My last article got a variety of responses, but one in particular stood out because it was so fundamental: what exactly do I mean by religion? Specifically, the confusion seems to be about what defines religion’s role in a society. Without understanding this, it’s hard to see why I claim that religion is a necessary phenomenon.
I’d like to begin by proposing the following: in any society, religion’s role is to make truth-claims which result in certain actions being considered right and good, and others being considered wrong and bad. Questioning the common religion is considered subversive (or at least something no one respectable does) because the implication is that you are justifying bad actions and attacking good ones. This guiding role is the defining core of how religions operate on the social level.
Now I’m sure that objections to that definition are already coming up. After all, it seems rather broad. Many things could come under that definition. Isn’t that exactly how ideologies operate as well?
Yes, yes it is. But we’ll get to that part in a moment. Let’s start by examining a common neoreactionary claim: namely, that the ideology of social progressivism acts as a religion.
Now that seems a bit unwieldy. First of all, most religions include gods and divinities in their truth claims. How can a system which makes no reference to gods act like a religion? But in fact, not all religions depend on gods either. Buddhism, for example, is recognized by everyone as being a religion. Yet it functions without the need for gods. In particular, belief in a creator God was rejected by the Buddha and his successors as being based in delusion. Now the fact is that many Buddhist cultures do include worship of a variety of deities. However, these deities are usually local in nature, and Buddhism was incorporated into these practices. The fact that no single god appears across Buddhism should be enough to show that no god is essential to Buddhism. Buddhists do not reject the possibility of higher dimensions and beings, but these too are considered to be subject to Karmic law. In fact, Buddhist writings warn that gods, when worshiped, may simply contribute to the attachment which binds humans to this world. While no particular god is held to be real or not, they are at worst a mere distraction from the path to Enlightenment. Thus we see that gods, while common, are not a necessary feature of religion. So progressivism is not barred from acting as a religion by not claiming any gods.
The second big objection is that religions are defined by making metaphysical claims. They claim to interact with a spiritual realm and have rituals. Ideologies don’t make any such claims, unless they’re religious in nature already like Islamism is. Progressivism in particular claims that one should tolerate all beliefs. Progressives hold a diversity of political opinions and religious views. Now it’s true that religions do make metaphysical claims (or at least assumptions). Ritual and action defined by spiritual intent is central to all religions. But to what extent does this impact how religion operates as a social phenomenon?
One example worth looking at is the practice of Shinto in Japan. On the one hand, 64% of Japanese don’t believe in God. On the other hand, 80% of the population reports taking part in rituals which descend from the animistic beliefs of ancient Japan. Buddhism is another major Japanese religion and we saw above how it views the worship of gods. In modern Japan, people accept varied and contradictory views about the spiritual world with which the temple priest is said to interact. Nevertheless, a huge majority of the society is still united by this religious tradition. Hinduism also was home to a huge variety of metaphysical philosophies. Some of them preached that the world was united in an underlying spiritual unity; others preached atheism and matter as the only reality. The rituals of Indian gods united a society which differed in their interpretations of those rituals. In ancient Greece, peasants who believed in the real power of Zeus and philosophers who most certainly did not attended the same temples. Even Christianity, where unity of belief is far more important, has tremendous philosophical diversity. The Catholic Church claims both the humanist Erasmus and the arch-reactionary anti-humanist Joseph de Maistre in its ranks. Now progressivism is an ideology, not a religion as such, and its claims aren’t spiritual in nature. That’s why people from a variety of religions can profess to it. But religious believers can also argue and contradict each other all they like, so long as their views don’t contradict the core beliefs of the religion. Neither religion nor ideology depends on total metaphysical agreement in order to unite a society.
So what sort of agreement do they depend on? Well, as we saw above, what unites Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism is that each of them operates in society through certain rituals, creeds, and ideas. Specifically, certain behaviours, actions, and attitudes become considered desirable. If a religion becomes institutional and widely recognized, adherence to these norms becomes a necessity for social respectability. Personally, I prefer thinking of them as memeplexes. A memeplex is a system of memes (ideas or behaviours) which is internally consistent and self-reinforcing. Memes compatible with the system become selected for, while those incompatible with it are rejected. In daily life, this means that certain behavours become socially respectable and others cause one to be ostracized. Some ideas and attitudes are good and proper, others are bad and dangerous. In Catholic Spain, piety toward God was praiseworthy. In Communist Russia, it was considered superstitious and condemned. Spain operated on one memeplex, Russia on another. In modern Russia, protecting the traditional Christian form of marriage is viewed by many as patriotic. In more and more of the West, it’s condemned as bigoted and loses people jobs. Now Russia’s memeplex has changed, and I’ll make the case below that the West operates on yet a third one.
This is the form of agreement which is essential in religion. Humanists and anti-humanists are both present in the Church because the memes they propagate are not incompatible with Christian doctrine. Ritual, not belief, is the essential core of Shinto, which is why atheists, Buddhists, and pantheists can all take part in them. In the same way, you can be a social progressive and be a Christian, atheist, or Jew. You can be in favour of intervention in Iraq (like Obama/Clinton) or against it. But you can’t reject the idea of equality. You must accept the idea that religion has no place in the State. A modern progressive probably can’t oppose gay marriage and still claim the label either. That’s because both religion and unbelief can be compatible with the progressive memeplex. Progressive arguments can be formulated for both intervention and non-intervention in Iraq. But egalitarianism is a fundamental meme within progressive ideology. Therefore, anti-egalitarian ideas are incompatible with it. Remember, not every individual in a society needs to accept these norms. Many times, it’s actually hard to see that there’s an orthodoxy at all. That’s because we think on a very marginal level. Actions and ideas get condemned because “everyone knows that that’s bad”, not because “that’s contrary to our memeplex.”. But enough people do act and think similarly enough that society develops certain recognizable norms.
This is where we finally come to the question of non-religious memeplexes. What happens when a formal religion stops being the dominant cultural force? The promise of secularism has always been that religion would play no part in affairs of state. French and Turkish secularists go even further and demand the expulsion of religion from public life, including in dress, which is why they ban burkas. During the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, religion was purged from the state. The communist ideology was officially atheistic and anti-religious. Russian Orthodox Christianity had been an important source from which Russians derived their values, worldview, and attitudes about morality. With it purged, an opportunity emerged to see what would replace religion. Of course, it was Communism that replaced it. It was pretty effective at doing it too. Communism makes claims about reality (atheism, materialism) and creates a historical narrative (class struggle). It even has a vision for the future (proletarian revolution, the classless society). With these two elements, it could determine which actions were right and which were wrong. Those actions which contributed to the Revolution and worked toward equality and worker solidarity were good and praiseworthy. Those actions which supported the capitalists and the reactionaries – and eventually anyone who wasn’t the Bolsheviks – were bad and punished. Communism informed which actions were desirable. Communism was the framework within which respectable debate occurred. Communism was the ideology which you had to accept to become socially respectable in the USSR. In other words, Communism replaced Christianity as the overarching memeplex. Communism didn’t just purge Christianity; it replaced it as the working paradigm of society. It usurped the role of religion in society because it shared so many of its features.
This is what I mean by “the necessity of religion”. Human beings are social creatures. In order for meaningful communication to occur, we need some measure of common understanding. If we can’t agree on what actions are good and bad, we cannot act together. If we can’t decide which goals are worth pursuing, we can’t move forward. In order to answer those questions, we need to have fundamental values which we hold in common. Some system of fundamental and assumed beliefs and attitudes has to arise, or else society faces internal conflict and disintegration. The promise of secularism was that no religion should dominate that agreement. But if not religion, then what? France and Turkey answered that question by imposing modern Republican values, secular to the point of being anti-religious. If your religion or culture conflicted with those values, the expectation was that you conformed. Among the younger generation, progressivism is flexing its muscles as well. Here’s a short list of people who have felt the effects by being rejected from the sphere of respectability. Universities in particular have experienced shifting norms. The “safe space” ideology, which prizes tolerance and acceptance above dissent and argument, has caused politicians like Ayaan Hirsi Ali to be blocked from speaking on campuses, which should now be safe spaces in and of themselves. But political activism does not a memeplex make. After all, the point of a dominant memeplex is that it is accepted by society at large. The Millennial generation is probably the best example of what happens when progressive values become the new norms. Millennials have a tendency to be apolitical, but as a whole are extremely socially progressive. If you reflect those values, most Millennials will support your actions. If you don’t, most Millennials won’t. If Millennials are roused to action by conservative attacks on our rights (birth control), but acquiesce to progressive ones (banning speakers with the wrong opinions), which side will win out? Not even God is immune. This might be the defining force which has allowed the ideologies above to override concerns about “free speech” or “open debate”.
This is where neoreaction asks an uncomfortable question: what happened to all that freedom?
After all, the goal of liberalism was to create a society where freedom of thought and expression was encouraged. Wasn’t that the point? Weren’t we meant to be beyond having the state impose its values on people? Wasn’t questioning orthodoxy something to be celebrated? With the memeplex idea, it’s easier to understand the shift. When a memeplex becomes culturally dominant, it becomes more and more difficult to empathize with those who disagree with it. After all, those who think or act differently from the memeplex are bad. Now, when society is divided 50-50 between those who believe in traditional Christian morality and those who don’t, each side has a choice: demonize half the population or just say “fine, but you shouldn’t impose that on other people”. If only 5% of the population believes that premarital sex is sinful or that valid marriage must occur between heterosexuals, then it’s easier to demonize them for holding the belief at all even when they pose no threat. When hippies were a derided minority, social progressives believed in freedom of speech at a cultural level, not just a political one. After all, it’s no fun getting fired because you want the troops back from Vietnam. But in our day, progressive rhetoric has changed. Now the goal is to restrict where free speech should apply to the legal minimum. In other words, as a memeplex becomes dominant, freedom becomes less important and uniformity increases. As it becomes institutionalized, it’s necessary to agree with the memeplex in order to be respectable. Even parents face these questions. Parts of the Chinese community in Vancouver have opposed cultural progressive influences in schools. The position of the schools is that children have to learn about things like LGBT issues somehow. The hidden assumption is that these programs will help them learn the right mindset. The good mindset. The mindset of decent and respectable people. Someone’s orthodoxy has to win out.
This is what neoreactionaries mean when we say that social progressivism acts as a religion. As time goes on, certain memes triumph in the culture wars. The first shift in attitudes is slow. The sexual revolution faced tremendous cultural barriers and it took decades to see values change. Gay marriage, on the other hand, was first legalized in 2001 in the Netherlands; only 13 years later it is anathema to oppose it. We live in an age where this paradigm now informs the values of our generation. Its fundamental claims of equality and personal freedom are more or less unquestioned. It informs our actions as well. To support the next big Cause is good, and proof of your tolerance and open-mindedness. To practice a religion with traditional values is acceptable so long as you don’t contradict the overarching narrative. To actually challenge that narrative is something only bigots, reactionaries, and basement dwelling virgins do. (As an aside, a good rule of thumb about what beliefs are respectable is to see which shaming language is okay to use.)
Like the Russians a century ago, this generation in the West has experienced the victory of a new memeplex. What makes this memeplex fundamentally different is that it doesn’t claim the authority which religion does, or even like other political ideologies do. It insists that tolerance and personal freedom, free from judgement, are the Most Important Thing. Can’t we all just get along? But this is a delusion. In order for societies to function, commonality of values and visions must exist. Even a society which values tolerance above all else draws the line somewhere. Inevitably, certain ideas win out. Certain attitudes gain cultural dominance. Others become unfashionable, disrespectful, or outright heretical. Only bad people say or do those things. True, the new memeplex isn’t necessarily a religion, united in a single institution. But when all is said and done, when new orthodoxies are in place and new groups of heretics are shamed, purged, and punished, the only major difference is that the Church knew what it was.