned with religion or do they have some vitality independent of religion, perhaps even in competition with religion? And of course, here I use the term religion to indicate the now more broadly defined category above.

If the latter, perhaps religion is not really such a serious matter. Of course, the alternative is to realize that religion is ubiquitous. There is a long standing question mark around the writings of Machiavelli, that most devilish progressive! He proposes no theoretical philosophy. No metaphysics, no physics, no moral philosophy, no epistemology, no aesthetics, no political philosophy, and certainly no theology! Is that because the human world is essentially secular? Or is that because the presentation of the secular is essentially religious?

John D. Wheeler said...

JMG, I have a nit to pick with your response to Steve. I think humans have no innate need for hierarchy per se. The innate need is for status, recognition, and, yes, power; hierarchy IS the domestication of the need for status.

The irony is that status is one thing that is absolutely limited. No matter how materially wealthy a society becomes, there will necessarily be people who have less status.

Liquid Paradigm said...


As a veteran of (quite long ago) church and school choirs, I can say that mumbling is indeed useful. As well as grocery lists, one's favourite candies, the names of ex-girlfriends/boyfriends, the local weather report, and all sorts of deeply naughty things which are easily hidden in that stylised method of singing.

Beware choristers: they are a wickedly subversive bunch. Don't get me started on church organists... ;)

Jamie Ross said...

The whole idea of civil religion and theist religion speak to what I think starts out as a human need for a "narrative" to put experiences in some sort of larger context, starting with creation narratives to more complex world views. While I think narratives are important, I also believe they should evolve with experience and knowledge to remain healthy and useful. After leaving the US last year, I have been observing the US culture (as seen from media to friends on FB) and there is a distinct cultural narrative which I think is the civil religion that JMG refers to. Ironically I noticed it matches many of the symptoms of Narcissist Personality Disorder which I find I was not the first to notice it. This is probably true of many of the "religions" which veered into unhealthy places. I think this also explains the resistance of people to see what is going on as anything that invalidates their sacred beliefs is dangerous to their whole narrative.. so they resist facts as many faithful do. I am afraid I agree also with JMG that it will take some big disaster or defeat to start to collapse the house of cards that makes up the current narrative and allow it for better or worse, to be replaced with something more relevant...

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

John D. Wheeler,

I'd say differences in status define a hierarchy. It might not be explicitly political or a "dominator hierarchy" where people have a right to make arbitrary demands on those below them, but there's a hierarchy any time status is taken seriously.

For example, celebrities have no authority over the rest of us, but they are clearly part of a hierarchy that gives them influence over those who take such status seriously and thus buy into the hierarchy (and I even find myself swayed at times when a favored celebrity says something - powerful thaumaturgy at work to be sure).

Thomas Daulton said...

Slightly off topic, but this article is the first time I've seen anyone (that is, anyone whom I didn't already know reads this blog) come to the same conclusion about alternative energy and conservation that the Druid has long been teaching.

Power Shift: Away from Green Illusions

Lately I feel like I've hit such a wall of denial, all my friends are just clinging rock-solid to the belief that somebody (else) somewhere (else) will invent a way out of our energy limits without allowing the march of Progress to slow for even one uncomfortable instant. And they're not even willing to label such a belief as 'speculation'.

Well, on the other hand, that might be a good sign. They say that the steeliest Denial is encountered right before the façade cracks wide open...

GuRan said...

Sir and Druid,

Very interesting and lively discussion last week, and this. I'm glad you've ventured into this area.

I'm understanding your category of religion as being the "top level" story that we each have, which provides the framework for our lower level stories such as who I am, what my future is, etc. By definition, the top level story has nothing above it which it follows from and so has the role of axioms - it's self-evident, or a matter of faith.

Looked at in this way, do we all have a religion? I suppose it's possible to have more than one top-level story, but I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around what that would be like.

Even the atheistic position (I count myself an atheist, but I'm working on it *grin*) is still a story with which to structure our lower-down stories. "There is no meaning, your lower down stories are just meaningless noise" - it's not a very attractive story, but it's still a story.

I'm waiting with great anticipation to see where all this goes.


Bill Pulliam said...

James Jensen -- I think you are drawing the category boundary too broadly. Feminism is not a religion in that it's principle historic leaders are not deified and idealized anything at all like the Roman Emperors or our Founding Fathers are. Respect does not equal religious worship. I might also note that the man-hating radical feminist is a caricature, scarcely a reality; if you looked really hard you might be able to dig one up, but for the most part they exist only in Portlandia. Now of course, many feminists might hate *individual* men, especially if they have been abusive or degrading or insulting, but that is not the same as hating all men collectively. The bible-thumping fundamentalist christian or the flag-waving radical american exceptionalist, on the other hand, is very real, and extremely numerous.

As an aside, at least within the neopagan communities, there have been plenty of men's identity movements that have not defined themselves just as an inversion of feminism.

Liquid Paradigm said...

@ Thomas Daulton

Few people bring out absolute, screaming fury from the faithful like Zehner does. He makes excellent points which need to be seriously considered. The responses at the linked article are solidly predicted by what JMG has been writing about the past few years. Heresy is one thing, but questioning the fundamental assumptions underlying both the "green" religion and anti-religion? That is apostasy most foul.

To quote/paraphrase someone (possibly Twain, but it's been hard to clear up): You can't reason someone out of something he wasn't reasoned into to begin with. That is sadly true of the rabid adherents of the religion of progress.

onething said...

J D Wheeler,

"I think humans have no innate need for hierarchy per se. The innate need is for status, recognition, and, yes, power; hierarchy IS the domestication of the need for status."

That is very profound, on a topic I've done some thinking about.

Some of us have domesticated ourselves, and we call it civilization, but the traumas of undergoing civilization have actually lead us to regress into more primitive primate behaviors, thus the loss of natural democracy and such behaviors as presenting our rumps to those in authority and or kissing the hands of the priest/bishop.

onething said...

NH Peter,

" Of course, the alternative is to realize that religion is ubiquitous. There is a long standing question mark around the writings of Machiavelli, that most devilish progressive! He proposes no theoretical philosophy. No metaphysics, no physics, no moral philosophy, no epistemology, no aesthetics, no political philosophy, and certainly no theology! Is that because the human world is essentially secular? Or is that because the presentation of the secular is essentially religious?"

I haven't read Machiavelli but it looks like I should. Perhaps it is because Machiavelli saw through the need we have to narrate the dream we are having...this strange, strange situation in which we find ourselves...where things are tantalizingly balanced between the real and the imaginary...and the closer you examine any aspect, the slipperier it becomes.
Certainly this is a predicament for the old religions of this planet. In most regions of the world in most of history, there wasn't all that much challenge to one's religion and worldview. What did a person in Japan in the 5th, 10th or 14th century know of other people in other lands? It seems to me rather blessed to be able to live in a reality in which major disagreement of its interpretations are nonexistent. One can get so much more use out of a moral philosophy when not infused with doubt.
The way people now all live jumbled up with one another forces a more detailed examination of one's beliefs, and very, very few beliefs can withstand such an inquiry.
We must be dreaming.

Kieran O'Neill said...

@James: I'm with Bill on this one. I don't feel like Feminism can be best described as a civil religion. A better framework is that of an underprivileged group (women) campaigning for equal rights to those with privilege (men). "Mens rights" is a fairly typical example of backlash from members of the privileged group against the prospect of losing their (obviously unfair to all but them) privilege. You see similar phenomena with other underprivileged groups, for example racial minorities, the queer and transgendered, road users other than motorists, or even the poorer social classes. You can, if you try hard enough, shoehorn feminism into the civil religion category, but I feel like it isn't doing feminism justice, and is granting too much legitimacy to MRM.

NH Peter said...


As far as I can tell, Machiavelli is the founding thinker of modern philosophy, and so arguably also the founding thinker of "secular progressive civil religion" (what an awkward pile of words there!). But though he is an entertaining read, he is not an easy read, mostly because we are so crafted by his thought that it can be hard to perceive its novelty. Easier are his students Bacon and Hobbes, because their conclusions often antagonize our more refined egalitarian sentiments. In philosophy, sometimes it is easier to understand those things you find disagrable. Often the rest is like water to fish.

Ashaklun said...

An additional mutation that is known to occur in within the western tradition when metaphysical systems begin to break down is an outbreak of Dualism.

Dualism goes much farther than simply reversing the value judgements. It reverses the basic metaphysics that underlie the whole structure by answering a series of fundamental questions in a radically different way.

The Doom movements of our day are wandering in the Dualist direction to one degree or another, (which isn't surprising if you know the history of heresy in monotheistic religions.)

Since the trail we are on is strewn with the bones of the massacred, perhaps we should tarry a bit among the desecrated ruins to think about those who have gone before and where it is that we fit amongst them.

Nick Dahlheim said...

Ares Olympus, I love E.F. Schumacher--if only more economists had such practical experience and such deep philosophical insight. And your point about how two diametrically opposed ideologies existing on opposite poles need each other is excellent and important. Unfortunately, Anglo-American philosophy has an exceptionally poor understanding of dialectics for which the Continental tradition of philosophy has a much deeper understanding.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Bill Pulliam--Ideological man-hating feminists exist but most men will never run into one. Hatred of men as a stance was never part of mainstream feminism, but Second Wave Feminism gave rise to a more extreme ideology called lesbian separatism.

Lesbian separatism as an ideology is similar to Black Nationalism. There is a group of people who are enemies from cradle to grave and should always be distrusted and feared. There are more of them than of us, and they will never change, so direct confrontation will usually result in defeat. The best strategy is to avoid contact with the enemy as much as possible, stop being involved in anything that helps the enemy, form enclaves for mutual support, and build up those enclaves to be as self-sufficient as possible.

In time the successful separationist communities will attract more (woman-identified women) (blacks) ready to cut their ties with the Man, and eventually we will be strong enough to overthrow our oppressors.

Lesbian separatists are still around; their social life tends to be with other lesbians, and they conduct as much of their economic life as possible with other women.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@James, Kieran, and Bill--Men's Rights and the Men's Movement are not identical, though there is some overlap. I agree that anything that calls itself Men's Rights is likely to be a backlash. However, there have been legitimate efforts to come up with models of masculinity that aren't based on the denigration of women and are positive rather than reactive to feminists' demands. Patriarchy oppresses men as well as women.

Stu from Rutherford said...

@Robert Beckett
Thank you for sharing that wonderful poem. It has gone onto my desktop and I read it often.

Wonderful essay. Sorry I have nothing to add to the discussion but thought it important to thank Mr. Beckett.

John Michael Greer said...

DeAnander, not off topic at all. Thank you!

Cherokee, you're welcome.

Thijs, I think you're missing my point, but as per my own rule, I'm not going to keep hammering on it.

Unknown Deborah, thanks for the heads up! I'll be speaking there shortly, so it'll be interesting to see what the locals have to say.

Lei, please reread what I said about categories at the beginning of this week's post. It looks to me as though you're getting hung up on issues of definition, which as I tried to point out, are not really useful here.

Das Monde, exactly -- I'll be discussing at some length later on the way that the past has been rewritten to prop up the mythology of progress.

Mallow, good. Now imagine the response of a devout Christian to the claim that some people ought not to worship Jesus, or a doctrinaire Marxist to the claim that a late capitalist society might have good reasons not to embrace Marxian socialism.

Jason, no, scientism doesn't worship nature. Nature is what science is supposed to conquer; nature is the Devil of scientism, the old enemy who will eventually be bound in chains and made to drag the glorious chariot of humanity wherever "we" (however defined) want it to go. Scientism is an anthropolatrous religion; it worships the reified abstraction of Humanity.

Phil, a useful reminder that religion has a deeply personal side!

Cathy, oh, I know -- it's probably still a long way off, and the vision will probably take shape first in nonfiction prose. Still, to borrow a phrase from Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, "a being can dream."

John Michael Greer said...

Kieran, we'll get to that.

Bill, exactly, and I'll be discussing that as well!

Les, a category is a way of pointing to similarities; it's not true or false, simply more or less useful for a given purpose, in a given context.

Valekeeperx, "somewhere specific that exists" as opposed to "nowhere at all" is what I had in mind.

James, feminism doesn't have most of the features that Americanism and Communism share with, say, Christianity; I'll be getting to that in the upcoming post.

Bozack, thank you. Your disbelief in the god Bozack may not be a religion, but if you haven't encountered atheists whose disbelief in a god displays an abundance of passion, certainty and an inability to contemplate alternatives, you need to get out more!

Mark, exactly. These days there's a whole literature of forced cheerfulness that cherrypicks data to find every excuse to claim that progress is chugging merrily along and will bring us the better future we were promised. I take that as evidence that more and more people are aware of the failure of progress, and are scrambling around trying to bolster their flagging faith.

NH Peter, a thorough response to that would take a couple of posts. I see Machiavelli as very nearly the first modern thinker, in a somewhat unusual sense: he's the first who seems to think that he doesn't have a metaphysics, that reality is perfectly transparent and is exactly what it is -- or, at least, what it appears to be to Machiavelli. I'll be arguing down the road that this is the core delusion of the modern mind, and a distinctive marker of a particular stage in a historical process.

John, I disagree. People will embrace a low-status identity eagerly if the alternative is having no place in the social hierarchy at all.

Jamie, cultures are in a very real sense collective projections of human personality, so it's not at all surprising that they fall into common personality disorders and other forms of psychopathology when they run off the rails. What was Hitler's Germany but a psychotic break into classic paranoid schizophrenia with pronounced megalomania, on a collective scale?

John Michael Greer said...

Thomas, thanks for the heads up! An interesting review; the book itself showed up at my local college library, and I'll be reading it in the next week or so.

GuRan, exactly! I'll be discussing this as we proceed.

Ashaklun, good. I see far too many parallels between the sort of dualism you're discussing and clinical paranoia, for what it's worth.

Stu, thank you!

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

Bill et al.,

Bill, that's a fair point about the lack of hero-worship.

Still, Robert Altemeyer, as a part of his studies in authoritarianism, found that feminists ranked second on zeolatry metrics, second only to Christian fundamentalists and the only ones really in the ballpark.

I'd say I agree with 80%+ of feminism. But I also think it has some deep problems at the moment. Part of it is that, for all their misogyny and feminist-bashing, the MRM has raised some valid issues, like lack of legal or social recognition of female-on-male rape, or the tolerance of domestic violence against men, and many feminists seem to care more about discrediting the MRM than addressing those issues.

I can't tell you how many feminists I've run across that either insist it's all MRM lies or actually turn into apologists for it all: for example, "It's just patriarchy backfiring." (Yes, absolutely; and consequently it should be a feminist issue!) I've even seen, "Men can't be raped, because he must have enjoyed it if he had an erection."

It even seems to be spilling into the real world, with feminists disrupting events and shouting down anyone who disagrees with them:

I've been really disappointed by it all.

Bill Pulliam said...

Unknown Deborah -- of course we males who travel in the fringes do come across lesbian separatists, at least in writings, and occasionally in the flesh as well since in actual practice there are various degrees of separation. I know you are not doing this, but I try to avoid the widespread conflation of lesbian and feminist and I tend to think of the lesbian separatists as being more a part of radical queer culture. But that's categories again, and every cultural movement has many mothers. And of course the fundamental difference between gender separatists versus racial separatists is that (so far) women can't avoid having biological connections to men, be they fathers or sons.

Patriarchy oppressing all genders -- exactly!

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

Quick note: in my editing of my last comment, I may or may not have deleted the part where I mentioned that Altemeyer's researched showed feminists were second on his zealotry scale, not his general authoritarian metrics.

I can't see the comment now, of course.

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: dualism, are we perhaps already seeing this in the rise of conspiracy theory thinking? The apparent reality is simply a facade concealing the true shadow reality which is far more powerful and focused on a single purpose?

Joseph Nemeth said...


For a long time -- let's say forty years -- I've noticed something that once infuriated me, and now amuses me.

It's fairly safe to trash the musical Greats who wrote their works before, say, 1900. You can call Strauss "pedestrian" or Beethoven "overblown" or Mozart "boring," or Haydn "unimaginative," and some people will object, while others will nod in agreement. No one reaches for a gun.

But call Dmitri Shostakovich a talentless hack, and you get blowback. Strangely ANGRY blowback, and from people who've never listened to a single note of his music, and couldn't be paid enough to sit through an entire concert.

It's almost like you're blaspheming their religion.

Up until this discussion, I've never had a framework for understanding this behavior. But now it makes perfect sense. I am blaspheming their religion: the Religion of Progress.

Sometime around 1900, give or take, music jumped the rails and crashed. People started writing and performing atonal monstrosities they called (and oddly enough still call) "experimental" music. As a musical experiment it has always been an outright failure: its entire cachet lies purely in that magic word, "experimental." It was, and paradoxically remains (a century later), a fixed and revered expression of "Progress."

In the early 1980's, I heard the late Isaac Stern perform in New York, and he chose to do the Bartok violin concerto (#2). Afterward, one of my pod-mates (grad school) gushed, "Wasn't that wonderful? And so modern -- why, Bartok was so far ahead of his time that it could have been written yesterday!"

My opinion, which I kept to myself, was that classical music had stagnated so completely that what was written yesterday was still Bartok. And he'd been dead for over three decades: nothing "modern" about that.

I spent some time with the work. I checked out the score from the library, to try to see what I'd missed so completely. I never found what I was looking for. But I had learned well that you don't call the Bartok concerto a "cacophonous mess," unless you want a severe verbal whipping by those who consider themselves musically literate.

I think back on decades of under-the-breath comments from a wide range of professional musicians about this "music of Progress," and I'm somewhat comforted in knowing that I'm hardly the only Philistine out here.

I'm really curious how the introduction of the phonograph affected this transition: I wonder if it congealed in place the musical expression of the religion of progress when all the money started to flow out of live performance and into recording. Recording certainly facilitated the initial rise of some of the successful "experimental" music, like jazz and rock-and-roll. I also wonder what the current collapse of the recording industry, to say nothing of the future collapse under social catabolism, will do to music. It will certainly put whatever money there is back into live performance. It's already done that. Maybe it will also revitalize the art.

Jason said...

JMG: Jason, no, scientism doesn't worship nature. Nature is what science is supposed to conquer; nature is the Devil of scientism...

In other words a duality with scientism at one pole and Druidry at the other? :)

No, even that "ahrimanic" pole isn't incompatible with worship, as in the example I gave of Chinese deities being whipped through the streets -- but it is not the whole story of scientism by a long chalk. Consider what William Irwin Thompson points out in this interview:

Actually, when I did have a conversation with Heisenberg, we got on fine and we talked nonstop for about two hours. We were able to communicate across this vast abyss of his knowledge of science and mine. There are some people in our culture who understand that science shares with poetry deep roots in myth, in narrative ideas of order and process. These sorts of scientists such as Heisenberg or C. H. Waddington, like music and art and like to hang out with artists.

Those who take for granted that there is some objective, real matter that they are going to manipulate and be in charge of, they don’t like artists at all and prefer to hang out with politicians and people in power who seem to be in control of society. Like Teller, these guys are basically control freaks. They hate ambiguity; they hate complexity. They want to simplify everything and in simplifying it they basically want to take control. Their form of taking control is to eliminate everything that is other than their way of handling matter.

In the latter, there is your "nature in chains". But the inspiration of (perhaps non-routinised, anyway much less positivistic) scientism has always partly drawn on appreciation of nature as a source of wonder and beauty.

That's not just for the Heisenbergian elite either. It's the story told by popular books such as this one -- whose author by the way has made rabidly skeptical and materialist remarks in his time, totally in line with the dominant materialism. But recognition of the human need for beauty, on a scale that dwarfs humanity, has been absolutely bound up with the popular "selling" of scientism, just as much as celebration of our cleverness. (Richard Dawkins has stumbled out similar things that indicate he has a soul, although he can’t put it that way.)

To say Faustian fundamentalism "is the real scientism" would just be no true scotsman. Meaning was always threatening to burst out in scientism, as Thompson is pointing out, but the power-hungry side was the side that ended up temporally governing, since it did actually achieve the short-lived and meaningless power it promised, and made I-it meaninglessness the de facto position.

Cherokee Organics said...


Bit late for posting comments, but I've been flat out this week bringing in and installing a second hand water tank to increase my water storage for next summer. I've only just got through reading this week’s comments. Excavations are going on by hand using a mattock and wheelbarrow (I'm tired). Preparations for next summer start as soon as the weather turns cooler in Autumn. It is an interesting cycle Down Under –locals ignore it at their peril!

A few thoughts for you:

- Aren't cheap shoddy manufactured products that people surround themselves with strangely akin to a cargo cult?

As an amusing side note, the guy that sold me the water tank told me he was getting rid of it because he didn't like the colour (I can't make this stuff up) and he replaced it with another tank of the same dimensions but of a colour to match the house. My expression was like a stunned mullet (a Down Under expression).

I look out for well manufactured long lasting items and they are mostly the cheaper second hand stuff that people over look. Sometimes I occasionally get stung though as the wind turbine that I'm getting around to installing (delayed by the water tank) is a bit of a trip, but I'll get there eventually...

- It seems that the civil religions studiously ignore nature as anything other than a place to extract wealth and dump pollution. I understand that this is advantageous in the short term and that it is sort of necessary in order to buy off the population. It kind of seems pointless though because it takes our eye off the long term game.

- I've had status and in fact I still carry some with me. However, I reckon status is bunk. People don't seem to get the idea that the only way to win is to not play the game. It never ceases to amaze me how many questions I have to field from people about all sorts of personal aspects. Sometimes I just want to shout at them, "Stop consuming so much and you won't have to work as hard" but perhaps this will be deemed anti-social, so I simply keep quiet.

I can see clearly now why the Aboriginals thought that white-fellas were a bunch of lunatics the way we kept on working such long hours...

Hi Cathy,

What about an antidote for such dystopian sci-fi as The Road? Truly, I think the future will have more in common with the Depression Era. Yeah sure, there was great poverty, but socially I'd say that they were better connected? The future doesn't have to have bling, but it need not be bleak. There's the title too, "Bling, not bleak" - that'll confuse people for sure (I'm channelling John Lennon’s walrus at this point. hehe!)


Robert Beckett said...

onething, Stu from Rutherford, and JMG,
Your kind comments re my poem are much appreciated.
Now to catch up on the comments!
Robert Beckett aka Source Dweller

Unknown said...

Religion is an interesting word and I've come to accept a small variation on my 1960s dictionary's definition it to: "Ones relationship with the powers and principles of the whole." Thus we all have religion whether we acknowledge it or not.

Thomas Daulton said...

Thanks, Liquid Paradigm! Love the quote! This Zehner dude certainly does not write in a polite style that is intended to make new friends. JMG writes in a much more genial style, but I can't help but wonder if JMG will receive the same kind of response, even moreso than he does today, should his writings become more widespread... Meanwhile the emotional momentum of the "anger" phase of civilizational decline seems to be building apace.

Nick Dahlheim said...

(Pt 1) I have loved following this blog regularly over the course of the last 3-4 years as it is truly one of the few consistent voices of sanity on the Internet about our collective plight in the face of the confluence of Peak Oil and Climate Change. It’s been over a year since I last commented on a post here on your blog (my short response earlier yesterday about E.F. Schumacher elsewhere on this comments page notwithstanding).

Your recent post on the functional differences between the social forms of civil religion and theistic religion as well as some of the comments referencing passages of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra bring to mind another important but more obscure Nietzsche work: Human All-Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister). Nietzsche scholarship in the English-speaking world, following the lead of translator Prof. Walter Kaufmann, had ignored this early book in his corpus. As an avid fan of the penetrating psychology of Nietzschean thought, much of it nearly a century ahead of its time in detecting the nihilism and ennui lurking beneath the glossy veneer of bourgeoise society and its Cult of Progress; Human All-Too Human reveals the thoughts of a fertile mind more keenly attuned to Man as a political animal than even Nietzsche’s brilliant later works would suggest. One key passage from Volume 1, Section 8, Aphorism #472 crystallizes much of what you have to say, JMG. And it supplies your observations with a heuristic political psychology.

Nietzsche believes that a healthy and vital State is a polity whose rulers recognize the immaturity of the unwashed masses and therefore understand that the State must act to preserve religion in order to give the “not yet as of age” masses a sense of narrative meaning and purpose. Nietzsche probably would have agreed with the Stoic philosopher Seneca, “Religion is for the masses true, for the rulers useful, and for the wise false.” And a healthy State carefully guards this social reality for the good of the State. For religion “quietens the heart of the individual in times of loss, deprivation, fear, distrust, in those instances…which the government feels unable to do anything towards alleviating the psychical sufferings of the private person…[and] guarantees a calm, patient, trusting disposition among the masses” during crises like wars, famines, and financial panics. A State where a majority of the population believes in religion will witness the hand of Providence/Fate/God behind political intrigue and misgovernance—Religion’s narrative structures shortcircuiting skeptical and refractory impulses. The fact of political unity and civil peace sealed through a common religion creates the appearance that a higher Transcendent Power actively cooperates with the organs of the State. Nietzsche smartly points to the Concordat Napoleon Bonaparte signed with the Roman Catholic Church as the key development that allowed for the French Republic to recover from the Jacobin Terror and for Napoleon to consolidate his political power base.

Nick Dahlheim said...

Part 2-- For democratic States, maintaining the power of religion becomes more difficult when the political legitimacy of the government rests upon the fiction of sovereignty of “the people” rather than upon the State’s origin as a manifestation or reflection of a transcendent order. In such a democratic cultural milieu, the foundation of religious belief—whether civic or theistic—moves from the terra firma of tradition, public ritual, and the formalized, institutional Church leadership to the shifting sands of unconventional belief, idiosyncratic personal expression, and the charisma of gurus and demagogues. Society’s gifted people openly adopt an irreligious perspectives and a bohemian aesthetic often with barely unconcealed disdain for the foundational myths of the State. Political representatives chosen democratically increasingly must ascertain and then reflect back the divergent passions and drives of the masses the State purportedly governs. The smug postmodern bourgeois cynicism and personal libertinism typical of the hipster cultures of, say, San Francisco and New York City as well as the radical anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism of the Midwest and Deep South both are indicative of this trend in democratic culture. The archetypes of the commanding Statesman and the pious Intellectual who together guard the politics of the State both in deed and in ritualized performance gradually dissolve and are lost to public memory.

Nick Dahlheim said...

Part 3 The dissolution of these archetypes, however, occurs without conscious public recognition. Many in the body politik will declare their allegiance to the Christian God and vocally resent the erosion of public reverence for traditional religion. Similarly, the moral panics of the Culture Wars (i.e. recent debates over Creationism, abortion, homosexuality, public displays of Faith) achieve a higher decibel level. Leading members of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish congregations have found common cause on these issues whereas once before they had either ignored one another or looked upon one another with great mutual suspicion. Yet, religious expression of the conservative religious congregations of the past generation worship increasingly bears little resemblance to either the popular English cults of the 17th and 18th century colonial America or the 19th century religions of European peoples emigrating to industrial America. The religion of post-Reagan America is simultaneously more fundamentalist than the 20th Scofield Bible Dispensationalists, at least as charismatic as the early Pentecostalists, incredibly savvy in exploiting the latest media technology for staging highly theatrical mass worship services, and as clever as the top multinational conglomerates in advancing their salvific messages in the spiritual marketplace. And yet, save for the remaining traces of aspirational Puritanism, contemporary American religion bears very little resemblance to the incarnations of generations past. The confessional (in the sense of “confessing” sins and not reciting formal church creeds), experiential, and therapeutic dimensions of religious life have triumphed over the dogmatic, transcendent, and redemptive power of God over sin. The post-WWII economic boom amidst suburban sprawl unleashed the migratory restlessness Tocqueville first observed among mid-19th century Jacksonian Americans as never before; and the accompanying individualism undoubtedly spilled over into religious life as Americans became less attached to the religious communities of their youth. Add the social upheavals of the 1960s, the increasing multicultural character of America’s demographics as new immigrants found their way to the United States, and the advent of post-literate televisual mass media; and the weakening of the traditional Christian denominations (i.e. Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, etc.) appears in hindsight to have been virtually inevitable. And the success of mega-churches led by charismatic preachers emphasizing experiential spiritualities, therapeutic relief, and a sense of communal belonging likewise appears a natural result of the societal changes of the latter decades of the 20th century.

Bill Pulliam said...

James -- we're wandering far off topic and the week is almost over so this will be my last comment on this particular thread (if JMG doesn't cut it off first!).

Zealotry -- maybe this just reflects the magnitude of what they are fighting -- fundamentalism against the global tsunami of modernism and secularism, feminism against thousands of years of deeply entrenched cultural attitudes and institutions.

Otherwise -- of course there are inequalities in the legal systems; laws always lag behind culture. Feminists fought hard against legally instituted bias against women; men need to do likewise (you should hardly expect women to do our dirty work for us, even though that is exactly what men have expected for millennia...). Thing is -- these laws that favor women in things like custody, alimony, domestic violence, avoiding military service, etc... these laws were put in place by MEN, not by women. They are not the fault of the feminists. I think you will not find a large fraction of feminists who would argue that we should keep gender bias in divorce and domestic violence laws and enforcement, nor would you find many arguing that we should continue to exclude women from military service. Of course you can find an apocryphal quote that will say anything; I am talking about the larger picture.

So again of course men should work to overturn legal gender discrimination.. but they should remember that it was not the women who put it in place. The converse cannot be said about legal discrimination against women.

Time for the next post.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Nick Dahlheim--in your Part 3, before making observations about Christianity in America that I think are mostly accurate, you wrote this:

Similarly, the moral panics of the Culture Wars (i.e. recent debates over Creationism, abortion, homosexuality, public displays of Faith) achieve a higher decibel level. Leading members of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish congregations have found common cause on these issues whereas once before they had either ignored one another or looked upon one another with great mutual suspicion.

Not as much common cause as you state, I think.

Jewish leaders have no reason to take sides over Creationism, which is an internal doctrinal debate within Christianity. It has no relevance to Judaism.

I can imagine some Orthodox rabbis making common cause with Christians to support laws that discourage homosexuality, because Orthodox Judaism and the more conservative Christian denominations have similar views on this subject. Also because the Orthodox may feel beleaguered by the more liberal sexual views of the other branches of American Judaism, who vastly outnumber the Orthodox.

I have a hard time imagining "leading members" of any branch of Judaism in America making common cause with the right wing of Christianity on the other Culture War issues you list. I'm open to being corrected if you can supply citations.

Judaism has no doctrine on the question of when the soul enters the fetus. Halachic Judaism requires (not permits, requires) abortion at any period before the moment of birth if abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother, while discouraging abortion in other circumstances. I believe that Jewish attitudes about our duty to the living are so firm that a Jewish obstetrician would break the law if he or she had to in order to save the mother. No Jewish leader would want to put a Jewish doctor into that situation.

Chanukah is a minor holiday that happens to coincide with a major Christian one. For historical reasons Chanukah is more overtly political than other Jewish holidays, and it happens to be the one holiday on which Jews are commanded to display lit candles in a window where passersby can see them. By comparison, outside the Jewish State, the major Jewish holidays are celebrated at home and in the synagogue, not in public spaces. The right to erect a giant Chanukiah in the town park is not a moral issue for Jews, rather it's a consolation prize for having to walk by the Nativity display in the same park. In other words, it's of marginal importance.

Cathode Ray said...

The relationships different cultures have with time is seen in the RSA video