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American Exceptionalism as Civil Religion

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[Apr 04, 2013]  The Fate of Civil Religion

April 03, 2013 | The Archdruid Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by John Michael Greer at  

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Ares Olympus said...

The expression of religion and antireligion makes me think of E. F. Schumacher's "divergent problems".
On my own reflecting of issues I'm repeatedly going back to that recognition whenever I hear two sides passionately defending their ideology as self-evident, without noticing it quickly collapses without its nemesis at the table as well. The strangest conflict for me is between the good and evil of compromise. That is, "the good fight" so often comes out from insecurity that you might be wrong, so the more certain someone acts about their beliefs, the more they need to deny the opposite has any virtue for fear of losing everything. But I guess there are times when compromise has no middle ground. Centralization and relocalization are two pulls of authority, and maybe its like the dinosaurs and mammals. Resilience depends on both having some power, and centralization would appear to delay collapse our society, allowing transition time for relocalization that wouldn't happen if the central power collapsed instantly. So I think fundamentalistic dependence on either side can be resisted, and you have to live in two worlds during a time where power is clearly in one realm, and yet everything really important is happening in the hidden one.
4/3/13, 11:21 PM  

Darren Urquhart said...

JMG your cliff hangers are taking on Game of Thrones proportions. Just have to wait for next week...
4/3/13, 11:25 PM  

Matthew Lindquist said...

"Snowball-rich Suburbs" - I almost fell out of my chair laughing. Another great post, Mr. Greer!

I'm also waiting on the edge of my seat(hence I almost fell off) for the next installment of Star's Reach; is the theme of your next series of posts the fault of the places that story has gone, or vice versa?

4/3/13, 11:28 PM  

Somewhatstunned said...

Hello JMG - I'm seriously impressed by your polymathy :)

I've been reading your blog for several years now - and thought it would be polite to say "hello". My general rule for committing internet chattery is that I only do so with people who I already know in actual life, or who I have a reasonable possibility of meeting in person. Given what you've written about both localization and the illusogenic properties of internet commentary, I'm sure I don't need to explain why I take this line.

Anyway, even though there is no reasonable likelihood of us meeting in person, or even of our having any real-life acquaintances in common (I'm in the UK and I don't fly), it's not a *strict* rule, and there have been a few things I've wanted to add to the conversation from time to time. As I say, it seems a bit rude to just pitch in. So I'll lay down a marker for when I chip in later, by saying "hello"!


4/4/13, 12:19 AM  

Ben said...

@ Urquhart - Funny thing, the civil religion of Westeros looks set to end up in the same place as Americanism. Winter is coming and all that...

@ JMG - One already sees a rampant nostalgia for the 'happy days' of yesteryear. I notice it the most in county music, of all places. Which is funny, because what passes for country music nowadays is basically a flag-waving NASCAR soundtrack. Which is a shame because as late as the early 1990s country music could be both satirical, humorous and heartfelt. Now it mostly sounds like elevator music with a twang.
My guess is that the civil religion of Americanism will fall apart first, and that to one degree or another the successor states will still embrace the religion of progress. When people perceive the religion of progress has failed (perhaps in another generation or two), what fills the void? Militant Protestant Christianity? Catholicism? Druidism?
It took Europe about 1000 years to go from Roman civic religion to Catholicism to the Renaisance. Could another civil religion emerge in America in the near term with the secular faiths so thoroughly discredited?

4/4/13, 1:40 AM  

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

A reminiscence about religious cooptation and that picture.

In the public elementary school I attended in Arlington, Virginia in the 1950s, every day began with opening exercises in the classroom. These were invariant and consisted of recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, singing of any one of half a dozen patriotic songs, recitation of The Lord's Prayer, and listening to the teacher read a couple of Bible verses.

When "under God" was added to the Pledge (spoiling the scansion), I quietly refused to say those words, on the principled basis that a pledge to the Republic should not include any religious statement. No one took notice of this. I also had to decide what to do about the Lord's Prayer.

Decades later, I asked my father about his boyhood in Oklahoma in the 1920s. He faced the same issue of whether to recite The Lord's Prayer with his classmates. My father and I were probably the only Jews in our respective rooms.

Both of us thought it over without consulting our parents, and arrived at the same conclusion. It's a Christian prayer, but nothing in it is contrary to Judaism, therefore I can recite it without violating my conscience and don't have to court martyrdom.

The Bible verses must have been innocuous as I can't remember what any of them were.

I think opening exercises of some sort are a good idea for any school. I'm old fashioned enough to approve of first graders learning to sing a verse or two of The Star-Spangled Banner; America the Beautiful; Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean; My Country, Tis of Thee and The Battle Hymn of the Republic by heart. By doing so one commits to memory through repetition some decent poetry with more complicated sentence structure than our textbooks had. (Especially our national anthem, which has fiendishly Latinate syntax as well as a range of an octave and a half.)

Also, if this practice had carried on, we would not have had the spectacle after September 11, 2001 of all the members of Congress trying to display their patriotism on the Capitol steps and being unable to sing anything together except God Bless America. Not one of Irving Berlin's better efforts, and I was embarrassed for my country.

4/4/13, 1:52 AM  

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

This is just for fun, after the serious theological discussions of last week, and completely off topic, so JMG may choose not to put it through.

The following poem from Through the Looking Glass can be sung to the tune of The Star-Spangled Banner.

At this moment the door was flung open, and a shrill voice was heard singing:

'To the Looking-Glass world it was Alice that said
"I've a sceptre in hand, I've a crown on my head.
Let the Looking-Glass creatures, whatever they be
Come and dine with the Red Queen, the White Queen, and me!"'

And hundreds of voices joined in the chorus:

'Then fill up the glasses as quick as you can,
And sprinkle the table with buttons and bran:
Put cats in the coffee, and mice in the tea—
And welcome Queen Alice with thirty-times-three!'

Then followed a confused noise of cheering, and Alice thought to herself 'Thirty times three makes ninety. I wonder if any one's counting?' In a minute there was silence again, and the same shrill voice sang another verse:

'"O Looking-Glass creatures," quoth Alice, "draw near!
'Tis an honour to see me, a favour to hear:
'Tis a privilege high to have dinner and tea
Along with the Red Queen, the White Queen, and me!"'

Then came the chorus again:

'Then fill up the glasses with treacle and ink,
Or anything else that is pleasant to drink:
Mix sand with the cider, and wool with the wine—
And welcome Queen Alice with ninety-times-nine!'

'Ninety times nine!' Alice repeated in despair. 'Oh, that'll never be done! I'd better go in at once—' and in she went, and there was a dead silence the moment she appeared.

4/4/13, 1:56 AM  

Thijs Goverde said...

Heh. It amuses me that an archdruid should be proposing such a crudely functionalistic idea of religion. The way you strip the notion of the 'sacred' from all references to transcendence is most telling - it seems you have a couple of axes to grind there.
It leads to simplifying things too much, methinks.
For instance: the 'worship of the old gods' was never coopted by what you call the 'civil religion of the Roman state'. Roman politics and Roman religion were closely intertwined from the word go, and there was never a time that the gods were not 'political functionaries'. They were so already in the Iliad which, if I recall correctly, predates the foundation of Rome by at least a century.
4/4/13, 2:01 AM  

Lei said...

The nature of categorization has been understood along these lines at least since Lakoff's 1980 book, drawing on cognitive psychology of 1970's, and I make use of it in my linguistic research with pleasure. But here we have some problems that are associated with categorization in concreto.

One can theoretically define religion as one wants, but since it is a tool, some definitions are more useful for certain purposes than others. And I would prefer a definition of religion as it is found in mainstream religious studies, because those people know well how they define what they study. If the definition is too broad, as appears to me is the case of this essay, usefulness of the category diminishes, because necessary discrimination of diverging features with possibly strong impacts on outcomes goes away. In the present perspective, almost any system of belief or ideology can be seen as religion in the end, which does not seem to be "right".

Also, it is of course important to capture common features of let us say catholicism and communism, but the point (e.g. in cognitive linguistics) is that the whole is not just a combination of the part - we have a gestalt, or special ecology of the structures under investigation, and holistically taken, catholicism and communism work differently precisely because the elements constitute the whole in different ways, some are missing and some are present, etc.

I think that this generalization and comparison is far too broadly conceived. In any case, it is a nice example of the point made in the text, that categorization is often adapted by its conscious use so that it serves his purposes :o)

Similarly, according to me, one should carefully distinguish different strata of systems of belief. Are we talking about "folk Christianity", or high-level theology? About communism as (mis)used in the states of the USSR block, or intellectual communism? These distinctions matter. They matter the more that e.g. here in former Czechoslovakia, intellectual communism or marxism is not dead at all, and these things are intensively discussed: it is now a common view in these circles (with which I partly sympatize) that the practice and history of "communist states" do not say anything about communism or marxism as an ideology. In other words, USSR and its satelites are taken not be really communist (which of course is similar to the problems with religions on one hand and historical churches on the other).

And it is a bit problematic to speak about total disintegration of "communist religion" after 1989 in these areas, because common people never really understood it and took seriously, at least in the marxist vein (a different story is that most of them really wanted social equality, emancipation etc.). In fact, many of them look back to those time with nostalgy, and many leftist intellectuals either never dismissed the belief, or have discovered it again (younger ones). So in any case, the idea of communism or at least socialism is well alive and so brittle as proposed, whatever the experience with bolsheviks was here.

4/4/13, 2:45 AM  
Zachary Braverman said...
One of your most interesting pieces yet.
4/4/13, 2:49 AM  

Approliving said...

Theistic and civic religions are also similar in that they both offer visions of humanity’s grand purpose and destiny.

There are also significant differences between theistic religions and civil religions. Theistic religions explicitly rely on claims of divine authority for their validity, while civil religions rely on reason and the interpretation of commonly-accepted historical knowledge. Followers of theistic religions stress the importance of faith in times of adversity, while followers of civil religions tend to have a more pragmatic attitude when reality casts doubt on their beliefs. Civil religions are more like big social experiments than actual religions because their central claims are much more falsifiable, and their followers show evidence of holding this perception (e.g. references to “the American experiment”; the voluntary abandonment of Communism throughout Eurasia when it became clear that it wasn't working).

Communism bears so much resemblance to Christianity because, as you mentioned last week, the Western imagination was thoroughly in the grip of Christianity when Communism emerged. Communism is similar to Christianity out of practical necessity: had it not been based on the Christian template, Communism probably would have been too intellectually alien to its Western audience to have ever taken off. Luckily for the founders of Communism, they were also subjected to this Christian cultural conditioning.

With all this in mind, and given that religion is evolving phenomenon, I think that civil religion is actually a distinct species of intellectual organism which has (at least in part) evolved out of religion.

4/4/13, 3:02 AM

skinnermichael said...

It annoys me how people always seem to conflate religion and spirituality. At least most people don't have much faith that the religion of progress provides provide much spiritual fulfilment.
4/4/13, 3:27 AM  

J9 said...

Dear JMG, thank you for another fire cracker of a post. I hadn't heard of civil religions, but as you explained it i had an "ah-ha" moment.
Once you know about it you see them lurking everywhere!! I'm so glad you decided to explore this thread - thank you - and not for the first time i wish the blogging Greer goose would lay more than one golden egg a week.
Yours in a heightened sense of intellectual anticipation!
4/4/13, 3:33 AM  

YJV said...

Another civil religion that comes to mind is that of the British Empire and worship of Brittannia. Maybe analysis of the quick death of that belief in the aftermath of WWII will give a good indicant of the future of the American civil religion as Britian is in effect, America's mother.
4/4/13, 4:21 AM  

Yupped said...

Very interesting. I like to say that I'm living in my second declining Empire now, having grown up in the UK in the 60s and 70s. Back then, the UK's sense of itself, its civil religion, had clearly crashed - the sun really had set on the British Empire and the Deferential Society. And the immediate replacement, post-war socialism, was having a tough time paying for itself. So from the 80s onwards the UK rebooted itself as a kind of groovy-USA - neo-liberal but with a more caring/intellectual ethos and somewhat better beer. I would say that the UK and Europe's civil religion, at least until recently, was largely based around the conceit that they could do progress too, while being cleverer and more refined than the US.

But as you say, these are all abstractions, stories we tell ourselves to make sense of things, to frame our hopes of the future and inspire us. Most of the components of these civil religions are not actually true, in any objective way, and often don't make much sense in the context of individual lives which are always more reflective of reality, the facts on the ground. It's so interesting how important these mental frameworks are to our functioning. They're very crumbly and unreliable, and much less tangible than working with day to day reality. But still we cling.

I wonder if, as the progress religion comes undone, it will shake up more of us to accept reality as it is, with all of its rules and mysteries and limitations. Or maybe we'll all just reboot another conceptual framework in which to believe? Perhaps paradoxically I've found that the former is a much better path to something transcendent.

4/4/13, 4:51 AM  

Nestorian said...


Once more, I find myself agreeing with much of what you write.

I would suggest that a succinct way of summing up everything you have written concerning religion can be neatly summed up in an etymologically derived definition of the term. The word “religion” is based on a Latin root that means “to bind one thing to another.” Extended metaphorically, the etymological centrality of the idea of binding emphasizes the definitional centrality of the human will as a way of binding oneself to some ultimate belief system. This ultimate belief system (or rather, the purported set of realities it references) in turn come to command all the most fundamental forms of allegiance and commitment on the part of the believer – volitionally, emotionally, intellectually, and even physically. The belief system to which a person binds herself also defines for the religious believer her system of meaning and value, due to the ultimacy and finality of the psychological and spiritual binding involved.

4/4/13, 4:59 AM  

Just Because said...

The image that comes to mind for the collapse of civil relgion is the felling of a tree with an ax. It may take several dozen or a hundred blows chipping away, then eventually one hears that creaking sound and the tree is going down from its own weight with no more help needed.

In terms of Americanism, you can look at many chunks taken out over the years that created disillusionment for many (e.g., Viet Nam War, Watergate, Stagflation of the 70's). The question to me is what exactly does the creaking sound like, and is that what we are hearing now for the religion of progress.

Looking forward to next week's post.

4/4/13, 5:11 AM  

DesertedPictures said...

If you follow your thesis about civil religions being more vulnarable to rapid collapse, fundamentalist christianity might be in danger. It's not incorporated in any official cappacity like the pagan-religion in Rome, but it has very strong ties to one of the two current pillars of the American system of government (the republican party). If the governemnt as a whole, or that pillar, goes down, it might take a big chunk of that religion with it.
4/4/13, 5:11 AM  

Odin's Raven said...

I've noticed that the most anti-American people are other 'Americans'. Why does this hatred of their own people happen less elsewhere?
4/4/13, 5:23 AM  

Bill Pulliam said...

This is what I come here for, to see seemingly tangled threads traced to help reveal a big picture that interconnects them.

So in the collapse of the Roman civil religion, the theistic religion that it had coopted was essentially obliterated as well, all the way down to its original theistic roots. Does it follow from this that the strangely warped and twisted form of Protestant Christianity that prevails here will also be obliterated in the collapse of American Empire, and is it likely that it would take all other forms of Christianity with it, even those small minority sects that preached long and hard against the civil cooptation?

I've always thought of the prevailing religion I see here in the Bible Belt, in downtown San Francisco, in Boulder, Eureka Springs, Sedona, Salt Lake City, Kalispell, and on all 298 of the cable TV channels that stream into my mother's house, as Materialism. I see people seeking identity, meaning, answers, and comfort in their stuff; and if that is not the function of religious belief, what is? I'm contemplating how this maps into the picture you are weaving. Perhaps my category of Materialism is a higher level classification, at the same level as Theism. Then, Progress, Communism, and American Exceptionalism would fit as subcategories within it, just as Christianity, Buddhism, and Atheism fit as subcategories within Theism. If this seems like a workable scheme, I wonder if the (slow, grinding, ongoing) collapse of American Empire will actually obliterate Materialism itself, or just leave a space for some other materialistic belief system to evolve into the void.

4/4/13, 6:08 AM  

Robert Beckett said...

Esteemed JMG,
Thank you for another highly informative, thoughtful and well-written essay.
Around 1801, an early critic of the religion of progress, William Wordsworth, expressed his dismay in a famous Petrarchan sonnet, which many of us of a certain age may have memorized during our school days. It begins "The world is too much with us, late and soon,.."
Permit me to offer my own bardic take on the present topic, fashioned in the same form ten score and ten years later. The dedication is to my grandson, Jove.
Fair use policy shall apply!

Upon Recalling Wordsworth

How many winters past? Ten score and ten?
This getting and spending a madness grown,
the germs of greed and pride since sown
and power lay waste Creation; what poet's pen
can grasp? It seems beyond our human ken
to ponder. Like frighten'd birds have virtues flown.
The seas and skies run foul and mountains groan
for trade of tawdry trinkets sought by men.

Gaia! I swear by reborn pagan creed
to see sweet Reason once again betroth'd
to Spirit. Grant today my simple need
for strength to toil at such a sacred oath.
The seventh generation will be freed
to wonder and to love beneath your oaks.

for Jove, December 31, 2011

4/4/13, 6:16 AM  

sekenre said...

As a religious person (of the Theist variety), this is one of the most awesome articles you've written.

I would suggest that religion persists on the basis of the useful predictions that it makes. Because theist religions make predictions and encourage behaviour based on knowledge of the Spirit which changes much more slowly than external conditions, their teachings and practices remain relevant for much longer than a civil religion.

4/4/13, 6:20 AM  

Mister Roboto said...

the conservative Christians among my readers may be interested to know that Satanism also suffers from modernist heresies

Yes indeed. There are at least three different forms of Satanism I can list off the top of my head. The first, which I'll call paleosatanism, are basically the old-fashioned devil-worshipers who work black magic and gleefully embrace some very bad behavior. These exist in relatively small groupings that function largely underground. Then there are the neosatanists who embrace a very Ayn-Rand-like philosophy of life. Within neosatanism, there are the atheistic satanists such as Anton LaVey's Church of Satan, that regards Satan as an impersonal universal force in nature. There are also the neosatanist groups such as the Temple of Set who regard Satan as a dark deity they worship, rather than a demon or fallen angel. And of course, each of the these groupings think the other two are all wet.

4/4/13, 6:29 AM  

DaShui said...


IMHO the best post ever.
Is civil religion another term for "state worship?" The state, which is an abstract conglomeration of laws,rules, procedure, guidelines administered by a bureaucracy needs legitimacy so it coopts and threatens religion.
In the USA the state uses tax exemption status to control religions. Does druidry take tax exemption?

Are you gonna say something about Greek mystery religions that came into vogue towards the end of the Roman Empire? It seems they were a radical reinterpretation of mainstream roman religion as Greek and roman religions were syncretic. Maybe Pentecostalism will explode in popularity?


4/4/13, 6:33 AM  

Robert said...

Yes that sums up the Ayn Rand cult. I believe Ayn Rand managed to secure a relationship with Greenspan himself. Possibly the Randian religion will end up doing almost as much damage to American capitalism as Communism did to socialism.

I think a key moment in the decline of Communism was when Khruschev denounced Stalin. That was the end of Moscow's papal infallibility and things were never quite the same again. The Chinese never denounced Mao who is still well respected in China they simply reversed many of his mistakes in a pragmatic way. This is possibly one reason why the Chinese Communist party is still in power.

4/4/13, 6:36 AM  

John Roth said...

Thank you for the reference to Bellah. That lead me to "Divided we Fall: America's Two Civil Religions" by R. Wuthnow.
4/4/13, 6:44 AM  

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Ah yes, the civil religion of the most beloved jurisdiction in human history, and the utter collapse of belief therein, from the days of Brezhnev onward...

The Canadian Estonian diaspora has as one of its principal buildings Tartu College in Toronto. In the kitchen of Tartu College I once heard the following kaffeeklatsch regarding the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. Although the klatsch may or may not be true, I at any rate cannot help passing it on.

A guy in the ESSR wanted to join the Party. He really, really wanted to join the Party. Unlike anyone else in the ESSR, he believed the general Party line: that the individual is the helpless pawn of economic determinism; that overwhelming economic forces render a proletarian revolution in the West inevitable; that the current "socialism" of the USSR is a transitional stage toward a truly communist "proletariaadi diktatuur", already close at hand; and so forth.

On reviewing his membership application, the Party said, "This guy is nuts, this guy is a whack job. Anyone sincerely holding this set of beliefs is a menace."

So he never got his Party card.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo (near Toronto)
www dot metascientia dot com

4/4/13, 7:02 AM  

jollyreaper said...

Also playing into the "god is dead" theme from last week... My mom is very religious. She accepts all the arguments put forward by Christian promoters as fact:
1. No book is as attested to in the historical record as the bible
2. No other religion has had someone come back from the dead
3. (when pressed that resurrection is in tons of religions) No religion has had resurrection confirmed in the historic record as with Jesus
4. Every atheist who made a genuine study of the bible to debunk it came out a believer. (those who did not didn't make a genuine study.)
5. Look at how Jesus clearly fulfilled every bit of scripture in the book
6. It takes more effort and faith to disbelieve than believe

Anyway, there are tons more howlers like that -- demonstrably false claims -- but recounting them all would belabor the point. Whenever this conversation comes up -- and it does with dreadful frequency -- the final question is "What do you put your faith in? You have to believe in something, base your life around something, or you're just a gerbil spinning in a wheel."

I think that statement has a rather complex answer. People need to eat, drink and breathe -- those are the inarguable essentials. Not everyone requires higher levels of justification and rationalization. I myself want them but that does not mean my neighbor down the street would see any value in it.

The thing about these civil religions is they seem so concrete and sensible. The faith can be justified within this very life. While one could look at the failure of a civil religion as a bad thing, I think you could also consider it to be the sensible debunking of a scientific life philosophy that has been proven false. Only a fool would continue believing in something that clearly doesn't work. While a scientist might be sad that a favored theory like vitalism or the luminiferous aether has been debunked, he at least knows the way has been cleared for a better theory.

I don't see a civil religion of progress as a bad thing, so long as we can define what progress is. "I know it when I see it" doesn't really cut it. The American Dream of rapacious consumerism doesn't really seem to make people happy, regardless of questions of sustainability. But food, love, safety, using our minds to improve the world for ourselves and our fellow man, that's something I can get behind.

What is interesting is seeing how man saw nature over the ages. The Puritans who came over here saw the Wilderness not as a romantic getaway but a manifestation of hell with the Indians playing the part man in a godless state, little better than devils. A hippie talking about hugging trees would have been utterly alien to them.


4/4/13, 7:16 AM  

Thomas Daulton said...

Wow, this is a great column. "Taking on the colors of utopia as it fades from sight," that's a powerful and accurate image there. Also loved the description of Randism/Objectivism as an "antireligion". So if Objectivism is an antireligion of Communism, then howcome it hasn't simply gone away now that Commmunism is dead and gone? Do I just need a little more patience?? :) (odious Randism can't make its exit soon enough, IMHO.)

Also thought I'd point out a fictional example of the collapse of a religion. In the interesting sci-fi novel "Hyperion" by Dan Simmons, the Earth itself was completely destroyed at some point in the future and humankind lives in space colonies. It becomes a plot point that the Jewish faith officially disbanded at that point, because its rabbis concluded quite logically that, since the Promised Land was destroyed, then God was not going to keep his promise to give them the Promised Land. The future Jewish descendants still believed in God, but no longer practiced or believed in the validity of their religion. An amusing fictional depiction.

What other faiths might be shattered if the Earth's climate really becomes inhospitable to humans? Would Druidism be affected??

4/4/13, 7:16 AM  

jollyreaper said...

PS this is the HP Lovecraft version of the image above. Classic. :),+Under+Cthulhu.jpg

4/4/13, 7:16 AM  

Don Plummer said...

John, were you going to give us a definition of "religion" here? It seemed at first that you were heading that way, but then you started talking about religion as an abstract category and I never read an actual definition.

Interestingly, American civil religion was the topic of a Facebook discussion I had yesterday. One person put up a link to brief blog that asserted the US Pledge of Allegiance was "idolatrous" (in the Christian understanding of that term). After reading your discussion of civil religion here, the voicing of such an opinion by the Christian faithful might be additional evidence, coming from the other direction, that American civil religion is in trouble. A generation ago, I doubt whether any Americans, not even committed Christitans, would have even considered such a question, let alone asked it in a public forum.

4/4/13, 7:19 AM  

Zach said...

John Michael,

Well done again. The idea of an "antireligion" is new to me, but it seems an obvious and useful categorization. Thank you.

I'm familiar with Bellah and American Civil Religion. The conflation of and the co-opting by ACR of American Christianity is a long-standing irritation to me. To the point where I have days when I am sorely tempted to channel the Old Testament prophets and thunder denunciation down on the blasphemous idolatry of it all. That picture of Jesus and the Constitution being one prime example.

Another one being George W. Bush's re-purposing of "power, wonder-working power" to the American people from "the precious Blood of the Lamb." I was shocked and angered at his casual blasphemy; then shocked and saddened to see how few of my fellow Christians were likewise bothered.

Some further thoughts triggered by this week's essay:

It occurs to me that a prime tragedy of our time is that each of our political tribes is exquisitely tuned to the other tribe's attempts to immanentize the eschaton, but blind to their own.

(Thus President Obama unironically called a "lightworker" and embodying Messianic hopes; thus Frum and Pearle unironically calling their strategy for the War on Terror a means for the "end to evil." Hubris abounds!)

I also wonder now if one couldn't usefully analyze our "culture wars" from the perspective of a shift in the pieties of the American Civil Religion, and which groups follow vs. resist that shift.

Keep up the good work! I look forward to next week.


4/4/13, 7:23 AM  

Wolfgang Brinck said...

JMG - lots of good points none of which I have any objection to. The only point I wish to argue with is what constitutes a religion. And this then leads me to contend that Progress is not so much a religion as a mythology or myth - myth or mythology as the term is used by Joseph Campbell, that is, a set of beliefs that is accepted by the majority of a culture as true and self-evident.
The myth of progress at least as far as I can tell is one of science and technology perpetually improving the condition of humans on earth by increasing both knowledge of the material universe and conquering by means of technology all the problems that vex us.
The term religion for me implies not just a set of beliefs but also a formal organization that puts itself in charge of defining what those beliefs are.
Religions also have officials and rituals that mediate key transitions such as birth, the onset of adulthood, marriage and death.
And finally, most crucially for me, religions have some notion of aspiration to wisdom that cannot be attained through intellectual exercises that is, wisdom that can only be attained by means other than rational thought.
I agree that that the term civil religion is a useful one since civil religion typically covers most of the same bases as conventional religions. However, progress in itself is not a religion in my own estimation but rather a core philosophical component of many civil religions. I imagine that the idea of Progress was as much a part of Russian Communism as it was of American Capitalism. In other words, I would regard Progress as a belief central to certain civil religions but not a civil religion in itself.
4/4/13, 7:31 AM  

Matt and Jess said...

Non-civil religions seem like they have a lot of holding power...when a civil religion collapses, is the ground suddenly ripe for regular religion to take its place? Will established religions compete for dominance, or something newer try to rise? I guess this would be an organic process, but I can also see how the dictator portion of your cyclic view of politics could be ushered in--the collapse of american civil religion, which most every variety of american regular religion shares.

Wish history was something i'd been taught in school--I might be able to think of some precedents.

Enjoyed reading your post on this rainy morning in appalachia, which, I should mention, is supposed to be largely unaffected by coming droughts, and resilient in the face of climate change ;)

4/4/13, 7:32 AM  

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

It IS, on the other hand, true that the civil religion of the Most Beloved Jurisdiction in Human History had a kind of mesmerizing effect. In the days of Stalin, when Estonia had just gone under, there was a fancy-schmancy encyclopedia. Some of the articles were political. Some people had this encyclopedia, in what I presume was multivolume well-bound hard-covered expensive big-format fancitude-schmancitude, on their shelves at home. I have heard that when the political climate in the USSR shifted a bit, people were given printed sheets which they had to take home and paste into those fancy encyclopedias, to correct political errors in the material as originally printed. (Perhaps the new sheets were a bit critical of Stalin. After 1953, poor Joe got categorized as an unsound, dissident, theologian, kind of like Prof. Hans Küng opposing Cardinal Ratzinger.)

What I have heard is that some people were so cowed, or so pious, as to actually take the proffered sheets home and do the required pasting-in.

I also want to remark on offences related to "paragrahv 58" or "paragrahv 68" (sorry, not quite sure of the number) in the Soviet Estonian Criminal Code.

When the civil church was really breaking down, in 1990, it was considered possible for diaspora Estonians to go back home WITHOUT being labelled collaborators. With my parents' full approval, I did just that, taking the ferry from Helsinki, and going inside for a whole week.

At some point I had the following conversation with my dear Uncle-or-Cousin-or-Whatever X and my dear Aunt-or-Niece-or-Whatever Y, at the kitchen or dining-room table near Tallinn:

TOOMAS (explaining how things are in the West, probably with reference to rallies in places like Toronto, against such things as the 1939 August 23 late-night Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, with those secret Baltic clauses that only came out after World War II): So we see all sorts of demonstrations and rallies, with anti-Soviet agitation spreading all over the place.

X AND/OR Y (at first getting the political line wrong, but quickly correcting themselves, so as to end up on the evidently winning side): Oh, yes, it really is dreadful, anti-Soviet agitation cropping up simply EVERYWHERE, simply awful....I mean, yes, it's WONDERFUL, yes, ANTI-Soviet, it's simply WONDERFUL, you get **SO** much anti-Soviet stuff these days...


Toomas (Tom) Karmo, near Toronto

PS: When one feels sad about the past, one can get cheerful again by viewing The vid relates, admittedly, not to the jurisdiction just referred to, but to a cognate one. However, the two jurisdictions are similar enough. They differ, Churchill said, only as the North Pole differs from the South Pole.

In this cheer-up vid, I particularly prize the bits from 00:57 or so onward, in which the speaker says "Tomania was down, but now he has risen", and does something rather creative with his glass of water, and the crowd dutifully reiterates the theme with its stiff-armed salute (rendering the phallic character of the proceedings explicit).


4/4/13, 7:34 AM  

Steve Morgan said...

The point that religion is a mental tool for categorizing phenomena is a useful and important one. Much of last week's comment thread seemed to be missing a common understanding of that concept, and viewed in that light it's interesting to re-read some of the discussion.

I also see now why you've repeatedly said that you think the first political party to adopt peak oil and a considered response to it as a platform will win the future in many industrial democracies. Inasmuch as modern political parties act as religions in the US (I think there's some decent evidence for this on either side of the aisle), they too are undergoing a similar crisis of legitimacy amid their failure to deliver the spoils of imperial power. If the religion of progress is undergoing its own implosion, the faithful will be grasping for a new belief system in its wake, and an organized party that coherently points out the flaws of the departed Progress and offers an alternative vision of meaning and purpose in its absence will have a powerful draw.

Thanks for this fascinating series. I'm glad that you're bringing these ideas into the conversation about peak oil and the future of American society.

4/4/13, 7:46 AM  

luna said...

The impression I get from reading this, and from the commenter on last week's who had used a deity in "My Little Pony" as a thought experiment (and your response to him), is that religion of all types is a form of self-enchantment, if not self-bewitchment. Is this an over-simplification, and is it something you will be expanding on in future posts?

(Btw. I would regard myself as agnostic, but have read, and been fascinated by, writings on magic by yourself, Dion Fortune and W E Butler)

4/4/13, 8:09 AM  

Joe M said...

This is just brilliant, JMG. Beautifully developed and argued. Thank you for your voice.
4/4/13, 8:13 AM  

Brother Kornhoer said...

Now I know exactly what I need to make my tacky room complete - where can I get a print of that suitable for framing?
4/4/13, 8:18 AM  

Robert Martini said...

John Michael Greer,

Darren is right, you need to tone back the quality of your writing so we will not be disappointed when it ends.

Do you have any educated guesses of which movements will gain more traction in the years ahead, for better or worse? Do folks tend you return to their roots or abandon those all together for what they feel has been "who was right all along"?

I tend to notice in myself and others, that; once you desert your faith, you tend to try and replace the void with something warm and comfy. How many liberals go to yoga for a little more than stretching? How many inner city ghetto culture are addicted to images of power, wealth and control in a world devoid of it? How many hippies have developed some sort of psuedo-nature worship who seek to cure all aliments with "positive" energy psuedo science? (be aware I not referring to druidry) I feel like I can call upon a thousand examples. But, is it those in power that define civil religions, or is it the forerunner thoughts of the group that end of taking power?

Excellent Post, I truly appreciate them.


4/4/13, 8:59 AM  

Steve in Colorado said...

This might be my favorite post yet.

A couple of thoughts I had:

Proudhon wrote to Marx in 1846, saying "Let us seek together, if you wish, the laws of society, the manner in which these laws are realized, the process by which we shall succeed in discovering them; but, for God’s sake, after having demolished all the a priori dogmatisms, do not let us in our turn dream of indoctrinating the people; do not let us fall into the contradiction of your compatriot Martin Luther, who, having overthrown Catholic theology, at once set about, with excommunication and anathema, the foundation of a Protestant theology."

Of course, what Proudhon feared is exactly what happened... And, more ironically, Proudhon himself is now a central figure in an anarchist theology that sees him as the first in a succession of Great Prophets. First Proudhon taught us Mutualism; then came Bakunin, and taught us Collectivism; finally, Kropotkin taught Anarchist Communism, and this is the Final Revelation.

Also, the idea of the antireligion: It seems to me that civil religions often absorb the properties of the antireligions of their competitors-- and this hastens their end! So Americanism absorbs and is redefined as Anti-Communism. Now, without Communism, what is left for America?

And, of course, it works the other way around, too. America was much admired by many early socialists and communists, including Marx and Bakunin. Later, Anti-Americanism became a necessary feature of all radical Left civil religions. What will become of them when America implodes?

And of course, Proudhon's criticism of Marx still holds. He continued: "Let us not, merely because we are at the head of a movement, make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, the religion of reason." Why is it that so, so many opponents of the dominant hegemony become hegemons in their turn? How can we avoid it ourselves?

4/4/13, 9:03 AM  

Richard Larson said...

I actually laughed when I realized the meaning of the picture. There are some who would use it... The concept of a civil religion is interesting. Is progress then a offshoot religion of Americanism?

I look at progress and think corporation, and think American as the people.

4/4/13, 9:15 AM  

Kathleen K said...

Oh! Thank you for inspiring yet another lightbulb moment.

*This* is why I can't talk politics with my father. If I express the slightest hint that I don't think America is the best thing in history (the "other side" doesn't count), he reacts sharply, and anything like a logical conversation is over.

I think I'll pull out my copy of Thinking in Systems and see if I can figure out how to pull the lever the other way.

4/4/13, 9:35 AM  

MawKernewek said...

Is the antireligion of progress neoprimitivism, or the apocalypse myth?

There can't be that many people who make a serious go at living a Stone Age lifestyle.

Even in the milder form of nostalgia, which many people claim to subscribe to, I don't reckon there are that many who really take it seriously to the point of denying themselves anything invented in the last hundred years, well, except the Amish. Although I'm not sure they are doing it from an antireligion motivation.

As the belief in progress falters, would the power of its antireligion fade with it, the antireligion being parasitic on the former, or would the antireligion continue to grow and form part of what replaces faith in progress?

4/4/13, 9:39 AM  

jim weaver said...

John, you imply that atheism is a religion in the second paragraph. Now, I don't believe in gods, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or unicorns. Are all three of these (non)beliefs religions or just the first one?
4/4/13, 9:40 AM  

Dan Craig said...

There is another Antithetical to Americanism civil religion in our society that resists naming, which consists of various minority and subgroup "rights"-being parsed and trumpeted down to ridiculous levels along with worship of multiculturalism and which has its own economic redistributionist policies often codified into law. Streets and freeways are renamed for its heroes. It also has its own mural art. To challenge the core beliefs of this civil religion in a public forum is to invoke the wrath that one might get from a Moslem who feels his faith is being attacked.
It's all quite amusing and leads to some surreal moments when you ask people why they believe in certain ideas that they express in casual conversation.
4/4/13, 9:42 AM  

subgenius said...


On catabolic collapse...thought I would pass this on...

...heard a report a couple of days ago on the topic of transportation in Los Angeles. The decision has been taken to stop repairing the most damaged roads, and to focus all resources on saving the ones that are in a more reasonable state. Makes one think of all this talk of arterial routes and feeder lanes and cardiac arrest,IMHO...


4/4/13, 10:01 AM  

Michael Petro said...

Thanks for that lucid description of "category" in your third paragraph. I'll most likely be stealing it at some point (with attribution, of course.)
4/4/13, 10:15 AM  

Ian O said...

I hear your plea, Darren, I await Thursdays (when JMG's essays appear in NZ) with trepidation. What aching boil is he going to lance this week?
Here's some thoughts to fill the gap, that touch on next week:
4/4/13, 10:19 AM  

JP said...

This is one of your bests posts.

It concisely examined some of the various issues that I've had with the concept of civil religion. I also had never though of anti-religion in the way in which you had here.

In my mind, anti-religion is parasitic off of the religion from which it draws it's strength.

Remove the religion, the anti-religion goes away.

And, as another question, I would pose to you:

"Still, the point I want to make is more specific. You won’t find many Americans holding such beliefs nowadays, and those who still make such claims in public generally do it in the sort of angry and defensive tones that suggest that they’re repeating a creed in which neither they nor their listeners quite believe any longer. American patriotism, like Roman patriotism during the last couple of centuries of the Empire, increasingly focuses on the past: it’s not America as it is today that inspires religious devotion, but the hovering ghost of an earlier era, taking on more and more of the colors of utopia as it fades from sight."

Do you think that this was the same way that people felt in the 1920's into the 1930's?

I say this because it's clear to me that we have reached a trough in terms of what one person called "national will".

Meaning we are reaching a point at which we have reached the maximum of social mood shifting in the "this world" and "individualistic" direction.

You don't really see the patriotism of the 1950's in the Great Gatsby, for example.

One of the problems that I have with history is that it's extremely difficult to capture the zeitgeist or overall culture without actually being there.

Because the past exists only between the covers of books, which often don't tell you what you really want to know, because that knowledge is experiential.

4/4/13, 10:39 AM  

blue sun said...

I did notice you diverged from the discussion of the religion of Progress and jumped into what you’re calling Americanism. I guess we’ll have to wait to see how Americanism fits together with Progress. My guess is it’s a child/ parent relationship of some sort, because it seems to me Europe has at least as strong (or stronger) faith in Progress as America.

As for Americanism, it not only co-opted, but also directly stole from Judaism and Christianity. A recent example (I’m sure I will take enormous flak for saying this) is the treatment of Obama's arrival as that of the much-awaited messiah. The less and less he has lived up to their expectations, the louder and louder the faithful shouted (look, for example, at back issues of Time magazine). At this point, however, I think the spell is broken for most people, because we seem to have returned to the pre-messianic explanation of 'Well, at least he's not as bad as the other guy.'

Another thorny issue in this soup is what to call this civil religion. It has many names. You've called it Americanism, I’m not sure how that ties into Progress (up until today I would not have distinguished between the two), but personally I usually use the terms Secular Liberalism or International Secular Culture, and I recently was reading a book by a devout Christian who was grappling with trying to understand this competitor with no name, who deemed it the Doctrine of Evolution. (Not a bad attempt considering the muddy waters surrounding this concept. Thanks to you I knew he meant the religion of Progress.) Certainly E.F. Schumacher has referred to “Evolutionism” in a slightly different context. I also love a term Wendell Berry has used for the modern version of the faithful: “doctrinaire pluralists.” We’ll all have to agree to some name if we want to simplify our conversation.

I also suspect you won’t be able to conclude this discussion without returning to that most fascinating of topics, thaumaturgy. Certainly thaumaturgy plays a role in preventing us from even seeing this civil religion as a religion.

And, of course, I think another thing you’re going to have to address somewhere along the line is the common misconception that religion can be successfully separated from culture (which of course, despite our many attempts in the recent centuries, it cannot). Some may disagree with me on this point, but based on humanity’s recent experiments, I am completely convinced that religion and culture cannot be separated successfully.

4/4/13, 10:44 AM  

Joel said...

Thanks, this is a productive conceptual framework.

I guess the implosion of the civil religion of Rome could have helped early Christian evangelists in Europe, but after Constantine, I think the situation was inverted: the civil religion was co-opted to serve a theistic religion. Later the likes of Jan Hus and Martin Luther and Jean Calvin each worked to advance an anti-Roman religion that was not an anti-religion to Christianity (at least, not from the Protestant perspective I was raised with).

4/4/13, 11:30 AM  

Robert Martini said...

@ MawKernewek

There is no way possible that primitivism in the "lifestyle" sense could be a result of progress, simply because it existed before the age of progress. However, I think an over "idealization" of primitive lifestyles could be a result of the anti-religion of progress. I would also agree, apocalyptic ideologies are somewhat anti-religions of progress.

As a primitivist myself, I seek knowledge of our ancestral past to identify what makes optimal sense in lifestyle terms. I follow a "paleo" diet point of view, which is a loaded term in itself. The stone age lifestyle is impossible to recreate and I don't think many would want to recreate completely. However, I think lower reward ancestral diets and more physical lifestyles with simpler focuses can be very rewarding.

I am as much anti-technology as the rest of neo-primitivist, however, I hold no illusions of a re-wilding hunter-gatherer utopia.

Overall I would say the ideological resurgence of primitivism has been a result of the decline of progressivism (?), but only the utopian believing primitivist, like the uptopian anarchist could bear a title of anti-religious to progress.


4/4/13, 11:41 AM  

John Michael Greer said...

Ares, of course it's possible to find constructive middle ground between centralization and relocalization. First, there's the question of what functions are best done on a centralized basis and what are best done on a local basis; then there's the question of just how central, and just how local -- in the US, for example, you've got state and county governments between the central and local ends of the continuum. That said, your broader point about compromise stands.

Darren, I'm going to guess that that's a compliment -- since I don't own a TV, I'll have to guess!

Matthew, good. It's not a matter of one defining the other; both are being shaped by reflections that I've been mulling over for many years.

Stunned, thank you! I may be in Britain next year -- if so, I'll post something.

Ben, it's worth noting that the western world went through a lot of intermediate territory between the twilight of classical Roman religion and the emergence of the Renaissance. We'll be discussing that, too.

Unknown Deborah, agreed -- it's not a good sign when a nation's political culture has decayed so far that nobody in Congress can even manage the national anthem. By the way, you can also sing any of Emily Dickinson's poems to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" -- try it sometime.

Thijs, I haven't proposed a theory of religion; I've simply discussed one aspect of religion, using a commonplace of sociological theory to do so. As for classical religion, I'd encourage you to reread the Iliad; the Greeks and Trojan leaders all had to worry constantly about whether what they were doing would please or displease the gods. In late Roman civil religion, the assumption was that Jove was always on Rome's side, the way so many people over here insist Jesus is on America's. There's one solid measure of the difference between an uncoopted and a coopted theist religion.

Lei, I'm not surprised to hear that the rehabilitation of Marxism is well under way on your side of the pond; it's also happening here. It'll be interesting to see how far it gets. As for the broader question of definitions, of course -- but then every religion, civil or otherwise, includes a great diversity of viewpoints and levels of understanding.

Zachary, thank you!

Approliving, it's always possible to draw category lines elsewhere. My point is that seeing civil religions as a species of the genus "religion" reveals things about them that most other analyses obscure.



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