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    Default How Secularism became the new Protestantism

    An intriguing article that echoes some thoughts I've been having about the matter for some time.

    From The American Conservative:

    A Secular Age?

    Liberalism is the latest form of Protestant religion, practiced from the academy to the culture wars.

    An excerpt...

    In a word, both books are stories about the “sacred” nature of what we often call “secularism.” Bottum speaks of the decline of Mainline Protestantism and its replacement by the “Post-Protestant” denizens of academe, journalism, entertainment, business, most Protestant religious outside Evangelicalism, many liberal-leaning Catholics and non-Christians, and broad swaths of “non-elites” who have been shaped by these many leaders of culture and opinion. Smith writes of one segment of this population—sociologists—who are the embodiment of what Bottum calls the Post-Protestant “poster-children.” They are what we typically call “secular.” Both these books call into question the purported a-religiosity of this “secularism,” but rather point to the specifically sectarian nature of this particular form of “secularity”—not so much “Post-Protestant,” as Bottum describes, but Protestant after God.

    What struck me through my juxtaposed reading of these two books is that they together tell the story of where Protestantism went and what Protestantism became when it ceased to be a “religion.” Bottum rightly focuses on the role of Walter Rauschenbusch in the development of Protestantism away from a “religious” religion and toward a “secular” religion. Rauschenbusch’s promotion of the “social gospel” aimed to turn Christians away from considerations of original sin, the baleful influence of Satan and temptations of evil, the failings of the human will, personal piety and prayer, and the gift of grace and redemption ultimately through Christ, and instead toward the overcoming of “social sin” and what he called “social salvation” and “the progressive regeneration of social life.” Rauschenbusch and prominent Protestants of his generation—including John Dewey, Herbert Croly, Jane Addams, and many other minor players in varied positions throughout society—helped to make Protestantism into a social and political project, even while taking it out of the churches. That process is what we call “secularization,” but it’s a deeply and distinctively religious and especially Protestant form of “secularism.”

    Christian Smith fills in the express commitments of this purportedly secular, yet deeply “sacred project.” This unchurched (yet highly institutionalized) new-yet-old religion seeks to realize “the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own favored identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures” (pp. 7-8; Smith’s emphasis).

    Smith, like Bottum, notes the influence of early American pragmatists and progressives, as well as an ungainly alliance of modern “-isms” such as Marxism, Freudianism, feminism, post-modernism, etc. But he is also quite explicit regarding the ways of a kind of shadow Christianity: this “sacred, spiritual project parallels that of (especially Protestant) Christianity in its structure of beliefs, interests, and expectations,” including shared emphases upon moral equality and dignity, self-direction and free will, and a strongly moralistic streak about how humans ought to live (p. 18). Smith then claims that “it would not be wrong to say that sociology’s project represents essentially a secularized version of the Christian gospel and worldview,” which perhaps misstates (in similar ways to Bottum in his insistence of calling this same class “Post-Protestant”) the nature of the belief. For, each would acknowledge, it’s not merely a secular belief, but in fact a very specific set of beliefs holding that human efforts can now bring about an earthly salvation. It is still deeply biblical—without the Bible—and Christian—without Christ—and salvific—without heaven—and millennial—without the Second Coming. It is, in effect, where Protestantism went, and what it became, after it moved out of the Mainline churches and into the modern research universities and the glitzy Richard Florida cities and the tony suburbs—where it became fashionable to be “spiritual but not religious.”

    “Post-Protestantism” is not in fact really “post-”religious at all, but simply a new manifestation of Protestantism (now not limited to Protestants, of course) that now exists wholly outside the churches and instead has become exclusively a political, social, and educational project, albeit one with decidedly millennialist aims to transform the world (what would have once been called to “usher in the Kingdom of God”). What we call “secularism” isn’t just a world where “God is dead.” In fact, it’s the very opposite of what Nietzsche expected (and perhaps hoped would come to pass) in a world After God. It is not a world of pitiless ubermenschen who snuff out all remnants of Christian pity, imposing instead a new order of Roman-like rule of the strong. As Terry Eagleton has pointed out, “secularists” aren’t Nietzschean at all; but where Eagleton accuses them of living inconsistently with their own post-Divine presuppositions, Bottum and Smith help us see that in fact their inspiration isn’t Nietzsche in the first place, but rather Rauschenbusch and Croly and Dewey and Rorty and Rawls. Whatever their religious origins and identities and even non-religious claims, they are still deeply Protestant, even if they have now explicitly protested Protestantism itself.

    Both books acknowledge the deeply Protestant nature and origins of this new “sacred/secular” order, but don’t altogether elaborate the ways in which this is the case. But, at base, Smith’s description helps us to discern its theological core. The aims of the “emancipation,” “equality”, “autonomy,” “self-direction” of agents who live out their lives as “they personally so desire” is the natural and inevitable end-station of the Protestant embrace of individualized belief. What begins as a breaking away from The Church as a series of institutional divorces, eventually devolves into the divorce of individuals from each other, resulting finally in a society in which the only agreement that can be achieved is that we should all mutually affirm each other’s right to pursue whatever version of individual truth (or untruth) and personal gratification one might desire. Ironically, the logic of Protestantism eventually turned against its own institutionalized origins in the churches, since such a setting comes to be seen as merely an arbitrary organization that seeks to exert social control over the individual. The only legitimate umbrella organization to which we all belong becomes the State, which is increasingly viewed as the agent of our mutual liberation. Thereby, the sacred project of autonomous liberation becomes collectivist; the perfectly libertarian society is also the most perfectly Statist (a marriage we daily see coming more into focus).

    What these two books also help the reader see is that this form of post-Protestant “religious” secularity is the established religion of, and increasingly indistinguishable from, liberalism as a political, cultural, and social form of human organization. It was once believed by many that liberalism was a neutral political order within which a variety of beliefs could flourish—among them, Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, etc. But what is clear both as an intellectual and theological matter as well as an observable fact from many current cultural battlefields is that what Smith describes more broadly as a “sacred project” is increasingly intolerant of competitor religions, and stridently seeks their effectual elimination by “liberal” means. It does so not in the name of some amorphous and tolerant “secularism,” but in the name of the new, and increasingly established, State religion of America. What we call “secularism” isn’t simply unbelief—it is a system of belief with distinctive “theology” without God and this-worldly eschatological hope, and it demands obeisance or the judgment of blasphemy and condemnation.
    To their adherents, it increasingly seems like environmentalism, social justice and sociology etc. have become religion.

    I'm of the opinion that everyone needs something to believe in/lean on. Whether its a political, social or scientific outlook, religion, drugs, sports or literature, everyone has an addiction. Everyone has something they believe in so strongly that it blinds them to valuable truths (yours truly included).

    It's kind of like that South Park episode where Cartman travels into the future to get some game system. When he gets to the future there's a large civil war going on between two sects that disagree about whose science is better.

    It seems like people will do shitty things for their beliefs regardless of what shape those beliefs take.

  2. #2
    LL P. Stewie Beorn's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DiscoBiscuit View Post
    An intriguing article that echoes some thoughts I've been having about the matter for some time.

    From The American Conservative:

    A Secular Age?

    Liberalism is the latest form of Protestant religion, practiced from the academy to the culture wars.

    An excerpt...



    To their adherents, it increasingly seems like environmentalism, social justice and sociology etc. have become religion.

    I'm of the opinion that everyone needs something to believe in/lean on. Whether its a political, social or scientific outlook, religion, drugs, sports or literature, everyone has an addiction. Everyone has something they believe in so strongly that it blinds them to valuable truths (yours truly included).

    It's kind of like that South Park episode where Cartman travels into the future to get some game system. When he gets to the future there's a large civil war going on between two sects that disagree about whose science is better.

    It seems like people will do shitty things for their beliefs regardless of what shape those beliefs take.
    How did Deneen write this without reference to Charles Taylor's A Secular Age???

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    Quote Originally Posted by DiscoBiscuit View Post

    I'm of the opinion that everyone needs something to believe in/lean on. Whether its a political, social or scientific outlook, religion, drugs, sports or literature, everyone has an addiction. Everyone has something they believe in so strongly that it blinds them to valuable truths (yours truly included).
    Interesting. A lot of the 19th and early 20th century reform movements were tied to various Protestant churches.

    Of course, I think doubt is more important than belief, which gets me into trouble in a lot of discussions about political matters. I don't accept something into my worldview based on what the people around me think, or what the "right" opinion is supposed to be, but whether it makes sense to me or not. I do suppose I have a few abstract principles I consider important, but as to ideas that represent the expression of them.... I learned that it's better not to take anyone's word for these things.

    While I'm kind of a crazy hippy in some ways, I also have a very strong individualistic streak . I also think that if you are advocating for your views, ad-hominems and straw men are not really acceptable. If I really, truly, detest someone's views, I prefer to make them look foolish, rather than fearsome.
    [Trump's] rhetoric is not an abuse of power. In the same way that it's also not against the law to do a backflip off of the roof of your house onto your concrete driveway. It's just mind-numbingly stupid and, to say the least, counterproductive. - Bush did 9-11


    This is not going to go the way you think....

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    LL P. Stewie Beorn's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by msg_v2 View Post
    Interesting. A lot of the 19th and early 20th century reform movements were tied to various Protestant churches.

    Of course, I think doubt is more important than belief, which gets me into trouble in a lot of discussions about political matters. I don't accept something into my worldview based on what the people around me think, or what the "right" opinion is supposed to be, but whether it makes sense to me or not. I do suppose I have a few abstract principles I consider important, but as to ideas that represent the expression of them.... I learned that it's better not to take anyone's word for these things.
    That's because doubt is the fabric that our secular society is weaved from. More on this in a moment.

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    Theta Male Julius_Van_Der_Beak's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Beorn View Post
    That's because doubt is the fabric that our secular society is weaved from. More on this in a moment.
    Well, I can point to a lot of things that I think are good that came from doubt, and a lot of things that I think are bad that came from belief, and I think you and I would even agree on a lot of those.
    [Trump's] rhetoric is not an abuse of power. In the same way that it's also not against the law to do a backflip off of the roof of your house onto your concrete driveway. It's just mind-numbingly stupid and, to say the least, counterproductive. - Bush did 9-11


    This is not going to go the way you think....

    Visit my Johari:
    http://kevan.org/johari?name=Birddude78

  6. #6
    LL P. Stewie Beorn's Avatar
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    I think things get a bit more complicated in our secular age. The very fabric of our society is based on doubt and not belief. Whereas hundreds of years ago people took their beliefs for granted as fact today everything is to be questioned. This creates a great deal of anxiety and so we tend to put faith in things that can give us immediate satisfaction such as drugs, sex, and entertainment.

    I think Charles Taylor and James K.A. Smith are more helpful in sussing out exactly what secularism is:

    "[David Foster] Wallace’s corpus — both fiction and nonfiction — documents a world of almost suffocating immanence, a flattened human universe where the escapes are boredom and distraction, not ecstasy and rapture. Hell is self-consciousness, and our late modern, TV-ized (now Twitter-ized) world only ramps up our self-awareness to an almost paralyzing degree. God is dead, but he’s replaced by everybody else. Everything is permitted, but everybody is watching. So most of the time the best “salvation” we can hope for is found in behaviors that numb us to this reality: drugs, sex, entertainments of various sorts." - James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor

    There are of course people who are trying to set up new moralistic world views, but the context of those projects is important. Taylor and Smith seem to view the connection between pre-secular and current society as more of a haunting of the sacred more than anything.

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    Science be praised.

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    I completely agree that people do tend to lean on something to believe in, regardless of whether it is a religious framework or even the scientific method. We gravitate towards established philosophies and guides for understanding this chaotic and paradoxical world. And definitely, people do shitty things for their beliefs for sure.

    However, politics and religion have throughout the history of civilization have separated, run together, and separated and run together again in different forms, and we have different words to describe politics and religion because they are two distinctly different forms of philosophy. A political opinion may well be informed by religion, but it does not necessarily entail specific beliefs about the existence and/or nature of a higher power. A religion may well encourage certain political leanings, however it does not necessarily inform the way a civilization's ruling body should be structured and implemented.

    Our current American liberalism did grow out of mainstream Protestantism, but that does not mean liberalism itself is a religion. Rather, liberalism in its current form is particularly inclined to be able to function without a particular religion attached to it. This stands in contrast to current American conservatism, which is much more closely linked to belief in Christianity. I think it is a misinterpretation to suggest that because liberalism does not have a close link with a specific religion, that it must become a religion in and of itself, and that the state must take the place of an authority on belief. I think that what this author is seeing is that many liberals who do not claim a religion still have a set of morals and principles that inform their political opinion, which are often derived from philosophy, several religions, personal spiritual questioning, and other experiences. Those beliefs sets for each individual fill the place of religion in their lives. It is not necessary for them to have liberalism fill a hole, because there is not a hole.

    So, to return to the article, the reinterpretation of the state as the church is an interesting concept, but I think it is way too much of an overstep to assume that current American liberals actually feel that way about the government. I think most of us would absolutely abhor the idea of the state as church in our life, to be honest, in particular because many liberals reject the idea of needing a church at all. However, that is not at all the same as rejecting the need to have morals and principles, nor rejecting that others have the right to religious belief. I say this as a liberal who desires her government to be secular, but does not desire her personal morality to be secular. I see politics and religion as eminently different, for good reason, and I believe that most liberals who advocate a secular government feel the same way. It is the nature of current liberalism and current conservatism that most conservatives are fired up about a mix of politics and religion, whereas liberals may not have a religion to get fired up about, or they may channel fire for a complex and disparate set of philosophies into politics, because they don't have a singular umbrella to unite those moral principles under - moreover, their personal morals may not be something they feel the need to enact and advocate in the same way that they feel the need to enact and advocate politically. Incidentally, I know some conservatives for whom this is also true - that they are far more interested in politics then religion and are therefore far more likely to channel that sort of fervor politically. But again, I think it is just the nature of where we are at in political and religious development at the time that for conservative politics and religion seem to be more closely linked, whereas for liberals they are not.

    Following that, I think by definition, secularism cannot become Protestantism, because it is a completely different line of philosophy that fills a completely different role. But you may well see liberals who seem to act religiously about politics because politics are more invisibly linked to their morals and principles, or, because they simply have a greater fervor for politics than morals.

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    Quote Originally Posted by skylights View Post
    It is not necessary for them to have liberalism fill a hole, because there is not a hole.
    There's a lot to discuss in your post, but first I want to work out this point.

    Seriously? You really don't believe there's a hole to fill in people's lives? If that's true then why do marketers make so much money telling people they can fill that hole?

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    Quote Originally Posted by skylights View Post
    Following that, I think by definition, secularism cannot become Protestantism, because it is a completely different line of philosophy that fills a completely different role. But you may well see liberals who seem to act religiously about politics because politics are more invisibly linked to their morals and principles, or, because they simply have a greater fervor for politics than morals.
    The article isn't arguing that secularism has become a religion in the sense that its pushing a higher power, afterlife etc... it's arguing that secularism has catalyzed the waning of protestantism, and that secularism serves as a religion without a God for the people. Basically that secularism, evironmentalism, humanism etc.. fill the space in people once occupied by religion.

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