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Ed Driscoll

The Rise of Secular Religion

March 19th, 2014 - 12:14 pm

“Today’s secular liberals are the direct descendants of the past century’s Puritans and Protestants, deeply concerned with matters of sin and salvation in the church of politics,” fellow PJM columnist David P. Goldman writes at the American Interest, exploring, “The Rise of Secular Religion:”

Today’s American liberalism, it is often remarked, amounts to a secular religion: it has its own sacred texts and taboos, Crusades and Inquisitions. The political correctness that undergirds it, meanwhile, can be traced back to the past century’s liberal Protestantism. Conservatives, of course, routinely scoff that liberals’ ersatz religion is inferior to the genuine article.

Joseph Bottum, by contrast, examines post-Protestant secular religion with empathy, and contends that it gained force and staying power by recasting the old Mainline Protestantism in the form of catechistic worldly categories: anti-racism, anti-gender discrimination, anti-inequality, and so forth. What sustains the heirs of the now-defunct Protestant consensus, he concludes, is a sense of the sacred, but one that seeks the security of personal salvation through assuming the right stance on social and political issues. Precisely because the new secular religion permeates into the pores of everyday life, it sustains the certitude of salvation and a self-perpetuating spiritual aura. Secularism has succeeded on religious terms. That is an uncommon way of understanding the issue, and a powerful one.

Of course, as Charles Krauthammer and the late Michael Crichton have each noted, the global warming cult is a particularly strong subset of the left’s secular religion. Perhaps because, as Stanley Kurtz writes,  “Thanks to this new green faith, our smallest acts have incalculable repercussions:”

The notion that ecology crusaders are faithful followers of a novel secular religion may not be new, yet rarely has it been deployed with such penetration and gusto as in Pascal Bruckner’s newly translated 2011 book, The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings.[1] Bruckner is a French intellectual who, while no conservative, is a dedicated critic of leftist excess. What Fanaticism lacks in systematicness and sociological grounding it more than makes up for in insight and suggestiveness. Bruckner helps take us where we ought to want to go, toward a religious theory of the secular leftist present. Unpacking Bruckner’s gift of a book and building on what it has to teach us repays the effort.

What is our carbon footprint, asks Bruckner, but “the gaseous equivalent of Original Sin”? (2). Raised in Jesuit schools, where spiritual exercises and persistent self-scrutiny under priestly supervision were the order of the day, Bruckner knows whereof he speaks. Modern secularism disparages traditional moral disciplines, yet Bruckner understands their nobility and appeal. That is how he has glimpsed the exertions of his pious Catholic boyhood incarnated anew in green neo-asceticism.

Thanks to this new green faith, our smallest acts have incalculable repercussions. The world seems literally to hang on whether we leave the water running as we brush our teeth, take the subway rather than drive, or flick off the switch as we exit a room. The humblest objects are alive with meaning. Bruckner calls it “post-technological animism” (33). Environmentalist discourse, he suggests, is a variation on the Fall of Genesis: eating of the fruit of the tree of scientific knowledge has driven us from God-given Paradise. “At the same time that Europe denies its Christian roots,” writes Bruckner, “it manifests them in its slightest references” (41).

The slyly Christian character of the new environmentalism emerges most clearly in climate apocalypticism, says Bruckner. I would correct Bruckner here—the new environmentalism is more like a deformed imitation of Christianity than a faithful reproduction. Thus, the “Doomsday Clock” that has famously graced the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1947 once calculated our alleged proximity to nuclear holocaust. Bruckner points out that propinquity to a world-ending climate catastrophe has now been added to the magazine’s reckoning, reviving “the Christian terrors of the Last Days” (17).

Or as Michael Barone writes, “On global warming alarmism as a religion:”

President Obama and John Kerry have said that the Russians in Crimea have been behaving as if they are in the 19th century. Global warming alarmists strike me as something out of the 17th century.

To the point where book burning seems like a viable approach to heresy, as San Jose State University’s Meteorology Department illustrated last year:

Finally, Rachel Lu, writing at the Federalist, looks at the endgame of the left’s Long March through virtually all of America’s institutions — all that remains is “The Culture War Hangover:”

Of course, we should make every effort to make the case for religious liberty, and to diffuse the lies of the panicked left. We should also recognize, however, that it will be exceedingly difficult to protect religious liberty if we abandon every other cultural outpost. People are not easily persuaded to protect views that they regard as rank bigotry. Thus, we must continue engaging in the cultural conversation concerning sexual and marital norms, parenthood, gender identity and the like. Public opinion on these matters is far less settled than liberal journalists would like us to believe, which is why media outlets (left, right and center) are regularly running pieces about them.

Most importantly, we should remind ourselves that fundamental truths about human nature cannot be buried forever. As conservatives we should know this, but in our despair over liberal “narrative control,” we tend to forget. In a way, progressive social engineers are always fighting an uphill battle, because they are always fighting against human experience and common sense. It remains to us to make good use of these tools, so that our children can inherit a freer, wiser and more prosperous America.

Good luck with that — American elites have forgotten far too much for Tom Wolfe’s “Great Relearning” to happen anytime soon.

Update: Of course, secular religion often has many “unexpected” ramifications:

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