Monday, October 25, 2004

The Oxycontin of the Masses

According to Marx, the preoccupation of the German intellectuals of his time with religious issues was evidence of their political immaturity. How else explain why grownups were seriously debating the divinity of Christ as late as the year 1848? Similarly impatient sentiments are often enough expressed today about the growing salience of religion in American political affairs. Most outlooks on history view religion as a kind of pedagogy and separate its message, which is more or less endorsed, from the nursery story format in which it is conveyed to the people. In this narrative, the advance of education and enlightenment eventually make it possible to dispense with the crude symbolism and miracle mongering in favor of plain speaking and a respect for the truth. So why does every political candidate have to make a public confession of faith in order to get a hearing at all?

Most conservatives are not surprised by the persistence of irrational styles of faith since they don’t believe in progress of any kind, except perhaps scientific progress. Religion has no intelligible core for them. It is merely a method of crowd control whose content is irrelevant to the clear-eyed elites who in the best case run the world with virtuous cynicism. Religion and reason address different strata of the public, not different ages of history, so one should hardly be surprised that religion neither declines nor becomes more reasonable over time. Indeed, a public that reasons is a great evil so the right subscribes to the Taoist admonition to “fill their bellies and empty their minds,” or at least to the part about emptying their minds.

Although I retain enough of my Left-Hegelian upbringing to think that religion does have a cognitive significance and really does represent a way in which people understand themselves and their world, I have to admit that the Conservative take on religion does provide a useful if partial perspective. But even to the extent that the telos of religion is not truth, it does have a history. It progresses, albeit as a technology progresses, getting better and better at mobilizing the resentments and hopes of people. In my lifetime, for example, television evangelists have pioneered entirely new ways of exploiting a huge audience of vulnerable listeners just as earlier operators colonized the radio waves back in the 30s and their distant ancestors figured out how to exploit moveable type.

Even aspects of religion that appear to be thematic to particular faiths can be understood as technological breakthroughs. Religious entrepreneurship has a history—traditional religious personnel sacrificed cattle, they didn’t propagandize their followers. Once a group discovers how to establish a secret sect, the technique will be copied by other groups just as religious fanaticism, a Persian and Jewish invention, quickly escaped copyright. Indeed, the practice of religious devotion itself, like so much else, seems to have been a Hellenistic invention that got picked up by the Christians and eventually spread to the ends of Asia as bhakti. Whom one adores is less important than the practice of adoration. The original man who was proclaimed the savior (Soter) by his PR department may have been Ptolemy the First, but Christ, Rama, Kannon, Guru Nanak, and various Sufis and Saints have filled the same role since. The absence of truth in religion leaves the field wide open for the advance of technique.

Now it may be that modern man is suffering from an especially bad case of existential anguish and that the religious revivals of the time are a response to a deeply felt need. I’m skeptical. From an objective point of view, the human condition has always been pretty desperate. Perhaps something about contemporary conditions does make the resentful plankton of our kind more aware of its humiliating situation and therefore easier to manipulate. On the other hand, just as the automobile was not introduced to meet the challenge of a worldwide horse shortage, the current obsession with religion may simply be a consequence of a wave of entrepreneurial activity that is exploiting the latest developments in the technology of superstition.

No comments: