Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The God With Three Heads

It's been said that a man’s religion is the thing he can’t bear to have questioned. If there’s any truth in that old saying, the idea that faith in progress is a religion has a great deal going for it. Over the seven years this blog has been appearing, I’ve discussed any number of controversial issues and made plenty of proposals that contradict the conventional wisdom of our times; none of them has fielded me as many spluttering denunciations as the suggestion that belief in progress is the most important civil religion of the modern industrial world.

A commenter on one of the many other sites where my posts appear thus started off his critique of last week’s post with a shout of “Why bear with this?” Since I doubt anybody’s holding a gun to his head and making him read The Archdruid Report, he’ll have to answer his question himself. Still, his furious outburst is a useful reminder of one of the distinctive features of the belief systems we’re discussing; however subtle and closely reasoned their intellectual sides happen to be, they reach right down into the deepest places of the human heart, and draw on powerful and unreasoning passions.

Civil religions and theist religions alike have motivated believers to die for their faith and to kill for it, to make tremendous sacrifices and commit appalling crimes.  Not many human motivations can equal religion as a driving force, and I don’t know of any that reliably surpass it. When people push past the limits of ordinary humanity in any direction, good or evil, if it’s not a matter of the love or hate of one human being for another, odds are that what drives them onward is either a theist faith or a civil one.

This is among the core reasons why I’ve launched into an exploration of the religious dimensions of peak oil, and why I’ve begun that with a study of the most distinctive feature of the religious landscape of our time: the way that belief in the invincibility and beneficence of progress has come to serve an essentially religious role in the modern world, permeating the collective conversations of our time.  It’s also a core reason why that exploration will continue over the weeks to come, because there’s much more that needs saying about the contemporary faith in progress, the historical mythology that underlies it, and the distortions it imposes on nearly all of our society’s assumptions about the future.

It’s important, to begin with, to pay attention to the ambiguities wrapped up in the modern conception of progress. When people think or talk about progress, by that name or any of its common euphemisms, there are at least three different things they can mean by it. All three share the common presupposition that history has an inherent tendency to move in a particular direction, that movement in that direction is a good thing, and that human beings can and should contribute to that forward movement toward the good; it’s the dimension of human life in which the movement is believed to be taking place that marks the distinction between these different meanings of progress.

The first version of progress is moral progress:  it centers on the claim that history’s inherent tendency is toward increasingly ethical human relationships and social forms. These days, especially on the leftward end of society, this version of progress is usually framed in political terms, but its moral thrust is impossible to miss, as its proponents inevitably frame their arguments in terms of moral absolutes, virtues and vices.   At its best, the ethical stance of the contemporary mainstream Left in America and Europe is one of the few really original moral philosophies to develop in modern times, with a distinctive focus on the virtues of equality, social justice, and kindness, all understood and pursued primarily on a collective rather than an individual level; at its worst—like all philosophies, it has its less impressive side—it becomes a self-righteous cant, by turns saccharine and shrill, in the service of the craving for unearned power that’s the besetting sin of all modern moralists.

You can see the faith in moral progress in action any time people insist that some proposed social change is an advance, a move forward, away from the ignorance and injustice of the benighted past. Even when this sort of talk is cheap manipulative rhetoric, as of course it so often is, it’s the faith in moral progress that gives the manipulation power and allows it to work.  Think about the implications of “forward” and “backward” as applied to social changes, and you can begin to see how deeply the mythology of progress pervades contemporary thought:  only if history has a natural direction of flow does it make any kind of sense to refer to one set of social policies as “progressive” and another as “backward,” say, or to describe the culture or laws of one of the flyover states despised by the coastal literati as “stuck in the 1950s.”  It’s the faith that history moves in the direction set out by a specific definition of moral progress that gives these very common metaphors their meaning.

That’s only one of the three things that faith in progress can choose as its focus, though.  The second is scientific and technical progress, which centers on the claim that history’s inherent tendency is toward increasingly complete human knowledge and domination of the cosmos.  In theory, it might be possible to conceive of scientific progress without a corresponding increase in technical power, or vice versa; in practice, at least in the minds of those who interpret progress along these lines, the two are rarely separated. As Francis Bacon argued in the first gray dawn of the scientific revolution, the value of knowledge concerning nature is the power that results from that knowledge; investment in the production of scientific knowledge is almost universally justified by talking about what the resulting knowledge will let humanity do to the world.

To see the core features of a religion in starkest terms, it’s often useful to look at its most extreme forms, and the faith in scientific and technical progress is no exception.  The example I have in mind here is the Singularitarian movement, which claims that sometime soon—Singularitarian prophet Ray Kurzweil has set the date as 2045—the unstoppable onward march of progress, bootstrapped by the creation of artificial intelligences far more powerful than any human mind, will accelerate to infinity. All the dreams of science fiction, from starflight through immortality to virtual sex with Marilyn Monroe, will become realities, and humanity will achieve something like godhood—unless the hyperintelligent computers decide to exterminate us all instead, that is.

There are plenty of things worth discussing about the Singularitarian religion, but the one that’s relevant to the present theme is the wild misunderstanding it imposes on the nature of scientific knowledge.  A large portion of the discoveries of science, including many of its greatest achievements, can be summed up neatly by the words “you can’t do that.”  If an all-wise supercomputer could be created at all—and it’s far from certain that one could be—it’s entirely possible that it would sort through the sum total of human science and technology and say to us, “For beings of such modest mental capacities, you’ve done a good job of figuring out what can be done with the resources available to you. Here are some technical tricks you haven’t worked out yet, but starflight, immortality, sex with this Marilyn Monroe person?  Sorry, those aren’t possible; you’ll have to go on living without them.” What’s more, it’s entirely possible that it would be right.

Even outside the Singularitarian faith, though, you can count on either blank incomprehension or furious disagreement if you suggest that there might be things that scientific and technological progress can’t achieve. Those of my readers who have been in the peak oil scene for any length of time will have learned that the most common dismissal they’ll get, when they try to suggest to the rest of the world that betting the future on infinite resource extraction from a finite planet is not a bright idea, is some variation on “Oh, I’m sure they’ll come up with something.” The “they” in this overfamiliar sentence are of course scientists and engineers; the mere fact that “they” have been trying to come up with something in this particular case for well over a century, and success is still nowhere in sight, does nothing to dent the really rather touching faith that today’s popular culture places in their powers.

Scientific and technical progress, then, plays a massive role in the modern mythology of progress. It's equalled if not exceeded by the third kind of progress, economic progresswhich centers on the claim that history’s inherent tendency is to ever greater levels of economic abundance, however that abundance may happen to be distributed.  The belief that ongoing exponential economic growth is normal and beneficent, and that anything else is abnormal and destructive, is perhaps the most widely accepted form of the mythology of progress in contemporary life, not least because most people like to imagine that they themselves will benefit from it.

Open the business section of any newspaper, turn the pages of any economics textbook, scan the minutes of any meeting of any business corporation in contemporary America or most of the modern world, and you’ll get to see a faith in economic progress as absolute and unthinking as any medieval peasant’s trust in the wonderworking bones of the local saint.  In the mythic world portrayed by the prophets and visionaries of that faith, economic growth is always good, and comes as a reward to those who obey the commandments of the economists. The fact—and of course it is a fact—that obeying the commandments of the economists has by and large brought more disaster than prosperity to the industrial world’s economies for decades somehow rarely enters into these reverential thoughts.

In recent years, to be sure, faith in economic progress—that is, growth—has come under fire from two sides. On the one hand, there’s the small but gradually expanding body of ecologists, economists, and other scholars who point out the absurdity of perpetual economic expansion on a finite planet, and document some of the ways that an obsession with growth for its own sake produces a bumper crop of problems. On the other, there’s the less coherent but far more widespread sense that economic progress doesn’t seem to be happening the way it’s supposed to, that standards of living for most people are declining rather than improving, and that economic policies that have been sold to the public as ways to fix a troubled economy are having exactly the opposite effect.  Even so, most of the critiques coming out of this latter awareness, and no small number of those belonging to the former class, assume that growth is normal, and fixate on how that supposedly normal state got derailed.

Moral progress, scientific and technological progress, and economic progress:  those are the three forms that progress takes in the minds of those who put their faith in it:  if you will, the three heads of the deity of the Church of Progress. It’s crucial to keep in mind, though, that these three visions of progress often intertwine in complex ways in the minds of believers.  To many mainstream American liberals in the late 20th century, for example, the limitless progress of science and technology would guarantee equally limitless economic growth, which would make it possible to abolish poverty, provide equal opportunity for all, and fulfill the hopes of moral progress without requiring any of those who already had access to privilege and economic abundance to give up any of these things. 

So complete a fusion of the three modes of progress was once standard.  Read any of the vast supply of self-congratulatory literature on progress churned out by popular presses in 19th century Britain or America, for example, and you can count on finding all three twisted tightly round one another, with the supposed moral superiority of Anglo-Saxon civilization serving as the linchpin of arguments that claimed to explain the limitless progress of technology and also to justify the extremely uneven distribution of the benefits of economic growth.  The 20th century’s ghastly history made such moral claims a good deal harder to make with a straight face, and so versions of the faith in progress popular in recent decades often avoid the moral dimension and focus on the other two forms of progress. 

Far more often than not these days, as a result, the mainstream American version of faith in progress fixates purely on the supposedly unstoppable feedback loop between scientific and technological progress, on the one hand, and economic growth on the other, while moral progress has been consigned to bit parts here and there.  It’s mostly on the left that faith in moral progress retains its former place in the blend—one of the many ways in which the leftward end of the American political landscape is significantly more conservative, in the strict sense of the word, than those who call themselves conservative these days—and even there, it’s increasingly a fading hope, popular among the older generation of activists and among those who have moved toward the fringes of society and mix their faith in progress with a good solid helping of its erstwhle antireligion, the faith in apocalypse: it’s from this unstable mix that we get claims that the morally better world will arrive once evil, and most of the planet’s population, are blown to smithereens.

It’s by way of this latter process, I think, that faith in moral progress tends to pop up in the literature of peak oil, and even more often in conversations in the peak oil scene.  I’ve long since lost track of the number of times that someone has suggested to me that if industrial civilization continues down the well-worn track of overshoot and decline, the silver lining to that very dark cloud is that the rigors of the decline will force all of us, or at least the survivors, to become better people—“better” being defined variously as more ecologically sensitive, more compassionate, or what have you, depending on the personal preferences of the speaker. 

Now of course when civilizations overshoot their resource base and start skidding down the arc of decline toward history’s compost bin, a sudden turn toward moral virtue of any kind is not a common event.  The collapse of social order, the rise of barbarian warbands, and a good many of the other concomitants of decline and fall tend to push things hard in the other direction.  Still, the importance of faith in progress in the collective imagination of our time is such that some way has to be found to make the future look better than the present. If a future of technological advancement and economic growth is no longer an option, then the hope for moral betterment becomes the last frail reed to which believers in progress cling with all their might.

To many of my readers, this may seem like a good idea; many others may consider it inevitable. I’m far from convinced that it’s either one. For more than thirty years now, the conviction that progress will somehow bail the industrial world out from the consequences of its own bad decisions has been the single largest obstacle in the way of preventing more of those same bad decisions from being made. How many times have we all heard that economic growth was going to take care of resource depletion and environmental degradation, or that scientific and technical advances were going to take care of them, or that a great moral awakening—call it the rise of planetary consciousness, or any of the other popular buzzwords, if you wish—was going to take care of them.  As it turned out, of course, none of those things took care of them at all, and since so many people placed their faith on one or the other kind of progress, nothing else took care of them, either.

Nor, for that matter, is faith in progress hardwired into the human psyche. It’s a specific belief system with distinct and well-documented historical roots in the Western world, and most other people in most other places and times have had beliefs about the future that contradicted it in every particular.  There have been many cultures in which history was held to have an inherent tendency to move from better to worse, from a Golden Age in the past to an age of darkness and horror somewhere in the future, and individual and collective hope focused on the possibility of holding onto the beneficent legacies of the past as long as possible in the teeth of decline. Nor are these the only options; there have, for example, been many cultures that saw time as a circle, and many more for whom time had no direction at all.

It’s quite common for people raised in a given culture to see its view of things as normal and natural, and to scratch their heads in bewilderment when they find that people in other places and times saw things in very different ways. Modern industrial civilization, for all its self-described sophistication, is no more exempt from this custom than any other human society. To make sense of the future closing in on us, it’s going to be necessary to get past that easy but misleading habit of thought, to recognize that the contemporary faith in progress is a culturally specific product that emerged in a highly unusual and self-terminating set of historical circumstances, and to realize that while it was highly adaptive in those circumstances, it’s become lethally maladaptive now.

To understand these things, in turn, it’s going to be necessary to dig down to the foundations of modern industrial culture, and grapple with one of the core cognitive frameworks our society—like every other—uses to make sense of the inkblot patterns of the cosmos.  For want of a better label, we’ll call this framework the shape of time.  We’ll talk about that next week.

My longtime readers may be pleased to learn that New Society Publications is now offering a 20% discount on prepublication orders for Green Wizardry, the book that came out of the series of posts on Seventies-era appropriate technology I posted here in 2011 and 2012. This project took a little longer than my previous New Society books, but I think you’ll find it was worth the wait.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

An Aside To My Readers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Fate of Civil Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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