Saturday, 22 October 2011

How religion became secular

Once upon a time religion was in the world and made the world. Religion made the messy chaotic world legible to human understanding and amenable to human purposes. It fixed things in place, like the stars in the sky and the differences between men and women. It ordered the flux of time and events into meaningful cycles of life, whether the turning of the sun, seasons, and harvests or birth and death. It explained and justified the social order: why one man is born to wealth and power and another to be a serf. It told us with all the force of a mighty and all-encompassing metaphysics what our lives really meant, and how we should act, think and feel. But no more. Religion has been brought low by its old foes, philosophy and politics. Religion persists and is even popular. But it is now in the mind, a matter of personal belief projected outwards ('faith'). In short, religion is now secular. 

I focus here on the trajectory of the Abrahamic family of highly theological monotheisms. (Other forms of religiousish behaviour, such as the atheist Asian religions, require their own accounts.) This kind of religion rests on a metaphysical unification of the divine, the social-order, and nature. It gives us an enchanted world and a guarantee that we know our true place in it. The enemies of theological religion have always been philosophy and politics because both present inherently secular ways of grappling with the nature of the world that bypass religion. Their rise has shattered both enchantment and Truth. Religion still creeps about the place, but in a thoroughly subordinate role.

Philosophy is always trying to see the world - natural and social - from a non-orthodox perspective. Philosophers are those annoying people who are always saying, Yes, but..... As in Yes of course God exists, but just suppose that the heavens are like a giant clockwork mechanism that goes automatically after it's been set up? Wouldn't that be an interesting way of looking at things?

Religions can be seen as rich communal storehouses of practical knowledge, about subjects as diverse as ethics, agriculture, hygiene, and economics, that provide access to more wisdom about how to live than any one person could ever come to on their own. (That is a significant reason for their attractiveness even in the modern world, apart from the social club benefits.) But its metaphysical constraints (the ultimate answer is always that God did it) mean that religion can't compete with philosophy in the theoretical knowledge game.

Philosophy constantly spews out alternative approaches to understanding the world, most perniciously by creating dedicated collaborative epistemic communities interested in particular subjects - previously. (Every major academic discipline, from physics to economics to mathematics was started by philosophers.) These lovers of theoretical knowledge for its own sake leave the speculative orientation of pure philosophy behind as they develop specialist methodologies and employ them systematically upon different bits of the world. If they are given space and freedom (universities) they generate vast quantities of robust theoretical knowledge about how the world really works. Religion of course knows this full well, and always strove to keep the keys to knowledge to itself, for example in medieval Europe by exercising tight control over literacy, libraries, and universities.

But the Enlightenment let philosophy out of its bottle for good, and since then it has succeeded to an astonishing degree in producing much much better accounts of how the world works than any religion. It has convincingly shown that all religions make serious mistakes about matters of fact (astronomy, history, medicine, etc), and about how facts are connected (evolution, cosmology, etc). The sacred triangle between the divine, human society and nature just isn't out there, so, obviously, your prayers cannot affect the weather or your marriage prospects.

Academic inquiry has shown that the world is actually much more complicated than religion ever claimed - exposing the limits of religious knowledge communities. But at the same time it has also shown that the world doesn't need God, or any other supernatural agency, to make it work. Even in ethics, it has shown up the inconsistencies, biases, and questionable foundations of religious teachings and identified a plethora of alternatives that beat iron age patriarchal tribal mores hands down. (How many genocides does God order in the Old Testament? Death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath? We can do better than that.)

Religion can cope with atheism since atheists at least take religion seriously enough to argue about. But over time, the exercise of applied philosophy produces naturalists who don't even find religion compelling enough to reject (any more than fairies or UFOs), and who consider it only as an object of study, for example by anthropologists and sociologists.

Politics is about earthly power and has an underlying Machiavellian pragmatism that has always been in tension with religious accounts of the divine and True social order. Politicians are the ones who have bright ideas like this: Hey, what if I stop killing and torturing the people who disagree with the official church about the Doctrine of the Trinity. Think of all the money I would save and all the extra taxes I could raise.
The pragmatism of politics is a threat to the theological domination of society in more than one way. (Hence the truism that the separation of church and state actually protects religion.) On the one hand religion can easily be corrupted by politics if it is seduced by the possibility of using direct earthly power to make sure the social world follows the divine script properly. The exercise of that power can't be done without yielding to the logic of politics and becoming embroiled in the profane arts of government (like the prince bishops of medieval Europe or Khamenei). And then the people stop taking the clerics' heavenly status claims seriously.

On the other hand politics can reach out to religion as a source of legitimacy for its own Machiavellian strategies - blessing kings, wars, and taxes for example. Here the seductions themselves are earthly: access to the king's court, monetary rewards, and extra-legal privileges for clerics. Sooner or later the clerics are selling indulgences to build gorgeous palaces and raping peasant children with impunity. And then, again, the people tend to lose faith

Despite these tensions, politics and religion can co-exist in a reasonably stable arms-length relationship since each recognises that it needs what only the other can provide (churches need funding; kings need right as well as might). So even when the relationship broke down (e.g. in the Protestant Reformation), it tended to come back. That is, until politics invented something new and enormously powerful: large nation states combined with democratic forms of government. These replaced kings, whose legitimacy as rulers was always based on a dubious metaphysics of divine social order (backed by raw ruthless power), with professional politicians. The legitimacy of political power holders now depends on their ability to appeal to the people, not the clerics; the legitimacy of their actions depends on their adherence to temporal constitutions not divine law.

Since the unleashing of politics and philosophy - since the arrival of modernity - religion has been forced to adapt. Out went the mighty all-encompassing metaphysics in the face of the top-down scrutiny of querulous university academics. Out went the claim to absolute truth in the face of the bottom-up revolution of peasants demanding to be consulted. The new religion is individualised, marketised, and deracinated.


Liberal democracy is all about dealing with the fact of reasonable disagreement, that as soon as one relaxes totalitarian social control one will find that other people have completely sincere beliefs and judgements that differ from yours. Luther of course when he said, 'Here I stand. I can do no other', didn't think he was making a plea for individual freedom of conscience. He thought he was right. But when lots of people start thinking they have the right to stand up for what they believe, one has to find a modus vivendi (or face interminable civil war). One has to find a way to live in the same political society as people whom you believe are utterly - metaphysically - wrong.

The trouble is that once you set up some rules for keeping the peace - state neutrality on religious matters, no religion in the public square, etc - they do much more than keep the peace. One ends up finding one's Lutheran, Catholic, Jewish or even atheist neighbours actually very pleasant. It becomes harder and harder to remember that the really important thing in the relationship is that they're going to hell. Politeness and civility come to matter, and people decide to keep their revelations to themselves so as not to be an ass. Instead of religious credos being too dangerous to utter in public, mentioning them becomes something of a social gaffe, like blurting out your taste in pornography.

Meanwhile the damned philosophers are busy creating a secular intellectual space open to all and independent of any religious dogma. Religion's storehouse of wisdom is bypassed and then surpassed by towering cathedrals of secular knowledge. Then it is subjected to criticism. Of its science, history, ethics; even of its literary qualities! If you try to talk about miracles and divine providence these people ask if you also believe in UFOs or fairies; and ethnographers may ask if they can study your interesting sub-culture.

For the great majority of the world’s faithful - those who do not live in sequestered theocratic communities - religion is a personal matter that takes place largely within the mind of the individual. Outside this inner world they must act as if their beliefs were irrelevant. Above them, the world turns according to a godless physics, biology, economics, etc. Around them, social interactions are shaped by the fact of pluralism: the faithful must bear in mind the different beliefs of others, and limit their talk and actions to what heretics and the godless can go along with.


Pluralism and individualisation also brings markets. Of course, marketing is nothing new to the monotheistic religions, but previously they were often in the comfortable state of being monopolies able to charge whatever price for their spiritual services they wanted in their customers’ attention and property. That meant that they tended to set a 'price' for their services that maximised their profits, even though it left a great many people unserved or underserved (what economists call the deadweight loss of monopoly). Indeed, in the heyday of religion most people probably weren't particularly religious because they weren't the core market and the core product wasn't designed or priced with them in mind.

Nevertheless, monopoly not customer service is what every corporation dreams of and struggles for. In this light, monotheism's visceral distaste for polytheism can be seen as typical protectionist behaviour (3 out of the 10 commandments are about monopoly and trademark protection). Under monotheism when your prayers aren't answered it's your fault and you need to pay/pray more. In contrast, if you have a choice of gods you can play them off against each other, as the Greeks did, by switching to a different god whenever one fails to deliver. Multiple gods means market competition between divine service providers and lower prices for the ordinary consumer (and so also more freedom to think for yourself).

Monopolist religions used some of their excess profits to invest in R&D in their principal technology - theology. On the one hand they were able to train and employ the best minds of their time, which led to powerful innovations. The invention of the afterlife for example is a brilliant way of getting even more out of your present customers. As Pascal pointed out, by extending people's utility function into eternity you alter their cost-benefit analysis in favour of greater commitment to the church in this life (however much you discount future well-being, eternity trumps present consumption). On the other hand this theological research was quite inefficient for society as a whole, since all those great minds were only allowed to think about one area. And it turns out that when great minds take up the serious systematic study of God, they raise at least as many problems as they solve (which then have to be kept quiet - Luther!).

The modern state of affairs requires religions to compete with each other like regular companies in a free market. Monopoly profits from captive consumers are a thing of the past – in America more than 50% of the population has changed their religious affiliation at least once. Since people tend to think all religion is pretty much the same thing (different paths to the same ultimate truth) all the religious denominations are desperate to avoid being fully commoditised, like pork bellies, as fully substitutable with each other and compared purely on price. So they strive to differentiate themselves, like supermarkets or airlines. They identify and target distinct types of customers like single mothers, high-flying business types, or specific ethnic groups, and then woo them with free lunches, parking, daycare, and sermons they like to hear. To increase retention rates they pay close attention to customer feedback and tweak their offerings to meet changing tastes. (Vatican II: Latin isn't working for us anymore.) They have to come up with competition strategies against new start-up religions and franchise operators moving into their areas.

All this marketing is of course quite profane. The success of a religion is now judged in terms of the numbers of 'bums on seats' it can corral into its services, and the amount of time and money those bums can be persuaded to give up. Not by the truth of its theology. The True religion must compete in the marketplace with the mass of heresies and trivial spiritualisms (like horoscopes and crystal-ball gazing), distinguishable only by the success of their marketing strategies. And the marketing affects the content of modern religions as well, turning them into a set of recognisable hack genres such as one finds in airport book-stores: self-help/personal-growth; horror (I’m thinking of that weird one with the snakes); Dan Brownian secret mysteries; Twilight fantasies; fantasy epics (Catholicism); etc. Many of the fastest growing religions hardly bother with theology at all, because their customers don't have time for all that wordy stuff.

One of the interesting consequences of this is that modern religion has diversified its offerings to supply every consumer niche, rather than demanding that the spiritually inclined accommodate themselves to the one True church. Tastes which went somewhat unrecognised and uncatered to before are now met by specialist providers. For example, fundamentalists eschew the established religious providers altogether and start their own co-operatives to meet their peculiar concerns with purity. So in some countries with a thriving free market for religion (most prominently, America) there is probably more religious activity than ever before.


Contemporary religion has been deracinated - separated from its cultural context. In the enchanted world religion was always felt as much as thought, because it was literally embedded into the social landscape and rituals of everyday life. That gave religion a solid foundation, and helped make defection difficult to even imagine. It also protected religion from theological excesses by requiring that religion take a form that a human society could actually live by. But now that the enchanted world has shattered, theology can no longer depend on the solid foundations of social practices. Almost the whole of Western Europe, for example, enjoys its quaint Christian culture (history, holidays, recipes, nice old buildings, church weddings, etc.) as part of a cultural identity, but hasn't the faintest interest in Christianity. Religion for us is an ethnic identity thing, not a belief thing.

On the other hand, the falling away of the cultural roots of religion means that those people interested in personal spirituality have more freedom than ever to download and try out a new theology. That drives the thriving market for religion already discussed. But it also has implications for the kind of religion that people can have. In particular, accessing the wisdom of religion about the human condition (all those brilliant minds focussed on analysis and commentary for generations) requires more than reading the sacred book by itself (or, in the case of many evangelicals, the few quotations they like).

The reason many fundamentalists are so unpleasantly and rigidly righteous is that they are people of the book who lack the lived culture of the book. They mistake religious knowledge of the kind one can get by reading a book in the way one might read Euclid's geometry, for religious wisdom, which requires a much deeper immersion in and personal subordination to the culture of that religion.

Fundamentalists, and their worried observers, make an even bigger mistake in believing that religious movements based on literalist readings of sacred texts constitute a revival of old-time religion. Instead they are a fundamentally modern and secular phenomena of individuals searching for meaning in their own lives and fitting together a personal theology from bits and pieces of texts that suit them, and then joining clubs that see things the same way.


The secularisation thesis actually happened, though not exactly in the way 20th century sociologists predicted. They thought levels of religiousity would decline as religion lost its hegemonic dominance over society, whereas in fact it is the nature of religiousity which has changed. Contemporary religion is a thoroughly secular affair. It is matter of individual conscience projected outwards, and as such hard to distinguish from secular faiths like environmentalism or socialism.

Religious individuals, like socialists, see the world a certain way, but they generally recognise that others see it differently and they understand the significance and legitimacy of their faith in terms of private personal belief. The deinstitutionalisation of religion in liberal democratic societies has led to cut-throat competition which has shifted religions from price-makers to price-takers. Religions now recognise that the customer is always right and make offerings to the public (instead of vice versa). Religion has been cut free from its cultural base and now floats freely, as bite-size memes that anyone can download from the cloud when they feel like it and assemble for themselves.

Religious readers particularly may appreciate Rod Dreher's discussion of this post over at his blog on The American Conservative. He considers the phenomenon of secular religion from the religious perspective, and in the context of the heavy-weight religious philosophers Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre.


  1. A good read. I'm interested by what you said here:

    "The reason many fundamentalists are so unpleasantly and rigidly righteous is that they are people of the book who lack the lived culture of the book. They only have part of the full theology of their chosen religion."

    Not sure I understand. It seems like fundamentalists try to immerse themselves in their religious culture and sacred texts. Though by focusing on certain parts of the text, they do lose the gestalt. There seems to be a pattern of which types of text they emphasize - probably for some reason.

  2. The light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.

  3. Thanks, Anon. I edited the post to clarify my concern about fundamentalists.

  4. It's not actually true that eternity trumps present consumption. It is possible to price an eternal annuity.

  5. This is a fine post, Philosopher's Beard, a fine revision of the disenchantment thesis. It takes the thought of Charles Taylor seriously but then takes *a sharp left turn*, so to speak: "Religion has been cut free from its cultural base and now floats freely" in a post-Protestant soup.

  6. Philosophy has SHOWN that we don't need God? What about the fact that,despite the law of entropy, an information system that is more complex by orders of magnitude than anything man has developed(DNA)exists?

  7. Thanks, Andrew. Nice that someone spotted my borrowings from Taylor!

    2aeed, faith based pseudo-science aside, it seems you're talking about a God of the gaps. That kind of 'incredibly shrinking God' doesn't seem like much of a religion to me. But it's a free society, so enjoy.

  8. @seanm: it's possible to price out a perpetuity (PV=C/i) and a rational observer would ostensibly choose the present value amount, when considering the cost/benefit of both action and vacation, choosing the higher corresponding PV. If we were even capable of such nuance, it would be difficult to come up with "C," or the periodic payment amount, though that's not really necessary, as Pascal uses something like "infinity of awesome" as his payoff for "God exists." Therefore no amount of suffering or privation, and particularly trivial suffering or privation, would outweigh an "infinity of awesome" and so the calculation would indicate "belief" and all that follows from it.

  9. No, If I'm correct that "God of the gaps" idea has to do with merely attributing to God what science doesn't explain. I was trying to convey that what science currently holds to be true (the law of entropy) in conjunction with the thought that highly complex, meaningful information (such as in DNA) doesn't come about spontaneously, that there it is REASONABLE to believe in God. I object to your assertion (if I understood it correctly) that Philosophy has some how definitively refuted the involvement of God in the physical universe. Laws of nature imply a lawgiver. Many people who believe do so because they think rationally and have examined evidence. If groups of people finds things in the Pentateuch distasteful or incomprehensible that has nothing to do with the validity of others belief in the God of the Bible.

  10. Pascal's wager (tradeoff between present consumption and future delight) works if you have two values -- fun or god. But what if you have more than one choice of gods? Between Yaweh, the Trinity and Allah, the best choice is the Trinity. Heaven is a late invention in Judaism. The Trinity damns all but Christians and Allah lets all three in (albeit at different levels). But what about Brahman?

  11. 2aeed, I'm sorry to have to point out that according to the argument of this blog post your position is eminently secular. You want belief in God to be reasonable in light of what science tells us about how the world works. (My argument isn't that science 'refutes' religion per se, but that it trumps it in just this way.) And you want the right to have the validity of your own beliefs in the God of the Bible accepted whatever other people think. Sounds like you accept the core secular principle that religion is a personal matter of individual conscience. (Like, um, vegetarianism or pacifism)

    To Anon. Religions can also distinguish themselves to the loss averse by making hell worse.

  12. Great post, really fascinating. I'm interested in your description of philosophers and how they've ushered in the secular age: "Philosophers are those annoying people who are always saying, Yes, but....." I hope this doesn't come across too strong, but it sounds like philosophy is a parasite in danger of killing its host. As long as there is an accepted metaphysical order, philosophers are free to critique and propose alternatives, and often the relationship can be symbiotic--the accepted order adjusts as new critiques are find to be useful. But what if the accepted metaphysical order is that there is no metaphysical order? Then what does philosophy have to critique? More pointedly, what does it have to live on?

  13. Neat question JG. First, philosophers live off money and the attention of those they care about, just like everyone else. Second, I think philosophy only cares about questions, not the answers. Much of the time we invent our own because ordinary subjects are too boring, so in that respect we are quite self-sufficient (previously)

  14. The comment about pricing an anuity was facetious (I thought that was obvious). There are - much - larger problems with Pascal's wager. First among them is that he is committing to a particular version of God, and there is no reason to think that God is playing by the rules that he imagines (I think Simon Blackburn makes this point somewhere, but it is not exactly an original criticism). I can imagine him turning up at the gates and St. Peter telling him to get lost - that it isn't so easy.

    But all this is quibbling - at bottom, it is fundamentally mysterious to me why people take so seriously what has always looked to me like the ravings of someone in the middle of a nervous breakdown, rather than a serious exercise in philosophy.

  15. I don't disagree that - in contemporary society - science has overridden religion to some extent with respect to peopled attitudes and ways of life. Even the Bible says in 2 Tim 3:5 that in the times we're living that people would be "having a form of godly devotion but proving false to its power." i.e,. it wouldn't have a genuine impact on the way they think or live their lives. My view isn't "eminently secular" because I view the Bible as the inspired standard for matters of spirituality and morality; and and I hold to it's explanation for the origin of life and the Universe. I must say though that what "creationists" say that the Bible teaches about this conflicts with what the Bible actually says e.g. "creation days were 24 hrs long, the earth was created 6,000 years ago". I find that genuine scientific facts are useful as corroborative evidence for the reasonableness of believing in a creator etc., but it's not the basis for my beliefs.

  16. Very well written article: wry, accessible, and hitting many important points. You have written what I've thought for a long time.

  17. great post, thanks

  18. This comment is directed more to your beard than anything else.
    As Hobbes objected to Descartes regarding Descartes' method of doubt: your argument has been said before.
    Hasn't your blog entry on the disenchantment covered territory treated by people like Weber?
    I don't mean to belittle; and to shift to a more amicable gear; what is the provenance of your thinking in this argument?
    I myself find that even my most personal insights in philosophy at least, have been done by others before me and done better.
    I can list them all (a short list indeed)
    So I can't attack you for lack of originality; because that is rare and hard. So perhaps I can congratulate you on sound judgment; which is still hard and rare.
    So, back to the substance, do you think this trend is inevitable or irreversible? Or an historical accident to be corrected or overcorrected by our future?

  19. HB. Yes indeed - I always hope that readers will appreciate the common sense of what I'm saying. All I do on my blog is try to develop and organise my thinking on topics that puzzle or intrigue me, in this case pulling together my fragmented readings and thoughts over the years on the sociology and philosophy of religion.

    I think religion is a feature of the human condition, but not of human nature (previously). So its form will change as the human condition changes. Since religion is neither teleological nor a robust natural kind (as the global variety of religiousish activity should demonstrate), it has no default setting to be evaluated against or to return to. It evolves with us.

    To answer your question specifically, I don't see how religion as it was could ever be compatible with the new world created by the inventions of national politics and science.

  20. I found this a marvelous essay, combining reason, thoroughness, and a fascinating exploration of some of the implications of monotheism, as in its monopolistic restriction of consumer choice, vis-a-vis polytheism.

    I think that there is another problem with monotheism, in terms of the kind of existence one attributes to God. Put differently: one can either believe in monotheism, or love God unselfishly, but not both.

    Surely, solitary confinement is among the worst punishments we can inflict on another human being. Studies have shown that many prisoners become seriously disturbed,even psychotic, after just a short time in solitary. Then who do we attribute it to God? Why does monotheism deny God any companions on his (or her) own level? Can we really expect that God infinitely more complex and developed than ourselves would choose us for his chief companions? Wouldn't it be like our choosing ants for companions?

    Monotheism not only imputes solitary to God, but calls it progress, as compared with more primitive, polytheistic religions. Yet, those so-called "primitive religions" treated God more kindly--granting him family and friends, even lovers and rivals, among other gods and goddesses.

    "God is above any need for companions," the monotheists would respond.

    Maybe so. But even if God doesn't need any companions, might he not desire them? I suspect that our believing in monotheism arises at least partly out of our own understandable desire to be at the center of God's interest.

    Supposing that God did have other, more suitable companions than ourselves? Then, rather than being at the center of his concerns, would be out on the periphery, like our own solar system in relation to the galactic center. That would be too disturbing. So--whether Christian, Jew, or Muslim--we cling to monotheism, not for God's sake, but for our own: to assure our paramount importance to him.

    "We are always trying to serve God," the monotheists would respond. "We are continually seeking to discern his plan for us, and to act in accord with it.

    Yet, isn't that just the point: that we are asking what God desires for us, rather than what he desires for himself. I am not suggesting that polytheism is more, or less likely to be true than monotheism. Or neither. I am merely concerned with what believing in monotheism says about ourselves: that we are imputing to God a condition that we would abhor for ourselves--an existence in virtual solitary, devoid of other beings on his own level.

    Supposing we replaced monotheism with a spirituality more generous toward God, a spirituality that placed God's interests first, above our own desire for exclusivity? We wouldn't have to give up God's concern for us, merely our being first among his concerns. Surely, a God capable of miracles great and small--from the loaves and fishes and the parting of the Red Sea, down to listening to everyone's prayers simultaneously--is a God who could easily look out for our interests along with his own. He might even appreciate our unselfishness toward him, and surely we could be prouder of ourselves.

  21. PRF. That is a very interesting perspective on monotheism that I don't think I would ever have thought of.

    I would add that I think this has to do with the rationalist theological character of monotheism. Because all the divine is in one place, a lot of heavy theoretical theologising is needed to squeeze it all into one coherent package (unlike say the Greek pantheon, whose divinity is partial, imperfect, and widely distributed). By the requirements of monotheistic theology therefore Big-G God has to be perfectly self-integrated and self-sufficient, and thus a very strange being of thought indeed.

  22. True, in the past people from christianity made serious mistakes of matter of fact. Your point that phillosophers somehow have triumphed by the nagging, yes but...misses the point that phillosophers care only about questions, yet still we see in human nature that people seek for answers. This in itself will keep religion alive and not only a personal matter as validation from peers is important (another fact of human nature). And the answers of meaning and creation are answers that science can not give us by definition, as science may be created as well... To PRF...well your point misses the fact of a montheistic God of three persons where one person (the father) loves another one , the son via the Holy spirit, and also misses the point that one of the reasons in their view (Christian religion)why we are so valuable is that we can stablish a personal relationship with God as a son of him, that sets apart Christianity from other monotheistic relions.

  23. Hi Anon. I'm not suggesting that people will stop seeking answers to their personal questions in theological religion. I'm only pointing out the secular character of that exercise.

    For example, when you compare different religions and say yours is better on independent grounds (you get to have a personal relationship with the divine), you illustrate exactly what I am talking about: individuals choosing answers from a menu board according to their personal taste about what will make them feel fulfilled.

  24. I'd like to know whether your narrative applies to Eastern religions like Buddhism as well. The version of Buddhism which made shore here in New York feels very inner directed and better suited for secularism than the Abrahamic religions- though that may be an illusion. Perhaps the Buddhism present in the United States has more in common with New Age spirituality than anything else

  25. HB I'm afraid I know little about Buddhism (just enough to recognise that one shouldn't take Abrahamic style theological monotheism as the model or benchmark for how religion works). On the other hand, if my structural thesis is correct, the content of religion doesn't much matter. To be religious/spiritual or whatever in the modern context of a secular politics and secular metaphysics is always a matter of individual belief projected outwards. Perhaps in some secluded parts of Tibet, one can still find 'religious' Buddhism, but it seems unlikely in New York. If you're right, there may be aspects of the deracinated imported Buddhism that make it particularly successful in the market for religion, at least among certain demographics.

    1. I asked a similar question below before spotting this comment and reply. There seem to be two clear waves in contemporary Buddhism in the west and they apply to all schools of the religion. The first is primarily a religious affair with westerners seeking to recreate the exotic form of Japanese, Tibetan Buddhism as closely as possible in a western context. This involves a fair degree of imagination and the pushing against society's mores. It involves the same group think and group identity as any other religious manifestation.
      The second wave is a much more personalized form that is closer to self-help work and psychotherapy; it is less interested in spreading the good word, and focused on individual 'liberation' and development. It is successful in individualizing the religious form to a greater degree than mainstream religions, but not so successful in generating income through actively selling its product because it is so focused on the interior landscape of the individual.

  26. Great essay. The section on deracination feels a bit like something written by Oswald Spengler. His view was that each Civilization begins by believing organically in a central idea, but as cities grow and people lose touch with the natural world they also come to express that central idea more cerebrally and abstractly. He called that the Puritanical stage of a civilization.

  27. Great article! Very well written: both eloquent and insightful. You've managed to express successfully many of the half thoughts and unfinished conclusions I had been pondering myself and fill in many of the gaps. Really, excellent writing.
    Any thoughts on the seeming need in individuals to contact a force or idea that is greater than themselves outside of a preexisting religious format? Or the potential return to viewing the world as sacred in order to generate a new respect for the environment we live in? Perhaps non-religious spiritual impulses in themselves may have use in the long-term for giving a sense to people's lives in a non-religious, secular framework? The New Age movement in part seems to have been a desire for this, although a very shallow, self-centered one fully immersed in the consumerist ploy.
    It would be good to have a similar article written with regards to Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Taoism, which believe in a higher power, god/gods, accepting one's lot, etc, etc, and then Buddhism, which in most forms refutes such ideas but still carries reincarnation as a central theme and is still guilty of playing the same games with society, politics, modernism and post-modernism that you have described above.