Thoreau in Walden wrote philosphy in a personal style. He apologizes for his constant use of the first person but justifies it on the basis that he should be glad to write of others if only he knew anyone better than he knew himself. He then asks of every writer that he should first give an account of himself.
It seems to be that Thoreau is often praised but rarely imitated and in this work I wish to follow his example.
Above all I want to understand. I want to undestand the world we live. I want to make sense of everything.
And so I wish to write a guide to the perplexed, to share the little (or the much) that I have managed to illuminate through thought and study.
But first I want to consider religion and the secular.
Everyone seems to agree that science is awesome. And maybe most would even agree that we should either think scientifically or not at all. But it seems that the “not at all” is still accepted as a fine and grand option and that one can defer to the scientist for the truth (somehow “THE” (unique) “scientific” truth, is not problematic in the same way as religious dogma (though clearly to the true scientist, science keeps on saying, the truth? you want the truth? well ok but it’s complicated, it’s complicated, oh my is it ever complicated)), in the unlikely emergency that one should need to know anything at all.
I think this is bunk. Thought is better than non-thought, and a blind fumbling in the dark is better than hiding one’s head in the sand in the noon-day sun.
I have read about the surprise at the re-emergence of religion, or religiousness or what have you. And to me the question is why should the supposed death of God have weakened religion? I see no reason to think so, I see good reason to think the opposite, and I see good proof of it all around us.
“the King is dead! Long live the King!”
Let us go back to the semi-mythical past and consider the first death of Gods. The Jewish faith, the religion of Abraham, was born of the death of Gods. It was a rejection of idols, and it was a rejection of foreign Gods. And one can speculate that because of the resultant *increase* in religious feelings it was able to unite the Hebrews and lead them to greatness, or at least that is the story, which is accepted by and large.
Christianity is similar, in that the great mass of Christians in the greater part of history can trace their lineage back to pagans who worshipped many Gods and who followed a similar path. But even of the Jews who worshipped one God, one can see that the Messianic character of Christianity would increase religious feelings, even as one God (the old testament one) is replaced by a new face of God (the Gospel one).
And on and on, the death of the old Gods, the death of the idols, goes hand in hand with a new fanatical and highly successful religion, and one can see that by necessity every new religion was killing or displacing old ones, as there seems never to have been a people so backwards (nor forwards for that matter) who was free of religion.
Now one can consider the modern period and see whether this logic still applies, are new religions based on the killing or supplanting of old ones?
Well the most devastating social/political movement of the 20th century and possibly of all time, National Socialism (Nazi Germany), was not what might traditionally be called religious. But either it was a religion, or the religions of the past were whatever it was (political/social movements perhaps). And it had all the features of Durkheim’s description. And it didn’t build on Christian faith or the Christian God but on a new basis.
If we look at Stalinist Russia we can say similar things. One class elevated to a sacred role, another lowered and denigrated as parasitical, certain behaviours valued, others devalued, sacrifice, sacrifice and more sacrifice for the greater good. And it waged a war against previous religions as being reactionary and backwards.
What of the other two new religions of the modern/contemporary era? Nationalism and Imperialism? Nationalism we can class right alongside those, because it also has a very good idea of who is the in-group and who are outsiders. It has a very good idea of what are the rituals, and what are the shared beliefs and values. And again nationalism for the most part, goes hand in hand with if not secularism, then at least the separation of Church and State, which is the real “it” part of secularism.
Imperialism doesn’t seem to exist in and of itself, it exists in relation to nationalism. It is an unnacknowledged but omnipresent aspect of life in the dominant fraction of the globe just as well as in the dominated majority. It is part of the background and is taken for granted in the dominant societies where it is mostly “beneficial” and fiercely hated in the dominated societies where the piper is being paid.
And that is one of the properties of religion, it is inescapable, it is omnipresent, it is part of the background and is taken for granted. Every age looks back on the previous ones and laughs at their Gods and at their silly rituals, and goes about with its own holy rituals, with its own unique and eternal God(s).
Looking around us at contemporary society, we see some of the excesses and label them religious and then miss the other %99 per cent that is all around us, but call it secularism.
What is religion?
Durkheim defines it as a system of beliefs and practices, related to things sacred and profane, re-uniting believers in a community or Church.
Now let us try the test of National Socialism, Stalinist communism, and nationalism.
beliefs: racial, military, historical, cultural (there can be no doubt, one simply has to look at German propaganda of the period)
practices: too horrible to mention (but again there can be no doubt) sacred and profane: the pure master race, and the others which must be utterly destroyed and eliminated from the surface of the earth
community of believers: all German speaking or German racial peoples
beliefs: economic, social, political (proletariat)
practices: again very tightly controlled totalitarian sacred and profane: working people are sacred, capital and other reactionary fores are terrible crimes against humanity. Traditional religion is seen as empty and reactionary.
community of believers: all Eastern block countries
beliefs: political (citizenship, constitution), geopraphical (borders), historical (origins, shaping of the national character), cultural (language, and every other kind of shiboleth)
practices: national anthem, national holidays, national flag, political life (voting, showing devotion to the state) sacred and profane: the national territory is sacred, the citizenry is sacred (as are their rights), the culture, the national purpose. And one could care less about what happens outside one’s borders, especially when if those things happen far enough that there will be no immediate consequences.
community of believers: all the citizens of the state who are living in the country/nation
There is the idea that all ideologies failed, but nationalism is the little ideology that could. Just in case we were too stupid to see it, the one successful “ism” of the 20th century, Zionism, scored its most important victory shortly after the end of world war 2 in 1948, just as the other supposedly failed “ism” (communism) was consolidating its “gains” in Eastern Europe, not to mention that successful communism in China, also emerging in the aftermath of the same war.
As an aside, what is religion, but an ideology, what was religion built out of if not the same sort of emotionally/intellectually compelling ideas?
Are we really so stupid as to be saying, but those old religions were real religions because they had real Gods, but these days, those Gods are dead, and these religions have Gods that exist only in the souls of men…
I have just equated ideology and religion, based on Durkheim’s definition. The next question is whether this implies that all politics are religious in the same sense. I think the answer is no, and that politics fails most of the four factors.
First I think that in most cases there are no common practices related to politics. Republicans don’t do activities X, Y and Z and Democrats do A, B and C. And even when they do, it is not because of what party they are a member of, but simply because of the different demographics of the parties.
That is to say it is only a statistical likelihood and not by definition (e.g. by definition a Muslim does not eat pork or drink alcohol, but one can’t say that by definition a Republican does X, or a democrat should necessarily do A, or else they are bad Republicans or bad Democrats).
Second we can’t really say there is an idea of sacred or profane, that is distinct from the national identity, or the underlying system, in most cases. That is the participants in the political system have systems of value, ideological or religious (which I would both call the same thing), and those might affect their politics, but politics in and of itself is not a new value system, it is a means to realize those values.
And this fits into the third aspect, one can satisfy the values (sacred/profane criteria) by going beyond the political party or faction to the political leaning (e.g. liberal, conservative, etc.), but then one will fail the test of a community or Church. Clearly not all liberals in the broad sense are in the same club. In the Canadian context the N.D.P. is in a sense a very liberal party, the liberal party less so, and the conservative party is conservative, but then not all liberals support the liberals, and perhaps some conservative support the liberals, and then one doesn’t have a cohesive social group. Even in the case of looking at one particular political party such as the Replublicans, I don’t know if there is necessarily a real sense of community.
Finally as to beliefs, this will probably be the most difficulty to convince anyone of, but to me politics in general and in our parliamentary form of it very much in particular, is not about beliefs, but about policy.
As Thoreau, I don’t mean to speak to those who are happy with the way things are and just want to enjoy their lives, though I must admit that in a large part I am of that class, having a pretty good life, all things considered. But I wish to consider what can be done by those who are unhappy with their lot and wonder if it must of necessity be so bad.
Santayana said something along the lines of “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it”, here’s hoping that luck will stay on our side a little longer. We are the lucky many living in the greatest period of human history so far. The greatest wealth, the greatest health, the greatest knowledge. Go back one generation (30 years) at a time and it’s a huge leap backwards at each stage.
If we keep forgetting history and repeating it, at this rate our grand-children will live lives that are richer than our wildest dreams.
That is not merely technologically or economically, but mainly socially and in a very major way. We may see the first truly global culture, or at least cultural universe. Something that has been a utopian vision ever since the mythical tower of Babel. An eventual state that was naively captured at the end of the film Independence Day.