Religion, counter-religion, and the weirdness of modernity

I. Cultural Space and the Problem of Secularity


It can be supposed that in every age there are men who take for granted the peculiarities of the spatial-temporal location in which they happen to find themselves. But in every age there is also a connection to the past through living ancestors, myths, rituals, institutions, names, recorded history, and so on; and a connection to the future through concern for one’s descendants, as well as the maintenance of myths, rituals, and so on.

Such a connection can be called vertical, as it extends up and down in time—as opposed to horizontal cultural connections which exist between people of the same generation. Today, of course, we are notably lacking in vertically transmitted ideas and practices, and rather than calling the past back into conscious (and unconscious) life through myth and ritual, we often see our own cultural past as a strange place with foreign values and customs. This is, in part, because older and younger people do not socialize with one another in the same ways, or with the same frequency, that they did only a century ago. As nydwracu explains:

The single most obvious and most important difference between our time and most others is the segregation of generations: the break in communication across age groups. People today spend the first two and a half decades of their life socially isolated from everyone not within five years of them, with very few exceptions, most of whom are authority figures barred by their position from exerting the subtler and more effective forms of social influence.
Our cultural reference points are no longer vertical, handed down over the centuries like a folk song or a nursery rhyme, but horizontal, stratified across timespans of decades at best. Very few creations of the mass media enter into the vertical cultural consciousness.

This means that as we are culturally severed from our collective past, horizontal cultural commonalities become stricter, more regimented, than they would otherwise be. As non-age-related peer groups diminish in importance, it becomes ever more socially disadvantageous not to fit in with people one’s age. The postmodern condition could be said to have at its fundament the dissolution of vertical culture as well as the corresponding stratification of horizontal culture:

First, societies learn by the process of making mistakes and passing down regret. This regret collects as wisdom and forms social norms, which are then passed down to the younger generations. Generation segregation obstructs this transmission of social norms: children today cannot learn from the mistakes of their elders because they rarely interact with them. The younger generations are left to figure the world out for themselves, and the cultural respect afforded to the sex-and-drugs lifestyle proves that they don’t do a very good job of it.

Second, generation segregation outsources the function of cultural transmission to the school system and mass media. Cultural memory breaks down and is replaced by history classes, a poor and easily politically manipulated replacement. Identity stratifies generationally: children identify not with their cultural heritage, but with subcultures composed only of people their age and defined in opposition to their parents—who define themselves in opposition to theirs.

In other words, the most important vectors of cultural transmission are no longer families, face-to-face communities, and local institutions, but large-scale managerial structures which operate on an ideological or commercial basis. This allows the conditions leading to the conferral of high or low status to change intensely from one generation to the next, and allows the motivations of those operating the vectors to diverge from those of the people on the receiving end of the cultural broadcast.

It is possible that the conditions underlying this phenomenon of horizontal cultural stratification are significantly older than age-segregated public schools and youth media culture, and have roots in what were previously vertically important ideas. After all, the distinction between horizontal and vertical, in cultural terms, is analogous to that between what are called secular and religious. Secular things are, well, secular—of the age, that is, relating to what is temporal or even temporary—and thus horizontal. Religious things, as contrasted with the secular, are correspondingly vertical, not merely connecting people to the past but to the eternal; not to some period in historical time but to mythic time. Myths, as such, thus tend to extend vertically; if a myth doesn’t last long enough to enter the vertical cultural consciousnessin other words, if it doesn’t last longer than a generationit effectively doesn’t become a myth.

But what about myths, or mythemes—the basic units of myths—that developed as part of a horizontal cultural split, but became vertically important anyway? We have, for example, the mytheme of the rocker or Hollywood star who dies young, the activist who delivers an underprivileged group from abjection, and the bullied kid who becomes a school shooter. Mythic elements like these stretch our understanding of what is “secular” in pop culture; how far apart are rockstar fandom and the ancient hero cults?

Such a clean division between secularity and religion breaks down even further when applied to certain other examples in history: in particular, those of short-lived religious movements and long-lasting “secular” ones. The Münster Rebellion of 1534 to 1535 was religious in the sense that it was inspired by antipropertarian Anabaptist theology, but its significance was far more horizontal than vertical—in other words, while it contributed to the character of the Europe of the 1530s, it did not leave a notable effect on the European experience of the following generations. It was an event of its age.

Marxism, on the other hand, is secular in the sense that it does not concern itself with gods or eternal souls, but it has made no small mark on the cultural y-axis. It contains mythsnot only the eschatological view of history culminating in the anticipated future revolution, but specific revolutions in the pastand has inspired martyrs. We can persist in categorically separating Marxism (or any ideology) from “religion”but would not doing so make describing Marxism more difficult, or less? Would a Marxist in the 1920s have sung the Internationale any differently if he had consciously considered himself to be a religious man singing a hymn? As Mencius Moldbug asks:

Should non-Marxist atheists, such as myself, be as concerned about separating Marxism from state-supported education as we are with Christianity? If Marxism is a religion, or if the difference between Marxism as it is in the real world and the version in which Marx was a prophet is insignificant, our “wall of separation” is a torn-up chainlink fence.

But there was a period in which Americans tried to eradicate Marxism the way they fight against “intelligent design” today. It was called McCarthyism. And believers in civil liberties were on exactly the opposite side of the barricades.

As non-Marxist atheists, do we want McCarthy 2.0? Should loyalty oaths be hip this year? Should we schedule new hearings?

This is why the concept of “religion” is harmful. If trivial changes to hypothetical history convert reasonable policies into monstrous injustices, or vice versa, your perception of reality cannot be correct. You have been infected by a toxic meme.

If memes are analogous to parasitic organisms, believing in “religion” is like taking a narrow-spectrum antibiotic on an irregular schedule. The Dawkins treatment – our latest version of what used to be called anticlericalism – wipes out a colony of susceptible bacteria which have spent a long time learning to coexist reasonably, if imperfectly, with the host. And clears the field for an entirely different phylum of bugs which are unaffected by antireligious therapy. Whose growth, in fact, it may even stimulate.

In the last two centuries, “political religions” have caused far, far more morbidity than “religious religions.” But here we are with Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett – still popping the penicillin. Hm. Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?

But there have always been “political religions”, that is, civic myths and ritualsand they have not always sought to clear the field of other myths and rituals. Those civic religions which have sought such a monopolysuch as Marxismcould not have done so without first having a self-perception as “secular” and thus categorically distinct from the “religious religions” they opposed. And if the distinction between “secularity” and “religion” is invalidand we therefore have an illusory, even dangerous, epistemic divide separating our horizontal and vertical cultural axeswhere does it come from?

II. Sacramental Exclusivity and Vertical Discontinuity
In medieval Europe, unlike modern Europe, the State did not see its power as entirely external to matters of “religion”; but this was because one had no civically sanctioned option other than Christianity (or, depending more precisely on time and place, Judaism). In the Communist countries of 20th-century Eastern Europe, the former State religion was suppressed, but Marxism took its place. We can imagine, then, a “religious” theocracy (such as the Holy Roman Empire) as well as an “ideological” theocracy (such as the Soviet Union); we can further imagine a “secular” State whose citizens practice various religions. But there is yet another way that “religion” can function in a society.

In the ancient world, the civic religion held no monopoly on myth and ritualyet it also did not see itself as merely “secular” and outside the domain of “religion”; it shared social space with various household and ethnic rites as well as mystery cults. For all the Greek cities to keep a fifty-five-day truce for the Eleusinian Mysteries was thus both a religious and a secular matteror perhaps more precisely, it was neither. The origin of the religious-secular distinction, then, lies sometime before Christianity became the Roman (and then European) civic religion.

Indeed, we first see the potential necessity for such language when Christianity began to establish itself in the Roman Empire. Christianity was unlike other cults in that it claimed sacramental exclusivity. Initiation into the mysteries of Demeter, Mithras, or Dionysus did not imply that one could not worship other gods, or offer incense to the Emperorbut Christianity did.

We struggle to understand the persecution of the Christians under the Roman empire. Roman society tolerated a great variety of deities and cults; worship of Christ as (a) God did not in itself threaten or offend, and religious innovation was not impossible. The emergence of Christianity itself coincided with the novelty of cultic worship of the Roman emperors or their tutelary spirits, which could be included alongside other deities in existing religious frameworks.

Christian beliefs and practices were, however, radically exclusive, or radically extensive in their claims over the whole of religious loyalty. The reactions of Perpetua’s father and the presiding magistrate at her trial demonstrate palpable frustration, not just with her personal intransigence, but with her apparent misconstrual of how personal belief should and should not have functioned, relative to the religious fabric of society itself. Loyalty to father and to son, as well as support for the well-being of the emperors, were matters of piety for Romans, not of secular duty – for the secular did not exist.

By the same token, neither did religion.

Today, American Christians tend not to see any problem with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, or with telling their children about Santa Claus; this is easily understood, given that such traditions are safely classifiable as “secular”, or perhaps as harmless traditional additions to a more fundamental religious perspective, and are therefore licit for “religious” people to participate in. Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, do refuse such customs (and let us not forget the Puritans who banned Christmas in Massachusetts), and to that extent they reflect a view more like that of the early Christians in Romea view which existed by necessity once the premise of sacramental exclusivity had been accepted and as long as there was no category for “secular” myths and rituals which could be devoid by definition of “religious” significance. Like the early Christians (or anyone in the ancient world), Jehovah’s Witnesses effectively do not recognize the concept of the secularbut also like the early Christians, they also do not recognize the legitimacy of myths or rituals outside of their own tradition. This attitude gave Christians, to the ancients, a strange understanding of piety:

The refusal of Christians to observe the elements of practice which were matters of pious duty in family and household life, and in the public sphere, led to the conflicts discussed. A profound disengagement from sociability, not merely refusal to acknowledge the gods of Rome, led to labelling as “atheists”. In their rejection of pagan religion Christians were not therefore regarded simply as upstarts or annoyances, but as actively irreligious, and subversive.

The early Christians’ behavior, assuming a non-Christian State, thus logically implied the view Christians (and Westerners in general) tend to have today: one set of norms governing “religious” ideas, experiences, and so on, and another set of norms for the “secular”. The Christianization of the Roman Empire—which, again, caused Christianity to fulfill singularly the roles of the popular, civic, and mystery cults of Antiquity—made such a division unnecessary or “moot” for a time, but it guaranteed that, once Rome lost its hegemony, civic norms (for example) would no longer by necessity be subject to the same social conditions as “religion”. Once Europeans had had their sense of the sacred entirely contained within one system of belief and practice, it was not difficult for Europeans to come to allow that popular or civic myths and rituals which diverged from that system could be “secular” and therefore necessarily unconcerned with the sacred.

Thus we see the memetic mechanism at the root of our present condition of vertically discontinuous culture: Westerners today see the formalization of myths and rituals in relation to ideas of sacrality and piety as restricted to specific “religions” and outside of the “secular” sphere. This implies that if one does not adhere to any one “religion”, his life is “secular” and he should therefore have no interest in what is sacred or pious, have no place to speak on matters of sacrality or piety, and so on.

III. The Mosaic Distinction and Intercultural Translation
If the distinction between religious and secular did not exist in the ancient world, and if this distinction is linked to—indeed, implied by—the notion of sacramental exclusivity, then what motivates the notion of sacramental exclusivity? It can only be the belief that other religions are false or impious. But we know from the Roman experience with early Christianity, not only that not all religions have held foreign rites or myths to be false, but that there was a time in Europe and the Near East when such a distinction—that between true and false in religion—was considered strange and offensive. Jan Assmann, in Moses the Egyptian, calls it the Mosaic distinction, given its origin in cultural memory—though not in history; that lies with Akhenaten, of Egypt’s eighteenth dynasty—with Moses. He notes that the Mosaic distinction is not as historically normal as we might be inclined to think:

The space severed or cloven by this distinction is the space of Western monotheism. It is this constructed mental or cultural space that has been inhabited by Europeans for nearly two millennia.

It is an error to believe that this distinction is as old as religion itself, though at first sight nothing might seem more plausible. Does not every religion quite automatically put everything outside itself in the position of error and falsehood and look down on other religions as “paganism”? Is this not quite simply the religious expression of ethnocentricity? Does not the distinction between true and false in [religion] amount to the distinction between “us” and “them”? Does not every construction of identity by the very same process generate alterity? Does not every religion produce “pagans” in the same way that every civilization produces “barbarians”?

However plausible this may seem, it is not the case. Cultures not only generate otherness by constructing identity, but also develop techniques of translation.
Ancient polytheisms functioned as such a technique of translation. They belong within the emergence of the “Ancient World” as a coherent ecumene of interconnected nations.

This ecumene was held together by an understanding which is at least four thousand years old, namely that the gods worshipped by different peoples, though honored by different names and with different rites, could be equated by function. Thus the creator of universe was called Ammon by the Egyptians and Zeus by the Greeks, and by the sixth century BC there was a temple of Zeus Ammon. When the Romans conquered the Celts, they recognized their wisdom goddess Minerva (to the Greeks, Athena) in the Celts’ native Sulis; the Roman temple at Bath is, accordingly, dedicated to Sulis Minerva. In the last book of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, Lucius calls upon the Queen of Heaven by several names, and in her answer to his prayer she offers even more:

Lo, I am with you, Lucius, moved by your prayers, I who am the mother of the universe, the mistress of all the elements, the first offspring of time, the highest of deities, the queen of the dead, foremost of heavenly beings, the single form that fuses all gods and goddesses; I who order by my will the starry heights of heaven, the health giving breezes of the sea, and the awul silences of those in the underworld: my single godhead is adored by the whole world in varied forms, in differing rites and with many diverse names.

Thus the Phyrgians . . . call me Pessinuntia . . .; the Athenians . . . call me Cecropeian Minerva; the Cyprians . . . call me Paphian Venus, the . . . Cretans Dictynna, the . . . Sicilians Ortygian Proserpinel to the Eleusinians I am Ceres. . ., to others Juno, to others Bellona and Hecate and Rhamnusia. But the Ethiopians . . . together with the Africans and Egyptians who excel by having my original doctrine honor me with my distinctive rites and give me my true name of Queen Isis.

Note that the Queen of Heaven having a true name or verum nomen, in this case, does not at all imply an antagonism towards other peoples and their differing rites and names; that a Christian might consider Her true name to be Mary is in this context entirely understandable, for it means only an inferior level of initiation, as Assmann puts it, on the part of those who call her by other names, and not at all a falsehood of faith.

There are innumerable other examples of such translations, because the Mosaic distinction was simply absent from the ancient worldview.

The Mosaic distinction was therefore a radically new distinction which considerably changed the world in which it was drawn. The space which was “severed or cloven” by this distinction was not simply the space of religion in general, but that of a very specific kind of religion. We may call this new type of religion “counter-religion” because it rejects and repudiates everything that went before and what is outside itself as “paganism.” It no longer functioned as a means of intercultural translation; on the contrary, it functioned as a means of intercultural estrangement. Whereas polytheism, or rather “cosmotheism,” rendered different cultures mutually transparent and compatible, the new counter-religion blocked intercultural translatability. False gods cannot be translated.

When Moses tells the Hebrews not to worship other gods and not to venerate images, he thus prefigures the knocking down of the statue of Athena in the Parthenon by Christians in the fifth century as much as the de-Christianization of France during the French Revolution; he also prefigures, for that matter, the destruction of the tomb of Jonah in Nineveh by the Islamic State last year. Any list of such iconoclasms in Hebrew, Christian, Islamic, and modern revolutionary history would be inexhaustive.

The reason for these various iconoclasms is at its fundament the same: the cultures in question do not, or did not, have the ability to translate what foreigners find sacred into their own cultural language-game, their own intersubjective understanding of truth. In other words, they observe, or observed, the Mosaic distinction.

If the early Christians had not observed the Mosaic distinction, they would have simply interpreted the statue of Athena in the Parthenon as a representation of Sophia or perhaps of the Virgin; if the French revolutionaries had not observed it, they would not have murdered priests, destroyed crosses, or forced farmers to mark the days of the year by minerals and farming implements rather than saints. And if there were no Mosaic distinction, there would be no Islamic State.

Even today, there are those—millions of Indians, for example—who do not observe the Mosaic distinction. Their ability to translate other cultures into their own through the commonality of the gods is still impeded, however, by other cultures’ unwillingness to acknowledge such a commonality. Thus Sita Ram Goel notes that many Hindus are happy to call Christ an avatar until they are informed by missionaries that Christianity is sacramentally exclusive—at which point they might insist that Christ was indeed an avatar, and that as such he could not possibly have said what is written in the New Testament. But Christianity, generally speaking, insists to the contrary that the Bible is essential, and does not acknowledge Hindu worship as a valid means of accessing God, and therefore remains incommensurate with native Indian religion. Thus, again, counter-religion can be a means of cultural estrangement even for peoples who do not practice it.

IV. From Polyatheism to Postrationalism
In the absence of autochthonous systems of myth and ritual which can be translated around points of commonality into other such systems, the function of translation as a means of mediation of cultural difference is replaced by a function of lenition: cultural differences are effaced or ignored in order to facilitate a monoculture. In our case, this monoculture claims not to be a culture in the same way that other cultures are, but rather presents itself as an immanent “secular” frame in which all people(s) live, and which is added onto or concealed by “religious” frames of experience.

Narratives of secularism which present the “secular” frame this way, as simply the reality which remains when “religion” is taken away, are referred to by Charles Taylor as “subtraction theories”—and indeed the concept of “the secular” as most commonly articulated would seem to imply a subtraction theory, given that it distinguishes itself by its being outside of “religion”.

Note that this is exactly what counter-religions do: present themselves as outside of, and even against, all other religions. Every counter-religion has its own sort of subtraction theory—that when the false gods of the infidels are abolished or subtracted, what will remain is the real, living god of the true faith.

Thus we see the origin of modern ideological thinking—or, as nydwracu calls it, monoatheism—in the Mosaic distinction:

Monoatheism can’t abide the Outside. Cladistic inheritance from religions of conquest manifests in a spectrum between genocidal fantasies and occasional incomprehension. Preserve the Union! Make the world safe for democracy!

Those who find themselves outside of the dominant monoatheism, but still living in the “secular” frame, are then polyatheists:

Polyatheism is a Marcusean monoatheism: it cannot tolerate a monoatheism that takes itself seriously, and when it cannot escape it or syncretize it into oblivion, it must declare defensive jihad. Get off my lawn!

Monoatheism preaches the end of history. (Fukuyama ignored the past and present of his own areligion.) Polyatheism awaits its return. Time and space shall rise again!

How might a polyatheist escape, not only socially but epistemically, from the “secular” frame and therefore from monoatheism? Enter postrationalism:

As you might imagine, postrationality has a lot in common with rationality. For instance, they share an epistemological core: both agree that the map is not the territory, and that concepts are part of the map and not part of the territory, and so on. Also, the two movements share some goals: both groups want to get better at thinking, and at achieving their object-level goals.

But the movements diverge in the way that they pursue these goals. In particular, rationality tends to give advice like “ignore your intuitions/feelings, and rely on conscious reasoning and explicit calculation”. Postrationality, on the other hand, says “actually, intuitions and feelings are really important, let’s see if we can work with them instead of against them”.

Thus the key insight of postrationalists is that people not only tend to ascribe emotional or narrative significance to their own actions, to the actions of others, and to the world in general, but also benefit from acting in accordance with these ascriptions (rather than aiming to work against them). Ashley Yakely articulates postrationalism similarly, but in terms of perspective:

Darcey writes, “actually, intuitions and feelings are really important, let’s see if we can work with them instead of against them”. I’ll go further: intuitions and feelings are inseparable from the texture of truth.

Perspectives have plurality. We adopt different perspectives in different contexts, even as they are part of a larger perspective. Culture is by-and-large commonality between perspectives. This is why cultural difference is so difficult and yet so interesting.

This means that ancient polytheisms allowed different perspectives to recognize the same truth; the multiplicity of perspectives in the ancient world was sustained by the agreed-upon unity of divinity. Given the lack of such a method of translation today, there is also no such multiplicity of thedish perspectives. Postrationalists notice this:

Post-rationalism has space for (pagan) religion in a way that rationalism doesn’t seem to. This is important to me not because religion is “accurate”, but because it is broadly healthy. We know this because of its ubiquity: people naturally tend to be religious, though as Blake pointed out, no one particular religion is natural.

Alain de Benoist says that pagan religion is not a matter of believing in the gods, but awakening to their presence. I consider this awakening as the gaining of a new perspective, one that admits the presence of the gods. For example, the Sun is a god, known by many different names (Sunna, Helios, Saulė, Amaterasu etc.), that one can literally point to on any sunny day. A religious perspective can allow and value all of these without dissonance:

  • The Sun is ball of hydrogen and helium plasma (per TMBG)
  • The Sun is the source of all energy and life on Earth.
  • The Sun is sacred.
  • I shall give thanks to the Sun.
  • I shall pray to the Sun, and at the right time.
  • It is said, the Sun sulked in a cave until she was lured out by a stripper with a mirror. (for example)

This may seem strange or trite to us, but the development of perspectives is a collective, social process as well as an individual process, and living in a deeply un-pagan culture it’s difficult to enter such perspectives in a genuine way (despite much effort from some quarters).

Therefore a postrationalist living in the West today might see before him a massive undertaking: that of not only awakening to the presence of God/the gods (as we’ll soon see, these terms are best understood as interchangeable), but of allowing others to awaken similarly. He might have as his goal merely the mental and social health which comes with religious devotion (understood as systematic ritual based on ascription of emotional or narrative significance to the self, others, and the world); he may see the utility of ethnic religion in the preservation of presently threatened peoples among Europe and her diaspora; he may also have the sense that there is a certain sort of truth which only immersion in a religious perspective can offer, a truth above and beyond what is merely human.

V. Religiō
So what is religion, anyway? We’ve already determined that the distinction between it and secularity is tenuous at best, but we’ve avoided until now the matter of its definition. Perhaps the most helpful way to think of religion, especially for a postrationalist, is by understanding the Roman concept of religiō.

Despite some continuity of actual doctrine, what we call religion in twenty-first century Australia is not the same in structure or character as ancient constructions of the relationship between religious belief and the rest of life. Religio in Latin, Tertullian’s or anyone else’s for that matter, does not mean “religion” in the sense of one belief system among others, but the piety or scrupulosity with which cultic and other duties are carried out.

Roman “religion” (as we might persist in seeing or analysing it) was, despite its apparently pluralistic character, coterminous with culture and society itself, and hence left little room for genuine diversity or dissent. We can only understand it as “religion” in the modern or post-modern sense by the artificial excision, from the ancient set of beliefs and practices, of certain elements which make sense to us as religion. …

Constantine’s recognition of the Church involved discernment of the potential for the growing Christian movement to achieve for the Empire what the cultic worship of the Emperors themselves had not: namely a coherent belief and ritual system which was not ethnically-prescribed, but capable of universal relevance.

Thus when we speak of “pagan religion” we are really speaking of certain aspects of historically normal human culture, sans the Mosaic distinction. The terms “pagan” and “heathen”, along with “gentile”, “unbeliever”, and “infidel”, are counter-religious in origin, coined not as positive appellations but as terms of contradistinction. Due to their proliferation, we are now liable to reify “paganism” as some distinctive form of religion which is unlike the rest; it is crucial not to make this mistake.

Let us speak, then, not of religion—unless we take the time to define the term as the following—but of myth and ritual as well as the piety or religiō with which one carries out one’s duties (including, but not limited to, rituals). A religious person, then, can be defined, not as one with a strong belief in a specific proposition about the divine, but rather one who acts dutifully, whether in regard to spirituality or another aspect of life.

Now we have a truly difficult question before us: how are we to redevelop such a culture that piety or religiō is not unthinkable?

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