How we are turning politics into religion (again)

Despite the wish of some atheists, the religious instinct of human beings is basically ineradicable. When it doesn’t find a direct religious outlet, it will find other outlets, such as politics. By ‘the religious instinct’ I mean the wish to find meaning and purpose in life, something bigger than ourselves, transcendence, a belief in a final, better destination for history.

This last item is sometimes called ‘eschatology’. Modern liberal, secular politics is extremely eschatological. It firmly believes ‘history’ is going somewhere, to a place that is better than now, and we can either help it on its way, or frustrate it. Those who help it on its way are called ‘progressives’, those who do not, are ‘reactionaries’ or ‘bigots’ and they must be pushed out of the way by just about any means possible, including, in some societies (communist ones, for instance), death.

In any event, Camile Paglia, herself an atheist, makes some of these same points, but better than I can, in a new interview with the website, Quillette.

She is asked the question: “Do you believe that politics and in particular social justice (i.e., anti-racism and feminism) are becoming cults or pseudo-religions? Is politics filling the void left by the receding influence of organised religion?”

She responds: “This has certainly been my view for many years now. I said in the introduction to my art book, Glittering Images (2012), that secular humanism has failed. As an atheist, I have argued that if religion is erased, something must be put in its place. Belief systems are intrinsic to human intelligence and survival. They ‘frame’ the flux of primary experience, which would otherwise flood the mind.

“But politics cannot fill the gap. Society, with which Marxism is obsessed, is only a fragment of the totality of life. As I have written, Marxism has no metaphysics: it cannot even detect, much less comprehend, the enormity of the universe and the operations of nature. Those who invest all of their spiritual energies in politics will reap the whirlwind. The evidence is all around us—the paroxysms of inchoate, infantile rage suffered by those who have turned fallible politicians into saviors and devils, godlike avatars of Good versus Evil. [Italics added].

“My substitute for religion is art, which I have expanded to include all of popular culture. But when art is reduced to politics, as has been programmatically done in academe for 40 years, its spiritual dimension is gone. It is coarsely reductive to claim that value in the history of art is always determined by the power plays of a self-referential social elite. I take Marxist social analysis seriously: Arnold Hauser’s Marxist, multi-volume A Social History of Art (1951) was a major influence on me in graduate school. However, Hauser honored art and never condescended to it. A society that respects neither religion nor art cannot be called a civilization.”

St Augustine expressed the religious instinct best when he said, ‘We are made for you, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you’.

Until we come to see this, we will continually look instead for inadequate religion substitutes (including bad versions of religion), because it is simply part of our natures. It has how we are made. But art is certainly a much less dangerous substitute than absolutising politics, which what is happening right now, with self-professed atheists often to the forefront.