Activism, BLM, Spotlight

The Piety of the Impious

Writing with not a little insight, commentators have observed a deeply intriguing dimension to the protests currently convulsing the United States: Percolating beneath the callow progressivism lies a kind of spiritual fervour, which animates a great swathe of the demonstrators. It’s not simply the case that some people have been driven by prior religious convictions to respond to the killing of unarmed African Americans by police; rather, it’s that much of the outpouring of grief, activism, and even violence triggered by the death of George Floyd is itself quasi-religious in character.

Popular opinion holds that the United States remains a bastion of piety within the community of Western nations; although European states long ago settled into an easy secularism, the pulse of vital religion still beats strongly on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s true that the US remains an outlier in this regard, although the reality is far more complicated than common narratives suggest. Moreover, statistical evidence indicates that the country may be on the same trajectory towards secularisation as the Continent. But while America may be busily divesting itself of its religious inheritance, this hardly entails the erasure of all “spiritual” sentiment. On the contrary: that impulse persists, even if it is sometimes channelled differently.

From a certain perspective, this is unsurprising. The propensity of humans to devote themselves to comprehensive worldviews is nearly universal. We are a meaning-making species, prone to developing grand existential schemes as a way of buttressing our lives and integrating the sheer welter of events that daily confront us. More fundamentally, it represents an attempt to reconcile oneself with one’s own mortality and finitude.

The largely ineradicable character of the religious instinct means that it persists, even upon the apparently disenchanted landscapes of modern secular culture. Like nature, society abhors a vacuum. And with the demise of organised religion, other claimants have rushed in to fill the void.

Writers such as Tara Isabella Burton have documented the mushrooming of new movements and fashions, which in many ways ape the external features of traditional religious beliefs or practices. Politics is, of course, one such vehicle, supplying the meaning, values, solidarity, identity—even the pretence towards a type of salvation—that were once the preserve of organized religion. Ideological frameworks, whether past or present, offer a pre-packaged means of explaining the world and its ills, claiming to satisfy one’s craving for something beyond the individual and the material. In societies starved of conventional sources of spirituality, those systems—and the mass gatherings they may generate—offer something of a secularised substitute.

And so, we return to the present eruption. The activist zeal that has roiled America and elsewhere may express a yearning, however inchoate, for a kind of transcendence that has survived efforts to extirpate traditional religion from Western societies. True, not everyone involved in the recent protests is driven by such existential concerns; so diffuse and widespread a social movement will attract a conglomerate of participants. But for some, politics as a procedural, incremental, collective enterprise has given way to a deluge of righteous fervour, more akin to various expressions of religious fanaticism that have broken out periodically throughout history.

Witness some of the key moments that have emerged over the past couple of months. The toppling of statues has dominated news cycles, but it also provides a particularly clear window into the types of attitude that have colonised the minds of some activists. The philosopher John Gray has rightly termed these acts of iconoclastic destruction: “rituals of purification,” aimed at cleansing society at large, and consolidating the protagonists’ moral and spiritual virtue. It is a well-trodden path, one taken by a variety of groups spurred on by a profusion of religious zeal. As but one example, Gray cites the outburst of Anabaptist millenarianism in the wake of the Reformation: The obliteration of artistic and iconic works was part of a wider movement to (violently) wrench the present, and indeed the future, out of the ossified grip of a moribund past.

Certainly, such actions intersect with more mundane grievances. But this is politics in a cosmic key, focused upon an “eschatological horizon” that promises to trigger a wholesale break with the present course of history. As psychologist and ethicist Aaron Kheriaty has recently written, the iconoclasm on display manifests an effort to create the conditions for “an entirely new and historically unprecedented social order”—the secular analogue to traditional religious longings for the divine kingdom, whose advent would sweep away the moral detritus of both historical and current political systems.

The destruction of secular iconography in towns and cities across the US bears witness to this utopian desire for redemption—an emancipation from the past, which is seen as unbearably corrupt. In fact, it’s an attempt to realize that desire using the tools of political vandalism, which have been harnessed to overturn the sacred symbols of the old order. That the eschatological object of such longings remains opaque and ill-defined doesn’t diminish their potency.

What of other scenes now embedding themselves in popular imagination? Watching thousands of people “take the knee” (as if in prayer) or chant creeds in unison, one is struck by the spiritual quality of such actions. These aren’t merely protests; they, too, are near-sacred rituals, with all the liturgical trappings of a religious service. Although such gatherings occur in ostensibly secular spaces, they are festooned with sacral imagery (including a cloud of slain martyrs), sculpting and guiding participants at a deeply existential level.

Much of this bears more than a passing resemblance to Emil Durkheim’s concept of “collective effervescence,” which holds that the gathering of individuals in mass settings for a common purpose can engender a spiritual-like experience. With the right cocktail of social context, shared concerns, and corporate energy, participants may be drawn out of themselves into a higher realm of intense, collective excitement. The resulting emotional “electricity” is profoundly generative, creating a profusion of almost sacred meaning that transcends any one person. To observe the brewing protest marches, then, is to witness Durkheimian theory attain shape and body and life.

The protests constitute a key manifestation of the broader creed of anti-racism, which supplies them with whatever intellectual ballast they exhibit. Chief among the ideology’s claims is the totalising concept of structural or systemic racism. It’s true that sometimes unjust racial disparities are products of broader institutional mechanisms; both progressive and conservative voices have argued as much. But when a concept like structural racism is deployed axiomatically to explain every instance of racial disparity, no matter how minor or contrived, then we have moved away from sober discourse, and drifted instead into the realm of all-encompassing metaphysic—a fundamental theory—resembling the dogmatic architecture associated with popular religion.

Casting white supremacy and its crowning achievement, the institution of slavery, as America’s “original sin” functions in a similar manner. For certain advocates, white people bear within their own bodies the near-ineradicable marks of their ancestors’ primal fall—not that of the fabled Adam and Eve, but of the early whites who established and maintained the sordid trade in human flesh. The seeds of racism are said to lie in every white person, even those who explicitly repudiate any notion of racial superiority as a moral cancer. As John McWhorter has observed, activists have propounded the notion that white Americans are tarred with the legacy of their supposed privilege, from which absolution may be sought only through ceaseless rounds of contrition and repentance.

It’s easy to see how such views complement the utopian—and indeed, destructive—tendencies many protestors have revealed. If society is so riddled with injustice, then reforms, no matter how grand or ambitious, are likely to fail. Deconstruction is the only viable solution. Unwittingly, however, many anti-racist and black rights advocates help themselves to the same cultural patrimony they seek to dissolve. This should come as no surprise: Despite assiduous efforts to liberate themselves from history, protestors are, like everyone else, ensconced within it. Try as they might, they cannot avoid completely the overtures of the past.

Activists from Portland to Atlanta have unconsciously imbibed elements of America’s residual Christian legacy, earnestly recycling them within a post-Christian environment. Talk of white people being tarnished by the evils of their ancestors clearly transposes the biblical story of Man’s fall into a secular context. Similarly, the obvious eschatological overtones of the movement appropriate the cosmic and redemptive dimensions essential to the Christian religion.

But even in those convergences, differences remain, with the current movements mimicking some of the worst excesses of populist or millenarian religion (filled out with a noxious blend of warmed-over Marxism and modern identity politics). Universal sinfulness, for example, has been replaced by the accursedness of one particular ethnic group, in a strange inversion of the curse of Ham. Writing to the church in Rome during the first century, the apostle Paul declared that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). It is a claim that Christianity has affirmed ever since. But modern anti-racists, both on the street and in the academy, have radically circumscribed the doctrine, applying it in a selective, highly racialized manner. Ignoring Solzhenitsyn’s warning that the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart, they have adopted a moral dualism that is fundamentally Manichean in attitude. Absent, too, are notions of forgiveness or charity, which Christianity, at its best, has greatly cherished. Merciless treatment is meted out to anyone who dissents from the protestors’ overarching values, or who isn’t sufficiently seized by the conviction that American society is incorrigibly racist. In their stead lies a purifying fanaticism, aimed at purging every view that fails to reflect the movement’s exacting standards.

And while the current demonstrations manifest a certain Christianised eschatology, protestors eschew the mainstream Christian belief that redemption is something that can only be secured extrinsically, as a result of God’s in-breaking kingdom. Instead, they cast themselves as the specially anointed agents of emancipation, leading the charge towards a claimed racial eschaton. A person doesn’t need to be a Christian to see the dangers inherent in such utopian schemes; a basic grasp of history is sufficient. The idea that flawed individuals can possibly wrought sweeping, epochal progress within the decrepit structures of history has been shown repeatedly to issue in the same injustices against which the vanguard claims to be fighting.

This witches’ brew offers up a potent series of dangers, especially in an anxious, highly fractious society. As Andrew Sullivan has noted, the quasi-religious character of both the protestors and their intellectual benefactors has already seen the substantial cessation of transparent debate around the issue of race, and the growth of an often-vicious intolerance. Thus, does the lifeblood of a healthy political community evaporate. When a political program is transcendentalized in the way this one has been—with only one perspective being imbued with near-cosmic urgency—attempts to explore a complex issue from the point of view of one’s opponents are repudiated as a dance with heresy. It is to debase oneself by engaging those who are regarded, not as fellow citizens with whom one disagrees, but as existential foes whose mere existence may retard the liberationist project.

Activists will be untroubled by all of this, salved as they are by the righteous demands of their cause. And yet, they are creating the conditions for precisely the kind of coarse, pitiless society they profess to oppose. Witnessing many of the protest marches, or hearing the self-appointed priests of the anti-racist creed, is to glimpse a dark future. It’s a future in which charity towards the other is condemned, violence is valorised as a crucial instrument of progress, and the crushing of all dissent is lauded as a sign of ideological virtue. In short, it’s a future stripped of everything that ordinary, decent folk seek in fashioning a life for themselves and their loved ones. The urban acolytes currently dominating news feeds tout their penetrating insight into the ills plaguing society. But by their actions they reveal the narrowness of their vision, and the bitter harvest of so much chiliastic idealism.

 

Scott Buchanan is a graduate of both international relations and social work, a practising social worker, and a student in theology. 

Image: Elvert Barnes (Flickr).

Comments

  1. It is a sort of animistic religion, where they worship the spirits of various identities, as well as of nature. Not one god, but many.

  2. Make no mistake, George Floyd’s death was a crime of the most despicable and horrendous kind. Even the staunchest supporters of the police, and the police themselves agree- universally.

    Don’t be so sure. It was in everyone’s interest to throw Chauvin under the bus and the media imposed a total blackout on any discussion of exculpatory facts. So the “despicable crime” narrative is all that anyone heard.

    But the objective facts make a far stronger case that Floyd died of a fentanyl overdose as he had a fatal level of 11ng/ml in his blood and could barely stand or breathe before the officers even arrived. By contrast, the force of Chauvin’s one knee to one side of Floyd’s neck (Chauvin’s other knee was on the ground) almost certainly could not have exerted enough force to kill him.

    You don’t have to believe any of this now if you don’t want to. But wait until the trial and it will all come out. If Chauvin gets anything approaching a fair trial he will almost certainly be acquitted.

  3. AOC has recently argued that the crime spikes involve parents shoplifting food for their children

    AOC is a professional sob-story teller.

  4. I don’t recall I’ve ever seen members of Congress kneel before. Not for the Christ. Not for the founders of the republic. They knelt for George Floyd.

  5. A convicted felon. Black heroes used to be ministers.

  6. It’s all well and fine to say that the adherents of this new religion should be made to understand the information that disproves their narrative, but almost everyone is oriented towards religious thinking and so that is the level at which this problem cult needs to be addressed. We need an attractive alternative. Or maybe multiple ones.

    Jordan Peterson presents a revamped Christian myth amenable to the scientific mind, and that’s the closest thing I have to a religion these days. But I’d like to see the woke religious belief about humans destroying the environment turned on its head. Why not a religion where humans were created by Earth in order to release CO2 and reverse the death spiral of dropping temperatures Earth has suffered from in the last few tens of millions of years?

  7. Good article. This movement is every bit religious (though I prefer the word cult) and comes with its own set of commandments.

    1. Thou shalt not be colorblind
    2. Thou shalt not misgender
    3. Silence is violence
    4. Shut up and listen
    5. Whitey must submit or die
    6. Submission will earn you no points
      etc. etc.
  8. The author is a Theology student, so he could be forgiven for seeing all of this through the lens of the religious impulse. But since we’ve never found a society anywhere that wasn’t to some degree religious, that observation is almost banal.

    There is no mystery here; the photo of the dimwit holding up the sign “Burn down the system” tells you everything you need to know. First, that this idiot has no idea that “the system” she’s so eager to burn down has provided her with the wealthiest, safest, most equal and anti-racist society the world has ever seen.
    I’d gladly contribute to the fund that would send her on an all-expenses paid trip to the Congo for a few weeks to give her some perspective.

    Secondly, this is nothing else but Neo-Marxism. That whole class thing is no longer talked about (because the Woke are almost all privileged, upper-class social-media addicts) so the new protected class is black, trans, retarded, etc. The irony here is the same as during the Bolshevik revolution., where they found themselves in meeting rooms, talking about the plight of the proletariat without one actual worker being in the room, so they dragged one in randomly off the street.
    It’s the same here, a bunch of mostly white rich kids screaming at black, working-class, police officers about how they are part of “the system”.

    VV

  9. Very good, Scott Buchanan.

    Reading Christopher Hitchens’ book, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” I found myself thinking, “Mmm, I believe God would quite like this,” or “Yes, God would agree with that.” It seemed the book was more about religion than God.

    Afterall, what has secularism accomplished? It seems to have retained all the bad things about religion, its fanaticism, false piety, shunning of heretics, indulgences, hypocrisy by the truck loads, and gotten rid of the one truly good thing, God.

  10. It has been explained by many throughout history.

    “Assemble a mob of men and women previously conditioned by a daily reading of the newspapers; treat them to amplified band music, bright lights…and in next to no time you can reduce them to a state of almost mindless subhumanity. Never before have so few been in a position to make fools, maniacs, or criminals of so many.” ~ Aldous Huxley

    “The surest way to work up a crusade in favor of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behavior ‘righteous indignation’ — this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.” ~ Aldous Huxley

  11. For a few years now my recreational reading has been focused on the English Reformation and the English Civil Wars.

    I certainly agree that watching as the events have unfolded over the last four years strongly recalls England in the mid-17th Century where the antinomian Independents (sectaries, they were called) bent all their efforts to turn the world upside down and make all things new. Antifia/BLM’s tactics are identical to those used by the early Independents, Quakers, Baptists, Diggers, Ranters, Seekers and Fifth Monarchists. They were all millenarians and antinomians. I think those terms remain useful for describing the present moment.

    Christopher Hill’s “The World Turned Upside Down” and “Milton and the English Revolution” make all this very clear.

    The difference is that the 17th C. antinomian millenarians objectives were both Christian and republican. The objectives of Antifa/BLM are not. Rather, they are profoundly secular, materialistic, racist and totalitarian.

    This raises my second point; that US seems to be entering a political state of nature where the population is withdrawing their consent to be governed by the existing regime. The native born middle class traditionalists did it in 2016 when they voted for Trump and now the cosmopolitan educated class is doing it by uncritically supporting Antifa/BLM anarchy in hopes of gaining control of the government in November.

    My last point is that it is no surprise it is happening in the US. The US was founded almost exclusively by people who deeply admired the politics and theology of the radical antinomian, millenarian and republican John Milton.

  12. Now there’s a catch-22.

  13. I don’t know what goes on in the hearts of other people, so I can’t speak to what others believed or not. But if Hillary had won, do you think the right would have descended into the madness that’s taken over the left? There would certainly have been quite normal opposition, like editorials and letter writing campaigns, opposition in Congress, even peaceful demonstrations. All those things are well and proper in your system of governance. I think that’s largely because most people on the right, while not endorsing who holds the reins, largely endorse the underlying structure.

    Otoh, would you have tossed things like due process, as with the Russia Hoax or the Kavanaugh hearings, or encouraged the rioting, looting, arson, and even killings that have taken place? I really don’t think so. Would you have whined endlessly about the electoral process the way Hillary’s supporters have? Those to me are symptomatic of people have withdrawn their consent.

  14. Then you appear to have missed out on an awful lot of politics of the last few years.

    Take any of the really contentious issues of the last few years - the Trans debate is a pretty good example. Those of us who hold to the fact that biological sex is a real thing and mere self-identification doesn’t alter that fact are told, endlessly, that we are not simply incorrect, but that we are evil and denying a persons humanity.

    Or take the climate debate, anyone who doesn’t fall slavishly into line with the most alarmist and over the top predictions of catastrophe is accused of nihilism and “wanting” to watch the world burn, or some such nonsense.

    Seeing you write “y’all” leads me to guess you’re American, so perhaps you’ve been insulated from all the rancour surrounding Brexit (in which case, lucky you). No argument has been more vitriolic in UK politics for the last 50 years.

    If you imagine “Nobody thinks you are evil” then I suggest a quick spin through the comments pages of the Guardian almost any day of the last 4 years would disabuse you of your illusions. Anyone who wished the UK to no longer be subject to the supranational authority of Brussels is painted as evil in several thousand comments daily. Stupid, racist and evil. In fact I would wager that at least everyday of the last 4 years a poster has described Brexiteers as “literally worse than Hitler!”

    Anyone who voted for Trump is viewed in the same simplistic fashion. The binary, Manichean, good vs evil, and ‘if you stand with Trump you’re evil’, attitude that destroys any hope of a dialogue.

    The hyperbole is not coming from both sides, it is - to a very large degree - a one-way phenomenon.

    The inability to accept that there are multiple points of view is, I’m sorry to say, very much an attitude more prevalent on the progressive left than anywhere else on the political spectrum

  15. Do you imagine that your vote, as ‘a young person’, should count for more than a older voter?

    Of course you are entitled to your own opinions and free to campaign and argue for whatever you feel is the best way forward, but where I take issue is the idea that a young person’s vote should somehow carry more weight because they will likely live longer with the consequences of our national decision.

    If you don’t feel like that then I accept your position – but many of your cohort do seem to take that attitude (if their posts and placards are any indication) and that to me is a wholly anti-democratic argument.

    One person, one vote – each vote counts the same whether you are rich or poor, young or old, man or woman. Any sense that greater weighting should be given to the young because they somehow have more stake in the future is as intellectually bereft a viewpoint as suggesting the votes of the over 40s should carry more weight because they’ve got some life experience or because they’ve paid more in tax.

    Those people in the 4 years since the Brexit referendum who squealed that the old had “stolen my future”, had no more right to suggest that, than older voters would have had if they complained that younger Remain voters were “squandering my past”.

    At the risk of patronizing younger voters, which I don’t mean to do, I think just a year or two ago if you had polled 18 – 25 year olds Mr Corbyn would have come out on top by an enormous margin, riding - as he was then – the crest of a popular wave. “Ohhhhh- Je-re-my Cooorbyn” rang out from crowds of starry-eyed acolytes who were convinced (rather too easily) that Our Jezza would save them from a hard Tory Brexit and deliver them from student debt.

    Dare I say it but older and more experienced politically engaged people cautioned them against such unquestioning adulation and here we are, only a short while later, and the scales have fallen from their eyes. Most younger voters realized JC is not the Messiah they believed him to be just a short while ago.

    The idealism (and certainty) of youth is a glorious thing and no one wants the wariness (or cynicism) of greater experience to intrude on that. But there is merit in the balance. That is just one of the reasons why your vote at 21 should count no more or less than your 81 year old neighbour’s.

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