Can Progressivism Really Be A Kind Of Religion?

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.

Bill writes:

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.

Bill continues:

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.

Bill writes:

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.

Such as this. Or this.

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.

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17 Comments

  1. Sterling says

    So do not call it “religion” but expand the concept to “religions and the function equivalents there of”? What is Buddhism to him? Strictly speaking it would not be a religion, but a disposition towards the experience of life. And yet we see Buddhism functions as a religion for millions worldwide, and adapted to many unique cultures and peoples. He seems to think of “Religion” as a narrow collection of metaphysical and epistemic propositions. But to take this view is to totally miss its most interesting features, which can only be discovered through study of its lived reality.

    Posted March 14, 2017 at 9:23 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Sterling,

    Yes, I believe Dr. Vallicella does consider Buddhism a religion. You might go to his website and do a search, if you’d like more details.

    Posted March 14, 2017 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  3. AM says

    It’s easy. Progressivism is the reliquary shell left, after Christianity apostatized, brought God under the yoke of subjective whimsy, and subsequently concluded that dogmatism about Him was therefore absurd, foolishly believing that this would end dogmatic “superstition” in an age of “enlightenment.” But man was made for truth and transcendence, and this is not possible without dogmatic facts; hence, these wretches miserably retain a weaponized dogmatism ad extra, while retaining relativistic confusion ad intra.

    So, progressivism is the fulminous venting of the whole gamut of religious impulses natural to man, by confused and silly people who reckon themselves superior to the absurd dogmas (as they see them) of religion. It’s actually an insult to religion, to call Progressivism a religion. Many religions involve serious attempts to grapple philosophically with Truth, and involve earnest attempts to grow in virtue, practice meaningful asceticism, etc. Progressivism absolutely disavows absolutes, unphilosophically apes a philosophy, and retains all the confused impulses of guilt and sin, but without any capacity for bearing the burden personally, humbly and with a studied neglect of others’ shortcomings. It is the confused exercise of religious urges by people too stupid and venal for thè discipline of real religion.

    Posted March 14, 2017 at 10:00 pm | Permalink
  4. JK says

    Tho’ I’ve been given Mr. Vallicella’s email address and been … encouraged to uhm, exchange thought; I am and remain generally hesitant to do so.

    I suppose one might get the idea that, in so avoiding, there is in me some number of qualia which 1) We wouldn’t be so immediately likely to click the Like/Dislike on whatever either of us had on offer 2) Our thought-processing is so very different 3) I’m not willing to go against my hosting blog author or perhaps 4) I’m by nature a chickenshit.

    Respectfully, I more disagree with Mr. Vallicella’s presented argument than I do with your proposition Mr. Pollack.

    I think Malcolm, your proposition is the more likesome.

    (Referencing “disagreeing with my host”:

    http://malcolmpollack.com/2010/12/03/life-goes-on-2/

    Posted March 15, 2017 at 1:42 am | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    AM,

    Progressivism absolutely disavows absolutes, unphilosophically apes a philosophy, and retains all the confused impulses of guilt and sin, but without any capacity for bearing the burden personally, humbly and with a studied neglect of others’ shortcomings.

    That’s very good.

    Posted March 15, 2017 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  6. Captain Tripps says

    Meh. The narcissism of petty differences. I appreciate your rebuttal, but I think Mr. Vallicella, and the very small crowd who likes to gather in a room and debate how many angels are on the head of a pin, is missing the meta-forest from the sea of tree-pins. For all practical purposes the point is, as you described in your original post a few days back, that Leftism IS essentially a religion. That’s the meta-argument that a layperson can grok. And given the mounting evidence from the Science Department that we are hard-wired via evolution to believe in something like religion (as a social group coping mechanism), this shouldn’t be too hard to grasp. The new Young Turks think they’ll find Salvation in ending Racism, but they’ll come crashing back to Earth like Daedalus. Humans also evolved a certain tribalism, which is expected given the fundamental principle of Evolution is survival of the fittest among competing species. My fear is that we will revisit the massive bloodletting of the previous century, in the decades ahead in this century, except this time on steroids. Pace Pinker’s thesis, I don’t think violence is on the wane; with the global population at the level it is, the next bloodletting will make the Second World War look like the Anglo-Zanzibar War in comparison. I hope and pray that I’m wrong, and that my progeny (and hopefully grandchildren) will be spared and have a full, peaceful life, but there are no guarantees.

    Posted March 16, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Thanks for your comment, C.T.

    There is much more to philosophy, which I consider an essential human pursuit, than angels on pins — but otherwise I am complete agreement with all of what you say here.

    Posted March 16, 2017 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  8. Captain Tripps says

    Agree Malcolm; please don’t misconstrue as an attack on philosophy writ large. I enjoy and appreciate the discipline as well; just wanted to convey that I think you and M. Vallicella are really in violent agreement. I sense he just wants to parse it too delicately.

    Posted March 16, 2017 at 1:54 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    C.T.,

    I think you and M. Vallicella are really in violent agreement. I sense he just wants to parse it too delicately.

    That’s exactly what I think also. (Of course, careful parsing and clarification is what distinguishes the pro from the amateur, so I can’t really blame Bill for doing so.)

    In Bill’s brief (and hopefully only prefatory) response to me, he quotes an email I sent him:

    I try to make the case that Progressivism is, in effect, a religion to the people who espouse it — that it activates all the same behaviors and cognitive postures.

    Bill replies:

    Is leftism a religion to the people who espouse it? I rather doubt it. I don’t think your average committed lefty would cop to being religious in his beliefs and practices.

    First, I’ll say that some actually do cop to it, for example Mr. Rajendra Pachauri, as quoted in my post. Also, living as I do “in the belly of the beast” I hear this sort of thing quite often from my lefty friends. We were out to dinner with a red-diaper gal about our age the other day, and speaking of her politicized upbringing in a far-left secular Jewish family, she said “we didn’t have any religion, so we had that.”

    Bill might say “See? Even she said she was taught Leftism instead of religion — which means that they aren’t the same thing.”

    What I should have said to Bill was that Progressivism is a cryptoreligion to the people who espouse it: a religion in all but name for those who must believe, as a tenet of the cryptoreligion itself, that they are not in fact religious. (That is what I meant when I said “in effect”, but I should have made the point more explicit.)

    If a belief-system, a cognitive framework, functions in the human psyche exactly as a religion does, then I think it’s fair to call it a religion (or, in other words, to adopt “the religious stance” toward it).

    That said, Bill and I have had other unresolved disagreements about terminology in the past (for example, about the meaning of “design“). Further on in his response, Bill said:

    Why is it “helpful” for us in our battles with destructive leftists to view them as adhering to and promoting a religion? I say it is not helpful. It is obfuscatory and inaccurate. It blurs important distinctions. And it is unnecessary.

    I see this in exactly the opposite way: where Bill says I am blurring an “important distinction”, I think he is effacing an entire constellation of essential (and deeply explanatory) similarities in order to hang on to a relatively unimportant distinction.

    Posted March 16, 2017 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  10. Nobody asked, and I doubt anybody cares, but here it is anyway — I don’t think religion and philosophy are worth the words that have been wasted on them. Moreover, though many would argue that humanity has benefited from both, I am convinced that the massive numbers of lives that have been forfeited in the name of religion alone completely overwhelm whatever good has come of them.

    Religious feelings by individuals can indeed be comforting to those who are in need of such comfort. But organized religions, especially those that encourage proselytizing, are, IMHO, a blight on humanity.

    As for philosophy, I am not aware of any great success it has bestowed to the benefit of the human condition, other than the opportunity for endless mind-fucking.

    Posted March 16, 2017 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Henry, for making this effort to consider what is good, and what is not, and to present arguments as to why.

    There’s actually a name for that important human activity, if I could only think of it…

    Posted March 16, 2017 at 7:29 pm | Permalink
  12. No need to thank me, Malcolm. It wasn’t my intention “to present arguments as to why” anything is good or not good. Such judgments are matters of opinion and I have yet to witness anyone being persuaded to change their opinion about anything via arguments presented by someone else, which was the point I was making.

    Posted March 16, 2017 at 8:32 pm | Permalink
  13. Asher says

    Leftists desire to manifest Man, collectively, as God. Every sustained contact I’ve had with a leftist culminated with a de facto assertion of their Godhood.

    Leftism is the religion that defies Man. If one looks at the writings of the early and late Soviets they are blatantly admitting they consider themselves Gods. Once one gets over the initial rush of establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat that accomplishment quickly stales. Soviet writers openly envisioned that they would develop the means to resurrect everyone who had ever lived, and that they would rectify every single historical injustice.

    In what sense is that *not* a declaration of one’s own Godhood?

    Posted March 16, 2017 at 11:29 pm | Permalink
  14. Whitewall says

    The seven deadly sins are:
    Lust
    Gluttony
    Greed
    Sloth
    Wrath
    Envy
    Pride
    Leftism has a great deal in common with three of these Christian sins: wrath, envy and greed. If arrogance is the same as pride then they have four. What do we see on parade every time a Lefty is protesting or battling the police?

    Posted March 17, 2017 at 7:41 am | Permalink
  15. Asher says

    Hi, Malcolm, this is the response I would like to submit to Bill but he isn’t accepting comments. The email listed in his bio doesn’t seem to be available so, if you have a way of contacting him, maybe you would be willing to forward the following:

    For starters, I would like to abstract this discussion away from both Prager and Deresiewicz.  In the case of Prager he just isn’t that deep a thinker and his material is intended for a mass audience.  And, in the case of Deresiewicz, he is writing an abbreviated essay and not trying to build an entire case for the proposition that leftism is a religion.

    The first issue I take is with your assertion that leftism is an anti-theistic ideology, not a religion.  This is just arguing by assertion.  My impression is that most people who argue that leftism is a religion have an implied premise that religion and ideology are just two different terms for the same category of experience.  While they rarely explicate this premise you simply can’t wave it away by asserting that those are independent categories of experience.  In fact, while your essay is clever and well-written, I think it basically comes down to simply dismissing your intellectual opponents by your mere say-so. After dismissing the notion that ideology is simply another word for religion segue onto the claim that religion is good, noting that even opponents of Islam admit that it still provides more benefits than no religion at all.  Actually, this is really just an argument you are using to support your assertion that ideology and religion are two separate categories of experience. 

    In my conclusion I will return to your specific use of the phrase anti-theistic ideology.

    To those of us who accept that leftism is a religion this looks like you are capitalizing on ambiguities involving the word “good”. Now, certainly, if I were to stop breathing that would be a bad thing.  However, this is not what most people think of when they hear the word “good”, they think of things like kindness and honesty.  In that case, whether or not a religion is “good” is predicated on examining the lives of those who adhere to that religion.  Our side, rather than considering religion good, simply think it is normal, natural and inevitable, that religious instincts are an inherent and natural part of being human. Immediately following your assertion that religion is good you then scurry away from that assertion by claiming that it is not the time to worry about whether or not religion with it’s dogmas is good for humans.  That is irksome, since that is integral to answering the question of whether or not leftism is a religion to begin with.  If religion is as normal and natural to human beings as, say, breathing then it follows that *all* humans are religious in some way or another.  Special cases of very asocial people, such as autists and alcoholics, might be exceptions but all people in the normal range of socialization will manifest some form of religion.  Again, you are simply dismissing your opponent’s positions and just asserting that leftism is not a religion.

    Your dismissal of leftism as religion moves on to an analysis of religion involving the seven points you list regarding “unseen order”.  Those who hold that leftism is a religion would entirely agree with all seven points exactly as you list them.  Where we disagree is that leftists lack such an unseen order with the features and implications you list – I have basically taken the substance of your list and applied it to leftist thought. We vigorously disagree that your analysis of “unseen order” does not apply to leftism.

    Now, I would like to return to your previous claim that leftism is an anti-theistic ideology and merge it with your rejection that it has an unseen order.  To put it bluntly, and in terms everyone can understand, all you are saying is that leftism is not a religion because it does not have a God-figure.  This is simply incorrect.  Leftists think they *are* God, that there is an unseen and unappreciated God within their hearts that is being oppressed and suppressed by a burdensome sensible reality.  As I put it in my Philosophy of Marx class twenty-five years ago leftism is the cult of human self-deification.  What is striking is that you are using the exact same reasoning as leftists to dismiss the notion that leftism is a religion.  As the Bible says, the heart of man is sinful and desperately wicked and is it really that difficult to accept that human fallen-ness would balk at the proposition that we are Gods?  After all, the first sin is pride and what else could be the apex of pride other than deeming to enthrone oneself as God.

    We agree that taxonomy of things is vitally important, but we very much disagree on that taxonomy.

    Posted March 17, 2017 at 8:36 am | Permalink
  16. Asher says

    @Whitewall

    Not arrogance, just pride. Leftism is the elevation of pride to the primary human virtue – leftists don’t think pride is bad, they think it is the ultimate good.

    See the comment I just left.

    Posted March 17, 2017 at 8:38 am | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says

    Hi Asher,

    Forgive me, but I don’t think that sending this along to Bill would be productive. I’m quite confident that he’ll see it here.

    Posted March 18, 2017 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

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