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 then perhaps we should revisit the social instincts of our stateless ancestors. For it is a simple instinct among social animals that force is a last resort. That is what hierarchy and “pecking order” are all about, to minimize the use of force within the community.
Humans share hierarchy and pecking order with the animals, but they have something else as well. What is special about humans when they associate in community? They share values in common, for Values Matter Most, acccording to Ben Wattenberg. There is a word for the values that humans share when grouped into community to develop and live in common. It is called a “belief system” or, more commonly, religion.
Everyone has a religion, the shared faith that binds us back 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. Here’s an excerpt from his “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. IWW supporters took a boat from Seattle up Puget Sound to hold a rally in support of striking shingle workers. On landing in Everett they ran into a 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 walked in the shoes of liberal heroes, the local worthies that had done their bit — and even died — 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 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 On Voeglin’s view 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 everything save their particular 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 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 Feminism 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 immediately 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 from a safely evolutionary perspective in The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures.
But before we experience Wade’s comfortable words, let us make contact with something less comfortable, the challenging ideas of René Girard. In his view, expressed in Violence and the Sacred, religion is the human response to the eternal problem of escalating rivalry and violence between the men, and he maintains that the great myths, like the Oedipus story, display the residual explosive fragments of the ancient peril of men within a community descending into an orgy of violence and feud. The solution to the escalation of violence in the prehistorical past was the sacrificial victim; the whole community solved its divisive hatreds by combining in a paroxysm of concerted violence to expel and kill a single individual, and thus restore peace. The sacrificial ritual in all religion is an echo of the deliberately forgotten sacrifice of the First Scapegoat. In Girard’s account human conflict arises in the context of the basic human method of learning, mimesis, or learning by imitation. We learn by imitating others. But then comes a problem, for we do not just imitate what the model does, we imitate what he wants: women and possessions, and so we envy and resent the power and the competence of those we learn from. Thus, according to Girard, mimetic rivalry: the “subject” or ego competes with the “model” for possession of the “object” that the “model” had taught the “subject” to desire.
In Faith Instinct 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 without the need for a scapegoat; it directs the instinctive moral sense with socially constructed cultural memes, just as they do it in liberal Seattle at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.
Perhaps mankind could achieve these social goals, at a pinch, through violence. We could force people to get with the program, and we could ferociously defend the frontiers against the enemy. But force is expensive; it requires armies, police, and “enforcement officers,” — in a word, government — and force is dangerous, as René Girard suggests, and you never know when it may spiral out of control. So it is telling that humans have found ways to economize on the use of force. 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 foreigners 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 other way to 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. For lurking in the shadows is always the fear of uncontrolled violence.
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.” The enforcer usually tries to get everyone’s agreement on a violation of social norms and have the miscreant punished by one of his relatives. Even better, we 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. There is no danger of feuding families. And that is probably just as well. The modern state maintains its vast apparatus of policemen, prosecutors and jailers because it 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 either to man’s profound abilities or to God’s. And the idea raises a question: Is the notion of divine justice the only way to escape from the dictatorship of the alpha male
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 than in the face-to-face village to know who can be trusted to pull their weight. 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, a church, 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; the payoff is social signaling. When you pay the costs of belonging to a religious community 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 them in different ways. The absolute equality of the hunter-gatherer band is not available to the society of strangers that specializes and exchanges 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 political enforcement, 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, environmentalism, modern campus “activism.” 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 a belief system or religion. We experience them as an understanding of the way things are, a penetrating vision of the meaning of life and a practical guide for making the world a better place. For a leftist, then, 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 as we try to evolve from old, unjust social structures to new structures that are “cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.”12 Except that government is force.
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 the secular faiths of the modern era. Given the notion advertised 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 our 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 transcendental enthusiasm for saving the planet through a new asceticism to lower the human carbon “footprint.” We see in the universities and non-governmental organizations a blazing faith in “activism” and the politics of grievance. There is religion everywhere you turn. The question, in a world of fiercely contesting religions, transcendental and secular, is 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 out 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.
In European Christianity the rise of the bourgeoisie broke the coalition between secular power and spiritual power. No longer was the coalition between the 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, and denial of full political and economic rights to dissenting sects is often 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 thereby 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 the United States. 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.
Now we must take the fatal step. If “no society known to anthropology or history is devoid of what reasonable observers would agree is religion idea of religion,” then what about our own society, whose ruling class generally experiences itself as having evolved beyond the superstitions of religion? The answer is simple. Our modern era is drenched in religion of a different kind: not transcendental but secular religion. We are all familiar with these new secular religions. They are everywhere. Let us review the more notable secular 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, so that now in the enlightened age “people started using Reason and Science, instead of Religion and Superstition”13 to explain the world. Enlightenment 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 applies the template of Newtonian mechanics 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.
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. But 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.
These three secular religions were bound to fail, according to Taylor. Life cannot be reduced to a “quick little formula, [for] the pocket-sized card... does not acknowledge ethical dilemmas”,16 and the failures of the three major modern secular narratives prove 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 dialectic of Newtonian faith, its Romantic negation, and its Marxian synthesis.
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 excavations at the founding 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, preferably through political reform, the crudity of Individualism and the higgling of the market with the rule of 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 among 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.
The modern story of religion is not just the story of the educated class and its enthusiasms. 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.18
Hong assembled the faithful into the Taiping Heavenly Army and marched from Guangxi province in 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. His original “red base” in Jiangxi province was two provinces over from Hong’s first base.
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, expressive individualism inspired 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 or racist sexist bigots; 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. First of all, the modern secular religions don’t self-identify as religions. The communicants do not experience their religion as religion or even as a “belief system.” They see things as they really are; they know that reason and science, 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. Since they do not experience their faith as religion they do not see that their politics amounts to legislating morality just like their hated rivals the fundamentalist Christians. It is nothing to the modern secularist believers to roll over their opponents as religious warriors used to do. In the secularist Enlightenment narrative, the faith in reason combines with a rational politics to govern society as a mechanical engine. Who are the traditionalists to oppose their rational politics? In Romanticism the Volk and the government combine in a mystical union as tribes and hunter-gatherer bands used to do. Who are the rationalists to oppose the spirit of the Volk? In the Marxian narrative the revolutionary vanguard with its special knowledge of history gets to direct the whole of society. Who are the reactionaries to oppose the scientific march of history? 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. Who are the rich to oppose the decisions of the majority, and who are the uneducated to question the science of the 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 aren’t really important and that we should just 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.
But who will do the mending? Shall it be politicians? Activists? Preachers? How should we humans reconcile the cacophony of voices that want to save us from ourselves?
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.
18Jonathan D. Spence, God’s Chinese Son, Norton, p. xxi.
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