Skip to comments.America’s New Religions
Posted on 12/08/2018 9:36:44 PM PST by DeweyCA
Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. Its in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society.
By religion, I mean something quite specific: a practice not a theory; a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying Truth or God (or gods).
Which is to say, even todays atheists are expressing an attenuated form of religion. Their denial of any God is as absolute as others faith in God, and entails just as much a set of values to live by including, for some, daily rituals like meditation, a form of prayer. (Theres a reason, I suspect, that many brilliant atheists, like my friends Bob Wright and Sam Harris are so influenced by Buddhism and practice Vipassana meditation and mindfulness. Buddhisms genius is that it is a religion without God.)
In his highly entertaining book, The Seven Types of Atheism, released in October in the U.S., philosopher John Gray puts it this way: Religion is an attempt to find meaning in events, not a theory that tries to explain the universe. It exists because we humans are the only species, so far as we can know, who have evolved to know explicitly that, one day in the future, we will die. And this existential fact requires some way of reconciling us to it while we are alive.
This is why science cannot replace it. Science does not tell you how to live, or what life is about; it can provide hypotheses and tentative explanations, but no ultimate meaning. Art can provide an escape from the deadliness of our daily doing, but, again, appreciating great art or music is ultimately an act of wonder and contemplation, and has almost nothing to say about morality and life.
Ditto history. My late friend, Christopher Hitchens, with a certain glee, gave me a copy of his book, God Is Not Great, a fabulous grab bag of religious insanity and evil over time, which I enjoyed immensely and agreed with almost entirely. But the fact that religion has been so often abused for nefarious purposes from burning people at the stake to enabling child rape to crashing airplanes into towers does not resolve the question of whether the meaning of that religion is true. It is perfectly possible to see and record the absurdities and abuses of man-made institutions and rituals, especially religious ones, while embracing a way of life that these evil or deluded people preached but didnt practice. Fanaticism is not synonymous with faith; it is merely faith at its worst. Thats what I told Hitch: great book, made no difference to my understanding of my own faith or anyone elses. Sorry, old bean, but try again.
Seduced by scientism, distracted by materialism, insulated, like no humans before us, from the vicissitudes of sickness and the ubiquity of early death, the post-Christian West believes instead in something we have called progress a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism. We have constructed a capitalist system that turns individual selfishness into a collective asset and showers us with earthly goods; we have leveraged science for our own health and comfort. Our ability to extend this material bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning. In this respect, Steven Pinker is one of the most religious writers Ive ever admired. His faith in reason is as complete as any fundamentalists belief in God.
But none of this material progress beckons humans to a way of life beyond mere satisfaction of our wants and needs. And this matters. We are a meaning-seeking species. Gray recounts the experiences of two extraordinarily brilliant nonbelievers, John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell, who grappled with this deep problem. Heres Mill describing the nature of what he called A Crisis in My Mental History:
I had what might truly be called an object in life: to be a reformer of the world. This did very well for several years, during which the general improvement going on in the world and the idea of myself as engaged with others in struggling to promote it, seemed enough to fill up an interesting and animated existence. But the time came when I awakened from this as from a dream In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions that you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant; would this be a great joy and happiness to you? And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered: No!
At that point, this architect of our liberal order, this most penetrating of minds, came to the conclusion: I seemed to have nothing left to live for. It took a while for him to recover.
Russell, for his part, abandoned Christianity at the age of 18, for the usual modern reasons, but the question of ultimate meaning still nagged at him. One day, while visiting the sick wife of a colleague, he described what happened: Suddenly the ground seemed to give away beneath me, and I found myself in quite another region. Within five minutes I went through some such reflections as the following: the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached; whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless.
I suspect that most thinking beings end up with this notion of intense love as a form of salvation and solace as a kind of instinct. Those whose minds have been opened by psychedelics affirm this truth even further. I saw a bumper sticker the other day. It said Loving kindness is my religion. But the salient question is: why?
Our modern world tries extremely hard to protect us from the sort of existential moments experienced by Mill and Russell. Netflix, air-conditioning, sex apps, Alexa, kale, Pilates, Spotify, Twitter theyre all designed to create a world in which we rarely get a second to confront ultimate meaning until a tragedy occurs, a death happens, or a diagnosis strikes. Unlike any humans before us, we take those who are much closer to death than we are and sequester them in nursing homes, where they cannot remind us of our own fate in our daily lives. And if you pressed, say, the liberal elites to explain what they really believe in and you have to look at what they do most fervently you discover, in John Grays mordant view of Mill, that they do, in fact, have an orthodoxy the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion.
But the banality of the god of progress, the idea that the best life is writing explainers for Vox in order to make the world a better place, never quite slakes the thirst for something deeper. Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation to mortality. But, critically, it has long been complemented and supported in America by a religion distinctly separate from politics, a tamed Christianity that rests, in Jesus formulation, on a distinction between God and Caesar. And this separation is vital for liberalism, because if your ultimate meaning is derived from religion, you have less need of deriving it from politics or ideology or trusting entirely in a single, secular leader. Its only when your meaning has been secured that you can allow politics to be merely procedural.
So what happens when this religious rampart of the entire system is removed? I think what happens is illiberal politics. The need for meaning hasnt gone away, but without Christianity, this yearning looks to politics for satisfaction. And religious impulses, once anchored in and tamed by Christianity, find expression in various political cults. These political manifestations of religion are new and crude, as all new cults have to be. They havent been experienced and refined and modeled by millennia of practice and thought. They are evolving in real time. And like almost all new cultish impulses, they demand a total and immediate commitment to save the world.
Now look at our politics. We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.
For many, especially the young, discovering a new meaning in the midst of the fallen world is thrilling. And social-justice ideology does everything a religion should. It offers an account of the whole: that human life and society and any kind of truth must be seen entirely as a function of social power structures, in which various groups have spent all of human existence oppressing other groups. And it provides a set of practices to resist and reverse this interlocking web of oppression from regulating the workplace and policing the classroom to checking your own sin and even seeking to control language itself. I think of non-PC gaffes as the equivalent of old swear words. Like the puritans who were agape when someone said goddamn, the new faithful are scandalized when someone says something problematic. Another commonality of the zealot then and now: humorlessness.
And so the young adherents of the Great Awokening exhibit the zeal of the Great Awakening. Like early modern Christians, they punish heresy by banishing sinners from society or coercing them to public demonstrations of shame, and provide an avenue for redemption in the form of a thorough public confession of sin. Social justice theory requires the admission of white privilege in ways that are strikingly like the admission of original sin. A Christian is born again; an activist gets woke. To the belief in human progress unfolding through history itself a remnant of Christian eschatology it adds the Leninist twist of a cadre of heroes who jump-start the revolution.
The same cultish dynamic can be seen on the right. There, many profess nominal Christianity and yet demonstrate every day that they have left it far behind. Some exist in a world without meaning altogether, and that fate is never pretty. I saw this most vividly when examining the opioid epidemic. People who have lost religion and are coasting along on materialism find they have few interior resources to keep going when crisis hits. They have no place of refuge, no spiritual safe space from which to gain perspective, no God to turn to. Many have responded to the collapse of meaning in dark times by simply and logically numbing themselves to death, extinguishing existential pain through ever-stronger painkillers that ultimately kill the pain of life itself.
Yes, many Evangelicals are among the holiest and most quietly devoted people out there. Some have bravely resisted the cult. But their leaders have turned Christianity into a political and social identity, not a lived faith, and much of their flock a staggering 81 percent voted for Trump has signed on. They have tribalized a religion explicitly built by Jesus as anti-tribal. They have turned to idols including their blasphemous belief in America as Gods chosen country. They have embraced wealth and nationalism as core goods, two ideas utterly anathema to Christ. They are indifferent to the destruction of the creation they say they believe God made. And because their faith is unmoored but their religious impulse is strong, they seek a replacement for religion. This is why they could suddenly rally to a cult called Trump. He may be the least Christian person in America, but his persona met the religious need their own faiths had ceased to provide. The terrible truth of the last three years is that the fresh appeal of a leader-cult has overwhelmed the fading truths of Christianity.
This is why they are so hard to reach or to persuade and why nothing that Trump does or could do changes their minds. You cannot argue logically with a religion which is why you cannot really argue with social-justice activists either. And whats interesting is how support for Trump is greater among those who do not regularly attend church than among those who do.
And so were mistaken if we believe that the collapse of Christianity in America has led to a decline in religion. It has merely led to religious impulses being expressed by political cults. Like almost all new cultish impulses, they see no boundary between politics and their religion. And both cults really do minimize the importance of the individual in favor of either the oppressed group or the leader.
And this is how they threaten liberal democracy. They do not believe in the primacy of the individual, they believe the ends justify the means, they do not allow for doubt or reason, and their religious politics can brook no compromise. They demonstrate, to my mind, how profoundly liberal democracy has actually depended on the complement of a tolerant Christianity to sustain itself as many earlier liberals (Tocqueville, for example) understood.
It is Christianity that came to champion the individual conscience against the collective, which paved the way for individual rights. It is in Christianity that the seeds of Western religious toleration were first sown. Christianity is the only monotheism that seeks no sway over Caesar, that is content with the ultimate truth over the immediate satisfaction of power. It was Christianity that gave us successive social movements, which enabled more people to be included in the liberal project, thus renewing it. It was on these foundations that liberalism was built, and it is by these foundations it has endured. The question we face in contemporary times is whether a political system built upon such a religion can endure when belief in that religion has become a shadow of its future self.
Will the house still stand when its ramparts are taken away? Im beginning to suspect it cant. And wont.
Yet the author, an atheist homosexual, gives a very accurate portrait of many progressives. They detest Christianity, but they still crave a transcendent purpose for living. They have decided to try to gain their meaning by creating a utopian "heaven on earth" through their progressive policies. Anyone who disagrees with them is a heretic who must be silenced. They wish to have total control over society much like radical Islamists want sharia to rule the world. Progressives are not much different from the medieval Catholic Church that they despise, in that they have their own unassailable beliefs, and their own types of PC inquisitions for questioning those beliefs.
Thanks for posting this. Although I also have quibbles with some of his points, overall I think it is a very interesting and thoughtful piece.
The lamestream media did a great sales job on us. Hillary wanted Trump, not Rubio or Cruz or Jeb!
The LSM did so good a job in selling Trump to us that we decided we really wanted him over Hillary.
You remember the other RNC candidates complaining about all the free advertising Trump was getting?
Something like millions of dollars worth?
That happened by design.
Now they are trying to walk it all back.
Too late you idiotic noobs!
I have Christian friends, who are in the ministry!, who preach an apolitical Christianity, yet spew leftist ideology.
My arguments to them: ditch the leftist dogma, and don’t be the good men who do nothing thus allowing evil to prevail.
Yes, but the most broad “new religion” is pop culture.
Popular rock anthems have replaced hymns as the songs everybody knows.
There has been cohesion between Donald Trump’s vision of politics and Christianity because Trump sees Christianity as a key element. Our modern left sees Christianity as something to be allergic to.
I get tired of people, on the right or on the left, who try to “explain” Trump’s victory by couching it in pretentious, pseudointellectual BS.
Trump won because the economy was crap. Everyone “on the ground” knew it full well, although the media, always protecting “The First Black President” would never report it.
Trump’s opponent, the horrendous Hillary Clinton, was always a no-go with at least half of the voters, no matter how much the media tried to make her “crowds” of 200 seem like some kind of groundswell.
Americans had the chance to elect one of the foremost businessmen of the 20th and 21st centuries to fix the crap economy everyone knew was happening, but the media would not report. And he would be serving without even taking a salary.
A majority of Americans knew that his opponent was an almost incredibly corrupt, whining shrew who kept having coughing fits and passing out at inopportune moments.
Forget the “sophisticated” media “analysis.” Americans aren’t stupid, despite how the self-important, condescending, arrogant media characterizes them.
In actual reality, not the leftist spin-world in which the media lives, there was only one clear choice. And the majority of Americans made it.
Their constant attacks on Trump and his voters ever since are nothing but the wailing of spoiled children who didn’t get their way.
The reason religious people voted for Trump was because he does not hate them.
It is as simple as that.
I enjoyed voting for someone who, unlike you, does not regard me as something to be walked on.
And Andrew, Government is NOT great. In fact the shrine at which you prostrate yourself has killed 100 million non-combatants in the last 100 years.
So take your smug sanctimonious little article, fold it five ways, sit on it and spin until you throw up.
If I want analysis that is as foul as your personal habits, as deep as a puddle and as filling with rot as the DNC I'll call you.
Until then I remain,
laughing and pointing
and totally filled with contempt for you.
Correctomundo on your great political analysis.
Side note: author of piece has decent analysis of trends but neglects the historical record of Jesus’ works...words..and the conquering of death. (author seems to forget that dealing with ones own death is a prime desire in humans). He seems to neglect that the true modern scientific “gods” appear to be time and chance which are not authoritative..but are human inventions used to try and understand phenomena we encounter...I.e. If everything is predetermined...there can be no chance...if the universe can spring from nothing...there is no time...we can spring forth and start always...
I think Christians found themselves having to support Trump. They were so pushed into a moral corner by the onslaught of a culture that despises Christianity and wants it removed from having any influence on society that something had to be done!
George Washington was a devote Christian and a man of incredible integrity. One cannot dismiss the miracles that happened that allowed that man to win as 'blasphemous'. Our country was blessed because of people like George Washington.
Over 2-1/2 times your number, arguably.
And super hero movies have replaced the Bible as in inspirational “text.”
I must admit I do like the phrase “The Great Awokening”
What Sullivan misses is the fact that Trump won not because people thought he was a second George Washington, but because they knew he wasn’t a second Barack Obama.
At a certain point statism becomes all but irreversible - if that’s unclear to anyone, they need to talk to some Venezuelans, Cubans or North Koreans. Hillary, grifter though she be, was likely a tipping point, and lots of Americans knew that, either explicitly or instinctively. Trump was far from my first choice for her opposition (I feared he’d turn into another Arnold Schwarzenegger), and there’s still a good bit about him that concerns me, but he does have one quality I really admire - he doesn’t let the press (the *real* enemy in this drama) intimidate him in the least. And that covers a lot of sins, at least in my book - that’s got nothing to do with any “cultism”. Trump’s a man, and like the rest of us he’s fallible and sinful. But at least he doesn’t let some jackwad like Wolf Blitzer (or any of those other clowns) determine the direction of our country.
Andrew describes very well the empty, nothing-to-lose souls of the far left in our nation today.
support for Trump is greater among those who do not regularly attend church than among those who do.”””
And what does this signify? What church? It’s getting hard to find a church that isn’t sinking in to progressive feelgood-isim.
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