Once it’s a “religion,” it’s lost

I get jubilant whenever I discover an ideology I was previously unaware of, no matter how loony it is. Such it is with the “neo-reactionary” movement. I discovered that movement via this mind-shattering playlist. Emphatically, I do not wish anyone to tar me as being a neo-reactionary, but I believe any ideology deserves a fair treatment.

What are neo-reactionaries reacting to? A force they call the “cathedral,” the identified left-wing ideological center and driving force for change in the political landscape, largely bound up in a cabal of academia, the press, and government actors. What just about got to me was the following passage by Mencius Moldbug. I know it’s long, but I wouldn’t put it here if I didn’t think it was worth reading:

And what is the difference between a mere tradition and an honest-to-god religion? Theology. A many-god or a three-god or a one-god tradition is a religion. A no-god tradition is… well, there isn’t really a word for it, is there? This is a good clue that someone has been tampering with the tools you use to think.

Because there must be as many ways to not believe in a god or gods as to believe in them. I am an atheist. You are an atheist. But you are a progressive, and I am not a progressive. If we can have multiple sects of Christianity, why can’t we have multiple sects of atheism?

Let’s rectify this linguistic sabotage by calling a no-god tradition an areligion. A one-god tradition is a unireligion. A two-god one is a direligion. A three-god one is a trireligion. One with more gods than you can shake a stick at is a polyreligion. And so on. We see instantly that while progressivism (2008 style) is an areligion, it does not at all follow that it is the one true areligion. Oops.

Question: in a political conflict between a direligion and a polyreligion, which side should you support? What about an areligion versus a trireligion? Let’s assume that, like me, you believe in no gods at all.

One easy answer is to say the fewer gods, the better. So we would automatically support the direligion over the polyreligion, etc. I think the stupidity of this is obvious.

We could also say that all traditions which promote gods are false, and therefore we should favor the areligion over the trireligion. Unfortunately, even if we assume that the areligion is right on the deity question and not even one of the three gods exists, the two could not engage in a political conflict if they did not disagree on many subjects in the temporal plane. Who is more likely to be right on these mundane matters, which actually do matter?

We have no reason at all to think that just because the areligion is right about gods, it is right about anything else. And we have no reason at all to think that just because the trireligion is wrong about gods, it is wrong about anything else. So this is really just as stupid, and I do hope you haven’t been taken in by it. (Lots of smart people believe stupid things.)

The second step is to acknowledge the possibility that, on any issue, both competing traditions could be peddling misperceptions

It is evident that many of the most influential religions on the planet are not often called religions. Think Moldbug is too fringe? Then take it form of the esteemed Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. If that last quote was too confusing, Harari is for you.

Harari’s argument is that the trajectory of humanity has been from Animism (everything is a god) —> polytheism (there are many gods) —> monotheism (there is one God) —> ideology (may be atheistic, but no less dogmatic). An excerpt:

The last 300 years are often depicted as an age of growing secularism, in which religions have increasingly lost their importance. If we are talking about theist religions, this is largely correct. But if we take into consideration natural-law religions, then modernity turns out to be can age of intense religious fervor, unparalleled missionary efforts, the bloodiest wars of religion in history. The modern age as witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism. These creeds do not like to be called religions, and refer to themselves as ideologies. But this is just a semantic exercise. If a religion is a system of human norms an values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam.

Islam is of course different from Communism, because Islam sees the superhuman order governing the world as the edict of an omnipotent creator god whereas Soviet Communism did not believe in gods. But Buddhism too gives short shrift to gods, and yet we commonly classify it as a religion. Like Buddhists, Communists believe in a superhuman order of natural and immutable laws that should guide human actors. Whereas Buddhists believe that the law of nature was discovered by Siddhartha Gautama, Communists believe that the law of nature was discovered by Karl Marx, Friedrick Engels and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The similarity does not end there. Like other regions, Communism too has its holy scripts in prophetic books, such as Marx’s Das Kapital, which foretold that history would soon end with the inevitable victory of the proletariat. Communism had its holidays and festivals, such as the First of Mary and the anniversary of the October Revolution. It had theologians adept at Marxist dialects, and every unit in the Soviet army had a chaplain, called a commissar, who monitored the piety of soldiers and officers. Communism and martyrs, holy wars had heresies, such as Trotskyism. Soviet Communism was a fanatical and missionary religion. A devout Communist could not be a Christian or a Buddhist, and was expected to spread the gospel of Marx and Lenin even at the price of his or her life.

Some readers may feel very uncomfortable with this line of reasoning. If it makes you feel better, you are free to go on calling Communism an ideology rather than a religion. It makes no difference.

Harari neglects to list the ideology which he enthusiastically (and rather cogently) promotes in chapter 8 of the very same book. It is a religion that does not have an agreed-upon name, although it is arguably the most influential religion in the West today. Some call it “SJW”ism, or “political correctness” or “the regressive left”. I cringe at these names.

However, SJWism is obviously a religion. Like many religions, it uses institutions to control language, control thought, and control sexuality. It uses the taking of offense, and excommunication, as weapons. It stigmatizes dissent in favor of dogma. It favors dissociation from heretics. It compels people to espouse silly ideas for the sake of commitment testing. For the interests of society (or at least itself), it controls the behavior of people who fail to be independently-minded.

The similarities to Christianity are even more extensive. Political correctness has a notion of original sin, called “privilege,” believed to be inherited from the sins of slavery/ colonialism/ etc., that you must “acknowledge” (the equivalent baptism). Furthermore, political correctness adopts a type of universalism. While Christianity believes that everyone has a “soul” and must be “saved,” PC believes that everyone has the ephemeral trait of “equality” and the downtrodden must be “protected.”

Reading Harari’s passage made me realize “religion” is just a slur you use to refer to ideologies to which you do not subscribe. If you subscribe to an ideology, you do not call it a religion, you probably don’t even call it a name; you just call it “the truth”.

Find a dogma: is it not called a religion? That’s a sign that the people who control that type of thing (read: someone in the “cathedral”) agrees with it.

What about Christians who refer to their doctrine as a “religion”? They have been duped into accepting a frame of defeat.

“Religion” is a fence between different kinds of ideas, with “factual” ideas on one side of the fence, and “religious” ideas on the other side. The ideal positioning for an ideology is to avoid the existence of this fence altogether.

To the ancient Christian, the existence of heaven was just as much a fact as the existence of far-away lands. One was propagated by the Church, whereas the other was propagated by cartographers. But there was probably some overlap, with religious cartographers and generally educational churches.

The erecting of the aforementioned fence is an act designed to label ideas religious and in doing so allow them to be thrown out in one easy swoop. “Religion” is an idea quarantine.

Which I don’t always oppose; except that I worry a lot more about those dogmas that have escaped such a diagnosis.