William Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, having read my own recent item on William Deresciewicz’s article about Progressivism-as-religion, has just offered a post expressing his disagreement.
It is true that leftism is like a religion in certain key respects. But if one thing is like another it does not follow that the first is a species of the other. Whales are like fish in certain key respects, but a whale is not a fish but a mammal. Whales live in the ocean, can stay underwater for long periods of time and have strong tails to propel themselves. Just like many fish. But whales are not fish.
I should think that correct taxonomies in the realm of ideas are just as important as correct taxonomies in the realm of flora and fauna.
These are fair points. I think, however, that a historical study of Progressivism reveals a much closer cladistic relation between the modern Left and a certain strain of American Protestantism than exists between whales and fish: it is more, I think, like a lungfish that has learned to live out of water. The question “at what point is such an animal no longer a fish?” is an interesting one, and Bill would likely insist that living in water is essential to being a fish; but I’ll say that if the move is recent enough that the critter still has its scales and fins and gills — and if its mommy was a fish! — then the distinction is much less clear.
Leftism is an anti-religious political ideology that functions in the lives of its adherents much like religions function in the lives of their adherents. This is the truth to which Prager alludes with his sloppy formulation, “leftism is a religion.” Leftism in theory is opposed to every religion as to an opiate of the masses, to employ the figure of Karl Marx. In practice, however, today’s leftists are rather strangely soft on the representatives of the ‘religion of peace.’ (What’s more, if leftism were a religion, then, given that leftism is opposed to religion, it follows that leftism is opposed to itself, except that it is not.)
Or you could say that leftism is an ersatz religion for leftists. ‘Ersatz’ here functions as an alienans adjective. It functions like ‘decoy’ in ‘decoy duck.’ A decoy duck is not a duck. A substitute for religion is not a religion. Is golf a religion? Animal rescue?
My quibble with this is that it appears, implicitly, to assign all of the taxonomic distinction to the single feature of religion that modern secular Progressivism explicitly rejects: theistic metaphysics. For this reason Bill applies the alienans adjective ‘ersatz’. I would, instead, describe Progressivism as a ‘non-theistic’ religion, or a crypto-religion. In this sense the adjective functions more in the way ‘electric’ does in ‘electric guitar’. The electric guitar is a cladistic descendant of the original ‘acoustic’ form of the instrument, and has so many features in common with it that it seems wrong not to think of it as a kind of guitar, despite its not having a hollow body shaped and braced to amplify and project its sound.
As for Leftism being ‘anti-religious’, it is of course overtly so, but with a peculiar fervor that is, I think, strongly reminiscent of the bitter sectarian enmities we see among conventional religions. If you see the secular Left as being itself a masked religion, then one begins to see it as anti-‘religious’ in the same way that Protestants are anti-Catholic, Sunnis are anti-Shi’ite, etc.
We might say that there is in the human cognitive apparatus a religious module that can handle a variety of inputs, but which produces similar output, and that there is a universal tendency for it to want to latch onto something.
Now let’s consider the criteria that Deresiewicz adduces in support of his thesis that the elite liberal schools are religious. There seem to be two: these institutions (i) promulgate dogmas (ii) opposition to which is heresy. It is true that in religions there are dogmas and heresies. But communism was big on the promulgation of dogmas and the hounding of opponents as heretics.
Communism, however, is not a religion. At most, it is like a religion and functions like a religion in the lives of its adherents. As I said above, if X is like Y, it does not follow that X is a species of Y. If colleges and universities today are leftist seminaries — places where the seeds of leftism are sown into skulls full of fertile mush — it doesn’t follow that these colleges and universities are religious seminaries. After all, the collegiate mush-heads are not being taught religion but anti-religion.
On the view I’m offering above, Communism simply hijacked the religion module with some novel input. And while Bill is right that “if X is like Y, it does not follow that X is a species of Y”, it also does not follow that if X is like Y, X is not a species of Y. It may or may not be.
Bill mentions environmental extremism:
Pace Deresiewicz, there is nothing religious or “sacred” about extreme environmentalism.
No? I took up this point two years ago:
The mythos, from Genesis to Redemption, has been transplanted almost entirely without alteration:
In the beginning, there was only God.
From God arose Man.
Before his Fall, Man lived simply, and in perfect harmony with God. It was a Paradise on Earth.
Then a disaster happened. Man acquired a new kind of Knowledge: knowledge that he did not need, but that conferred upon him enormous temptation. In his unwisdom, and against God’s wishes, Man succumbed. His new Knowledge gave him great power, but at a terrible cost: he had turned his back on God, and his Paradise was lost. In his exile, he would wield his ill-gained power in prideful suffering and woe.
But then came a Messenger, offering the possibility of Redemption: if Man were to renounce his awful Knowledge, and learn once again to surrender himself to the love of God, he would be forgiven, and could find his way back to Paradise. It would not be easy — it would require that he make terrible sacrifices, atone for his many sins, and give up his worldly comforts and much that he had come to love — but if his faith was strong, his Salvation could become a reality, and he could once again live in Paradise, in sweet communion with God.
In order to move from the old religion to the new one, we need only substitute “Nature” for “God” in the passages above. That the two conceptions are almost perfectly isomorphic, and that both are manifestations of the same underlying impulse, should be plainly evident. But perhaps one must be a heretic oneself to notice it.
Very shortly afterward, I had further confirmation from a top-tier environmentalist, Rajendra Pachauri, the director of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who said the following thing:
[T]he protection of planet earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems is more than a mission. It is my religion and my dharma.
Pace Bill, that seems pretty religious to me.
But the objections raised are good ones. If I want to say that X is a species of Y, then I should have some good reasons for doing so. Here are some that I had just offered in a response to our commenter Jacques, just before I saw Bill’s post:
In characterizing Progressivism as a religion I have in mind several things, for example:
1) The sacralization of various objects and concepts, such that an insufficiently worshipful attitude toward them is considered blasphemous;
2) The soteriological aspect of Progressivism, which aims always at some unattainable Utopia that is forever just out of reach;
3) The characterizing of dissenters as not just intellectual opponents, but as sinners and heretics embodying actual evil;
4) The important role of faith;
5) The suppression of factual inquiry in areas where articles of faith may be threatened;
6) The extent to which political and cultural norms and aims are expressed in terms of sin and atonement;
7) The historical (and behavioral) continuity of modern Progressivism with early American Protestantism, in a traceable sequence that retains the Puritan “mission into the wilderness” while gradually becoming more and more secularized and worldly.
I would agree that the religious impulse is well-nigh universal, and in that sense a great many outwardly secular worldviews might be seen as religious. I think, however, that Progressivism needs “outing” as such, especially given how many of the features of religion it instantiates, and how often it manifests outspoken hostility to traditional religions. (If nothing else, once you see it clearly as a crypto-religion the whole thing makes a lot more sense, and I like to help make sense of things.)
Finally, Bill lists some individual qualities that he considers essential to religion. They are:
1. The belief that there is what William James calls an “unseen order.” (Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 53) This is a realm of absolute reality that lies beyond the perception of the five outer senses and their instrumental extensions. It is also inaccessible to inner sense or introspection. It is also not a realm of mere abstracta or thought-contents. So it lies beyond the discursive intellect. It is a spiritual reality. It is accessible from our side via mystical and religious experience. An initiative from its side is not to be ruled out in the form of revelation.
I’m not sure that Progressivism fails to meet this criterion. In particular I think that the Progressive belief in a kind of supernatural moral telos is plainly evident in phrases like “the right side of history” and “the arc of the moral universe bends toward Justice”.
2. The belief that there is a supreme good for humans and that “our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves” to the “unseen order.” (Varieties, p. 53)
See above. See also where failing to “adjust” will get you on a college campus these days. (Or ask Charles Murray.) If adjusting to the unseen order is the supreme good, then willfully refusing to do so is to choose evil. This is clearly consistent with the way heretics like Murray are treated.
3. The conviction that we are morally deficient, and that this deficiency impedes our adjustment to the unseen order. Man is in some some sense fallen from the moral height at which he would have ready access to the unseen order. His moral corruption, however it came about, has noetic consequences.
Is this not plainly evident, for example, in the ethnomasochistic self-abasement of liberal whites for their own racism? Is this charge of moral deficiency not made on every page of Howard Zinn’s Progressive Bible, A People’s History of the United States? Is it not at the core of radical environmentalism, as noted above?
4. The conviction that our moral deficiency cannot be made sufficiently good by our own efforts to afford us ready access to the unseen order.
This is exactly, for example, what whites are now told about their racism: that no matter how hard they try, they will always be racist, in ways they can never see or fully understand, simply because they are white.
5. The conviction that adjustment to the unseen order requires moral purification/transformation.
6. The conviction that help from the side of the unseen order is available to bring about this purification and adjustment.
Well, God is off-limits. But we can get pretty close.
7. The conviction that the sensible order is not plenary in point of reality or value, that it is ontologically and axiologically derivative. It is a manifestation or emanation or creation of the unseen order.
I don’t think you could speak seriously about “the arc of the moral universe” without believing something like that.
In sum: the only salient difference, as far as I can see, between 21st-century Progressivism and conventional definitions of ‘religion’ is the absence of an explicit and supernatural concept of God — a concept that, if we look back at the centuries-long evolution and mutation of New England Protestantism in America, was gradually leached out (and, I would say, did not die, but went underground), leaving the sense of a sacred and urgent “mission” completely intact.
While we may dispute what does and doesn’t constitute a correctly defined “religion”, Progressivism is, in effect, a religion to the people who espouse it: it activates all the same behaviors, dispositions, and cognitive postures. What we might call the “religious stance” is, I believe, the most accurate way for the rest of us to confront it.
I doubt I will change Bill’s mind here (never an easy thing to do!), but I hope I’ve at least shown that there’s room for reasonable disagreement.
Comments are welcome.