Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Religion of Progress

To suggest that faith in progress has become the most widely accepted civil religion of the modern industrial world, as I’ve done in these essays, is to say something at once subtler and more specific than a first glance might suggest. It’s important to keep in mind, as I pointed out in last week’s post, that “religion” isn’t a specific thing with a specific definition; rather, it’s a label for a category constructed by human minds—an abstraction, in other words, meant to help sort out the blooming, buzzing confusion of the cosmos into patterns that make some kind of sense to us.

To say that Americanism, Communism, and faith in progress are religions, after all, is simply a way of focusing attention on similarities that these three things share with the other things we put in the same category.  It doesn’t deny that there are also differences, just as there are differences between one theist religion and another, or one civil religion and another.  Yet the similarities are worth discussing: like theist religions, for example, the civil religions I’ve named each embody a set of emotionally appealing narratives that claim to reveal enduring meaning in the chaos of everyday existence, assign believers a privileged status vis-a-vis the rest of humanity, and teach the faithful to see themselves as participants in the grand process by which transcendent values become manifest in the world.

Just as devout Christians are taught to see themselves as members of the mystical Body of Christ and participants in their faith’s core narrative of fall and redemption, the civil religion of Americanism teaches its faithful believers to see their citizenship as a quasi-mystical participation in a richly mythologized national history that portrays America as the incarnation of liberty in a benighted world. It’s of a piece with the religious nature of Americanism that liberty here doesn’t refer in practice to any particular constellation of human rights; instead, it’s a cluster of vague but luminous images that, to the believer, are charged with immense emotional power.  When people say they believe in America, they don’t usually mean they’ve intellectually accepted a set of propositions about the United States; they mean that they have embraced the sacred symbols and narratives of the national faith.

The case of Communism is at least as susceptible to such an analysis, and in some ways even more revealing. Most of the ideas that became central to the civil religion of Communism were the work of Friedrich Engels, Marx’s friend and patron, who took over the task of completing the second and third volumes of Das Kapital on Marx’s death. It’s from Engels that we get the grand historical myth of the Communist movement, and it’s been pointed out many times already that every part of that myth has a precise equivalent in the Lutheran faith in which Engels was raised. Primitive communism is Eden; the invention of private property is the Fall; the stages of society thereafter are the different dispensations of sacred history; Marx is Jesus, the First International his apostles and disciples, the international Communist movement the Church, proletarian revolution the Second Coming, socialism the Millennium, and communism the New Jerusalem which descends from heaven in the last two chapters of the Book of Revelations.

The devout Communist, in turn, participates in that sweeping vision of past, present and future in exactly the same way that the devout Christian participates in the sacred history of Christianity. To be a Communist of the old school is not simply to accept a certain set of economic theories or predictions about the future development of industrial society; it’s to enlist on the winning side in the struggle that will bring about the fulfillment of human history, and to belong to a secular church with its own saints, martyrs, holy days, and passionate theological disputes. It was thus well placed to appeal to European working classes which, during the heyday of Communism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were rarely more than a generation removed from the richly structured religious life of rural Europe.  In precisely the same way, Americanism appealed to people raised within the framework of traditional American Christianity, with its focus on personal commitment and renewal and its tendency to focus on the purportedly timeless rather than on a particular sequence of sacred history.

If this suggests a certain dependence of civil religions on some older theist religion, it should. So far, I’ve talked mostly about the category “religion” and the ways in which assigning civil religions to that category casts light on some of their otherwise perplexing aspects. Still, the modifier “civil” deserves as much attention as the noun “religion.” If, as I’ve argued, civil religions can be understood a little better if they’re included in the broad category of religions in general, they also have distinctive features of their own, and one of them—the most important for the present purpose—is that they’re derivative; it would not be excessive, in fact, to call them parasitic.

The derivative nature of civil religions reaches out in two directions. First, where theist religions in literate urban societies generally have an institutional infrastructure set apart for their use—places of worship, places of instruction, organizations of religious professionals, and so on—civil religions most often don’t.  They make use of existing infrastructure in a distinctly ad hoc fashion. In the civil religion of Americanism, for example, there are sacred shrines to which believers make pilgrimages. Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where the Continental army under George Washington spent the decisive winter of the Revolutionary War, is a good example. 

Among believers in Americanism, the phrase “Valley Forge” is one to conjure with. While pilgrimage sites of theist religions are normally under the management of religious organizations, though, and are set apart for specifically religious uses, Valley Forge is an ordinary national park. Those who go there to steep themselves in the memory of the Revolution can count on rubbing elbows with birdwatchers, cyclists, families on camping vacations, and plenty of other people for whom Valley Forge is simply one of the largest public parks in southeastern Pennsylvania.  There’s a local convention and visitors bureau with a lavish website headlined “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Fun,” which may suggest the degree of reverence surrounding the site these days.

In the same way, it’s hard to speak of the priesthood of a civil religion in other than metaphorical terms; those who take an active role in promoting a civil religion rarely have the opportunity to make that a full time job.  A great many civil religions, in fact, are folk religions, sustained by the voluntary efforts of ordinary believers.  The existing political system may encourage these efforts, or it may make every effort to stamp the civil religion out of existence, but the fate of civil religions are rarely dependent on the actions of governments.  Communism again is a case in point; as a civil religion, it came under heavy persecution in those countries that did not have Communist governments, and received ample state support in those countries that did. Just as the persecutions usually failed to lessen the appeal of Communism to those who had not seen it in action, the state support ultimately failed to maintain its appeal to those who had.

The dependence of civil religions on infrastructure borrowed from nonreligious sources, in turn, is paralleled by an equivalent dependence on ideas borrowed from older theist religions. I’ve already discussed the way that the civil religion of Americanism derives its basic outlook from what used to be the mainstream of American Protestant Christianity, and the point-for-point equivalences between the theory of the Communist civil religion and the older sacred history of European Christianity. The same thing can be traced in other examples of civil religion—for example, the way that the civil religion of the late Roman world derived its theory and practice across the board from older traditions of classical Paganism. There’s a reason for this dependence, and it brings us back to Nietzsche, kneeling in the street with his arms around the neck of a half-dead horse.

Civil religions emerge when traditional theist religions implode. In 19th-century Europe and America, the collapse of traditional social patterns and the long-term impact of the Enlightenment cult of reason made uncritical acceptance of the teachings of the historic Christian creeds increasingly difficult, both for educated people and for the mass of newly urbanized factory workers and their families. Nietzsche, whose upbringing in rapidly industrializing Germany gave him a ringside seat for that process, saw the ongoing failure of the Western world’s faith in Christian revelation as the dawn of an age of tremendous crisis: the death of God, to use his trenchant phrase, would inevitably be followed by cataclysmic struggles to determine who or what would take his place.

In these impending conflicts, Nietzsche himself was anything but a disinterested bystander.  He had his own preferred candidate, the Overman: a human being of a kind that had never before existed, and could never have existed except by very occasional accident as long as religious belief provided an unquestioned basis for human values. The Overman was not a successor species to today’s humanity, as some of Nietzsche’s less thoughtful interpreters have suggested, nor some biologically superior subset of human beings, as Nietzsche’s tenth-rate plagiarists in the Nazi Party liked to pretend. As Nietzsche envisioned him, the Overman was an individual human being—always and irreducibly individual—who has become his own creator, reinventing himself moment by moment in the image of values that he himself has created. 

Nietzsche was perceptive enough, though, to take note of the other contenders for God’s empty throne, and sympathetic enough to recognize the importance and value of theist religion for those who could still find a way to believe in it. In the prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the first person Nietzsche’s alter ego Zarathustra meets as he descends from the mountains is an old hermit, who spends his days praising God. Zarathustra goes his way, being careful to do nothing to challenge the hermit’s faith, and only when he is alone again does he reflect:  “Can it be possible? This old saint in the forest hasn’t yet heard that God is dead!”

For the Overman’s rivals in the struggle to replace God, Nietzsche had less patience.  One alternative that he discussed at great length and greater heat was German nationalism, the local variant of the same civil religion that became Americanism on this side of the ocean.  The state was to him a “cold monster” that claimed the right to replace the Christian deity as the source of values and the object of public worship; he hated it partly because of its real flaws, and partly because it stood in the way of his preferred candidate. “There, where the state ends—look there, my brothers. Don’t you see it—the rainbow, and the bridges to the Overman?”

Socialism was another alternative Nietzsche noted; here again, his assault on it was partly a harsh but by no means inaccurate analysis of its failings, and partly a matter of brushing another contender aside to make way for the Overman. Still, another rival attracted more of his attention, and it was the ersatz deity with which this series of posts is principally concerned: progress, the belief that humanity is moving inevitably onward and upward toward some glorious destiny.

The challenge that Nietzsche leveled against belief in progress will be discussed later on, as it needs to be understood in the context of the most difficult dimension of his philosophy, and that in turn needs to be put into its own much broader context, one that will require more than a little explanation of its own. Still, the point I want to make here is that Nietzsche’s identification of faith in progress as an attempted replacement for faith in God is at least as valid now as it was in his own day.

Compare the civil religion of progress to the others discussed in this and last week’s post and the parallels are  hard to miss.  Like other civil religions, to begin with, the religion of progress has repeatedly proven its ability to call forth passions and motivate sacrifices as great as those mobilized by theist religions. From the researchers who have risked their lives, and not infrequently lost them, to further the progress of science and technology, to the moral crusaders who have done the same thing in the name of political or economic progress, straight on through to the ordinary people who have willingly given up things they valued because they felt, or had been encouraged to believe, that the cause of progress demanded that sacrifice from them, the religion of progress has no shortage of saints and martyrs. It has inspired its share of art, architecture, music and literature, covering the usual scale from the heights of creative genius to the depths of kitsch; it has driven immense social changes, and made a mark on the modern world considerably greater than that of contemporary theist religions.

The relationships between the civil religion of progress and theist religions, to pass to the second point raised last week, have been at least as problematic as those involving the civil religions we’ve already examined. The religion of progress has its own internal divisions, its own sects and denominations, and it bears noting that these have responded differently to the various theist faiths of the modern world. On the one hand, there have been plenty of efforts, more or less successful, to coopt Jesus, the Jewish prophets, and an assortment of other religious figures as crusaders for progress of one kind or another.  On the other hand, there have been any number of holy wars declared against theist faiths by true believers in progress who hold that belief in one or more gods is “primitive,” “backward,” and “outdated”—in the jargon of the religion of progress, please note, these and terms like them mean roughly what “sinful” means in the jargon of Christianity.

The civil religion of progress also has its antireligion, which is the belief in apocalypse.  Like the antireligions of other faiths, the apocalyptic antireligion embraces the core presuppositions of the faith it opposes—in this case, above all else, the vision of history as a straight line leading inexorably toward a goal that can only be defined in superlatives—but inverts all the value signs. Where the religion of progress likes to imagine the past as an abyss of squalor and misery, its antireligion paints some suitably ancient time in the colors of the Golden Age; where the religion of progress seeks to portray history as an uneven but unstoppable progress toward better things, its antireligion prefers to envision history as an equally uneven and equally unstoppable process of degeneration and decay; where the religion of progress loves to picture the future in the most utopian terms available, its antireligion uses the future as a screen on which to project lurid images of universal destruction.

The diverse sects and denominations of the religion of progress, furthermore, have their exact equivalent in the antireligion of apocalypse. There are forms of the antireligion that have coopted the language and imagery of older, theist faiths, and other forms that angrily reject those same faiths and everything related to them. Just as different versions of the religion of progress squabble over what counts as progress, different versions of the antireligion of apocalypse bicker over which kinds of degeneration matter most and what form the inevitable apocalypse is going to take—and in either case, as with other religions and their antireligions, the level of hostility between different subsets of the same religion or antireligion quite often exceeds the level that any branch of the religion directs at its antireligion, or vice versa.  The one great divergence between most forms of the religion of progress and most forms of its antireligion is that nowadays—matters have been different at other points in history—very few believers in progress expect the utopian future central to their faith to show up any time soon; most believers in the antireligion of apocalypse, by contrast, place all their hopes on the imminent arrival of cataclysm. Behind this divergence lies a complex historical situation, which will be explored in a later post.

The civil religion of progress, finally, shares the pattern of twofold dependence with the other civil religions we’ve examined.  Like them, it is largely a folk religion, supported by the voluntary efforts and contributions of its faithful believers, by way of an ad hoc network of institutions that were mostly created to serve other ends.  Those who  function as its priests and preachers have day jobs—even so important a figure as the late Carl Sagan, who came as close as anyone in recent times to filling the role of pope of the religion of progress, spent most of his career as a tenured  professor of astronomy at Cornell University.  Like most folk religions, it receives support from a variety of institutions that find it useful, but routinely behaves in ways that embarrass at least some of its sponsors.

The other side of its dependence—its reliance on a set of ideas borrowed from theist religion—is a more complicated matter. In order to make sense of it, it’s going to be necessary to look into the unexpected origins of the idea of progress in the modern world.  We’ll pursue that discussion next week.


Hotspringswizard said...

The most vastly accepted religion on the planet is humans thinking they have free will, at least the way I see it :-) Love your insights Mr Greer! You illuminate so well where we have been, where we are, and what might lie in our future. I think its a great thing that you have taken so much of your time to share your knowledge with others. Your like a breath of fresh air in these troubled times :-)

Phil Knight said...

One institution that had one foot in theist religion, and the other foot in the State is the moribund institution of Monarchy - the ultimate victim of the religion of Progress.

If you want to really upset a progressive atheist, don't tell them you think that Christianity or any other religion will regain its appeal; tell them instead that you think that the Monarchy will regain some of their political or legislative power. It's utterly unthinkable to them.

I can certainly see this happening in a place like Japan, for example, and not too far into the future either. Perhaps the re-emergence of Fascism in Europe will simply be an interim stage in which the seeds of the "irrational" are sown in order to allow the resurrection of The King.

Phil Harris said...

You made the point in a previous post and expand on it here, that us Westerners are embedded in the Christian traditions. The same is true of our eating and breathing 'Progress'. It seems something more though than a 'folk religion'. It appears foundational in Policy. Everything from projected 'learning / cost' curves in the take-up of renewables technology, to Tony Blair's one-word answer to questions about energy reserves depletion in Britain: "Technology". For sure, as folk remedy it rides alongside medical science in the form of fund raising for cancer research and other 'fights' in the good cause, but it is still implicit, often enshrined in policy targets of all kinds.

The push-back seems to come from the complexity engendered by those same efforts to meet those same targets? Given that there are also inevitably numerous arms-races built into the 'Progress' model, stability is the thing we do not see. 'Onwards and Upwards' as the old Ramblers' song used to put it. Lends an edge to geopolitics as you have pointed out in previous posts.

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

"...motivate sacrifices as great as those mobilized by theist religions."

And sacrifice many animals we have for the good of science and progress. The amount of little and large animals put to death in ghoulish ways in modern times for scientific experiments makes chicken sacrifices at the Kali temples here in India look like a bunch of kids frying ants with magnifying glasses.

We like to talk about progress in "human rights", but for animals our progress is their hell in many ways.

Jason said...

JMG, two questions. First, have you ever looked at the work of S. N. Balagangadhara on religion? I wrote a brief blog post here on some of his ideas if interested.

The very short version is that "a standard Chinese response to being queried on 'religion' in China is to say that the Chinese do not have one" (Jordan Paper), and the same in India. Since pre-reformation Christianty actually agrees with this -- travellers abroad used to come back saying that the foreigners "had no religion" -- Balu believes that "religion" is really a Western post-Protestant category being foisted on worldwide situations that it doesn't fit.

How do you feel about that one?

I know you don't want to "get hung up on definitions", but I notice you are doing defining yourself, as last week, to NH Peter:

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... While religions do many other things as well, it's safe to say that anything that doesn't do this isn't a religion.

That leads to the question whether the reverse is true -- can any source of "basic presuppositions about life in the world" be termed a "religion"? I presume the answer for you is "no"?

Rita Narayanan said...

One striking difference between the secular ideas of progress and any religious idea- the integration of human life with the cosmos in the internal sense.

from ancient original tribal belief to all religions(no matter how they compete with each other)...the integration of human life to the grand scheme of things.

Progress does have it's space station,Hubble and Contact moments but this is essentially "different" from a cosmic purpose.

Thanks for the lovely articles as always :)

Rita... Mumbai, India

Richard Larson said...

The religion of progress isn't getting enough donations to cover the costs of the employees (laypeople) and corporate interests (high priests) that are expecting their glorious retirement in heaven!

When the bills come do (right here, right now), and the congregation can't give anymore (even with voluntary compliance receipts are dropping hard), I guess it will be Apocalypse! For them!

Overman is interesting concept. I might start using that one. :-)

mark hewitt said...

May I also thank you JMG, I look in every week without fail, although your last few reports have been a little chewy for me. Here in the UK the death of Mrs Thatcher has broke open a hornets nest. I live in what used to be called Coal-Town
right where the miners strike in1984-85 started. Here the religon of political power, creates such strong feelings of resentment of the political elite. I myself attempt to keep a balanced view (or stay sat on a fence).
We have been on the long desent for the past 25 years and had to learn to adapt to the tough times.

Zachary Braverman said...

When Americans say that America is "free", I just can't figure out what they mean. I think there is no actual concrete referent. And it appears that their higher intellectual faculties just blink out of existence for a few moments when invoking this language.

As an American who has lived overseas for a long time, I see that most people in most countries are just as "free" as Americans are. Of course things are different if you live in, say North Korea, Cuba, and to some extent China, along with a handful of other countries, but most people in the world really are no less free than Americans. If you mention this to Americans, they get vaguely threatened and bewildered, and can't really answer coherently.

(Of course, the one freedom that Americans really do have most other countries in the world don't is the freedom to buy guns, but somehow I don't think most Americans think of this as what they mean.)

Approliving said...

Communism, “Americanism”, and the faith in progress also have fundamental qualitative differences with theistic religions – differences which are significant enough that calling these them “religions” (civic or otherwise) runs the risk of rendering “religion” effectively useless as a category. A further difference which I didn’t mention last week: these “civic religions” are often only identified by detractors who consider themselves to be outside or above those religions, while the alleged faithful may not recognize or agree to such classification.
I can see how “civic religions” are at least partly derivative of actual religions, but I reckon calling them parasitic is a bit of a stretch. You could just as easily say that it is traditional religions which are parasitic: whereas traditional religions compel the wider community to commit limited resources to buildings and institutions which have little or no other function than advancing the interests of the religion, “civic religions” offer economies of scope by utilising buildings and infrastructure which have significant value to society independent of their use as “religious” places.
The same is true of the so-called priesthood of civic religions, particularly the civic religion of progress: Carl Sagan et al serve (or served) useful functions to society independent of their alleged faiths, and unlike traditional religious officials their alleged priesthood functions were unofficial by-products of their actual day jobs.
Traditional/theist religions may have declined in relative influence over the centuries (in parts of the world anyway), but I would hardly say that they have “imploded”. They have had to adapt and compromise as they have been displaced from their dominant cultural position, but in many respects the traditional religions have also benefited from the rise of certain “civic religions” (e.g. Americanism, progress) and co=opted them for their own gain. I can sort of see what you mean when you refer to a “cult of reason”, but you’re also on the verge of rendering “cult” meaningless as a category: why not just talk about a “cult of evidence” or a “cult of open-minded scepticism” as well?
I think that passions and sacrifice called out by the “civic religions” have been primarily motivated by a perfectly legitimate desire to improve the lot of humanity in the real world, rather than some abstract notion of bringing about Progress or a communist utopia etc. In many cases it has also been about standing one’s ground against the tyrannical bullying of established religious and political institutions– a notion which, in my opinion, is as human as it is admirable.
As for the anti-religion for progress, the idea that humanity is going through an equally unstoppable process of degeneration and decay is far older than modern notions of progress: according to Hinduism we are in a “Kali Yuga” or Dark Age of human moral and spiritual decay, while traditional forms of Christianity suggest that the world will be in an utterly degraded state filled with rotten sinners by the time Judgement Day arrives. With these sorts of attitudes handed down the generations by traditional religions, is it any wonder that people eventually started to incline towards new worldviews which weren’t so negative and misanthropic?
I think that instead of talking about “civil religions” and “theistic religions”, it is more sensible to talk about “ideologies” that can be primarily religious or political in nature.

Bill Pulliam said...

I'm sure you will get to this...

You have (deliberately at this stage, I suspect) left the term "progress" very loosely defined; I suppose this is in keeping with your noting that terms like "Americanism" are also vague and squishy. My initial reaction when I have heard it is to think of progress in science and technology. But reading through this week's post, it suddenly dawns on me that it can also encompass our belief in progress in another area. I'll just throw out a collection of tag lines and buzz words here: civil rights, equality, compassion, inclusiveness, and that maybe-not-so-off-topic-topic from last week's comment thread, feminism. There's a belief (perhaps one might say a faith) in a steady expansion of the concept of personhood, bigger self, less other. I'm feeling that the vision of a future in which race, gender, sexuality, religious differences, etc. etc. are all fully respected and live together in beautiful harmony sits right up there on the throne of progress with the future of starships, disease cured with a little buzz from a handheld device, and energy that flows endlessly from some absolutely clean and silent blue cube in the closet.

This would also tie in with why so many apocalyptic fantasies involve slavery, feudalistic hierarchies, and seething underclasses of imperfect people.

Odin's Raven said...

Do you regard Greenery as a third category of religion? It seems to have a strong apocalyptic aspect, whether as a component or as an anti-religion.

Mister Roboto said...

The religion of progress has its own internal divisions, its own sects and denominations,

Yes, and it has its fundamentalists who would legislate their ideology into the law of the land, in the form of the atheist-skeptic zealots who would legally ban not only professional astrologers, Tarot card readers, and alternative health practioners, but ban the publication of books advocating such things. You can find some of these on the Internet at the website While this crowd has a lot less likelihood of realizing any success in their crusade than their fundamentalist Christian counterparts, what they both have in common is the delusion that the American people might have any interest in living in the grim Calvinist social paradise they would impose upon everybody else. Also, both of these mindsets tend to appeal to those whose personal lives haven't been very rewarding at all.

Nestorian said...

I have questions about two aspects of your analysis: First, are not the various modern examples of civil religion that both you and Nietzsche have cited (Americanism, German nationalism, Communism, crypto-Hegelian state worship, etc.) themselves particular variants, or "sects," if you will, of the religion of progress?

Second, you write that civil religions come to flourish on the basis of the implosion of the theistic religions from which they borrow. But is it not true that American civil religion has roots in American culture that extend straight back to the robustly Puritan colonial settlements of the early 17th century?

In examining later American history, moreover, it seems to me that Americanism grew into a flourishing civil religion right alongside, and not in the wake of the demise of, robustly theistic American Protestantism. And even today, the strongest proponents of American civil religion seem to be precisely those subgroups of the American population who hold the strongest Christian convictions (I have in mind in particular the large mass of Evangelical Protestants in the US, and to a lesser extent also right wing Catholics).

On the whole, then, the American experience would suggest a sort of competitive simultaneity of the American civil religion with the Christianity from which it borrows, rather than an opportunistic takeover of a religious vacuum in the culture following the demise of its theistic antecedent.

BruceH said...

It has been some 20 to 25 years now, I forget exactly when because it was a gradual evolution, since I stopped identifying myself as a “Progressive.” Like you, I realized that “Progress” was the key myth supporting Industrial Civilization's drive to lay waste to everything in it's path heedless of any natural limits. And it was their "Progressive" blinders that kept so many activists I knew from realizing that it was not enough just to create or demand "change" but our task also required maintenance and restoration of parts of our culture that "Progress" would have them throw in the dumpster.

I still remember Ronny Reagan in his role as the TV pitchman for General Electric in the '60's telling us over and over again “At GE, Progress is our most important product.”

I appreciate your description of the “anti-religion” side of the religion of Progress. I have from time to time found myself having to resist the temptation to succumb to “Apocalism.” The idea that it's is merely the flip side of the coin of Progress will make it easier to resist in the future. It will also come in handy in redirecting the pessimism of the increasing number of people I meet who are becoming susceptible to Apocalism.

I've just finished “Not the Future We Ordered.” These last couple of posts actually take the ideas you presented in the book a step farther. It's good to see you are continuing to develop and expand on these themes.

Ryan said...

A phrase in this post brought to mind George Orwell's perspective on the direction of contemporary progress. Do you have an opinion on Mr. Orwell's views?

Joy said...

"—even so important a figure as the late Carl Sagan, who came as close as anyone in recent times to filling the role of pope of the religion of progress..."
Ah, so I am not the only one who has identified the religion within Sagan's Cosmos! Compare the opening paragraph of Cosmos: "The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries", with Genesis 1:1-2: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness [was] upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters", and John 1:1-5: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not". One can feel as much awe and wonder flowing from the supposedly scientific Sagan as from the spirit-filled (according to Christians) Biblical authors.

Twilight said...

I've been reminiscing recently about my time in the center of the religion of progress. My father was part of the generation of engineers and scientists who graduated in the early 1960's – becoming a professor of electrical engineering with a PHD in EE and a BS in physics. This was a generation of extraordinarily well educated and talented people who developed the foundations for the technology we have today – funded by limitless almost-free energy and the riches of a large percentage of the world brought home by empire.

I grew up in the heart of this belief. I visited dad at the university, seeing the computer systems and the latest research projects, playing Pong on a prototype before anyone had heard of a video game, watching all the space launches and the first moon landing, marveling at all the latest technology, reading science fiction non-stop. Clearly we were going somewhere, including eventually to the stars. I became an engineer, albeit a more pedestrian circuit designer, but I have often been in contact with men of my father's generation and they are indeed giants in what they accomplished compared to my paltry talents.

A few years ago dad retired and I helped him clean out his office at the university – the proceedings of the IEEE, the papers with math I cannot even read let alone comprehend. Most of it was disposed of and what was kept may never be read, or be relevant, again. By then it was quite apparent to me that this dream was over. Somewhere along the way I lost the faith. I try not to press these points too hard with my father, as it is too late for him to begin a new career and I do not want to convey that his life's work was not of value. I remember him up late working for his Doctorate when I was a child, the dining room table covered with reams of paper scribbled with equations. Yet he has also moved on it seems – he does nothing with it anymore, has become a pretty good gardener and sees the climate and energy issues better than most.

And when I look at the US, I see no one to replace these men. Perhaps on other shores they are repeating this drama, but here it is over. The masses may still chant the prayers, but the center of it is hollowed out and gone. Progress is dead.

rucafiorio said...

Lovely essay James :) I so find myself as a proselite to a significant religion, instead of a mere agnostic. I rather enjoy that, call it a former guilty feeling ;)
I must say, though, that my religion, progress, has made available such a host of true predictions, factual knowledge and concrete goods to shame all theist ones. A pity our most powerful priests, politicians, will stop at nothing to pursue their own goals, and so condemn the other believers to ecological doom... I wonder if the time has come to sacrifice the priests instead of the lambs.

Ben said...

I've noticed that many of my co-workers think that 'the environmentalists' are responsible for the collapse of manufacturing in America. When I ask them why they think so, the typical response goes something like this; "America could be self-sufficient if we just got the environmentalists out of the way" or "the environmentalists want to depopulate the countryside and move everyone into big cities."
I would seem then, that as 'conservative' as my co-workers view themselves, they too adhere to the religion of progress, only in this case it isn't traditional religion that is holding humanity back (I have friends that hold this belief), but tree-huggers.
I wonder when this branch of the religion of progress broke off the the more atheist, traditional-religion-is-the-problem branch? The 1980s?

mtraven said...

I'm surprised to find no mention of the almost-explicitly-religious technology cults like Singularianism and Transhumanism. Maybe these aren't on your radar but they are very influential in Silicon Valley and thus on everybody else.

Kyoto Motors said...

I have much the same line of questioning as Nestorian (good points!) So I'll keep my ears up for the discussin that follows. I'm seeing an interesting analysis of how these various religions aren't necessarily distinct from one another at all. Which is, I guess, one of the main points here (?)...Fascinating to look at Engels' work in such a light - ironic for sure, and almost downright comical...

My donkey said...

I suspect there's a large number of people who don't care about religions of any kind, theistic or civil. But you won't hear from these folks because they don't spend any time thinking about such topics -- and you can't write or talk about something you don't think about.

Consider the dull and repetitive thoughts of everyday adult life: feeding the cat, walking the dog, taking our children to soccer, doing some activity with our spouse etc. So many of our waking moments are occupied by thoughts of Responsibility: to our pets, children, spouse, boss, co-workers, friends, extended family, community, and also to our belongings such as car, house, and yard. All of these things require some degree of maintenance, and therefore varying amounts of time and thought devoted to them. It's tiring.

So when it's time to relax, all we can think about is sedating ourselves with techno-gadgetry, canned entertainment, and junk food. If you talk to us about religion, we'll gaze at you with the glassy-eyed stare of a cow chewing its cud. If you hit us with an apocalyptic story, we might flash you a deer-in-the-headlights look, but if you go on about it for more than ten seconds, we'll revert to chewing our cud. And if you persist for more than a minute on the same topic, we'll smile and say "That's interesting" and walk away.

We spend as much time thinking about god as we do thinking about the possible existence of microscopic creatures living in the mud beneath some extraterrestrial ocean in the Andromeda galaxy. And we spend an equal amount of time thinking about Space Bats and Friedrich Nietzsche, both of whom we've never heard of and couldn't care less about. None of these things have any effect on our daily lives, which is why we don't know about them, don't care about them, and don't think about them.

If you really want to get our undivided attention, you'll have to orchestrate a massive blackout that lasts more than three days. First we'll be in the dark with our useless gadgets. Then we'll get cold. Then hungry.

And on the evening of the sixth day, when we're huddled around the kitchen table, shivering in the pale glow of our last emergency candle, we hope you come for a visit. And when you say to us, "OK team, listen up. It's time to talk about Nietzsche!" we'll finally realize we're not cows afterall.

P.S. The views expressed here aren't necessarily my own. I'm just relaying what my donkey said.

Stacy said...

Reflecting on this week's post, I realized that I've participated in most of the theist and civic religions you describe. I was born in 1969 to parents whose small-town schools had taught them Progressivism and Americanism. So they headed for the city, worried they were too late for the party, while my Grandmother adopted evangelical beliefs. Grandma was convinced we were going to Hell, and my parents were convinced she was living in Hell already. To placate her, my parents sent me to Southern Baptist Sunday school. I flirted with Communism-lite (British socialism) in college, tried traditional Christianity, returned to my father's faith as a young adult, and joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Then I studied just enough geology to head off the deep end into anti-progressivism and became an insufferable apocalyptic. I have no idea how common or uncommon this is, or even if my experiences have relevance for anyone else, as this topic is so very difficult for me to discuss with off-line friends and relations.

kollapsnik said...

Seeing everything through the religious lens can sometimes confuse things more than clarify them. Communism as religion was still-born, which is why Stalin brought back Orthodox Christianity to win World War II. But it worked as propaganda: Soviet citizens could sit in their comfortable apartments watching television and see poor working-class Americans starving and freezing on the streets even as other Americans partied, leading them to believe that "our bastards are better than their bastards." Lost in all this is the point that communism has nothing to do with Marx or Engels but predates them, and it can work very well, just not at the level of the nation-state. Just ask the Hutterites. Their communes are sized between 75 and 150; after that they undergo fission. Americanism, on the other hand, is mainly propelled by fear of exclusion and is largely a way of ingratiating oneself into the "in-group" (the US being more a country club than a country) and has less to do with faith than with opportunism and conformism. The "Faith in progress" is a different animal yet, and is, in most of its practitioners, indistinguishable from superstition borne of dependency: like saying "mashala-mashala" or some other magic incantation as you push the button, hoping that the thing does what it's supposed to, because if it doesn't then you are stuck in the elevator shaft and have to pray even harder as you push the emergency call button, hoping that it, at least, is going to work. They have to believe, in technology, because the alternative is just too scary, and since technology is generally known to progress, progress comes as part of the package. In the end, religion seems like little more than a metaphor—one that is easily stretched too far.

russell1200 said...

Very cool, I have an anti-civic religion! What would the secular, bumping into the math of reality anti-religion be called? The Club of Rome?

What is great about that particular anti-religion (yes I am trying to gain converts!) is that you don't have to disavow the religion of progress as it previously stood. You need only accept that we are reaching a point with different conditions.

Iuval Clejan said...

JMG, I see you are refraining from pointing out negative aspects of the religion of Progress, and so far have been content with showing similarities to other religions. I realize that the concept of negativity is problematic when you believe in freedom of religion. Who are we to decide what detrimental to any individual? Yet we could look for patterns that emerge from the collective belief in any religion on resource use, economic exploitation, environmental destruction, and compare how most humans get basic human needs met under different means of living and working that follow from different religions. I think from this type of analysis one could say that some religions are better than others, with Progress not at the top of the heap.

derekthered said...

geez, i must not be very devout, as apart from recognizing the existence of class struggle, and the first couple paragraphs of the manifesto, i don't have much interest in what the great commie thinkers have to say. but of course, it could be me, maybe i am just mentally lazy, or maybe i just recognize that times change and a person needs to keep up.
having attended a couple party meetings i can certainly vouch for the fact that your assertion is true, these committed party types? (all three of them)they certainly followed the party line, pretty sickeing really.

yup, progress is certainly a religion, any new gadget that comes up is hailed as an "advance", whether it does anything useful or not, no matter how much energy it sucks up, and whether or not whatever limited applications it may have will be restricted to the cognoscenti.

another thing is that these political parties? christ! disagree with any of them, supposed left, right, center? you are some sort of devil incarnate, either that or a "knuckledragger", never mind that cave mens knuckles didn't drag. omg! did i just use a sexually exclusive term? forgive me, i am not worthy, i am a worm, i am no man..........
and that is the "left", the sensitive caring types, let's not even talk about the right, they wouldn't like me anyway. poor red.

actually? talking to all kinds of people? there are points of agreement across the spectrum, but it is as you say, this seeming need human beings have for group behavior is too easily co-opted to get them to support whatever mumbo-jumbo the real true believers toss out into the ether.

Unknown said...


Re: Bill Pulliam's comment that progress could be defined as an expansion of civil rights: well of course star ships powered by dilithium crystal fusion engines, holographic holidays, and portable communications devices are destined to be accompanied by "endless diversity in endless combinations", are they not? In fact, if I remember my Star Trek correctly, it is the invention of the warp engine that leads directly to first contact, and, subsequently, peace on Earth. Had the warp engine not been built and tested, the implication is that humanity would have broken into ever-smaller lawless tribes warring each other to extinction. Peace and enlightenment in the Trek-verse appear to depend on good engineering.

I do wonder at times how far from the truth that is. Technology has created possibilities for travel, for education, and for communication for first-world people and increasingly for those in the developing world, that weren't available to most of our ancestors, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that the idea of expanding possibility embodied by that technology has had an impact in how some folks think about "the other". Absent the possibility for mass travel and communication over long distances, will the amount of goodwill we are willing to expend toward those who are unfamiliar to us expand or contract? Otoh, absent a religious, or near-religious view that states that all acceptance of diversity is progress and all progress is good, will we care?

SLClaire said...

In regard to the "borrowing" of existing institutions for the purpose of the religion of progress, I think one of those borrowed institutions is the university. I am not well studied in history and know almost nothing of the history of the university, but I do know a little history of science courtesy of a college course (one of my favorites). If I recall correctly, scientific research as we understand it now was before the 1900s, and partway into that decade, generally pursued by people of means on their own time and in their own quarters, spending their own funds. Sometime in the 1900s, scientists made an alliance with government and sold the government on the idea that if only more tax dollars could be spent on their research projects at the university level, ever so much more progress could be made on understanding the way the universe works. Out of that better understanding, ever more products would be made to promote the folk version of the religion: progress is getting more good stuff. If I recall correctly (and I know you will let me know if I'm wrong), there had been little government interest in universities as tools to crank out research and researchers before this time.

The deal was done, and scientists got their dollars. Universities had been places where few people attended before this, but as a result of the money coming in more students were enticed into attending and being trained into their various roles in the religion. This was itself considered progress, of course. I am thinking that once other departments caught on to the process their colleagues in the sciences pulled off, they put in their own requests, couched in the language of progress. At that time there was plenty to go around so they got their money and students too. Now we are at a point where the university is not a place for serious scholars of a discipline, but rather a place for training of people to produce more good stuff, the folk version of progress. That edifice is showing cracks, part of the greater loss of faith in progress that you are outlining.

Thanks for your time spent in critiquing these comments, JMG (not to mention writing the original post). I will look forward to your thoughts.

John Michael Greer said...

Wizard, if human beings have no free will, then those who believe in free will have no choice but to believe in free will, right? ;-)

Phil H., true enough. I don't expect to see much in the way of monarchy in my lifetime, but give it a few generations.

Phil K., well, yes. I'll be expanding my analysis of the religion of progress as we proceed.

Jeffrey, it's an interesting question whether our current society, per capita, kills more animals than past societies -- I don't happen to know one way or the other.

Jason, a great many non-Western cultures don't have a word that translates the English term "religion," but have activities and institutions that correspond precisely to those called "religious" in English-speaking countries. Once again, it's a matter of categories. As for definitions, no, I'm not defining -- simply mentioning one of the factors I'd consider in seeing whether something belongs in the category I'm discussing. Not the same thing...

Rita, there I think you're missing one of the core concepts of the religion of progress -- believers see themselves as being integrated into the grand scheme of things. If you believe in a materialist view of the cosmos, as lumps of matter gradually evolving toward higher and higher levels of integration and intelligence, then progress becomes the cutting edge of universal evolution -- Carl Sagan had a lot to say about that, back in the day.

Richard L., read Nietzsche first -- it's a richer and more complex concept than I've had space to discuss here.

Mark, a fence can be a very useful place to sit! Yes, I've seen some of the debates following Thatcher's death -- I wish we'd had a similar reexamination of the past when Reagan died.

Zachary, exactly! Ask them what they mean by "freedom" and your odds of getting a coherent answer are not good. That doesn't mean that what they're talking about is meaningless, far from it -- it simply means that it relates to a realm not easily subjected to words.

Approliving, I suppose if you want to, you can go through my post with white-out and write "ideology" where I've written "religion," but that sort of quibble over terminology seems of little use to me.

Bill, excellent! You get today's gold star. Yes, in fact, I'll be getting to that, probably in two weeks. As I see it, there are at least three things jumbled up together in the mythology of progress -- moral progress (the movement toward a better society), scientific and technological progress (the conquest of nature), and economic progress (the dream of abundance for all). Most of the critiques of progress, so called, that we've seen so far have been challenging one of these in the name of one of the others. More on this shortly!

Raven, by Greenery I assume you mean the Green movement? It's largely turned into a sect of the antireligion of progress, as I'll explain down the road a bit.

Lee said...

”…the civil religions I’ve named each embody a set of emotionally appealing narratives that claim to reveal enduring meaning in the chaos of everyday existence, assign believers a privileged status vis-a-vis the rest of humanity, …”

Finally! I think someone just explained the deeply entrenched sense of entitlement that is so prevalent in today’s society. I have been angered and bewildered (often at the same time) by it. I had never considered the notion of civil religion before your current series. It certainly seems to help explain a lot.

Do you think the sense of entitlement is a result of Progress or Americanism, or maybe the offspring of both?

Thank you for expanding my mind!

John Michael Greer said...

Mister R., no argument there. It's remarkable how closely the two kinds of fundamentalists copy one another.

Nestorian, good. Civil religions have complex relationships with one another as well as with theist religions, and it's not uncommon to find one civil religion coopting the imagery of another, for example. For reasons I'll be explaining next week, and exploring in more detail later on, Communism and the religion of progress have sharply different roots, though the former borrowed heavily from the latter at various times in its history; nationalist civil religions, similarly, have no necessary connection to the religion of progress, but there have been any number of syncretisms between them, not least here in America.

As for the intersection between Americanism and Christianity, that's an exceptionally complex situation, not least because at this point most of what calls itself Christianity here in the US has essentially nothing to do with the historic Christian faith -- as I know you're quite aware! Most so-called conservative Christianity in America these days is far more interested in reimposing the social mores of the 1950s than in anything else; Jesus functions mostly as a totemic figure representing what people believed back when America was still America (sic). In the same way, in American liberal Christianity, Jesus gets redefined as a divine civil rights activist and social worker. The eviscerated husk of Christianity thus becomes a shell in which two competing civil religions contend for dominance.

BruceH, I suspect a lot of us have been through some variant of the same complex religious pilgrimage; I certainly have. You're quite correct that these ideas are a development of the ones I explored in Not The Future We Ordered -- that book focused on the psychological dimension; here I want to go a bit deeper.

Ryan, as I don't have time to go digging through Orwell's collected works to figure out exactly which views you have in mind, perhaps you could post a quote or a link.

Joy, precisely. I'm convinced that Sagan did that deliberately -- he seems to have realized that materialist atheism wasn't going to appeal to a mass market unless it harnessed the emotional forces that undergird successful religions.

Twilight, thank you for sharing your recollections! That's the sort of reflection that, to my mind, needs to happen much more often these days.

Rucafioro, er, who's this James person you're addressing?

blue sun said...

I've generally held the assumption that any individual, at any given time, can be a member of only one religion. OK, I've detected nothing in your writing so far to contradict this. But if Progress is another civil religion like Americanism, than it would seem you are saying that millions are necessarily members of both religions simultaneously. Is this what you're saying?

I can see how a person could be a member of both a theist religion and it's civil religion partner simultaneously. Becasue the one is a parasite of the other, they're glued together in a host/parasite pair. Thus an ancient Roman can be both a classical pagan and a 'Romanist.'

I can also see how people could switch allegiances, even on a yearly basis (we all know somebody like that). And I don't discount exceptional individuals who may manage to keep feet in multiple doors. I fully understand Gandhi when he called himself both a Hindu, Christian, Muslim, and Jew. (At least I think I do.)

But in the context of this discussion, isn't it a basic assumption that a given person can be a member of only one religion (or one host/parasite pair) at a time? What am I missing here?

blue sun said...

P.S. Waaahh! How come Bill gets the gold star? I said that three weeks ago. Can I at least get a cheap plastic star? Its more valuable in my religion ;)

Nano said...

On the question of "Free Will;" free from what exactly?

NH Peter said...

JMG, quick note on punctuation you might find interesting. In some editions of Zarathustra the final punctuation of Prologue Section 2 is simply a period, not an exclamation point: “Dieser alte Heilige hat in seinem Walde noch nichts davon gehort, dass Gott tot ist.” “This old man in the forest has not yet heard that God is dead.” I’ve put out a request to Nietzsche Source for clarification, and will let you know what they have to say (their official version is “!” but I wonder about the notebooks on this). At any rate, the point is that it might be that for Zarathustra, at this stage of his cycle, the fact of God’s death is no longer a cause of excitement (which is more riveting than a hundred exclamation points!). This version also illuminates his compassion for the old saint. Thought you might like that.

But to your post: I am so glad to see these ideas in your grip! In my comments last week I was trying to draw out the problem of the ubiquity of religion given the definition we have justly applied to it (albeit for utility’s sake!). You seemed to indicate last week, regarding my comment about Machiavelli, that the religion of progress claims to have no metaphysics. I think that is correct about the religion of progress believing this claim. But if that is the case than I would like to guess that the “most difficult dimension” of Nietzsche’s philosophy you mention this week will entail the exploration of the metaphysics of the will to power. My suspicion, formed over the last 25 years dealing with Herr Nietzsche, is that this overwhelming and awesome idea sits at the root of modernity’s powerful domination of nature. I look forward to your presentation, and if I see someplace where I can assist, I’ll do my best. Courage is the essential virtue of the philosopher, and you set an impressive example of it!

And to Twilight, I fully sympathize with your personal encounter with the death of Progress. As the desert nomads used to say of the aqueducts, “The gods built these.”

Joe M said...

I'm not sure if you ever go to or watch movies, JMG (I know you don't watch TV), but I submit that the 2009 Star Trek movie was the epitome of the religion of Progress made manifest on film.

I found that movie fascinating (not particularly good -- yeah, I said it -- but fascinating) because of the unvarnished embrace of capital-P Progress that undergirded it, even as compared to other sci-fi optimist fantasies. I submit that the widespread lovefest for this movie was not just because Star Trek is still a popular franchise but also because the film's unironic, over-the-top, unlimited-everything optimism about the future synched with our culture's hope against hope that Progress is not yet dead. It was especially a fit as a counterbalance to the fear felt in that dreadful early recessionary year of 2009.

Mark Luterra said...

Hi John,

I look forward to your posts each week, and I consider you a good fit for the category of wizard, a wizard being someone who draws on diverse knowledge and history to draw meaningful conclusions about life - conclusions which often contradict mainstream ideology. As such, I find it difficult to ignore anything you say simply because I disagree with it, and your posts have stimulated some intense discussions in my circle of friends.

There is a certain consistency in your choice of topics and your persuasive tone, an underlying conviction that the world operates according to certain rules and that the future will therefore unfold in a specific way. The more I read of your writing, the more I find myself believing that your interpretation is correct.

Reading your post on civil religion last week, I had an "aha" moment. The belief inspired by your posts, and similar writings by others in the Peak Oil movement, is vying for the same place in my mind previously occupied by belief in Progress.

In other words, you are laying out the foundations of a new civil religion, one that I might call Descent though any number of other labels would be appropriate.

I don't want to pass judgment, only to ask if you are aware that the coherence, consistency, and persuasiveness of your writing is such that your vision of the future (and appropriate steps to survive/succeed in that future) fits fairly nicely into your definition of a civil religion.

I penned some additional thoughts on civil religion, and my own desire to find one with which I resonate, on my blog after reading your post last week. If you're interested, it's at

MawKernewek said...

I may have posted this on here before but the video featuring Carl Sagan is relevant A Glorious Dawn.

Progress is taken as a given, with interstellar travel inevitable except in the case of nuclear annihilation.

Here the myth of apocalypse isn't really the idea of a past Golden Age and decline from there, but the idea that progress will be rudely interrupted by catastrophe, in this case nuclear war.

dowsergirl said...

Progress as a noun defines forward movement. As a verb it is to move forward in space or time. That's pretty general. The further definitions that we mostly associate with the word progress is development, growth and steady improvement. Otherwise we would all be progressing like lemmings towards the cliff.....

Yikes, all of your comments are going to keep me up all night. Bill definitely gets the gold star.

As for the Green religion, it became one when coopted by product development. Now everything that sells is green.

Odin's Raven said...

Here's a Russian with some very un-civil things to say about American religion!

Sean Cosmist said...

JMG and Joy, I agree that Carl Sagan was one of the most brilliant prophets of cosmic religion to come along, but I don’t think what he was preaching was quite the same as your Religion of Progress. Sagan’s philosophy, which I call “Cosmism”, is really a form of pantheism. His quotes like “The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be”, “We are made of star stuff”, “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself”, etc. suggest that the Cosmos itself is a kind of god, and the act of learning about it through science is a form of reverence.

Sagan also said: “A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.” So it seems pretty clear that Sagan liked the idea of this kind of religion, but it doesn’t require that you believe in infinite material progress or galactic empires. I think for Sagan and those of us who admire him, progress is more about the unbounded quest for knowledge. I don’t see how the genie of scientific knowledge can be put back in the bottle, or why you would want to. Just in the past decade, we have discovered hundreds of extrasolar planets, from which we can infer that there are billions of planets in our galaxy alone, surely many of them as beautiful as Earth. So why limit your concern to this one tiny pale blue dot and wish to remain here forever? How can anyone ignore the vast horizons our scientific knowledge has opened up, and want to keep their gaze Earthward and be bound by pre-scientific modes of thought? Like Sagan, I am totally mystified by this kind of thinking. I would be interested to hear an Archdruid’s perspective on these matters. Thank you.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

If you want to really upset a progressive atheist, don't tell them you think that Christianity or any other religion will regain its appeal; tell them instead that you think that the Monarchy will regain some of their political or legislative power. It's utterly unthinkable to them."

I think this is completely on target: given the generally insane disposition of most humans, even in the Age of Progress (people don't know their neighbors), the re-emergence of feudalism and monarchies is probably inevitable and even desirable. Someone has to have sovereignty to decide when too much clear cutting actually is destroying the Commons.

Older, more traditional forms of Christianity (such as Orthodoxy) should do extremely well - the Slavs have always resisted Westernization. You also see interest in "Celtic Christianity", which had a much more nuanced approach to Nature. What definitely will NOT survive in the Christian camp is the mainline denominations of advanced Protestantism. They are strapped to the anchor of Modernity.

Zach L-R said...

I worry that some of the folks commenting about Carl Sagan on this forum have neither read his writing and transcribed spoken words, nor seen any of the 13 episodes of public television's Cosmos. He was neither a Panglossian scientist nor a cynical peddler of wonder by stealing the metaphors of religion. In his academic life he was a genius, determining why Venus was not likely to harbor life (what he called the greenhouse effect was making the planet too hot), warning the US Congress about the newly discovered dangers of nuclear winter if the cold war got too much more insane, and helping to get the galactic greeting cards called the Voyager space probes launched. But he was indeed a scientific preacher in that he wanted to share the revelations of science with the laity. He was greatly animated by all fields of science, so he wanted to tell the general public the implications of research on the evolution of the human brain (Broca'sBrain, and Dragons of Eden), and he wanted to pass along the sense of soaring wonder that he felt when he contemplated our place in the big picture. That is, humanity's place is vanishingly small, but given the billions of star systems in our galaxy, the billions of galaxies in the visible universe, the discovered natural laws and the demonstrated power of evolution, there are almost certainly other, probably equally insignificant, societies out there. He wanted to meet them. But, barring that remote possibility in his lifetime, he at least wanted everyone to know that, unlike the trade secrets of the guilds and priesthoods of old, scientific knowledge is in the public domain. And it is awe inspiring!
hope the Archdruid will indulge me with a 2-part excerpt from Sagan's book A Demon Haunted World. It's a passage that I have included in the first-day handouts for my genetics-class students.

Iuval Clejan said...

@Approliving, a religion is distinguished from an ideology by actions, such as public rituals, prayer, meditation, etc. An ideology is just a set of coherent beliefs.

Bozack said...

JMG - enjoyed this weeks post even as I struggled to keep my head above the water with regard to the swirling definitions, religions and anti-religions. I suspect that this series of posts will only make sense when it can be read as a whole: for now I will just mention a few of the characteristic of the religion of progress as I see it.

Firstly, I cannot imagine technological progress rallies were people shout "yeah, it is getting better!" "woo science!". Maybe a F1 race with its ever better rocket cars serves a similar function, or perhaps the queuing for a new Iphone? It seems that the religion of technological progress was probably more conscious and strong in the 1950s-60s than now: people may still expect things to get better but that belief may be more passive/limited in scope/unconscious unless prodded. How many people expect that we will put a man on Mars? How many people care?

Given that Bill got a gold star I can see that progress probably needs to be thought of more broadly than just technological progress but just limiting things to technology:

Every modern American home (let alone local mall) is an unconscious shrine to progress, full of new gadgets sparkling with promise and garages full of the dusty past.
The endless novelty of TV and the internet, the pushing by advertisers of their new game-changing mop or slightly different shaped car, all contributes to the world-view that progress is happening and will always continue.

Martyrs/heroes/Saints of progress could include Neil Armstrong or Steve Jobs (for those that haven’t read Carl Sagan).More generally, maybe the heroes of progress are those who become rich via sports or music or inventions- their individual improvement in circumstances conforms to a narrative of societal progress. JHK mentioned in one of his podcasts that we have an aversion to tragedy in the modern world, so maybe the stories we tend to tell (via sitcoms and movies etc.) are also conforming to a comforting narrative of "progress” in some abstract sense.

Mark Rice said...

I remember as a young child going to Sunday Mass. There was technology in the church in the form of a PA system with microphones and speakers. There were electric fans for the hot days. As a child I wondered if this stuff was O.K. in church. I realize there is no commandment that says "thou shalt not have icons of progress before me". Yet somehow as a child, it did not feel right.
Maybe as a child I had an unarticulated sense of the religion of progress being in conflict with the religion of Christianity.

onething said...

I used to be married to a bona fide monarchist. As for me, I find myself dumbfounded, gobsmacked,and utterly confused by the phenomenon of royalty. The British Royal family seems like a hideous embarrassment. Not them, particularly, but the reminder they give, and the bizarre way that they hang on.

How can people ever fall into such a thing as believing that some particular family is - what? - fundamentally different somehow than the rest of humanity?

Although at times I might long for a king or an empress, because the one advantage is that from time to time you get a good one.
Now Blue Sun, it all depends upon how you view religion. Christianity is probably the only religion (so far as I know) which has this exclusive idea about religion and truth. Even Islam honors Christ as a prophet, and considers the god of Abraham as valid.
I like to consider myself an honorary member of all the faiths, and I like to think that (the anthropomorphised) God is pleased rather than displeased, at the differing flavors of reverence that each culture invents.

Ares Olympus said...

In regards to the antireligion of progress, I skim-read a recent book by Mars Society president, Robert Zubrin, and his nemesis, the nay-saying neo-Mathusists/environmentalists, and the polical elite who manipulate the masses with fear-mongering of the apocalypse. His intense contempt made me curious. He calls them antihumanists, so every political decision he doesn't like is controlled by the antihumanists, while heroic progress at all costs is our destiny. At least I'd say his own despair is honest - that humanity isn't at a place of possible "static equilibrium" - i.e. 7 billion people sustainably living like Americans isn't in any technically possible future that we yet know.

I've tried to face my own despair, being "of the progress tribe" yet not knowing what else can exist. I see the hopelessness of setting arbitrary limits on growth, like setting limits on feeding lunch to passengers of an ocean crossing jetliner short on fuel. All possible conservation fails future need.

The real escape outside of the religion of progress is the idea of "seasons", which is "real" to the degree we can no longer be primary drivers of progress that is possible under fossil fuels.

I do think Mars Society President Robert Zubrin's vision of heroic progress is flawed, but I do appreciate his attempt. Living on Mars might be a great adventure for about 30 days, and solving technical problems for survival might help true believers last a bit longer. but it just takes a bit of imagination to see that zero-input, closed-loop subsistence survival on barren frozen landscape on earth somewhere offers the same challenges divided by 100, except for the inconvenient truth that when you give up, you still get to live, while on Mars, heroic deaths are much more romantic to imagine.

But I do love the idea of "lifeboat" communities on earth, of true believers who are "willing to live simply" and see how to survive without a constant stream of fossil fuel and material inputs. So it might be the Mars Society's hatred for neomalthusians motivates them to facing the issues more honestly than just waiting for someone else to consume less.

Jason Heppenstall said...

I see a few posters are bringing up references to Star Trek in the context of a civil/progressive religion. It might just be me, but I don't think this element of Star Trek was as enthusiastically embraced over on this side of the Atlantic as it was on yours.

Indeed, as time went on and the series became ever more explicit in its backing of technological peace-bringing progress, I'm pretty sure a fair section of the audience just zoned out. Bring back the good old days of zapping the Klingons with laser guns!

Could it be that the progressive god began to die over here a few decades ahead of the US? That might explain the widespread cynicism, irony and exasperation one encounters in daily life here.

Paul Reid-Bowen said...

Some functional definitions of religion that are broadly cognate with Bellah’s Civil Religion are Thomas Luckmann’s (1967) Invisible Religion and, more recently, Edward Bailey’s (1998) Implicit Religion. Both of these sociological approaches to defining religion can also address and illuminate the faith in progress in similar ways to those of a civil religion.

As Luckmann asks (1967, 91): “What are the norms that determine the effective priorities in the everyday lives of typical members of modern industrial societies? What are the subjective relevance systems that have an overarching, sense-integrating function in contemporary life?” When I introduce these accounts of religion to undergrad students, we tend to discuss such things as television, consumption/shopping and sport, but I very much agree that many of them can fall under an overarching narrative of progress. Bailey’s points are similar to those of Luckmann, and he refers to the religiosity of everyday life and language via such terms as intensive concerns and integrating foci.

Very interested to see that you will also be discussing different notions of progress, from the technological, through the economic and the moral. A recurrent problem that I encounter when undermining various notions of progress is that many students worry about the jettisoning of morality per se. Basically, if there is no moral progress, then one passes quickly through relativism to moral nihilism. Obviously this doesn’t necessarily follow, but I’m interested to see how you work through this. Having Nietzsche as a conversation partner clearly gives you a certain set of resources.

Anyway, first time contributor here, but very much an admirer and follower of your work.

Cherokee Organics said...


Progress has tanked.

A mate of mine now has a new born baby, little over a week old.

It occurs to me that if the extraction of energy has remained constant (or only slightly increased / decreased) in the past few years, then every additional mouth at the energy feed trough means that we are all a little bit poorer energy-wise every day that goes by.

Seems like common sense to me, still it impacts people’s perceptions of their entitlements, so they’re in denial.

On another topic altogether, over the past decade I've personally undergone a significant shift in my worldview. I lead a mostly unconventional life - which was originally a reaction to economic events in my youth - so I've been able to slowly absorb this shift in worldview and adjust my circumstances accordingly.

However, I kind of feel for Nietzsche as the structures that underpinned his identity suffered a pretty heavy blow. However, his ego was quite strong too (which may not have been a good thing as it reduced his mental flexibility) because he brushes aside ideologies that compete with his own vision.

I concur with your general thesis in these posts and I find it fascinating how commenter's cherry-pick various arguments. One of the most common strategies is to bog you down in rhetorical arguments by demanding pointless definitions. You're not buying that one though, but still they keep trying.

PS: I'm making scrumpy using gleaned apples with wild yeasts. This is trail blazing stuff for me!



Phil Harris said...

JMG & Phil K
Not too surprising you swapped my and Phil K's identity in your replies. No probs. We were next to one another on the list, and I appreciated Phil K's point about monarchy (Divine Right and all that). Something to do with God's Plan I suppose!

Can I add my thanks for Twighlight's reflection on his dad? I guess I am only a few years older than his dad but I witnessed the giants making strides. An older friend of mine had a real problem with so much knowledge, his and colleagues, going down the river. Japanese colleagues took and archived some of his for future reference, but there are key devices still flying round in satellites that I guess nobody could recreate anymore.

This is the real Star's Reach and has been going on for a while?

Phil H

Howard Skillington said...

Thank you, JMG, for bringing civil religion into the equation. This helps explain the intense resentment so many people manifest when confronted with the prospect of decline and collapse. Granted, denial is tempting for all of us in the face of such a dismal prospect, but to suggest that a Truer Believer in Progress face collapse realistically is akin to denying the divinity of Jesus to a Christian or telling a Jew that God never chose his people.
It probably also confirms that I’ve been wasting my breath in trying to warn friends and relatives about what is happening.

Loch Wade said...

Ancient and modern prophets all say that Christ will approach Earth from the direction of Orion's Belt.

Science tells us that the universe is electrical, and the vast spaces are connected by plasma filaments.

Travel along a plasma filament can be nearly instantaneous.

Atoms don't exist. The conventional structure of an atom is merely a schematic. Atoms are really nothing more or less than the interaction of electrical forces.

Electricity causes the illusion of mass. Just as an electrical current creates magnetism, it also creates gravity.

Matter and mass are illusions created by the complex interplay of electrical forces.

DNA is helix-shaped because of the electrical currents upon which it is based- see "Birkelund currents".

Stars are not nuclear fusion powered. Rather, they are the nodal junctions of plasma currents. At the core of every star is a rocky body much like earth.

The source of electricity is light. What is it that can dwell in the midst of all-consuming fire and not itself be consumed? The answer is Light.

You and I are Light Beings. All the prophets insist that the Earth will be consumed by fire this next time.

Are you primarily a Light Being, or are you wedded to the illusion of materiality? That will determine whether or not you are burnt up or persist to dwell in the midst of everlasting burnings for all eternity.

True religion and science are compatible.

Adrian Skilling said...

Thanks you Mr. Greer, for an absolutely fascinating series analyses.

Thinking of communism as a civil religion helps explain peoples absolute and unquestioning devotion to it. In China under Zao Zedong the sacrifices even children would make to the altar of communism were truly shocking. They would denounce their own parents for a single anti-communism utterance, knowing it would lead to psychological torture, physical torture and death for the denounced. All for the belief that all would be perfected in the end.

I'm pondering that to be a 'religion' in the sense you describe it its collection of idea must be all encompassing and self-consistent with an answer for every question. The religion of growth has the answer of growth for any given problem, but it is deficient in moral values.

Sue W said...

Many years ago a teacher of religion taught me the (borrowed) notion of the "God-shaped hole in people's head)" - that people can believe in something bigger than themselves. There may be simple phychological explanations for this trait. It is obvious to many and, clearly, is exploited by some for personal or tribal purposes.

The idea of rewards for obedience and donations to the priests (for the gods rarely talk directly) is common. "Treasures in heaven", that is, the promise of future goodies are the traditional stock-in-trade of religions. The actual reward to many was a feeling of well-being and belonging to a reasonably well-behaved society, as long as one was part of the in-group and followed the rules. Very useful for the elites who were running things, whether priests or warriors.

If the belief that many people now have in progress has some religious aspects, it is interesting that the rewards are in material possessions in the here-and-now - one can borrow money and buy that boat, car, plane trip to paradise, etc. - but pay for it in the hereafter. Sometimes, dying in debt, one actually can "take it with you".

@onestep: On the subject of monarchy. There are a number of monarchies that have survived the revolutions of the Holy Wars and the Enlightenmint - notably in Europe. These persist now mostly as figureheads (opening schools, greeting heads-of-state, showing tourists a good time), figures of continuity and reassurance, and, perhaps most importantly, as a notional control on the power of elected officials.

It has been a most interesting metamorphosis from Absolute Monarchs to Constituional Monarchs. The present system serves its purpose just like any political system.

I expect the British monarchy to gradually decline into relative obscurity. Don't expect any sudden changes; regardless of our notions of common-sense, people do yearn for spectacle, belonging, continuity, and hope.

beneaththesurface said...

It's been a while since I've commented here. I still have tried to read most of your posts in the last half year, but I have not kept up on reading the comment sections. I have missed this community of AR readers, and I'm glad to be back!

What's interesting to me is how some people who are very critical of (technological) Progress at the same time implicitly indicate their belief in Progress. For example, I have conversed with people who are critical of a lot of modern technologies--for example, cell phones, Play Stations, GPS technology, flat-screen TVs, or whatever--and talk about the negative effects these technologies have on individuals and society. Yet, their belief is that this sort of technological "progress" will just keep continuing and continuing. They may 1) actively resist participating it in some way (say, by avoiding getting the latest gadget), or 2) grudgingly participate in it (by getting and using the latest gadget) while complaining about it, and saying it's just the reality of how things "progress," and while they don't like it, they have little choice.

Yet, very few of those persons critical, in whatever way, of technological progress, would even think that there are limits to technological progress, and that technological regression might actually be a possibility in the future! The idea--that cell phones or the Internet (regardless of whether one thinks of these things as wonderful, terrible, and somewhere in between) might not last indefinitely (or be replaced by a newer, "better" similar technology)--seems preposterous to many.

These people often think of old-fashioned technologies--such as human-powered sewing machines, slide rules, or even a handwritten letter sent in the mail--as quaint relics of the past. Whether they miss these things with a sense of nostalgia, or still try to use them because they like them, they still don't believe they'd ever become widely popular again. Yet, if technological regression (of fossil fuel-dependent technologies) shapes the future, I think it's very possible that handwritten letters and human-powered technologies could be commonly used again. Thus, if people make fun of me for being "stuck in the past" for still using some of these old technologies, instead, I'm really sticking myself much farther in the future (as I see it).

divelly said...

Much less sycophantic comments at

Richard Clyde said...

Mark Rice's comment reminds me of my visit to the Loreta abbey in Prague. It is beautiful, fascinating, and filled with unique devotional art; it's of significant historical interest, both because the white mountain was a crucial religious centre long before Christianity, and because of the abbey's role in counter-Reformation spiritual warfare. The heart of the abbey is a supposed replica of Mary's house, a bona fide shrine to the Goddess and a place of almost visible holiness and power.

What ticked me off was that the priest saying Mass in the abbey's relatively small baroque chapel used a microphone and electric candles. I'm not sure it's exactly a sop to progress, but on the other hand I can't imagine what else to blame for such a thundering lack of taste.

SLClaire said...

JMG, I meditated further on what little I know of the history of the university and put that together with a bunch of other stuff. Here's what came out.

First: I had wanted to go to college ever since I was a small girl. The descriptions of it I read back in the 1960s made it sound excitingly intellectual. I wanted that. But when I got to college, something was missing. Yes, I learned some useful and some fascinating things. But it was missing that sense of intellectual excitement and discovery that it had been made out to have. I didn't know why.

Second, ever since I found this blog, I have felt as if this was the college experience I wanted but didn't get. Several people over time have made such comments as well. I pondered on why that was and I think I get the connection to the history of the university. If my very hazy memory is correct, the beginnings of the university were in Socrates' discussions with his students. He drew knowledge out of them via what came to be known as the Socratic method. Again, if I recall correctly, the universities established in the Middle Ages adopted the Socratic method. It proved well adapted to the task of monastic education and kept on in use. But when progress took over the universities of the modern age, the Socratic method got booted out in favor of other methods of instructions. The method still survived in memory; I picked up on that memory in the 1960s. However, by the time I got to college the practice was all but dead.

So, I am thinking that what I find so satisfying about the comments here and your response to them is that you are using the Socratic method with us. Picking up on your concern with saving valuable things through the decline, I theorize that one of those valuable things you'd like to see get through the decline is the idea and practice of the university and the Socratic method. That's one of the reasons you spend so much time on the comments: you want to light the spark of the university in us so at least a few of us spark it in others, and on it goes.

Of course, I may be all wrong.

ww said...

"Bozack said...

Firstly, I cannot imagine technological progress rallies were people shout "yeah, it is getting better!" "woo science!". Maybe a F1 race with its ever better rocket cars serves a similar function, or perhaps the queuing for a new Iphone? It seems that the religion of technological progress was probably more conscious and strong in the 1950s-60s than now: people may still expect things to get better but that belief may be more passive/limited in scope/unconscious unless prodded. How many people expect that we will put a man on Mars? How many people care?"

Have you seen

There's another one for Atheism, which is even more mystifying...

Unknown said...

I recently saw a decade-old Japanese movie called Battle Royale. It's superficially about school kids killing each other, but it's actually about two generations of Japanese people whose religions have failed and who are no longer able to create meaning from the world. It's depressing as hell.

I don't expect any existing monarchy to regain power, but I wouldn't be surprised by a new Shogunate. A Shogunate concentrates ultimate political power in one set of hands, but pays lip service to a monarch to bolster its legitimacy and to distract from its functioning.

derekthered said...

you are painting with a pretty broad brush here. religion is usually thought of as a belief in a god or gods, religions usually require elements of faith and a belief in unprovable beings or things.

while there are similarities between civic beleiefs and classical religions they are not the same thing.

progress, which requires a belief in technology and advancement, in things which have not yet occurred, could be a pretty close fit as a religion, but socialist theory? socialism does not say that some sort of nirvana will be acheived, it simply states that it may be acheived. socialism does not require belief in a mystical being, rather it requires an analysis of the way things actually are.
one set of dogma requires you to suspend belief, the other requires you to see things as they are. religions down thru the ages have supported oppressive oligarchies, while socialism? hmm......well you may have me there.

religion, like progress requires belief in things not yet seen. socialism requires belief in what is observable.

i can see where any of these things can be turned into something they aren't by those who are looking for something to believe in.

Joe M said...

I switched cell-phone carriers today (a long story, but it wasn't my choice), and the new company is buying back my "old" cell phone (a year-and-a-half-old iPhone) to make into scrap metal or whatever. I asked if it would be refurbished and resold (which is what I hoped), and the answer is no. More ridiculous waste because, gosh, who knows why, I guess because competition between two of the three big U.S. phone carriers precludes them from figuring out a way to preserve and recycle and not to pulverize an expensive phone that took so much energy to build.

P.S. Anyone can give me grief for even owning an iPhone, but I don't pretend to be anything but a hypocrite who is very much ensconced in high-tech while also aware of its finite existence.

Ouromboros said...

I think that identifying modern pilgrimage sites might be a good way to identify groups with quasi-religious identities, like JMG did with Valley Forge. In the course of my job, I teach The Canterbury Tales to high school students, and I am always struck at what has replaced the religious pilgrimage in our age. What pops into the forefront of my mind is the convention experience. Trekkers/ies seem to have been the trailblazers in this field. The comicons are huge these days. Other than the cult of consumerism, what ideologies underlay these gatherings?

Mark Luterra said...

DerekTheRed said

"Religion, like progress requires belief in things not yet seen. socialism requires belief in what is observable."

I think it is fair to say that every system for creation of meaning in the world (i.e. every religion) requires some degree of belief in the unprovable. While some religions (e.g. secular humanism) are more popular among scientists, empirical knowledge has no meaning until interpreted by the human mind, and this interpretation always introduces an element of belief or subjectivity.

Socialism is a political philosophy and not in itself a religion, but once groups of people begin adopting and promoting this philosophy based on the belief that it will create a better future then a religion is born.

I also object to the idea that humans can be members of only one religion at a time. Christianity once filled the role of both spiritual and civil religion for many believers, providing not only an answer to the mystery of mortality but also a lens through which to interpret everyday life. It now fulfills primarily the former function, with the latter substituted by Progress or other modern civil religions.

Ask someone from whence she derives meaning in the world, and her answer will reveal which religions are strongest in her life.

Approliving said...

@Iuvel Clejan : an ideology is a set of not-necessarily-coherent ideas and beliefs *which inform a person’s goals, expectations and actions*. If they did not inform a person’s goals, expectations and actions then they would not be ideologies, they would merely be fantasies and musings. Considering that political "-isms" and religions (many of which are also referred to as "-isms") both perform these functions, it is appropriate to class both as ideologies. However this neither erases the reality of their being distinct types of ideologies, nor the important real-world implications of their differences.

Kathleen K said...

Ouromboros said... "The comicons are huge these days. Other than the cult of consumerism, what ideologies underlay these gatherings?"

For a lot of people, these *are* pilgrimage sites for Progress. It's a chance to step out of everyday life and immerse themselves in a sea of other people who believe. (At least, for cons with a big sci-fi presence...and I don't know of any that don't. And there are plenty of other reasons.)

Ren faires, on the other hand, can appeal more to those who romanticize the past, though I don't know if any doomers use them as pilgrimage sites.

escapefromwisconsin said...

H.L. Mencken's Creed:

-I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind, that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.

-I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.

-I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty.

-I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.

-I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech.

-I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.

-I believe in the reality of progress.

-I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

John Michael Greer said...

Ben, right now finding a scapegoat for the failure of progress to appear on cue is a major growth industry. Your co-workers have found one supplier; there are plenty of others.

Mtraven, I haven't gotten to them in this cycle of posts -- search the archives for comments about Ray Kurzweil and you'll find some.

Kyoto, the reason Communism and Christianity are such passionate enemies is that they're so similar. Are you familiar with the ecological concept of competitive exclusion?

Donkey, oh, I'm aware that most people aren't listening. I'm talking to the few that are.

Stacy, it's not uncommon! I've encountered a fair number of people who have made similar pilgrimages through the various civil and theist religions on offer in today's America.

Kollapsnik, Communism may have been stillborn as a religion in the Soviet Union; it was quite the significant minority faith in the US, Britain, and a number of other countries outside the Soviet bloc. I knew a good many true believers in Communism in my college days. As for the metaphoric nature of my use of the concept religion, well, obviously I disagree; stay tuned and you'll see how I develop the concept.

Russell, it can certainly function as a religion -- and it's a civil religion, too, unless you weave deities into it.

Iuval, I don't propose to get onto the very treacherous ground of trying to judge which religion is better than which other. The one thing I'll say is that civil religions in general tend to be short-lived as religions go, and implode messily -- which makes them problematic in a number of ways.

Derek, the complicating factor is that Marxian theory can also be approached as one more way of thinking about political economy; it doesn't have to be a religion -- though it has been turned into one tolerably often. That's true of a lot of civil religions; there's usually a set of ideas behind them that need not be taken in a religious manner.

Unknown Stephanie, well, tell me this: when the 15th and 16th century revolution in transport technology made it possible for Europeans to travel around the world, and linked the whole planet together for the first time in known history, did that usher in any noticeable amount of goodwill between peoples and nations?

John Michael Greer said...

SLClaire, exactly! A very good point, and one I plan on addressing later on.

Lee, almost all civil religions involve some sense of entitlement. How the current American sense of entitlement metastasized to such a grotesque scale is another question, one I'm not at all sure I can answer.

Blue Sun, the Middle Eastern desert religions are unusual among the world's religions in demanding exclusive membership. Most other religions are fine with multiple membership, and many civil religions (though not all; Communism is pretty exclusive) are quite comfortable with believers having overlapping loyalties. Yes, you can have a plastic star. ;-)

Nano, free from what, or free to what?

NH Peter, I took the exclamation point not to express surprise at the death of God, but simply Zarathustra's amazement that the old hermit hadn't yet gotten the news -- and that seems fairly evident, at least to me, in the German. As to Nietzsche's most difficult thought, if I said the same thing in German -- "der schwerste Gedanke" -- would that give you a bit more of a hint? ;-)

Joe, nah, I don't do a lot of movies, and Star Trek is almost precisely the kind of SF that bores me most, so I didn't see it. Not surprising that it was deep into the myth of progress!

Mark, well, I'm not greatly interested in founding a civil religion; my interests as an archdruid lie more toward the other end of the religious continuum -- and that's a place where the vision of descent, or perhaps of the whole cycle of which progress and regress are both parts, can quite easily find a home.

MawKernewek, good. You'll no doubt have noticed that nuclear war here fills the same slot as eternal damnation does in the rhetoric of a Southern Baptist preacher -- it's the horrible punishment you get if you don't do what the preacher is telling you to do.

Dowsergirl, good. And of course the irony is that we are progressing like lemmings toward the nearest cliff!

Raven, thanks for the link.

Sean, your Cosmist church is simply one more subset of the religion of progress. Since we're not going to the stars, not now, not in the lifespan of our species, those other planets are interesting to speculate about but have nothing to do with the challenges we face here and now, and fantasizing about space travel is a distraction from the hard work we have ahead of us. That's my take, at least.

John Michael Greer said...

Matthew, I'd be very surprised not to see a major revival within the Protestant mainstream in the US over the next decade or so. American popular religion moves in cycles of 30 years or so; the fundamentalists have shot their bolt, and are fading into obscurity; if past patterns continue, and there are good reasons they should, it's the turn of the liberal denominations to get their act together and set the pace for three decades or so. More on this as we proceed.

Zach, I've read over a dozen of his books, and saw Cosmos when it first came out -- all 13 episodes. It's on that basis that I see him as one of the most original theologians of the 20th century, and a hugely important figure in the development of the civil religion of progress.

Bozack, when the US space program was still a going concern, did you ever go down to Cape Canaveral to watch a rocket go up? If not, you might want to see if you can find a written account or a video, and gauge the intense and frankly religious passion of many of the people who were watching. That was one of the great rituals of the religion of progress, and the termination of the space program dealt a blow to the religion that it ultimately may not survive.

Mark, fascinating. Wax candles were high-tech in their time, too -- what makes electricity offensive to your religious sense?

Onething, I can see a point to constitutional monarchy; if you have the role of figurehead-in-chief separate from the far more humdrum role of executive, both might be better handled. I've commented that Obama would make a much better figurehead than he does a president -- he's good at smiling, waving, posturing, and saying grand empty phrases, and not very good at, say, governing a deeply troubled nation.

Ares, I'm very much in favor of giving the Mars Society the chance to die heroically en masse on Mars. That's what it would come to, of course, and it would do a lot to remind people of the difference between a living planet and a dead one; the fact that the members of the Society would eagerly line up to volunteer is lagniappe.

Jason, Britain's been in hard decline for a century now, so it may be easier for people on your side of the pond to grasp the vacuity of the religion of progress.

Paul, thank you! I'll check out the writers you mention as time permits.

Cherokee, excellent. Let us know how the scrumpy comes out!

Phil H., apologies for the mistaken identity!

Howard, exactly. To believers in progress, progress is as real, as invincible, and as much a part of life as the bones of Saint Willibrod were to the local peasants in the Middle Ages. Telling somebody nowadays that progress isn't real and can't save them is not going to sink in, until they grasp it for themselves -- and many never will.

Loch Wade, I have a hard time seeing what that rather odd belief system has to do with the subject of this week's post. I put it through so that readers can get some sense of the stuff I field regularly, but I'll ask you to take further screeds of this sort somewhere else.

John Michael Greer said...

Adrian, not all religions claim to have answers for everything, but it's a common habit among Western faiths -- common enough that those that don't, such as Druidry, constantly have to explain that to people.

Beneath, welcome back! You get tonight's gold star, too, for perspicacity. I've noticed many times that those who reject the consequences of progress with the most heat very often reject with even greater heat the idea that progress might be self-limiting and self-terminating; even those who hate it think it's invincible. That's the illusion that has to be shattered.

Divelly, I read it regularly; I particularly liked the people complaining about how cruelly I was treating poor St. Carl.

Richard, is electricity necessarily in bad taste? That's not a rhetorical question; I'm intrigued by the way that progress seems to be defined culturally as omnipotent but ugly.

SLClaire, excellent! Yes, this is why I've said several times that I think developing a framework for adult education that can make it through the end of the age of abundance is a crucial task just now.

WW, thanks for the link. I'd managed to miss that.

Unknown, always a possibility. That's spelled "dictator" on this side of the Pacific.

Derek, did you read the article by Robert Bellah I cited in last week's post? If not, you might want to do so.

Joe, that degree of waste is hardwired into the system these days; it'll be interesting to see how it unravels.

Ouromboros, an interesting point.

Escape, thanks for citing this -- a fine example of the 19th century version of the religion of progress in action.

Hotspringswizard said...

Mr Greer, regarding your comment " Wizard, if human beings have no free will, then those who believe in free will have no choice but to believe in free will, right? ;-)" thats true, its all part of the illusion. The infinite architecture of existance allows for all of the myriad parts that people play in the grand show :-)

I see you will be at the Age Of Limits gathering in May. Looking forward to reading your thoughts about what was discussed. I know it will be a rewarding time of learning and shared ideas for those who can attend :-)

Phil Harris said...

They were expensive in my infancy & childhood end of WWII! Emergency light for when the much cheaper electricity was off. Artificial ight costs an arm and leg (resources, effort and opportunity-costs) if we lose complexity.

Religious lights, including centre piece for New Age meditation, struck me as extravagant when I met them in more affluent times, and more generally like other nostalgia among our latter-day Western notions. For poor people in South America and India etc., I suppose candles indicate priorities and devotion on very special communal occasions. (In Africa many walk to Church in bare feet and carry their shoes for the service and etc. Nice.)


Leo said...

The belief in Apocalypse always looked bizarre. After all, short term crisis and events are precisely what human societies are good at solving or adapting to. The only actual cases are eruptions for certain cities and the disease that spread to the new world. A religious origin makes more sense than an actual attempt to divine the temporal future.

(unrelated to the post)
I'm currently writing a post on the future of military technology (specifically low tech alongside high tech) and had an idea. If bicycles will be useful for armies, then why not velomobiles. You could add a heavy gun to them easily enough.
Innovation and ingenuity will be interesting in a post-peak world.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

In the late Sixties, the comedy troupe Firesign Theater put out a several record albums containing radio play style routines. One album contained a parody of late Forties-early Fifties movies about small town high school life (Andy Rooney comedies rather than James Dean tragedies).

In this particular skit, the town's rival high schools were More Science High and Communist Martyrs. Two civil religions nailed in five words.

Liquid Paradigm said...

I had the unpleasant pleasure of being pegged and treated as a blasphemer a couple of days ago. Someone elsewhere had posted about graphene batteries being the salvation of us all, since we'd be able to fully charge all our electric cars in about a minute. And we can create these last-minute miracles in our DVD drives!
Goodbye, global warming and environmental destruction! Take THAT, Nature! Try and show us our limits, will you?!

I pointed out the larger problems with this scenario (supply chains, raw materials, non-closed system infrastructure requirements, etc.), and closed off with noting Zehner's (in my opinion) astute observation that we don't have an energy problem so much as a consumption problem.

To which the response was, predictably, the slightly angry insistence that I was dooming us all to caveman living. I responded that I had said nothing at all about the cavemen, and that the view of the past as non-stop misery is as wrong as the view of it as Eden. This in turn prompted an angrier response attacking points I hadn't made at all, and condescending to me because I was "younger" and couldn't remember how horrible life was in the 60s and 70s.*

Golly, I never realized how recent was our liberation from the scourge of the saber-tooth cats and giant bears. Or, more to the point, how wicked I am to suggest that it's not been. I wonder if this is the religion of progress' version of young-Earth creationism? We didn't really live until the Word of Progress was spoken, allowing us to wirelessly control a hundred electronic devices that do all the work we're perfectly capable of doing ourselves. The past just smacks of so much effort, it really didn't exist at all...

(*Unfortunately for the wrath of the faithful, the age gap wasn't all that great. I did miss the 60s, but I recall the 70s quite well. I spent the majority of them playing, gadget-free, in seemingly boundless miles of woodlands which have all since been slashed and burned to make room for McMansions, grocery stores, and car lots. I must have simply been too young to understand how full of suffering and woe I was.)

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

The American civil religion does have dedicated shrines. They are the war memorials erected all over the country, and the monuments to dead Presidents thought to be great and the four who were assassinated.

Three of the four principal Presidential monuments in Washington, D.C. (the most recent excepted) pay homage to pagan religious architecture. The Washington Monument is an outsized Egyptian obelisk. The Jefferson Memorial is a small Roman temple. The Lincoln Memorial is overtly a Greek temple, complete with enormous cult statue in the center.

Mt. Rushmore reminds me of the gigantic statues of themselves that Pharaohs erected. Liberty Enlightening the World, more commonly known as The Statue of Liberty, is a Hellenistic goddess with a solar crown, book and torch; and as Emma Lazarus's poem points out, She is intended as a
democratic riposte to the Colossus of Rhodes.

San Francisco has memorial statues to assassinated Presidents Garfield and McKinley in its largest city park. The McKinley monument, dedicated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, is a larger than life and very stiff statue of a Roman goddess brandishing a laurel branch and holding a sword at her side. A rather small relief portrait of McKinley's head is mounted below her on the pedestal. The Garfield monument, dating to 1885, resembles nineteenth century graveyard statuary in style, but bigger. A statue of Garfield in contemporary dress stands atop a rectangular pedestal which is set upon steps. An equally large statue of Columbia dressed as a grieving Roman matron sits at the top of the steps, holding a sword and a laurel wreath.

The artist who sculpted the Garfield monument also sculpted the Pioneer monument in downtown San Francisco. The Pioneer Monument has statues of farmers, miners, Indians and allegorical figures around the base, and a statue of Califia looking a lot like Minerva at the top. Then there's the Dewey/Naval Monument in Union Square, commemorating victory in the Philippine War with a graceful trident-bearing goddess of Victory atop a very tall pillar. Ground was broken for the monument by President McKinley; his successor Theodore Roosevelt came back in 1903 to dedicate it. Very appropriate since TR built the navy and McKinley decided to use it.

Many of these monuments went up between 1880 and 1919, when self-confident American nationalism reached a peak. Fortunately, that was also a time when America had many talented sculptors trained in the classical style. The standard of both our coinage and our public art in that period was high.

Links to pictures of the four SF monuments described above:

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Many public school buildings erected between 1900 and 1940 double as monuments to the religion of Progress. I'm thinking of the ones whose exterior walls are decorated with lists of Great Men. The Great Men named usually include philosophers, scientists, lawgivers and political and leaders. They always seem to include Thomas Edison.

Jason said...

JMG: if I said the same thing in German -- "der schwerste Gedanke" -- would that give you a bit more of a hint?

Ah, well that gives it to me at least, and I suppose I should have predicted it, considering it is common to Stoicism, Spengler and Vico, and so much else in the Archdruid cupboard. An excellent counter-thought to simplistic “betterness” -- hexagrams 41 and 42 of the I Ching also spring to mind, being the inseparable pairing they are.

As for this though:

JMG: [A] great many non-Western cultures don't have a word that translates the English term "religion," but have activities and institutions that correspond precisely to those called "religious" in English-speaking countries.

… it’s a misunderstanding -- and as I’ve been reading this blog since before anyone commented on it, I may as well say it’s what JMG would call a “tolerably common misunderstanding hereabouts”. :) Why would I bother you, JMG, or any of these good people, with something so nugatory as a language quibble?

The theory of Balagangadhara (who is Professor of Comparative Science of Cultures at Ghent and co-chair of the Hinduism Unit at the American Academy of Religion) is just precisely that those “activities and institutions” do not necessarily correspond to Abrahamic religion, in particular. He thinks they are in different categories. (See also his magnum opus, or a YouTube series of scholarly conferences dedicated to exploring his idea).

He dovetails very interestingly with some of the comments here this week. As JMG points out, religions can be divided into those that, like Adrian Skilling says, have “an answer for every question”, and those that don’t. The former are obviously far more easily considered as what Approliving called “ideologies” (and he wasn’t language-quibbling either).

Part, by no means all, of the Balu idea is that Abrahamic religion-as-ideology has a particular nature of its own which means Western religion-as-creed doesn’t travel, hence the different categories. He’s worked it out at some length. He also feels that has warped understanding of Indian traditions well out of true, via empire and science-tech -- I have a feeling JMG could resonate with this, not only as a Druid, but also via his interests in Shinto for example.

I’ve found confirmations of his ideas well beyond India, for example the distinction between “secular” and “spiritual” imposed by some scholars on Chinese rituals, which Chinese people themselves don’t make.

In general, and like some others I think, I’d like a little more discussion on the up- and down-sides of the “progress religion” analogy, since I feel there are a black/white dualisms emerging from it right now with which I’m not altogether comfortable. I know we are at the beginning of a JMG opus here, and there may not be time or inclination to go into the details on this page, especially if he thinks things will become clearer later. I’ve put a post on my own blog:

Greer’s “Progress Religion”

… where I explain some of my thoughts, and I’d love anyone who also wants more discussion to come and hash out the nature of this analogy a little bit, whatever they happen to think about it.

shrama said...

Dear JMG,

I have been reading your blog for years and you have had a profound influence on both my thinking and my practise. This is the first time I am commenting though and I will start with a personal question: How do we know if a person's belief system is not a religion?

Using me as an example, I use several sources to find answers to the questions and problems of existence. For questions in the physical realm, I almost always seek scientific sources but for problems in the psychological and ethical realms, I almost never go to science, rather my preferred sources are the religious traditions I grew up with i.e. Hinduism and its variants, Buddhism mostly, but even Western Classical Philosophy and the Abrahamic religions are part of the search for answers. So can this be characterized as non-religious behavior at all. Mind you, I am quite okay with being told that this is just another, as yet un-named, religion. Thanks in advance for your insights.

Mark Luterra said...

"Mark, well, I'm not greatly interested in founding a civil religion; my interests as an archdruid lie more toward the other end of the religious continuum -- and that's a place where the vision of descent, or perhaps of the whole cycle of which progress and regress are both parts, can quite easily find a home. "

I think what I'm getting at is that taken as a whole, your books and posts provide an outlook on the world and a view of the future that, if fully embraced, could constitute a civil religion. You perhaps don't view it that way because for you all of this is grounded in the spiritual framework of druidry. Thus the civil aspects are a consequence of the wider perspective encouraged by the spiritual aspects.

In any case, I would be interested to hear more about how the druid religion provides structure and meaning in the face of both progress and descent, as well as your perspectives on what other spiritual religions might prove sufficiently adaptable to civil realities in the coming century.

John Michael Greer said...

Wizard, by all means.

Phil H., fair enough.

Leo, the emotional freighting of apocalyptic predictions, even the supposedly secular kind, has always struck me as religious in its shape as well as its intensity. There's so much projection of cherished daydreams into the post-apocalyptic future!

Unknown Deborah, too funny. Thanks for the blast from the past.

Liquid, okay, that one very nearly got tea on the keyboard. Sure, we used to fight off sabertooth cats with a slide rule in one hand and a Moon rock in the other -- after all, we still had a space program capable of Moon landings in those allegedly horrible decades! Thanks for the laugh -- and yes, you're probably right that it's a close parallel to Young Earth creationism.

Deborah, that's an excellent point, and one I hadn't considered.

Jason, your blog post attributes to me a range of things I haven't said and attitudes I don't hold. I'm disappointed, but not surprised -- to suggest that progress plays a religious role in contemporary Western societies is to challenge some of the basic presuppositions of modern thought, and inevitably risks the kind of black-and-white mischaracterizations you've engaged in. All I'm asking here is that people not simply brush aside the idea of progress as a religion, but accept it for the moment as the working hypothesis of this sequence of posts, recognize that I'm not using the term "religion" as a criticism but simply as a label for a certain category of social phenomena, and see where I'm going with it. If you can't or won't do that, that's your right, of course, but in that case you're going to misunderstand -- and quite probably take offense at -- everything I'll be saying in the weeks and months ahead.

Shrama, I'll answer your question with two questions of my own. What difference would it make to you if what you're doing is a religion? What difference would it make if what you're doing isn't a religion? Those aren't rhetorical questions, either -- they go to the heart of what I'm trying to talk about here.

Mark, that's an interesting suggestion. I suspect that if a civil religion of decline does emerge, it'll function mostly as a bridge by which people will pass from the religion of progress to some other, noncivil religion -- but of course I could be wrong there. As for Druidry, my book The Druidry Handbook might be a place to look.

g downs said...

To the person who recommended the film The Turin Horse (2011) last week, I thank you. My local library - astonishingly - had a copy. I highly recommend it. It's excellent. I looked for a review to post here, but it is quite clear that few - none from what I've seen - has a clue what the film is about. We here, prepped as we are, will much more readily understand it.

Just a brief introduction: It's a fictional account of what happens after Nietzsche comes upon the man beating the horse. The film crew follows the man and horse home. Nietzsche does not appear in the film.

Basically, it's a allegory about the end of the world, or more literally, the ending of one age and the beginning of a new one, the death of one god and the birth of a new one.

The cinematography is stunning.

Check it out if you get a chance.

Jason said...

Well first JMG, I sincerely apologise if anything I've said here or elsewhere has given offence.

Secondly when you say:

All I'm asking here is that people not simply brush aside the idea of progress as a religion... If you can't or won't do that, that's your right...

Do understand: I didn't anywhere say that I "can't or won't" do that, nor did I brush anything aside. I just wanted more discussion of aspects of what you said, particularly downsides I was seeing, than it seemed you were able to give at this stage, that's all.

I'm very happy I've misunderstood, and I would be happier still to know what I got wrong -- to correct it on the blog if necessary. I don't want to traduce your thoughts; I want to understand and communicate them clearly.

As I wrote at length, it looked to me as if you were doing black/white thinking of your own. If you weren't, then my misapprehension that you were must have been the engine of whatever misunderstanding I've taken away.
It's perhaps not unnatural that it would look to you in return like I was doing the same, but I can assure you, if I were going to dismiss your idea I wouldn't worry about it and ask for more discussion.

I would prefer there were more understanding all around than there seems to be. :) I haven't taken your use of "religion" as a criticism at all, my worry was -- well, as I said, that the use you made of the progress religion idea in the last couple of posts might be masking more than it was revealing, and the (seeming) black/whiteness of your remarks to me over the last couple of posts looked like it confirmed it.

The "religion of progress" idea is far from new to me, of course! I've been reading your peak oil books carefully since Long Descent, which already had plenty in it concerning the need to re-evaluate progress and progress religion. I've been thinking about that ever since, and I really believe I'm long past the idea where I would be shocked by it into closing my ears altogether.

So again: if I am wrong, I'm glad, it certainly would not be the first time -- and I am not planning to kibbitz and huff through your whole series -- but would much rather know what I got wrong in more detail.

Juhana said...

Bill had a good description about religion of progress. For me, it has always been less about technical gadgets and more about how we see human beings relating to each other and to the nature. About the stuff Bill described.

I may be wrong, but I perceive there has been series of meganarratives leading to our current world. Culture of antiquity (which itself was heavily influenced by older and dead-ended cultures of Bronze Age Mediterranean, Mesopotamia and Egypt) gave birth to culture of Medieval Christendom, leading in unbroken line to our current way to see world. My point is, none of these narratives is actually true. There is true reality - primordial chaos so complex that it could be almost without any causalities because we don't understand them - and then there are fictional, crude images and idols that stand for "reality" for us human beings. In hard sciences situation is somewhat different, but only in them and only somewhat.

I strongly believe there is something bigger also, something beyond us. Unfortunately we seem to be so insignificant that we don't ever glimpse their shrouded soles looming over us but in related ecstasies of religious fervor, of battle and of very good sex.

Our current meganarrative is dying. It was born in anglo-saxon lands, and there denial of forthcoming death is strongest - as is probably following fall from grace. In others parts of the world, world explanations eager to replace current western ones are gathering strength. Just to name few out of many Jobbik, panslavism, Golden Dawn, militant orthodoxy and on the other side of cultural divide salafist movements of various types have gone from zero to huge in very short historical period.

It is not end of the world, mind you. Sun will shine to these new breeds of political order, as it has shone to our system that must seem absolutely monstrous from viewpoint of Medieval Christianity, system that modern thinking replaced firstplace. We confuse together death of our moral landscape and death of the world. World will be just fine when modern worldview has been long gone.

I am not championing any of these competing worldviews, actually I distrust world explanations of all of them so deeply I shall not lift a finger to protect any of them, including our current model. I am just observing with curiosity how screw is tightened year by year. I am no doomsday enthusiast; actually I was fairly optimistic back in -08; but after that things have gone from bad to worse very fast, and it is actually visible now in many areas I have visited. Chaos, decay, violence and birth of something new. It is all bubbling under the lid. As partial and confused my view is destined to be, like view of all human beings, I know how human mind works. When there are one hundred rats in the inescapable cage, and there is food for eighty-one of them to be happy and healthy, biology takes over. It is world of winners, has always been and always shall be. History can be endlessly rewritten to suit needs of mighty, as it has been rewritten from dawn of writing to this day. Past is always selfish mirror of current opinions, and when sickness and obesity strikes the poser down, some leaner and meaner takes his place in front of mirror.

John Roth said...

Lots of raw meat in this one, including some of the comments. One comment I'd particularly like to respond to: someone said that many other (presumably non-westernized) cultures don't have a similar concept of religion. I got this in a theology course: the western concept of religion as a separate compartment of life arose in the Enlightenment. Before that, it would have made as much sense to talk of "religion" as a subset of life as it would have been to discuss water with a fish as a subset of its experience.

shrama said...

After some thinking, the only significant difference that I could come up with is the existence of a shared metaphysics. I certainly have an implicit metaphysics based on how I choose to answer life's questions, but do I share it with anyone else? I have no way of knowing.

If my belief system was also a religion then I could have co-religionists, a community, an identity. Mind you, I don't crave those since I already have them from other sources, but sometimes I do wish that there were others who shared my particular world view.

But there is a related question which probably wasn't clear in my earlier comment. Is it possible for a single person to embody a religion? Or are co-religionists always needed for the category religion to make sense? Or is this question of no more than academic interest?

MidMichMatriarch said...

Hello JMG, I'd be interested in reading your thoughts on how this religion of progress has effected peoples attitudes about food.
My formal education was quite limited and so much of what is discussed here I have to digest a bit. One tool that I use for this is to choose a simple everyday item or situation and overlay your lesson to see how it fits. Last week I choose food and was quite surprised at how well it fit.
It used to be common etiquette to forego conversations of politics, religion and money in mixed groups. I would now add "food" to that list as the beliefs and traditions are so ingrained that feelings get hurt very quickly.
Thank you again for your efforts.

Ceworthe said...

Got a letter in the mail today that had in white letters inside splotches of red ink looking like blood "open at the risk of your eternal damnation!" I was like, well which "cold prickly/warm fuzzy group is this, the bible thumpers or the athiests? Turned out to be from the American Free-thinkers (how I got on that list i don;t know). Thought that it was a timely letter given the religion topic here. Inside letter was just as fervent and incendiary as any fire and brimstone preacher, only in terms of the ascendancy of science and reason. Wow

Dennis said...

My father preached Progress to me and my brothers when we were younger. His definition of progress was Growth. Growth in business and personal acquisition. He ran a mom and pop retail store.

He lost his 'faith' when his suppliers forced a number owners like himself out of business. It was not intentional, they just increased the lowest number of items you had to purchase each month to maintain an account with them. Only the chain stores survived.

In his later years, he came to believe in the personal relationship between people. He no longer believed in Progress as it was defined after World War II.

He died happy with himself

CWT said...

Could the religion of progress take forms that accept the end of the industrial age. I remember believing believing that the transition from the industrial age will gradualy bring into being an agrarian utopia. Although laking in amenities this utopia would still be a world of eqaulity and peace. Although I am not sure this is impossible I now find it unlikely.

Joseph Nemeth said...

I still remember my shock in Cultural Anthropology 101 in my freshman year when the instructor pointed out that your typical hunter/gatherer works about four hours a day.

I understand that anthropologists sometimes refer to the hunter/gatherers as "the first leisured class."

The myth of "primitive man" fighting off the saber-tooth tiger with a stick from the mouth of a cave where he cowers in fear of lightning and rain is a completely modern conceit. It's part of the cycle of creation-stories held by the Religion of Progress, but it has no more reality than the Garden of Eden story.

With this in mind....

@JMG: I'd like to make a personal request that, as you move forward with this theme, that you spend some extra time describing exactly what you think we should preserve from this time, and more importantly, WHY. I don't disagree that there is much worth preserving; on the other hand, I keep thinking about the "primitive" hunter/gatherer working four hours a day, and about constraining human population (and habitat) to places that support that lifestyle, and I wonder....

Why not throw it ALL out?

Hank Wesselman has written some interesting books. He's an anthropologist by profession who -- in his books -- claims a mystical experience of joining consciousness with a descendant of his living 5000 years in the future. Whether he had such an experience, and to what degree it was informed by his professional knowledge, is the usual guess. But the story is intriguing.

His descendant comes from Hawaii. He and a large expedition have made a colonization voyage to the western coast of the North American continent in wooden longboats. This descendant eventually encounters some "native" Americans -- presumably our own American descendants -- who have gone back to hunting and gathering. They've retained no "tech," have only the sketchiest stories (which no one really believes) of our time, and most interestingly, they have no interest in our time whatsoever. They don't need our tech, nor our values. They have their own, which are appropriate to their way of life.

So I'm going to throw the question out there as a target: why preserve ANYTHING?

It's the question I'm going to be asking myself as I read future posts.

John D. Wheeler said...

Mr. Greer, your faith in antiprogress is truly amazing. "Not in the lifespan of our species" is quite the pronouncement, especially as you have already affirmed you do not believe in imminent extinction. You remind me of the people who told Thor Heyerdahl people could not have sailed from South America to Polynesia in primitive rafts. If we are still around, who knows what we will be able to do in 100,000 years?

I criticize this point because I think there is a much stronger argument for your conclusion. If we want to get to the stars eventually, then the business at hand is to preserve as much as we can right now.

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks. I'm very excited about the experiments with home brew.

The apples are happily fermenting away in two large 20 litre (5.2 gallon) tubs which I saved from plastering the house. The tubs are very heavy duty and should have a long life. I can't believe people throw these tubs out, they are amazingly strong.

Strangely enough, the brew smells like beer, but I recently added home grown citrus (lemons and limes) plus some crushed ginger which I purchased at the market and it smells quite good now.

With the exception of the ginger the whole lot has cost me nothing to make, so I hope this brew turns out well (fingers crossed)!

What is interesting is that the apples themselves came from wild trees which were on the side of an old road near to one of the largest apple growing areas just north (and thus slightly warmer and drier) of me. They've been growing apples there for about 150 years so there must be some interesting yeasts on the skins of those apples.

Also, not to make you jealous, but tonight I'm stewing the first batch of quinces. Yummo! I've been stewing rhubarb for a few weeks now and both plants are true summer survivors.

I saw a film last week, "Sleepwalk with me" which was very enjoyable. It was set in the US and since I'm commenting about food, I'd point out that there were a few scenes where people were eating pizza.

I don't want to be mean, but whatever they were eating was not pizza and I'm not even sure that my chooks here would recognise it as food. It kind of looked weird. Thanks to the troubles in Italy from the 1940’s onwards, there is a strong Italian culture here and it has certainly influenced food here.

As a message to everyone here, don't eat that US pizza, just run...



Sean Cosmist said...

Well sir, I think it’s rather presumptuous of you to pass judgment on what our species is capable of for the remainder of its lifespan in light of what we have accomplished so far. And I do think a cosmic perspective is relevant to our current challenges, because worldviews have powerful consequences. If one’s worldview suggests that the best response to a failure of corn crops is to sacrifice more slaves to the gods, your civilization’s fate may be sealed by your own false beliefs. The same may be true today with the prophets of decline and doom, if they were able to convince enough people that humanity will be forever limited to the resources of this planet and must helplessly await the inevitable cosmic extinction event. At least optimism (in the sense of maximizing human power and longevity), as Arthur C. Clarke once pointed out, offers the opportunity of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. What I’m hearing from you sounds at least partly like an effort to produce a self-fulfilling prophecy of collapse and disempowerment, which I find puzzling. What is it that motivates you to spread such memes? Is it, as John Wheeler suggests, your faith in the antireligion of progress?

Cherokee Organics said...


You lot are being mean. I like Star Trek. If you watch it for simple entertainment, it can be fun. It doesn't all have to be serious.

As to Carl Sagan - no disrespect to the dead - but if he'd taken a good look at the mess we've made of the planet (with the help of science) then you'd think he'd come to the conclusion that perhaps more science may not be the only choice going forward?

It is kind of ironic, but wasn't Albert Einstein quoted as saying, "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

I reckon we genuinely need to sort our own backyard out before contemplating others. It is much easier and more compelling perhaps to promote grand images. Maybe, I'm just cynical though, but nature is really awesome, he probably just needed to get out from behind the desk more!

PS: I read a recent article by George Monbiot agonising about the pressure he felt to purchase a smart phone and the guilt he felt about the location and conditions under which all of those rare metals were sourced. There was a simple answer to his conundrum, don't buy one mate. Easy, yet it also ignores that a lot of those same materials are used in all sorts of electronic devices etc...



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi everyone,

If I had to gamble on whether monarchy would outlast parliament as an institution, my money would be on the monarchy.

A couple of years back, they held a referendum here as to whether Australia should become a republic. Voting for people over 18 is compulsory (you are fined if you do not vote) and overwhelmingly, the population chose to keep the monarchy (ie. the Queen) as the head of the state.


John Michael Greer said...

Jason, the question that comes to mind first is how you get black/white thinking out of my suggestion that it might be worth applying the commonly accepted sociological category of civil religion to faith in progress. I've explained at some length already that this is simply an analytical category, a way to explore certain facets of a social phenomenon that may not otherwise be as clearly apparent. Is it black and white to suggest that progress might function as a civil religion? Or to disagree with those whose immediate reaction is to brush that suggestion aside?

Juhana, good. Of course you're quite correct; different circumstances inspire different ways of looking at the world, and our worldview would seem as monstrous to medieval thinkers as theirs seems to so many modern people. The challenge, and it's one few people are willing to take up these days, is to look at radically different worldviews and try to see them as valid and meaningful ways of living in the world.

John, exactly -- "religion" is a high-level abstraction. Nonetheless, you could have talked to people all over the civilzed world about gods, temples, priests, offerings, and a great deal more, and everyone would have understood what you were talking about.

Shrama, most prophetic religions start out with just one member -- the original prophet -- and go from there. There are any number of would-be prophets who get the vision but don't have the marketing skills, and never get any followers. I've known a few of them, and I don't see any reason for excluding their faiths from the category of religions.

Matriarch, hmm. I'll consider it, but it's a very complex subject, not least because these days there may not be anybody in America who's sane on the subject of food.

Ceworthe, exactly. The conviction that getting people to have the right opinions about something nobody can know for sure pervades American religion, theist and otherwise.

Dennis, glad to hear it. Many thanks for sharing your story.

CWT, it's an interesting question, and one I propose to address later on. It's remarkable, though, to watch the lengths people will go to in order to cling to a belief that history must be progressing to some desirable end!

Joseph, I'm not sure if you've noticed this or not, but I don't do "should" and "ought to." Why that is, well, that's a conversation all to itself, but the language of moral obligation -- and its inseparable companion, the language of moral condemnation -- are to my mind inappropriate in any context. Thus the question of what we ought to save is up to each individual; I have my own preferences, and I've talked about them, but the rule of dissensus applies here as well.

John Michael Greer said...

John, I figured that would get a rise out of you! Still, I'd point out that the most parsimonious solution to Fermi's paradox is that interstellar travel is impossible, and I've discussed in a previous post how this makes more sense than any other solution. Now of course you can argue that some unknown factor will intervene to give humanity the ability to reach the stars. By the same logic, you could also argue that some unknown factor will intervene and make you immortal; I can't prove that you're wrong, but it's still far more reasonable for me to point out to you that you're going to die someday and might as well deal with that.

Cherokee, well, I've had similar feelings about Vegemite, you know.

Sean, if you've convinced yourself that you can fly by flapping your arms, and you're strolling happily toward a cliff in the serene conviction that you can fly down to the bottom, is it morally wrong of me to point out the flaws in your argument and try to talk you out of the experiment?

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Sean Cosmist:

You correctly point out that "your civilization’s fate may be sealed by your own false beliefs."

However, you might consider that a civilization’s fate may just as easily be sealed by its true beliefs.

A full and accurate scientific knowledge of how our world works counts for absolutely zero once our purposes and goals run up against the laws of thermodynamics.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@John Wheeler:

"If we want to get to the stars eventually...."

Why would we want to do that?

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

don't eat that US pizza, just run

I've had similar feelings about Vegemite

For some reason, I suddenly have an urge for vegemite pizza.

(Nothing else will quite transform "Italian cheese toast" into high culinary art like generous lashings of "whatevers handy")

John D. Wheeler said...

John, that is an excellent post about Fermi's paradox, I had not read it, nor the one that followed, from which I got an almost equally parsimonious solution to Fermi's paradox: the signs are there, we are just to primitive to see them. Got any ideas on how to spot a Dyson sphere?

Your article on "Civilization and Succession" also brings up another point. When I say to save what we can, I mean it in terms of don't throw away something we might need later. I do not expect a society which develops interstellar travel to be at all recognizable to those of us living today.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Sean Cosmist:

"Optimism" that doesn't address the issue of exponential population growth is simply a matter of not understanding the problem.

Presume starships that can travel at the speed of light. Presume that we can instantly industrialize any planet we pass near, that we can "exploit" it sustainably forever, and that we can use Star Trek style transporters to redistribute resources and people instantaneously throughout the entire expanding sphere of space we occupy.

Our resource production rate grows as the cube of time.

Our population grows exponentially with time. The cubic term is only the fourth term in a series expansion of the exponential function. There are infinitely more higher-order terms, all of which grow at a higher-than-cubic rate. The population will outstrip the resource generation.

Carried to extremes, an exponentially-growing population will fill the universe -- not the galaxy, the universe -- in a finite span of time. Packed body-to-body through empty space. Then it will try to double again.

The space-travel scenario only buys us a little time, just like every other "technological advance" in human history: agriculture, bird guano, ammonia-based fertilizers. Population growth always fills the entire food niche and then stabilizes two steps from starvation. Sometimes one step. Then it doesn't rain one year, and some people starve. Someone invents a new technology, and population immediately booms to the tune of "happy days are here again."

Solving the problem means changing human behavior so we no longer have any need or desire to increase our population exponentially. Once we do that, what is the optimum human population? Hunter-gatherer levels? Roman levels? Mid-1500's levels? Early 20th century levels? Expanding at a cubic or less than cubic rate while we colonize other worlds?

Without a change in reproductive behavior, all technology is doomed to fail. With a change in reproductive behavior, nearly any sustainable level of technology, high or low, is perfect.

Jason said...

[T]he question that comes to mind first is how you get black/white thinking out of my suggestion that it might be worth applying the commonly accepted sociological category of civil religion to faith in progress?

The reason I wrote my blog post was so as not to hash all that out here! Over-briefly, the problem was you seeming to use the idea to justify black/white thinking. Bitter lifelong experience has taught me to watch use of the word "religion" for imputations of beliefs to people that they don't in fact hold: “he holds religion x, so must believe y, which I [and not he] have defined as the content of religion x”. I admit I've seen so wearyingly much of this that I may be a bit trigger happy about it.

You seemed to be doing that -- I gave examples, including a quote or two -- and to be ignoring evidence that the “religious motivations” in question were more complex. That seemed black/white.

Is it black and white... to disagree with those whose immediate reaction is to brush that suggestion aside?

I’m not doing that, I'm just expressing doubt. “I don’t — yet — really see the application of this analogy”, “I’m having a little trouble with this series”, “Is he possibly thinking the problem into a box which it doesn’t altogether fit? At the moment I think he might be” -- those were the kinds of words I used.

Someone just commented saying he “normally inhales” your posts but did find this one a touch “ex cathedra”. :) You don’t want pushovers for readers after all.

Perhaps my scepticism is related to the fact that your series hasn't done what, say, the Bellah essay had done this many words in: provide ample quotes from US presidents and fathers with the words "God" and "America" rather prominent! Those make it easy to sell a religion's presence.

Maybe you'll get to the equivalent of that later, in some appropriate way, but I’ve not been sold on the choice of "progress" to denote the complex of all the post-Abrahamic shards either. Not yet! I can see so many other choices -- so many other things that researchers or crusaders could be said to have died for -- so many cultural beliefs that don't fit the patterns you've laid out so far (for example the large numbers of people writing about degeneration who didn’t believe in apocalypse, from Nordau to Wells) -- and so on and on. Again, I think I put other thoughts on this in my post.

I’ve left the post up but I’m not going to sit on the sidelines and carp, rest assured.

Ouromboros said...

Since the topic has been religions, a question has been rattling around in my brain: do we learn more accurate information about a religion by looking at scripture and myth or by interviewing a range of believers? My holistic sense screams at me that we should look at both text and believer, but in my conversations on religion, one or the other becomes the target. Some people like "Jesus" but hate "Christians." Other people like "Christian Values" but scorn the "Bible." (I bring in Christianity as my example because most of the conversations I've had on religions will circle back to it continuously.) If we look at the religion of Progress, should we define its tenets by the texts of its "prophets" or by the beliefs of its followers? If we try to draw a conclusion from both, is our conclusion influenced more by text or belief? Star Trek might just be a great rollicking space western, but the pageantry and pomp of Trekker/ies shows they see it as an aspiration.

... and on US pizza: it has many varieties. Some of us are on a lifelong quest to secure some "good" pizza. We tolerate under-cooked or saltine-cracker crust, rubber cheeses, oversweet or batteryacid sauces, all in the pursuit of the perfect slice.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

John Roth wrote, "the western concept of religion as a separate compartment of life arose in the Enlightenment. Before that, it would have made as much sense to talk of "religion" as a subset of life as it would have been to discuss water with a fish as a subset of its experience."

I've been reading a book, How Judaism Became a Religion, by Leora Batinsky, which makes the same point.

Ruben said...

I never would have guessed readers of this blog would get chapped at the idea humanity will never go interstellar. It seems most of the past six years or so has been spent showing a hundred different ways that is not going to happen.

I have never understood the drive for space colonies. If it is for "survival of the species"--well we can't all fit on that ship, so most of us are going to have to stay here and die.

Don't get me wrong, I would still love to be an astronaut--floating around in Zero G....

ToiLET ApPLe said...

An interesting read, thank you for writing this.

Now, I have always found Nietzsche to be good at showing the problems, but not very good at showing the solution. His idea of the superman is laughable at best in my opinion. So, my question is this, how can nihilism ever be overcome?

sgage said...

@Cherokee said

"I don't want to be mean, but whatever they were eating was not pizza and I'm not even sure that my chooks here would recognise it as food. It kind of looked weird. Thanks to the troubles in Italy from the 1940’s onwards, there is a strong Italian culture here and it has certainly influenced food here.

As a message to everyone here, don't eat that US pizza, just run..."

All right, talking about religious beliefs... can't let that one slide by :-) ...

So yes, you saw some grim franchise-chain pizza in a movie. I guess that's all you need to know about American pizza and Italian influence on our cuisine in general :-) (BTW, I'll bet that same wretched franchise operates in Sydney and Melbourne).

You do realize there are large Italian communities of long standing (long before the 1940's) in most any US city. I grew up in the State of Connecticut, where pizza was highly understood and appreciated. In my small city, there were heated arguments over whether, say, Vinny's or Johnny Ray's was better. (We actually set up a double-blind taste test once, years ago, but it all went horribly wrong when the identities of the slices got all mixed up :-)

To this day, many highly respected food writers consider New Haven CT to have the best pizza on the planet. That ought to ruffle some feathers among you infidels!

I expect you were kidding around, but holy moly, for all its faults, the US is a rather huge and complicated thing, and has a long history of immigration of all kinds, with the attendant cuisines. Let's don't watch some stupid movie and be dissin' our pizza, fer godz sake!

Surely there is plenty to condemn about the US without that. :-)

onething said...


I sometimes say of myself, that I belong to a religion of one.

I'm the theologian, and the congregation.
Cherokee (Chris)

I'm disappointed with the results of the vote, but I am well aware of the strong impulse people have to worship their perceived superiors. It matters not whether it is a queen, or Darwin, or the rich and famous. It embarrasses me.
On the other hand, maybe it is another of the ills of civilization, as the aboriginal or tribal peoples do not seem to have the problem.
Perhaps it is because the civilized are lonely for God, having too much of religion and too little of the personal sense of contact with the Great Mystery.

I realize that people need leaders although I wish they didn't, and it seems to me that the crisis of civilization is a crisis of leadership; we have lousy leaders, we can't discern this, we can't figure out how to get real leaders or what to do when they're lousy. I don't know what the answer is, since the problem arises from population scales being too large. The only way to select good leaders is to know them very well. that seems only possible in small groups of people.

John Michael Greer said...

Zed, er, you can have my share.

John, ways to spot a Dyson sphere were a standard topic of space geek discussions when I was in high school. It's not too hard; for thermodynamic reasons, the outer shell will radiate strongly in the infrared -- you've got all the radiated energy from the star to disperse, remember, or else the inner surface will heat up to thermal equilibrium with the star, which would be awkward! So a Dyson sphere shows up as an anomalous IR source, as big as a red giant but not radiating anything like the same spectrum. Ever since the first IR satellites went up, people have been looking for them, and finding nothing.

Mind you, you might also want to do some reading on the concept of scientific parsimony. Arguing that there must be an interstellar civilization out there, and then adducing ad hoc arguments for why we don't see any sign of it, is not parsimonious! You might as well argue that gigantic space walruses hover just outside of the Van Oort cloud, gobbling up any stray radiation from those Dyson spheres so it doesn't get to us.

A parsimonious explanation is one that advances the fewest number of hypothetical entities needed to explain the facts. Why do we not see any sign of spacefaring extraterrestrial civilizations? The parsimonious answer is that there aren't any to see. Why aren't there any to see? Well, we know for a fact that intelligent life is possible, and that there are lots of planets out there; it's reasonable to assume that a significant number of them have, or have had, or will have intelligent life on them. The parsimonious explanation, then, is that interstellar travel is not an option. I've suggested several mechanisms, based on known physical laws, why this is likely anyway. Like every other hypothesis, it's subject to disproof, but you're going to have to put something more than wishful thinking into the argument to do that!

Jason, again, all I'm doing is proposing an analytical tool, and doing it in the not exactly spacious setting of a weekly blog post. You seem to have jumped to a host of conclusions about where I plan on taking this; I'd encourage you to set aside those preconceptions and see where it goes. I think you'll be surprised.

Ouromboros, good. Now take it a good step further -- sacred texts and the opinions of believers are only two of the many dimensions that go into religions. How much weight do we give to the way the believers behave? To the kinds and frequency of religious experience? To the transformations of the faith through time? To other factors beside these? Those social phenomena we put into the category "religion" include all of these.

Ruben, I wouldn't. I'd be horribly spacesick.

Toilet, the Overman is a much more subtle concept than most people realize; if you think it's laughable, I hope you'll forgive me for wondering if you've actually understood what Nietzsche was getting at. As for overcoming nihilism, though, we'll be discussing that as we proceed.

Joseph Nemeth said...

With all this talk of pizza, my son and I went to lunch the other day and fell to talking about the Archdruid Report, and he said that he'd read somewhere that the US would eventually break down into pizza delivery zones.

With all the religious fervor flying around here, I'm starting to think he may be right about that....

I'm personally all for calling down Holy War on @zed for even mentioning "vegemite pizza." (Oh good heavens, now I'VE said it, too. Well, fine. Holy War all around, then.)

Cherokee Organics said...


hehe! Yeah Vegemite is an acquired taste much like marmite in New Zealand and the other marmite in Britain (which is slightly different again). You have to be raised on that stuff to enjoy it. Still, I reckon it takes about 3 weeks to change a palate. I used to loath natural flavoured yoghurt, but taught myself to enjoy it.

A lot of vegetables fall into this category too as many of them are quite bitter and not acceptable to the Western palate. This summer I've been working on French Sorrell which is a real summer survivor here - even the wombat loves the stuff, when she doesn’t have access to the strawberry patch...

Hi sgage,

Yeah I was mucking around! Nice pickup. However, as to reading comprehension, did you not notice that I said "that US pizza"? This does not mean all US pizza. Am I detecting a touch of defensiveness?

I make pizza's here and they are often cooked in the wood-fired oven and the base is made from scratch.

The pizza in question in the film had no topping other than this strangely red coloured product (it was not the red of tomatoes but slightly brighter) and it flopped over when held by the widest end.

It is the second time in recent weeks that I'd seen such a pizza. The other example was in an episode of the TV show "Girls". I'd been harassed into watching it and now I'm unsure what all of the hype was about. It wasn’t very complementary to any of the female characters.

I watch very little television but has anyone noticed how bleak the story lines are?

Anyway, back to pizza, that show was filmed in New York which isn't that far from New Haven CT... Sorry, couldn’t help myself! hehe!

Hi onething,

I think it may be different again. There is a general level of distrust in the community here in relation to the political leaders. The referendum which was put to the vote was proposing a system in which the political leaders gained further powers. For example the position of President was chosen by the parliamentarians rather than put out to a general vote. It was generally considered to be a "job for the boys". The general level of distrust also tended to promote the attitude of "if it ain’t broke don't fix it".

The monarchy exercises considerable power here. In 1975, the Queens representative sacked the government. Yeah, there was a bit of hullabaloo at the time, but it still happened. Every bit of legislation passed is also required to receive royal assent too.

Dunno. There is a lot of hate speech going on here at the moment as the policy options are reduced and the rhetoric is increased. What is particularly disturbing is the level of personal attacks levelled at the current female Prime Minister. I suspect that a lot of the population are very intolerant of females? I think it is disrespectful.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Phil Harris,

I use candles here over winter when the solar PV is a bit sad, like here today when the system only generated 1.65kWh (it drizzled all day here). I enjoy the winter weather here and was outside in the breaks between the rain, moving plants around and planting seedlings. Winters here are a reasonably mild affair relative to the conditions that you may be experiencing. By the way I’ve read reports that Spring is very delayed in the UK. Are these reports exaggerated?

The other interesting use of beeswax is the plugging up of shitake mushroom inoculated dowels into the eucalypt logs here. It’s really interesting stuff.

However, candles produced en-masse would be very resource intensive so I can see how after WWII they were scarce. We don't know how easy we have it. Thanks for the reminiscing.



shrama said...

Thanks. That makes good sense.

So the way I interpret what you have said so far is that the basic difference between a religious and non-religious attitude (and it is a difference in attitude) lies in the religious person seeing one's own belief system (and also personal experiences of the mundane or mystical variety) as forming a vision for everyone else, and be willing and able to proselytize for the same.

That is where it all begins, and then depending on the exact contents of the vision and the response of the rest of society (a very complex phenomenon in itself), it either rises or falls.

Liquid Paradigm said...

@ Ruben

"I never would have guessed readers of this blog would get chapped at the idea humanity will never go interstellar."

As an experiment, I shared this concept with a select few friends who generally don't over-react to things. Only one responded and was deeply offended by the notion. What followed were mischaracterizations of my perspective and the stubborn insistence that "somebody somewhere" will come up with the magic bullet technology needed to make it inevitable. I briefly discussed limits, and was in no uncertain terms advised that human limitations don't actually exist, just limited perspective.

I give up. It's a shame that "hermit alone on a mountaintop" option isn't really viable.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Sean Cosmist,

Quote: "If one’s worldview suggests that the best response to a failure of corn crops is to sacrifice more slaves to the gods, your civilization’s fate may be sealed by your own false beliefs."

It is ironic, but such a response may actually be quite ecologically sound. From a purely scientific / rational perspective reducing the number of mouths at the feed trough during a famine may actually have the opposite effect than what you propose.

I think you have given a poor example that doesn't stand up to close scrutiny.

Be careful what you wish for...


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi zed,

Yeah that might work nicely. hehe!

nice one.


Bill Pulliam said...

Re: Fermi's Paradox -- the wikipedia page about it is alternately laughable and sad. I generally don't approve of razors, but that article is desperately in need of a visit from a barber named Occam.

What I find sad about it is the hopeless, frantic pursuit of any way at all to avoid the obvious answer, which is clearly unacceptable. It is reminiscent of 19th Century attempts to reconcile biblical literalism with a growing body of evidence for an ancient earth -- yes this was seriously pursued by many practicing scientists, not just by theologians. it is typical of what you see when someone is confronted with empirical facts that conflict with religious belief.

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


Re: different types of progress

Wow, that's an eye-opening insight!

Even being an apostate of the religion of scientific/ progress and never having really joined the religion of economic progress... all this time I've still been fundamentalist of the church of moral progress.

I mean, I've recognized for a while now that many of our norms will change for the worse in the coming years - I have been reading Star's Reach, after all - but in the back of my mind was the unquestioned assumption that if this happened it wouldn't be merely a regrettable (from our perspective) but natural part of cultural evolution (in the correct sense of "adaptation to external pressures"). I couldn't help but think of it as a partial descent into barbarism. In my mind there was a moral "arrow of time," just as the religion of scientific/technological progress sees the world in terms of a technological arrow of time.

And of course this holds on the level of individuals, as well. Each of us face trade-offs in what values we can pursue with the time and energy we have, not to mention a traveling salesman problem in calculating how to balance those against one another optimally.

Thanks for the epiphany.

Paul said...

I would have thought it was all about religion relativism, not until I read "Just as the persecutions usually failed to lessen the appeal of Communism to those who had not seen it in action, the state support ultimately failed to maintain its appeal to those who had." The subject matter was made interesting because it "insinuates" all non-scientific world-views as "religion". Analysis on Nietzsche was interesting, alert readers knowledgeable about Eastern philosophy can draw parallel with "wise man", "immortal" or "sage" in Taoist (e.g Laozi) or Buddhist thought, and share the same "weakness", once a sage opens his mouth and utters a scientific statement, he becomes an ordinary (scientific) man! Nice blog.

Adrian Skilling said...

On faith in progress...

A while ago I came across a TV program seriously discussing the following. If we knew that an asteroid would hit Earth in 50 years time how we could build a spaceship to transport all of Earth's 6 billion inhabitants into space.

Before I threw something at the telly I managed to switch it off. How stunningly detached from reality.

John D. Wheeler said...

@Ruben, I don't care so much about "survival of the species". And my explanation for Fermi's paradox is even more parsimonious than JMG's: life itself is exceedingly rare in this universe, requiring just exactly the right conditions to get started. If we find the universe is teeming with life, I'll be happy for us to stay here until the sun burns itself out. But if this is the only spark of life in the galaxy, I don't want to just let it die.

Nano said...

Free to party like it's 1999 and free from getting caught! ;)

I do wonder some times, if we humans, will end up fossil fuel to whatever comes after us.

Thanks for shifting my paradigms!

shrama said...

Sorry about writing again without waiting for your reply but I think the following is a much better characterization of the difference between a religious and a non-religious attitude:

No matter what, we always start every inquiry with beliefs or unverifiable presuppositions. For example, 'reason leads to truth' can be one such unverifiable presupposition. This belief can be held by both a religious and a non-religious person. The only difference is that for a religious person it is not just an unverifiable presupposition, it is self-evident truth. For the non-religious, it is just an unverifiable presupposition, to be used as long as it produces useful results, but discarded when it no longer serves an useful purpose. Thus both the religious and the non-religious may use their unverifiable presupposition for figuring out the same things about existence, but for one it is the natural outcome of a self-evident truth, for the other the tentative outcome of a belief.

When you don't merely think of your beliefs as self-evident truth but also see it as the basis for a vision for the rest of humanity, then you are itching to become a prophet.

This has become somewhat reductionist but does it make sense?

sgage said...


"Am I detecting a touch of defensiveness? "

Well, maybe a touch ;-)

The worst pizza I ever had was in Sweden, in Stockholm.

A circular piece of something like undercooked white bread with something like ketchup on it and a sparse scattering of some sort of cheese on it. Fortunately, the beer was plentiful and good.

OK, defenders of Swedish pizza - over to you...

Iuval Clejan said...

@Approliving, so the distinction you are making between religion and ideology is that a member of a religion acknowledges they are of a religion, and a member of a non-religious ideology does not? The early Christians did not acknowledge that they were a new religion-they were just Jews. Neither did the early protestants. The self-acknowledgement took some time. I don't think that is a useful distinction. If Christianity had been stamped out before self-realization, would that have made it less of a religion? Also, the kinds of actions that a religion engenders, as opposed to an ideology, are formalized, ritualized, some of them involving a joint action with others of the same religion. Many believers of various religions claim they want to better the lot of humanity, so that does not distinguish secular humanism (or the religion of Progress) from other religions.

MawKernewek said...

The UK Met Office produce actual and anomaly versus averages maps for a number of weather parameters at link which shows temperatures for March below average. This was largely due to a persistent easterly wind, blamed upon the jet stream heading south leading to the colder easterly wind coming from Siberia to dominate.

On another topic I did make an estimate for the number of technological civilisations in the Galaxy on a Star's Reach post. My guesses for the parameters had me estimating the likely response time for radio contact as centuries or millenia rather than decades.

As far as interstellar travel is concerned, I think its unlikely for humanity to manage it, if we had self-sufficient colonies on Mars, the Moon, and the asteroids, one can imagine something like a hollowed out asteroid being sent off on an interstellar journey. If it went at 0.1% of the speed of light (300 km/s) and we assume there was another star system suitable for colonisation 10 light years away it would take 10,000 years. The problem is I doubt we would be able to create interplanetary colonies large enough to form a self-sufficient technological society that doesn't need to rely on supply shipments from Earth. I'm not really taking about raw materials, more technological products that require a significant industrial base.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Joseph Nemeth--I'm sure you are aware that the rate at which population grows or declines is the result of the death rate, the ratio of fertile females to the entire population, and the birth rate of those females. In human beings, all three of these factors are affected by culture and technology.

You wrote, 'Population growth always fills the entire food niche and then stabilizes two steps from starvation. Sometimes one step. Then it doesn't rain one year, and some people starve. Someone invents a new technology, and population immediately booms to the tune of "happy days are here again." '

This is what usually happens, but a technological advance which occurred in our lifetimes might be a game changer. That is the widespread availability of effective methods of birth control that do not require the cooperation of the male sex partner.

Wherever women have access to some combination of the Pill, IUDs, hormone shots, safe first-trimester abortions and surgical sterilization, the birth rate drops. If the previous median family size was eight to twelve children, it drops to five to eight; five drops to three, three drops below replacement levels.

There is a lag of decades between a drop in birth rate and a slowing of population growth, because a large cohort of fertile women having fewer babies each can result in more children surviving to adulthood than a smaller cohort producing large families.

Advanced industrialized countries combine wide access to safe, effective birth control with economic incentives to have small families or remain childless. Every one of these countries except the United States has a shrinking and aging population. The entire growth in the U.S. population has been attributed to immigrants and their first-generation children.

Conversely, the countries with the most rapid population growth and youngest populations are the least industrialized. Developing nations are in between. As far as I am aware, there are no exceptions to the rule that wherever women are offered access to safe and effective birth control, they choose to have fewer children.

Removable IUDs and some methods of first-trimester abortion are simple enough to be available for awhile into an era of declining technology. It's at least possible that researchers will come up with ways of producing and distributing hormonal birth control using less tech-intensive methods than what Big Pharma is selling. Contraception does not need to be one hundred percent effective to be useful, as long as it's safe.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi onething,

Quote: "On the other hand, maybe it is another of the ills of civilization, as the aboriginal or tribal peoples do not seem to have the problem."

Contrary to your quote, the Aboriginal people were traditionally guided by elders, tradition, spirituality, ceremony, circumstances and oral history.

Quote: "but I am well aware of the strong impulse people have to worship their perceived superiors."

No one worships the monarchy here that I've ever heard about. I'd never even considered such a point of view before.

I see the role of the monarchy here as a pressure release valve for democracy when an impasse is reached. This is a very useful function and not to be dismissed lightly.

In 1975, such an impasse in Australian federal governance was reached for all sorts of reasons. The government of the day was sacked by the Queens representative and an election was held. I will point out that the election result upheld the Governor Generals decision. Remember too that voting is compulsory here, so there is no doubt about the outcome.

As an interesting side note, Gough Whitlam the Prime Minister of the time and Malcolm Fraser who was the opposition leader (and later Prime Minister) became friends many years later.

As to the impulses you are projecting, the Fraser's garden is sometimes open as part of the Open Garden scheme (Tamie Fraser is the current president of the scheme) and I've seen them walking around chatting to people.

I can't imagine a similar situation occurring in the US or UK sans some serious undercover security?

Perhaps because of the convict history and harsh climate, Australian's have a deeply ingrained sense of irreverence?



Ruben said...

@John D. Wheeler,

if this is the only spark of life in the galaxy, I don't want to just let it die

I understand your desire. But I have always wanted a tail like a monkey. Also, I really, really want to have wings and fly like a bird. But, as my mother says, "Reality Intrudes."

It reminds me a bit of wisdom from The Automatic Earth--"The value of something is not how much you want for it, but how much someone is ready, willing and able to pay for it."

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi sgage,

No worries, it's all good, well except for that description of the pizza!

Hi MawKernewek,

Thanks for the link.

Better go do some work, now that it has stopped raining.



Joseph Nemeth said...

Hmm. Several people got upset about no starships in our species' lifetime. I'd like to explore this.

Clearly, we aren't going to make it on this (oil based) energy peak.

Humans aren't going to get another oil-based energy peak.

So let's posit another energy source yet to be discovered, with higher energy density than oil. Element 151 is a favorite for certain UFO enthusiasts; I'm partial to cold fusion or magic crystals, myself. There may be some possibilities inherent in vegemite pizza. Whatever: we agree that we now have all the energy we need.

We next need some motivation better than avarice. Avarice wasn't enough to get us to the moon: that took hubris, and the threat of being "beat" by the Other Guy. Not even hubris will take us out of the solar system, because it will take generations to get payback, if not centuries, and no one will wait for that. "Survival" isn't sufficient -- that doesn't kick in until Element 151 is already running out, at which point it's far too late to mount a massive "lifeboat" plan. We'd have to wait for the next magic bullet. And the next. And the next.

The only motivation that would do, I think, would be imminent threat of Invasion From Outer Space: that kicks off hubris, avarice, and survival all at once. But the odds of this?

It presumes that interstellar war is economically feasible in the first place -- what are they after, our women? Our Element 151? The best vegemite pizza in the universe? What's worth cruising across the galaxy for? It presumes that this all happens right when we're at our peak of Element 151 technology, when we have some prayer of fighting back. It presumes that The Enemy doesn't just fumigate the earth from far away, the way I went after a wasp nest last summer: point a gamma-ray burst at the solar system and come back a galactic year later.

Nah. Any such invasion will be a massive PR stunt foisted on us by humans exercising either hubris or avarice or both, and they are going to be results-oriented and cost-conscious.

We could presume that our society develops other motivations. An unquenchable itch to leave the earth doesn't seem that likely to me. More likely is a steady-state civilization that eschews exponential growth and values stability. In which case, there will be no need or desire to visit other worlds.

Finally, there's only a small window for all of this. Homo sapiens sapiens is only a couple hundred thousand years old, and we're moving into a period of ecological stress that will -- probably? -- punctuate our genetic equilibrium pretty thoroughly. Humans will evolve or be replaced. I'd guess that another 250,000 years is a long shot. Another hundred million years is a dead certainty: there will be no more humans.

It may be heresy to the Church of Progress, but I think JMG hit this one on the nose.

onething said...

"Contrary to your quote, the Aboriginal people were traditionally guided by elders, tradition, spirituality, ceremony, circumstances and oral history."

Yes, sure, but the elders are not dictators or kings. As far as I have been able to discern, no tribal peoples have chiefs who can dictate. They have to persuade, and they are not always successful. As to those other forms of guidance, that is normal for a culture. Whereas several civilizations have such rules as that when the king goes by, everyone puts their face to the ground, and in Cambodia you were not allowed to even look up. I don't know of any tribal people who do such things, and certainly the American natives would have been offended at the very idea.

"No one worships the monarchy here that I've ever heard about. I'd never even considered such a point of view before."
I didn't mean literal worship, but the amount of money and adulation paid to various famous people is all part of the same syndrome, I think.

What you say about the role of the monarchy in your govt is something I did not know. Is it the same in the UK? I thought that in the UK they have almost no power politically at all?

Yes, the need or perceived need for security probably precludes any such thing as an open house at the White House, although at least some years ago you might see the president on a White House tour.

Guggenheim News said...

Dear Mr Greer,
I'm a first time poster. I happened upon your blog a little over a year ago and it has since become a trusted source of education and entertainment for me. Many thanks for your continuing thought provoking work.

While playing with your religion of progress idea, it occurred to me that perhaps it not only applies to moral, technological and economic progress but also to progress within the arts. Specifically I'm interested in the field of music (I'm a songwriter by trade so I've got a hefty emotional interest on the outcome of this particular line of questioning). Let's start with the subgenre "progressive rock". Prog Rock pretends to advance rock music to a 'higher' art form. But that's where I get stuck. You see in practice this usually means moving towards a more sophisticated use of western music theory (a type of math). But following rules and breaking rules is not music. When music is good it's a matter of experience not a matter of theory. Both gregorian chant and Stravinsky can bring me to tears. As can Leonard Cohen. And I lost myself in a drum circle once with no chemical aids.

So this idea that music should be going somewhere 'better', it doesn't ring true and yet it seems to surface again and again... like that snobbishness when classical music aficionados look down on jazz enthusiasts who in turn poo poo pop.
Or how about Oswald Spenglers notion that western music is either stagnant, stealing from other cultures or is irrelevant to the masses? Is this not an anti-religion of progress as applied to music? This view seems to spring from the conviction that western classical music should constantly be moving forward, remain 'pure' and be populist. Who cares if it breaks any of those conditions? How does that make it any less authentic or good? There are many examples of music that has changed very little over time or has borrowed and stolen from numerous sources, in each case music that has a very select audience and yet I'd wager would have knocked Mr Spengler for six should he have sat in a room and experienced it firsthand. Many's a worldy heart that has been softened by a set of uilleann pipes and a plaintive air. Progress that!

Hmmm... perhaps I've lost my way with this. But that's why I'm asking your thoughts on it Mr Greer. You have a mind like a surgical knife. Mine is more akin to a meat tenderizer.

IslandNotes said...

Aloha! This is something I made called the 'House of Infinite Progress'. It is a sort of multi-media exploration of similar ideas:

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Deborah Bender,

Humans have always had effective means of population control. In Roman times, "exposure" was a common practice, as was infanticide. In modern China, abandonment is common. There are various herbal abortifacients, and while they aren't as provably reliable as The Pill, they do work.

I'm not convinced that it's solely a matter of making The Pill available: I'd need to see numbers. I suspect an underlying economic incentive is more important: people have fewer children when the children aren't as useful. There are also the cultural mores -- while infanticide may be common in China or ancient Rome, it's considered a barbaric crime in the US.

Jared Diamond, in Collapse, talks about the inhabitants of Tikopia Island, with a total of under two square miles of land, that supported a population of 1000 for nearly 3000 years. They clearly found a way to keep their population stable without The Pill.

The appearance of The Pill was concurrent with a lot of other changes, including fully-industrialized farming, suburbs, automobiles, and Social Security in the US and various social welfare programs in Europe. It is currently accompanied in non-Western societies by radical "Westernization" of their economies and cultural mores, particularly the political and educational emancipation of women.

The point being that I suspect -- I don't know, I just suspect -- that as we skid down the Long Descent, we'll see family sizes start to rise again, even though The Pill will still be available, and food may be getting short: the reason being that it will simply take more hands to get the work done. In addition, families generally practice a gift economy internally, while trade with strangers usually follows a barter model. That means that an increased number of family members brings you personal wealth that an increased number of neighbors does not.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@ Guggenheim -

I'm with you on this.

All the "musical progress" of the last century has not made art more viable. It has instead almost killed the arts. My son wanted to be a musician, but the university talked him out of it. When we went to parents' day with him, we sat in on a session by one of the music professors, and he as much as said, "Get out -- there's no future here." I'd never heard a more negative pitch in my life. I wanted to drop in on the Minneapolis Symphony during a recent business trip, and discovered they're shut down over contract disputes: basically, the musicians all have to take pay cuts because the organization can't draw the audiences any more. Where is the "progress" in this?

I also agree that following or breaking rules is not art. But as a composer who writes in the Western tradition, I would say this entire idea of following and breaking rules is (mostly) bad teaching and one of the ways "progress" has killed art.

For instance, I've written fugues, and I'm pretty sure that Bach didn't write his according to a set of mathematical rules. The rules are doubtless there: I'm sure they are present in my own pieces. But that's not how I got there, and I'm pretty sure Bach didn't either.

The only time I find "rules" useful is when I get stuck. I listen to a progression and I say, "That sounds wrong." So I look at it closely, and sure enough, there are those pesky parallel fifths, messing things up. Formal training lets me see them, and suggests ways to fix the problem -- it's good for that. But I don't go looking through my music for parallel fifths, because there are times and places where they sound exactly right, and I'm not going to touch them just because they're formally "wrong."

Music doesn't start or end in the head, or the wallet. It's in the heart and the soul, or it isn't music at all.

Phil Harris said...

Hi Chris @ Cherokee
Thanks for thoughts on candles.
(I tend to reminisce rather more these days ... )
Stuck out here in the Atlantic, winters are rarely cold like our Continental neighbours, but we have had a period of extended 'cool'. Yes, spring is much delayed. Yesterday was about the first day for 2-3 months the temperature went above 10 deg C at least in the northern half of the country. (Up here, we tend not to count London!) We had several weeks with 10-25 mph wind at max 2-3 deg C. With snow in the wind, that felt cold.
Grass has not grown yet but change is in the air.

The odd behaviour of the jet stream (as well as the present anomaly we had a very wet summer last year because it got stuck) has been attributed to ice-free polar sea retaining warmth and changing the N/S temperature gradients.

It was good to hear you were putting big new water storage for your farm. Keep up the good work!
Phil H

Robert Mathiesen said...

As for the Pill and having fewer children.

Among my own ancestors in Will Co., Illinois, fertility fell off sharply within two generations just after the Civil War. My great-grandmother, Ella Maria (Acker) Osgood, was one of two children, and both her daughter and granddaughter were only children. Great-grandmother's own grandmother, however, was one of ten children.

What made all the difference in these particular women's child-bearing was (a) the family's shift from a rural farmstead to life in a city (Joliet, then still called Juliet) and a marked increase in the family's prosperity, (b) the huge loss of husbands and fathers during the Civil War, leading to a huge increase in households with a woman as head, and (c) the first wave of feminism that empowered these same women a decade or so later.

These women ancestors of mine married men they loved, or came to love after marrying them. What is important, however, is that they did not marry *for love* primarily, but for social and economic reasons that seemed good to them at the time. And they had all kinds of ways to limit the number of children they would raise.

One way was simply to refuse their husbands' offers of sex (which in those days did not threaten the stability of a marriage as much as it would do later). A strong woman could and would enforce that by "the frying-pan or the rolling-pin," if that was what it took, or call on her older sons to help her keep their father in line if he would not control himself. (Our family stories refer to that latter option quite explicitly!)

Also, there were no real sanctions back then if many of your children died young after a fatal illness (and nearly every child did contract at least one serious illness), and no close investigation of possible deficiencies in the care such a child might have received. Lots and lots of children died very young, and everyone expected that to happen frequently.

We have become far more "genteel" and squeamish over the intervening century and a half, and so we assume that the Pill was the only decisive turning point. The Pill was indeed a turning-point, once we had become squeamish about other means; but earlier there had been other turning points, and one of them was the slow social acceptance of women's power within the family. (One early hallmark of this was when choosing a name for a new-born child became matter of the mother's wishes as well as the father's, sometime in the 1700s.)

Robert Mathiesen said...

One commenter asked whether there can be a religion with only a single adherent. Robert Bellah discussed this in his _Habits of the Heart_ on the basis of a woman with just such a private religion, to whom he gave the pseudonym of Sheila Larson. She quipped that her religion could be called "Sheilaism." Thanks to Bellah's influence, the term stuck within the sociology of religion.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

There can be development within an art form. Artists set themselves technical problems and find solutions, address new subjects, incorporate new materials and styles, make more complex works, and so forth.

Periods when artists are developing their form on an existing base can be very exciting for the audiences and the artists. In Western art, we can observe this kind of progression in the transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture (taller, more open space, bigger windows, more sculpture), in Renaissance and early modern painting as the problem of perspective was solved and artists turned to secular subjects, and in the development of jazz.

Between 1964 and 1968, as I remember it, rock and roll music developed so fast, with new styles, new instrumentation, new subject matter, that landmark singles and albums were issued monthly. Entire albums from that period were masterpieces, artistic achievements that could not have been made twelve months earlier.

This doesn't mean that Charlie Parker made Scott Joplin and Louis Armstrong not worth listening to, or that a seventeenth century Madonna is better than one by Fra Lippo Lippi.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Joseph,

Of course they're invading for the vegemite pizza, why else? Thanks for the laughs!

As to Tikopia Island, Jared Diamond covered the various methods of population stabilisation. Some of these methods are perhaps unpalatable to current Western society, but they have a very small resource base and little choice in the matter.

I think you are wrong about your suggestion about large families in the future for the simple reason that we are only able to maintain the current population because of the available energy resources. Declines in the available volume of those energy resources will reveal in full the ecological damage that we've inflicted on the planet particularly to the soils and water.

Organic agriculture has a lot to offer, but it is very hard for me to see how it could replicate the current availability of food in western countries.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Deborah,

I think you mention that concern every couple of weeks and it is a worthwhile concern. I wonder about it too.

Perhaps we are a bit removed from our food sources, but if you've ever been involved in traditional sausage making, you may have an insight into one particular method that has had a long history (no pun intended).

As Joseph said too, there is much to be said on the topic in herbal lore too. I've been growing a reasonable variety of herbs here for a while now and have collected quite a few second hand older books on the subject of herbs and it is amazing the uses that these plants were traditionally put to.

Sure, none of this is as effective as modern methods and medicines but it is better than nothing at all.

Incidentally, I'm not entirely convinced that the modern methods and medicines are that effective anyway.

Years back I remember reading a historical analysis about the percentage of the population that actually did breed and I was quite surprised that the historical rates were much lower than today. I think the average for males was 60% and females was 80%. Anyway, I'm sure wars, disease, unsafe work environments, risky behaviour, higher mortality rates etc. had much to do with the difference with today’s rates which are much higher again (which are around 90% in Australia).

So given we have these technologies and yet the percentage of the population that breeds is much higher than historical rates, the question becomes: "what's going on?"

From observations of my friends - and I hope they're not reading this - they are delaying the decision to breed and then exercising that option at the very last possible moment. Did you know that 1 in 7 births in Australia utilise reproductive assistance technology?

All sorts of other questions arise too, although these tend to be of a moral and/or subjective nature, for example, “what did they do with the years not spent child rearing?”

But no one is asking these questions and it is unprecedented historically. You’ve raised a thought provoking question and it is linked to many cultural warm fuzzies which may not stand up to close scrutiny.



onething said...

It seems to me that retaining knowledge of a woman's fertile period is the single most useful thing in regard to birth control. If only people had known this historically, much misery might have been saved. Of course it isn't as good as a reliable method of birth control, but it takes much of the risk out, and allows you to have sex sometimes with fair safety. Sure beats a permanent refusal of sex.

Joseph Nemeth said...


I didn't mean to imply that there would be more people, just larger families (and fewer of them).

It's an intuition, and I'm not sure I can defend it. It's contingent on a lot of circumstances, a big one being the degree of relative peace in which things develop. In the kind of lawless chaos France fell into in the mid-1300's, where the Second Estate (the knights) turned to brigandry and started pillaging their own lands, all bets are off.

But (functional) families in a relatively peaceful environment are pure communist in structure: everyone contributes, everyone shares. As soon as a son is big enough to stand behind the plow, he lightens the load on everyone, and everyone shares in the benefits. As long as the EROEI of raising food is over one, more family equals more prosperity for every member of the family. It's a very visible economic advantage to have more children, at least up to the carrying capacity of the land you can work.

Smaller families will not have enough hands to work the land, and their land will eventually go fallow. That makes it available, one way or another, to the larger families that want to expand. Over time, the small families will die out.

That's my intuition. I do know that all of my agricultural ancestors had large-ish families, and huge extended families. One aunt stopped counting her grandchildren after number sixty-three.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Joseph,

No worries, I understood your intent and am enjoying the dialogue.

Quote: "As soon as a son is big enough to stand behind the plough, he lightens the load on everyone, and everyone shares in the benefits."

We differ on opinions at this point. Agriculture as a general rule doesn't need to look like this. Unfortunately, it often does nowadays and people confuse the growing of grains for the purposes of feeding livestock and/or people as an efficient form of agriculture.

In the craziest of situations we use Oil in tractors and harvesters to grow grains and then convert that grain via distillation using more energy back into ethanol as a feedlot for energy. Go figure.

There are much more efficient methods available. Think about the orchardist, the market gardener, the herbalist, the forager, the apiarist, the hunter etc.

If you think about how hunter gatherers lived they ate a highly diverse plant based diet with a bit of protein thrown in for good measure.

We can actually replicate such systems but in an intensive manner. We also have a world of plants to choose from that our ancestors would have killed for, especially the disease resistant varieties.

Ploughing does more harm than good and is a short term strategy in agriculture. It breaks fungal mycorrhiza and exposes earthworms and bacteria to the sunlight thus killing them and making their minerals and nutrients available to the plants. Yet, you have to leave the land fallow for a couple of years afterwards to recover this soil life. I don't see this happening in many locations, do you? People think that soil is something that holds plants upright and in the Industrial system that is all that it is, but it is far more than that. Should we ever take away the mineral fertilisers applied to the current crops, we’ll be in for a big shock! Look at Cuba’s special period where people lost on average 9kg of body weight. A further complication is that we also have social taboos about manure that need to be addressed sooner or later.

Big families require big feeding and if you cannot gauge the carrying capacity of your land, how do you know when you have exceeded it and then what do you do? Additional labour does not generally result in increased yields on a long term basis, otherwise we would have more food right now than we can eat.



Liquid Paradigm said...

From the new trailer for 'Man of Steel' released yesterday: "You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble; they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders." (spoken by Jor-El)

It is quite the paean to the myth of progress. I shook my head a bit and felt a little sad. When it really starts to sink in generally what we're coming to, that the future we all assumed we'd have is ashes in our hands, that's going to be in some ways even harder to endure than the physical circumstances. Not that I don't think that we can, and will, pull through it eventually and re-forge a sense of meaning to sustain our spirits, but I sympathise with the shock and deep heartache that will occur initially.

(Although, to be honest, I'll be going to see it. I cannae resist a superhero movie, even if the curtain has been pulled back on the underlying mythology. And I've already got my ticket for the new Star Trek movie that comes out next month. Even if it has stopped being prophecy for me, I still enjoy the stories.)

derekthered said...


an interesting article from Bellah, certainly does point out the historical use of civic religion.
i do appreciate your point about Marx being a reaction to and participating in the dominant dialectic of capitalism. a good case for marxism being an anti-religion.

i would offer a theory, and that is that our true civic religion is capitalism. the reason being that we place capital above all other values, our laws protect private property, which seems fine, until one realizes most people own very little and that ownership is very unequal.

but that's not all! we have our ubermensch, only it's not a mensch at all, it's an artificial entity in the form of immortal corporations. like greek demi-gods they rule from on high, twisting and turning the lives of mere mortals this way and that.

the sacrament is the sale or stock trade, the sacrifice the common people, the high preists the traders and the owners on Wall Street and every finacial markeplace in the world.

the "free market" has it's dogma, it's a win/win, the forces of the market, everone's benefits, most of them as unprovable as the existence of Zeus. unfortunately, this religion is a death cult, as it operates on the collected dead labor of workers, demands eternal growth, and wreaks havoc wherever it takes root.

i believe this false deity is closely related to the god of eternal progress, brothers, like Thor and Loki.

Rocco said...

@Joseph and Guggenheim:

Thanks much for your comments on how the arts (and music in particular) may fit into the conversation about faith in Progress and how that faith has turned out to be an empty dream.

As a guy now in his mid-60's who some ten years ago finally learned enough basic (very basic!) music theory to put chords and melodies together in satisfying ways, it has been a long time since I paid much attention to recorded music. It is so much better to sit at the piano and watch the chords progress and feel that inexpressible sense of connection with ...what?...whoever wrote that particular song?...or, maybe, the, shall I call it, "The Deity"?, that communicates with us so indirectly and sublimely through music?

I have a hunch that when the tipping point is reached, i.e., when everyone used to the comfort of the way of life most of us were born into will have no choice but to acknowledge that Something Else must replace Progress, then, my hunch is, it will be the artists who will lead the way to whatever is next.

Chris Travers said...

One of the basic problems is defining religion objectively. To make religion about belief is to make religion no older than Christianity. To hold religion to be an orthopraxy which may include an obligation to believe is to make religion so broad as to include secular humanism.

There is simply no definition of religion which can incorporate Christianity, Islam, Judaism, the traditional Hopi religion, and Hinduism without incorporating Americanism, secular Humanism, what you call the religion of progress (and I call "The Cult of the Machine").

karlos said...

I joined Peal Prosperity 2 months ago and enjoyed your 1st installation. Since then no indication you are a contributing member of the organization. Are you no longer a involved with Peak Prosperity? If not, I need to cancel my membership.


Kathleen K said...

derekthered said...
"i believe this false deity is closely related to the god of eternal progress, brothers, like Thor and Loki."

Odin and Loki were the (blood) brothers, unless you're talking about Marvel.

dax said...


I know this is satire, but I often think people couch the most uncomfortable truths of their time in jokes. I immediately thought of your writings on the religion of progress.,32156/

Nicholas Carter said...

The same truth, from the other side.

John Maiorana said...

Is Voluspa the same as Voluspo, from the Codex Regius?

John Maiorana said...

Not that it really matters to or detracts from the point of your essay, I find the the term "shape of time" to be confusing, since it suggests to me what is being described is the geometry or topology of time itself, or of space-time. The "shape of history" would seem to be more descriptive here, even though somewhat less poetic. In all of the shapes of time given, there seems to be an underlying linear model of time itself, possibly with a beginning and possibly with an end. One can imagine a great number of other topologies.

John Maiorana said...

In talking about the shape of time, modern people seem to see a physical universe composed of elementary particles that constructs living entities. One could reverse this point of view and suppose a vital universe composed of living entities that construct the physical universe. Perhaps people were once more inclined to the latter perception, even though it is anathema to most nowadays. Time and space are physical properties which reflect the natures of the living.