From Hesiod to Plato, when the leap in being has gained the alatheia, the truth of existence, the old myth becomes the pseudos, the falsehood or lie, the untruth of existence which the forbears lived.1
If modern humans are to escape from the depredations of freebooters and freeloaders, and the mechanical dominations reported by Horkheimer and Adorno, then we must return to the social instincts of our stateless ancestors and reassert the truth that force social animals force is a last resort. Values Matter Most, wrote Ben Wattenberg. There is a word for humans grouped into community to develop and live values held in common. It is called a “belief system” or, more commonly, religion.
Everyone has a religion, the shared faith that binds us into our community. You can even encounter religion among those that have grown beyond such superstition. Just join the liberal folks on the cemetery tour at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle, Washington. Let us start the tour at the grave of Carlos Bulosan, the Filipino-American writer and activist who penned the “Freedom from Want” essay in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943.
But we are not really free unless we use what we produce. So long as the fruit of our labor is denied us, so long will want manifest itself in a world of slaves.
Get it? It’s the Marxian theory of surplus value. Over here lies an African American woman who organized the first African-American college sorority at Howard University. Over there is a woman who was the first teacher in Seattle (at a private school, unfortunately). In 1848 she attended the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights.
Over here are the victims of the 1916 Everett Massacre when IWW supporters took a boat from Seattle to hold a rally in support of striking shingle workers. On landing in Everett they ran into hail of fire from the sheriff and a posse of vigilantes: just because the Wobblies wanted the bosses to share the profits. And here are graves of typographical union workers that died from tuberculosis.
Here’s the grave of Seattle banker Rudolph Ankeny. In 1891 he cut down a huge cedar, used by the local tribes and revered as a “signal tree,” and built a house in its place. Here’s the founder of Hansen Baking Company. He started out as a cleaner in a Seattle bakery, then learned the trade, worked his way up and bought the business. Eventually he sold out to an eastern conglomerate and the business folded.
No doubt the Seattle liberals that visited the graves of their ideological saints that Saturday afternoon in June 2012 would be insulted by the idea that walking their modern Via Dolorosa is every bit as religious as the Christian’s walk of Christ’s last journey, the Stations of the Cross. But here we traveled in the shoes of liberal heroes, the local worthies that had done their bit for civil rights, for women’s rights, for worker’s rights, and we got to renew our faith in the liberal pieties. And as good is nothing without evil, we got to shudder at the environmental sacrilege of a greedy banker and the inhuman heedlessness of a far-away corporation. This was religion in everything but name.
And like every religion, modern liberalism looks back with a certain disdain upon the superstitious ways of the old ones. It regards their minds as ignorant and their faith as superstition. This is nothing new. Plato looked with disdain upon the representation of the gods in Hesiod, and Hesiod disapproved of the gods in Homer. But Eric Voegelin argued that “human nature is constant in spite of its unfolding, in the history of mankind, from compact to differentiated order.”2 We shouldn’t think of the humans of the old order as superstitious or ignorant. Their world and their ideas were merely “compact,” when compared with our modern “differentiated” order. We all understand how this differentiation works. In the university, where once there were just a few departments of learning, the search for knowledge has been differentiated into dozens of departments, each with its specialists without spirit, nullities in some minor specialty. It is said that John Milton was the last man who knew everything. But things were more compact in his day.
Many moderns, particularly on the left, are bold in their assertion that the faith of our ancestors in the Christian God was a superstition; they reprise Plato’s and Hesiod’s disapproval of Homer’s depiction of the gods. But if the gods of old are embarrassing and their believers backward and superstitious, what will save modern liberals and their gods from a similar fate? After all, what is it about the gods of equality, or progress, or expertise, or liberation, or evolution and the dogmatic liberal faith in them that should exempt liberals from the scorn of our descendents? For what are the modern moral movements, from Enlightenment to Romanticism to Revolution, to Socialism, to Progressivism, to Egalitarianism to Environmentalism but secular religions from which modern people—especially modern educated people—sustain a sense of the meaning of life and the destiny of humans on this very small planet or, as Robert Bellah writes: “a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence.”3 Perhaps the modern secular religions are not religions in the classic sense. But it is at least curious that they emerged after educated people had satisfied themselves about the death of God towards the end of the 18th century. Let us take a look at religion, as studied by modern anthropologists and publicized by modern popularizers and try to grasp its social function, if not its transcendental truth.
What was the point of religion in the old days: what did it do for society back then? Was it merely a question of social control, of the rich oppressing the poor? Or was there something else at work? For according to Roy Rappaport: “No society known to anthropology or history is devoid of what reasonable observers would agree is religion[.]”4
If Voegelin’s policy of toleration for old beliefs has a point, that old beliefs represent a more compact version of our own differentiated beliefs, perhaps we could study with advantage the faith of our mothers and even look further back to the hunter-gatherers, as Nicholas Wade does in The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, from a safely evolutionary perspective.
Wade does not attempt to answer the question of God’s existence. He only attempts to analyze the effects of faith in God on human and social behavior, and investigate the ways of people that belong to religious communities. The telling thing, on Wade’s account, is that if religion is universal, as Rappaport argues, then it is likely to be genetic, a wired-in trait that all humans share. Normally, evolutionists argue that traits become universal because they have survival value. On this view, religion, if it is a universal human trait, must be tied in some way into human survival and flourishing.
The great question for mankind is the same as for any social animal. How do we develop at once the aggressive ability to defend against enemies and also develop necessary cooperative qualities to assist our fellows: how to be fiercely competitive and at the same time caring and compassionate, and then to act on our beliefs. It is one thing to talk about what’s right, but another thing to do the right thing. It is one thing to talk about the fallen heroes; it is another thing to become one. Religion is the answer at the center of this complex question. It binds people together into a community. It establishes the rules of behavior towards others. It teaches people to sacrifice for the good of the community; it creates community events at which enmities are buried; it directs the instinctive moral sense with socially constructed cultural memes, just like the way they do it at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.
Perhaps mankind can achieve these social goals, at a pinch, through violence. We can force people to get with the program, and we can ferociously defend the frontiers against the enemy. But force is expensive; it requires armies, police, and “enforcement officers,” and so humans have found ways to economize on it. One successful adaptation is to divide the world into the “us” of our community and the “them” of the outsiders, the foreigners. Force against neighbors is a last resort, and even force against dangerous strangers is mostly reduced to shows of force, though even the threat of force has its costs in fear and in feud.
In place of force, mankind has found another way of achieving beneficial social control and cooperation. In part, this social cooperation is achieved by preprogrammed social instinct, in part it is achieved by training young humans in the approved social instincts, and in part by natural selection between different social institutions. This other way is religion: it binds people together into a culture of cooperative exchange and reduces the need for force.
One successful religious strategy for lowered conflict is the concept of divine punishment. “In small societies, the person who takes on the role of enforcer exposes himself to general resentment, not to mention retaliation from the miscreant or his relatives.” It is usually best to get everyone’s agreement and have the miscreant killed by one of his relatives. Alternatively, you can persuade everyone that God will punish miscreants, that God knows everything we do, and will punish misdeeds either in this life or the life to come.
A system of supernatural punishment carries enormous advantages for a primitive society. No one has to assume the thankless task of meting out punishment and risk being killed by the offender or his relatives; the gods perform this chore willingly and vigilantly.5
No legislation is needed. No police force is required. And that is probably just as well. The modern state maintains a vast apparatus of policemen, prosecutors and jailers because we can afford it. The primitive society cannot.
If religion can help with discipline and punishment, maybe it can help with another big social problem, quarrels within and between families. In hunter-gatherer groups, ritual music and dance are the social solvents that dissolve enmity. Anthropologist Megan Biesele argues that, among the !Kung people, the “dance is perhaps the central unifying force in Bushman life, binding people together in very deep ways which we do not fully understand.”6 An Australian aboriginal fire ceremony ritual lasting for 14 days includes a mock battle between the men and the women. “All parties who had a serious unresolved dispute with each other were expected to engage in a symbolic duel with blazing firesticks, after which the matter was never to be referred to again.”7
Enmity is one social problem. Freeloading is another. It might seem that in the face-to-face hunter-gatherer group the problem of freeloading is limited. Everyone knows how much each contributes, and the women’s gossip network keeps accounts on who gives and who doesn’t. Everyone inside the community is obligated to contribute, and those that don’t may pay with expulsion. But Nicholas Wade is emphatic. Moral restraint was not enough to deter freeloading. Something else was needed.
Religion secured a new level of social cohesion by implanting in people’s minds a stern overseer of their actions.... It was belief in these supernatural supervisors that enabled egalitarian societies to emerge from the dictatorship of the alpha male that primate societies had endured for so long.8
There’s that divine justice again. Whether you believe that the concept of divine punishment is a confidence trick or a divine revelation, the concept is ingenious, a tribute to man’s profound abilities.
In the modern era the problem of freeloading is much bigger than in the hunter-gatherer village. In the vast impersonal city it is more difficult to know who can be trusted than in the face-to-face village. And to compound the problem, the threat of divine punishment is much lower today than in the past. How do you identify people that can be trusted to pull their weight? Again, religion has the answer. To identify trustworthy people in the city you join a face-to-face community that imposes costs on its members. There is no mystery about this: the higher the cost placed upon a member, the more he is likely to honor his obligations when the going gets tough. This explains why it is possible for demanding religions, such as Mormonism and Orthodox Judaism, to thrive when their costs are much higher than those of the mainline Protestant churches or Reform Judaism. As Roger Finke and Rodney Stark assert, “People tend to value religion on the basis of how costly it is to belong—the more one must sacrifice in order to be in good standing, the more valuable the religion.”9 There is a payoff from enduring the costs of membership beyond the selfish one of paying a lot in order to get a lot in salvation and the love of God; you signal to the community that you are a worthy person. Nicholas Wade:
A high price of entry also raises the level of trust among its members, because by obeying all the required rules and taboos, congregants signal to one another that they have bought into the religion’s moral code and can be relied on to behave accordingly...
Strictness reduces free riding [and] screens out members who lack commitment and stimulates participation among those who remain.10
Wade stresses that church members do not analyze their membership in this way. Most church members if asked will emphasize the personal satisfactions they obtain from religious membership. But the science shows that religion works because it changes behavior and turns people into better citizens and their community into a better community.
We moderns inherit the social problems of the ancients, yet must resolve our socialization problems in different ways. The absolute equality of the hunter-gatherer band is not available to the society of strangers that cooperates through the market economy. The death of the divine enforcer has required the enlistment of a vast army of less able human law enforcers. The differentiation of society from the compact hunter-gatherer band into a specialized society, with economic activity, political activity, and religious activity institutionalized into separate and competing social sectors creates further challenges. Modern humans have differentiated economic activity, the acquisition of food and shelter, from political activity, the enforcement of social norms, and from religious activity, the establishment and the re-enactment of social norms. Some people specialize in the production of food and shelter; others specialize in politics, and still others specialize in moral/cultural persuasion. In this age religion is no longer a face-to-face activity of the whole community in which moral instincts and reasoning are integrated with habits of food-sharing and instinctive sacrifice for the community in inter-tribal warfare.
Moreover many people predict that religion is on its way out. The death of God variously reported throughout the 19th century has encouraged sociologists of religion like Steve Bruce to predict the end of religion. “I expect the proportion of people who are largely indifferent to religious ideas to increase and the seriously religious to become a small minority.”11 Tell that to the pious liberals on the Mt. Pleasant cemetery tour.
Bruce defines religion as “beliefs, actions and institutions predicated on the existence of of entities with powers of agency (that is, gods) or impersonal powers or processes possessed of moral purpose (the Hindu notion of karma, for example), which can set the conditions of, or intervene in, human affairs.” Presumably he draws his line to exclude the modern secular faiths, beginning with the French Revolution and continuing with socialism, communism, fascism, and environmentalism. Presumably he does not regard the notion of “progress” or “evolution” as a process possessed of moral purpose that governs the conditions and the changes in human affairs.
Presumably Steve Bruce does not consider his own left-of-center political and ethical beliefs as religion. It that, he joins most of humanity. Most of us do not think of our own beliefs as something set aside, as beliefs or religion. We experience them as an understanding of the way things are, an accurate understanding of the world as it is, and a practical guide for making the world a better place. For a leftist, perhaps, the tidal waves of secular religion that have swept the planet since the official death of God two centuries ago and that have inspired the great secular religious wars of our time are not cataclysmic events at all, but merely the water we swim in, the natural solvent of social progress that is trying to evolve from old, unjust social structures to new structures that are “cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.”12
Let us attempt to define religion more expansively than Bruce, and get away from the idea that, because the experience of a personal God that cares about you and me has declined amongst the educated ruling class, people have ceased to care about value and meaning. Let us define it to include both the transcendental faiths of the past and and the secular faiths of the modern era. Given the notion developed by Wade that religion is a universal instinct that solves the social animal’s problem of socializing its fellows to combine aggression and ruthlessness towards enemies with cooperation and friendship towards members of the community, we shall assume that humans always need to bind their communities together with a religion that combines a narrative of meaning with a moral program and rituals of community that strongly motivate people to observe the social norms.
On this view, if we look at religion today we see it as strong as it ever was. In the world of transcendental religion we see the Christianization of Africa, the spread of Pentecostalism in the favelas of Latin America. We see the house churches of China, the resurgent Islam of the Middle East. In the world of secular religion we see the cult of creativity, we see the religion of equality of the elite West that institutionalizes itself in the administrative and regulatory welfare state and in the universities, and we see in the environmental movement a transendental enthusiasm for saving the planet through a new asceticism to lower the human carbon “footprint.” There is religion everywhere you turn. The question is, in a world of fiercely contesting religions, transcendental and secular, how to reconcile the conflicting narratives of meaning.
Throughout most of human prehistory and history, religion and community were compact and identical. The hunter-gatherer community was a church of the whole community, a politics of the whole community, and an economy of the whole community. This changed in the agricultural age, where temple religions differentiated from the community of the whole. Instead of the whole community, a priestly class studied the rituals and performed them for the benefit of the political rulers. Ordinary people were kept at a distance. Later, feudal monarchs privileged a specific church as an established church and expected it in return to serve its dynastic interest. When the Franks drove eastward into Saxony the Church was responsible for conversion and pacification of the Teutonic tribes as much as Charlemagne’s chieftains and armies.
In such a culture those that didn’t conform to the national church were viewed with suspicion not just as unreliable people that hadn’t demonstrated their social trustworthiness but as potential enemies of the regime. The state saw itself at war with dissenting beliefs, since disagreement with the regime’s religion implied disagreement on the legitimacy of the regime. The moral community was closely identified with the political community. A threat to one was a threat to the other.
The Reformation broke the coalition between secular power and spiritual power. No longer was the coalition of political and the religious “just the way things are.” People began to demand the right to form groups within the larger community and define meaning for themselves rather than submit to the established meaning set forth in church orthodoxy under the protection of the state where the church is the established church sponsored by the monarch and the political sector. Freedom, in this religious sense, means the freedom to believe as an act of will rather than as a condition of political membership.
Of course, the people foremost in the struggle were not just making a religious statement; they were also establishing the right to put a distance between themselves and the political regime under which they lived. They wanted to create their own moral community, separate from the regime’s established moral community and un-compromised by reasons of state. But once people had established a separate moral community, they next wanted to influence the political community and include their own moral agenda in the deliberations of high politics.
Modern states have to accommodate to numerous competing religious sects, secular and religious. Denial of full political and economic rights to dissenting sects is usually experienced as a scandal. But that raises the question of which religion and which moral tradition shall inspire the usual legislation of morality undertaken by the legislature and the courts? Without a condominium between different faiths there is a risk of civil war.
Thus to the question: what is the point of religion? The answer is simple. Religion creates the social space between force and self-interest, and it does it by creating communities of meaning. It reduces the incidence and the cost of social force, the weight of policing and punishment, and it creates a community of people that have demonstrated their trustworthiness by submitting to the costs of religious membership. It creates people who are ready to be members of society. This truth was understood by the founding fathers of America. In his farewell address, President Washington asserted that “virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” but cautioned against the idea that morality could be maintained without religion.
Today, as we consider the role of religion, we must extend the idea of religion to include the modern phenomenon of secular religion. All moral and cultural communities inculcate in their members a code of virtue. Inspired by that code, people come into the broader society to enlist government to enforce the peace, to cooperate together in voluntary associations to aid each other, and to transact business with each other to secure the material necessaries of life. The beliefs they profess define the organizations they inhabit. We are all familiar with these new religions.
The Enlightenment narrative extends the Newtonian template from the natural world to the social world, believing that the model of mechanics can be applied to the living world. It says that human society is moving from the dark night of superstition to a new world of reason and science, that “people started using Reason and Science, instead of Religion and Superstition”13 to explain the world. It is confident that human society is progressing from ignorant ways of social organization, based on tradition and spurious inherited status and social rank, towards a rational society based on science and rational analysis. This society will be led by a rational, educated elite that runs the government and sets the parameters of social discourse from above.
The Romantic narrative is a reaction against the Enlightenment narrative. It refuses to believe in the rationalist faith that the template of Newtonian mechanics can be applied to the living world. It looks upon the world as more of an unfathomable mystery, working in a mysterious way. It honors the hidden secrets of nature opaque to rational analysis and it looks to sensitive, creative people to intuit the essence of the world and to replace the artificial and the superficial with an authentic human culture that is in tune with the life principle. This society will be led by a sensitive, creative elite that can develop in itself an authentic response to the experience of being thrown into the world.
The Marxian or revolutionary narrative says that the only thing that has changed is that we have entered a new phase of the age old conflict between the powerful and the people. In the old days, the contest was between the aristocrats and the peasants. Now, with the rise of the middle class, the contest is between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Just as the lord exploited the serf in the agricultural age and ground the hapless peasant into dust, so the bourgeoisie exploits proletarians in the modern age and immiserates them into poverty “as the unceasing improvement of machinery... makes their livelihood more and more precarious”14. But this will lead to revolution and the salvation of humanity in a world of sharing and caring. This society will be led by a revolutionary elite that knows the meaning of history and represents the will of the oppressed.
In Empire Hardt and Negri update the Marxian narrative for the 21st century, and propose to replace the opposition of bourgeoisie and proletariat with the opposition of “Empire” and “Multitude”. Their idea of “Empire” is the institutional combination of nation states and global capitalism that rules the world. To maintain a legitimacy, they argue in Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire this Empire must maintain a state of war to acquire the exceptional powers to maintain its hegemony and its right to dominate the subordinate nations of the world. But a growing “multitude” is eroding the old working world of “habit” in mass-production factories and offices and transforming it into a culture of “performance” in creative occupations and productions of “affect,” thus becoming the dominant form of work and calling forth new forms of socialization: political, economic, and cultural.
But like Marx and Engels 150 years earlier Hardt and Negri cannot leave the multitude alone to work out its life in common in its own way, any more than socialists and Marxists a century ago were willing to let the working class find its own way from rural indigence in agricultural tenancy to urban competence in the new capitalist society. These leaders of Educated Youth do not want to understand the world; they want to change it. What they all want is a revolution in the political sector, the ecstasy of sudden political power. Their hearts throb to the beat of carnivalesque street protest, NGO activism, and the avenging hand of international justice, of politics, politics, politics.
Charles Taylor in A Secular Age sees these three narratives — Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Marxism — combining to form a “nova effect,” an explosion of secularity that began with “an exclusive alternative to Christian faith” in the 18th century. The initial explosion was followed by diversification in the 19th century, extending to the Nietzschean break with the humanism of freedom and mutual benefit. Finally in the last 50 years the nova has exploded to reach beneath elites to whole societies and includes “a generalised culture of ‘authenticity’, or expressive individualism,”15 of doing your own thing.
These visions all succumb to the temptation of the One Big Thing, encouraged by the success of Newtonian mechanics, in which everything in the universe seems to be explained by a single principle. If the physics of the universe is explainable in one big set of equations then surely society is explainable and perfectible in similar terms. Each of these three narratives has encouraged totalitarian nightmares: Enlightenment rationalism led to the Jacobins and the Reign of Terror; the Romantic turn led to the cult of the Volk and the rise of Hitler; and Marxism led to the two bloodiest governments in history: the Bolshevik Soviet Union and the Maoist Peoples’ Republic of China.
But these three secular religions were bound to fail. Life cannot be reduced to a “quick little formula, [for] the pocket-sized card... does not acknowledge ethical dilemmas”,16 and the failure of the three modern narratives proves it.
The three modern secular religions have spawned numerous less apocalyptic sects that blend aspects of the big three in less threatening combinations than the undiluted Newtonian faith and its Romantic reaction.
Socialism: Considered as a periodic outburst of nostalgia for the lost paradise of hunter-gatherer equality, socialism is unexceptional. But the 19th century eruption of socialism happened to coincide with the turbulent transformation between the agricultural age and the present modernity. Many young thinkers of the mid 19th century proposed a return to pastoral simplicity and equality as a solution to the transvaluation of agricultural values into global commercial relations. They experienced the messy foundation building of today’s prosperity as the mere flipping from the stratified society of oppression universal in the agricultural age to a new stratification of industrial oppression; capitalists were replacing nobles, and proletarians the peasants. The only solution was to replace, either through armed revolution or political reform, the bribed apologists of the bourgeoisie with compassionate young intellectuals familiar with the latest developments in German philosophy and attuned to the needs of the suffering workers.
Progressivism: It’s not surprising that a rising educated elite should advance the idea that the only right and just government is government by the educated experts. What could be more sensible and practical? The only trouble turned out to be that, like all political dynasties down the ages, government by expert turns out to be just as corrupt and difficult to reform as government by nobility or government by Irish fire captains.
Upper-class Asceticism: Nor it is surprising that asceticism, the idea that we should “live simply that others may simply live” is a recurring fashion among upper-class scions rather than striving peasants and the suburban middle class. Rodney Stark lists Buddhism, the Orphics and Pythagoreans, and the Essenes as notable upper-class religious movements17 of the Axial Age. The modern upper class has gone into asceticism in a big way, in secular religions from vegetarianism to socialism to environmentalism and climate science.
A common thread through these modern secular religions is either a studied detachment from or a ferocious opposition to the way we live now in democratic capitalism. Today we live in prosperity unimaginable even a century ago. This prosperity is the most unimaginable in respect of the “poor” in the capitalist countries. A century ago the British industrialist and social researcher Seebohm Rowntree established that about 30 percent of the population in York lived below a subsistence level. By 1950 this was down to 1.5 percent.18 By 2005 Robert Rector estimated in the United States that 43 percent of the “poor” population as defined by the US Census Bureau own their own homes and 80 percent have air-conditioning.
Overall, the typical American defined as poor by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded.19
To any objective observer, the sudden explosion of prosperity in the last two hundred years is a singularity that begs to be analyzed and understood. Yet the overwhelming majority of secular religions experience the economic structure of the modern age in moral terms as frankly evil, and in practical terms as leading to disaster. Thus the Enlightenment rejected the trial and error of political reform for rational planning; the Romantics rejected the unselfconscious creativity of capitalism for the self-conscious cult of creativity; the Marxians decreed capitalism as simple exploitation, and anyway leading to the immiseration of the average person. The socialists experienced the cooperative enterprise of industrial development as complete laissez-faire and Individualism. The environmentalists experienced the society that had developed clean water supplies and urban drainage as planetary rapine.
If the efficacy of the capitalist paradigm were ever in question, the experience of the Chinese people since 1979 and the Indian people since 1995 should dissolve any doubt. Desperately trying to escape decline and colonial occupation the revolutionary leaders of these ancient cultures grasped onto the modern secular religions as the basis of their new rise back to greatness. It was a strategic, if understandable mistake. It was only after they abandoned governance inspired by the secular religions of Marxian and Fabian socialism that their peoples immediately began a breathtaking climb to prosperity and became the wonders of the world.
While the educated elite was experimenting with a variety of secular religions, the ordinary people were inventing new God-based religions. After God died to the educated in about 1800, ordinary people in upstate New York invented Mormonism, based on the revelation of Joseph Smith, Jr. Then in 1906 in Los Angeles William Seymour led the Azusa Street Revival and founded the Pentecostal movement. Christianity is burgeoning in Africa and so-called “house churches” are flourishing in China. And Islam flourishes in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Religion is not a universal good. It is someone’s vision, and it may go horribly wrong. The religious impulse is always ready to burst its bounds; we know that from the world-shattering outburst of Marxian communism, and now the threat of Islamic extremism. The Taiping rebellion, a revolt in China led by a man who styled himself the Second Son of God, is another example of religion gone horribly wrong. The leader’s name was Hong Xiuquan, and he led a millennial movement from 1845 to 1862 that took over the southern capital of China, Nanjing, challenged the ruling Qing dynasty, and cost the people of China an estimated 20 million lives out of a population of about 300 million.
Hong was a schoolteacher from the modest town of Hua outside Canton. Failing his state examinations, he got caught up in the Western ideas, particularly Protestantism, then spreading in China through Protestant missionaries.
[T]he Christian texts he read convinced him that he was the younger brother of Jesus, imbued by the Father God with a special destiny to rid China of the conquering Manchu demon race, and to lead his chosen people to their own Earthly Paradise.20
Hong assembled the faithful into the Taiping Heavenly Army and marched from southern China down the Yangzi river to conquer in 1853 Nanjing, the southern capital of China. It took eleven years of civil war before the government in the northern capital, Beijing, defeated Hong and his Taiping heaven on earth.
Of course, Hong’s religious outburst was but the first of many in China’s recent time of troubles. It was followed by the Righteous Harmonious Fists movement of 1898-1901, the so-called Boxer Rebellion, that opposed foreign imperialism and Christianity. In 1911 the Double Ten uprising ended the Qing dynasty and inaugurated the Nationalist era led initially by a converted Christian, Sun Yat-sen. In 1949 after decades of civil war and Japanese occupation Mao Zedong declared his Peoples Republic of China. China’s recent history has been one religious movement after another. In the United States we have experienced the same. In the 18th century the Great Awakening inspired the rebellion against the British, the Second Great Awakening inspired the Civil War, the Social Gospel inspired the welfare state, expressivism the cult of creativity and the Sixties, and finally, upper-class asceticism inspired the environmental movement and its laws and regulations to save the planet and combat global warming.
It is not government and not business that define human community and negotiate its purpose; it is religion. You cannot negotiate meaning and purpose under the umbrella of government, for modern government is institutionalized force, not a cockpit of communication and consensus, and business is merely the utilitarian supply of the wants of the consumers under the current rules, the previously agreed-upon “always already” of the culture. If you want to change the culture then you must form a militant religion to change the idea people have of the meaning of life, the “always already” meanings that people take for granted without even thinking.
In the American idea, religions compete to influence practical politics, but no religion gets to be established and institutionally identified with the state. This notion arose out of the conflicts of the Reformation. Religion is concerned with the definition of good and evil. It is a small step from defining good and evil to doing something about it, and it stands to reason that God will smile upon those that smite the evil-doer. It is one thing for dueling sects to anathematize each other as dupes of Satan; it is another when a sect has armed itself with government power and turned itself into an armed doctrine. At that point the battle of the pulpits turns into actual religious, or “holy” war. You get the Thirty Years War of 1608-1648. You get the French Wars of Religion of 1562-1598 with follow-on persecutions that did not completely die out until the Edict of Tolerance in 1787, just in time for the war between religion and Reason that started in 1789.
In the United States the problem of religions armed with the power of the state was resolved in the Bill of Rights in 1790 and extended to the idea of a “wall of separation between church and state” proposed by Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Baptists of Danbury. Transcendental religions in the United States, from Christianity to Buddhism to Islam, must all compete in the public square without resort to the power of the state. But what about the modern secular religions preferred by the modern educated class? How do they fit into the American system and its separation of church and state?
That is the problem: they don’t. The problem is, first of all, that the modern secular religions don’t self-identify as religions. They do not experience their religion as religion or even as a “belief system.” They see things as they really are, and are convinced that reason, justice and history are on their side, and their nostalgia for a lost Eden encourages in them a yearning to combine the political and the moral, a revival of the condominium between church and state practiced in the agricultural era. In the Enlightenment narrative, the faith in reason combines with a rational politics to govern society as a mechanical engine. In Romanticism the Volk and the government combine in a mystical union as tribes and hunter-gatherer bands used to do. In the Marxian narrative the revolutionary vanguard with its special knowledge of history gets to direct the whole of society. In Socialism there is a difference with Marxism: rather than revolutionaries, the rulers will be democratic politicians advised by an educated elite of technical experts. It is not surprising that the rise of secular religion set off the bloodiest religious wars in history with the protagonists representing the various secular religions competing for the moral and political power necessary to save the hearts and minds of humanity from the wickedness of the secular Satan, however defined. The 20th century seemed to be determined to unlearn the lesson of the Reformation. It forgot, or deliberately unlearned the lesson that spiritual power must be separated from temporal power if we are to stop the moralists from voting the sinners off the planet.
Humans wish to know how to order their lives in harmony with the order of the cosmos. It seems that the world has a purpose and that the way for humans to survive and to prosper is to discover its purpose and their role in serving that purpose. Of course, it is true that some religious traditions, such as the Stoic, recommend that we humans get used to the idea that we aren’t really important and that we should get used to it. But humans seem to prefer to believe that each one of us is important and that the events of each life are important. All the modern secular religions think that humans are important and that a glorious future is ahead. But first we have to mend our ways.
1Eric Voegelin, Order and History: the world of the polis, p. 71.
3Robert N. Bellah, “Religious Evolution,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, No. 3, p. 359. Accessed 9/8/2012 http://www.robertbellah.com/Religious%20Evolution%20by%20Robert%20N.%20Bellah%20 — %20American%20Sociological%20Review%2029,%20no.%203,%20pp.%20358-374..pdf
4Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct, p. 4.
6Ibid., p. 106.
8Ibid., p. 52.
9Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776 – 1990, p.238.
10Wade, ibid, p.59.
11Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West, p.43.
12Howard Zinn, The Zinn Reader: writings on disobedience and democracy, p.154.
13Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p.273.
14Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto
16Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues, p. 353.
17Rodney Stark, Exploring the Religious Life, John Hopkins, 2004, p. 46.
19Robert Rector, “How Poor Are America’s Poor? Examining the "Plague" of Poverty in America”, Heritage Foundation, 2007. http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2007/08/how-poor-are-americas-poor-examining-the-plague-of-poverty-in-america
20Jonathan D. Spence, God’s Chinese Son, Norton, p. xxi.
Government and the Technology of Power
If you scratch a social reformer, you will likely discover a plan for more government.
Business, Slavery, and Trust
Business is all about trust and relationship.
Freebooters and Freeloaders
The modern welfare state encourages freeloaders.
The Bonds of Faith
No society known to anthropology or history lacked religion.
A Critique of Social Mechanics
The problem with human society reduced to system.
From Multitude to Civil Society
The larger the government, the smaller the society.
The Answer is Civil Society
In between the separated powers.
The Greater Separation of Powers
If you want to limit power then you must limit power.
Conservatism Three by Three
Conservatism, political, economics, and cultural.
The Culture of Involvement
Imagining lives without the welfare state
The Poor Without the Welfare State
Can the poor thrive without the welfare state?
The Middle Class Without The Welfare State
How would the middle class live without all those middle-class entitlements?
The Real Meaning of Society
Broadening the horizon of cooperation in the last best hope of man on earth.
When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of agesthey seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990
In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society
We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.
E. G. West, Education and the State
Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures
The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since
1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and
philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West
Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its
characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then,
once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities
But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie
that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison
I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all.
In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism
The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness...
But to make a man act [he must have]
the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove
or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action
[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
When we received Christ, Phil added, all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh
The recognition and integration of extralegal property rights [in the Homestead Act] was a key element in the United States becoming the most important market economy and producer of capital in the world.
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital