Friday, June 18, 2004

The Politics Religion

Many new religions were born in the Sixties. Mind you, none or almost none of these are perceived as religions and that is the essence of religion. Religion is a set of beliefs which are subconscious and so subvocal. Something that cannot be expresse--something that we are not even consciously aware of--that is something that cannot be questioned, something that we cannot be skeptical about, something for which no new Voltaire can possibly arise to ridicule and destroy our faith.

The birth of new religions in the Sixties is a fascinating subject which I do not understand. It is roughly akin to the phenomenon of the creation of tornadoes on the Great Plains every Spring, as the climate shifts dramatically each year from cold to hot. This dramatic change in the air pushes a lot of energy into the atmosphere, which causes localized swirls and eddies to develop, and sometimes these eddies are so energetic as to essentially take on a life of their own, going where they will. So it was, in the metaphysical plane, during the Sixties in the United States.

The shift in the metaphysical climate was so dramatic that comparing pictures of college boys wearing suits and ties and white shirts in the early Sixties to pictures of drugged-out hippies lolligagging around on college campuses in the late Seventies, it's almost impossible to believe it was the same country let alone the same college campus. A huge shift of this sort in the metaphysical plane pushes in a lot of energy and that energy has to dissipate somehow. Voila, a lot of new religions were suddenly created. We got the Moonies, we got the Anti-Sugar religion (and other food religions), we got Born Agains, we got Jews for Jesus, we got Animal Rights Activists, the list is long. One very important new religion among these was the Politics Religion.

But perhaps I err here in my use of the language. The "Politics Religion" is not a full-fledged religion the way that, say, Catholicism is a full-fledged religion. In fact, it's hard (maybe impossible) to say what is a "religion", what is an "ideology", what is a "belief system". My belief is that the distinction is meaningless anyway. The real point is that we all have things that we believe in which give us meaning in our lives on a daily basis. These beliefs are coherent--they don't change radically from day to day--and transmissible from person to person. What name is applied to this process doesn't concern me much but "religion" seems to be most apt.

Nonetheless, these various "religions" differ markedly in their depth and range of emotional appeal. That can already be seen by comparing Catholicism with Protestantism. The Catholic Church provides a wide range of religious opportunities, from scholarly to out and out pagan, while the Protestants in general provide a very toned-down austere version of religion. If that particularly austerity of hard wooden benches with insipid colored glass and an hour of holier-than-thou preachiness doesn't exactly suit you, then the Protestants don't have much to offer. Are there any Protestant cathedrals? Certainly not in the United States. The depth of religious and community commitment required to build a cathedral over the course of centuries is something alien to Protestantism.

Similarly, one can find great variety within the various Protestant sects themselves. Some are quite austere (and for many Protestants, it seems, austerity is itself the point) while others such as the Church of England are not all that far from Catholicism in their basic approach. Which, if any, appeals to you depends on your personal religious needs.

Some people have enormous religious needs which require a religion which controls what they eat, what they drink, and virtually has a rule for every action they take during a given day. Islam is of this nature. For other people, the religious needs are so simple that they can be satisfied by a single belief. The Politics Religion is like this.

The Politics Religion is simply the belief that what God wants is "political action" (although "God" of course is never mentioned). That the most important thing on the planet is that one work to create new laws, new government actions, which will make the world a better place. That the Angels will sing each time I go out and wage a political fight to improve the world, whether people like it or not. It is the Politics Religion which has brought us the seat belt laws, the Politics Religion which is doing its best to outlaw smoking everywhere it can be found, the Politics Religion which has dictated that each and every device sold in the country must be safer than safe--no matter what the cost--or lawsuits will ensue.

It is child's play to look around that world and find things that are not right, that are causing problems, that are inadequate, obsolete, or unfair. No matter how much technological or social progress is made, such problems will always persist. Many of these problems might look mighty trivial to previous generations who struggled mightily to have enough to eat, it is true, but perspective is not important to the adherents of the Politics Religion. It is the fact that things are never as good as one can imagine they could be that is of firstrate importance. We are all bothered by the world from time to time. We all are frustrated by the red tape of bureaucracy or the sheer unfairness of wealth and power distributions. The question is how we should react to this, or even whether we should react to this. The Politics Religion, like any good religion, gives a clear and unambiguous answer to this: yes, we should be concerned, yes, the Angels will sing if we are concerned, and yes, we should fix these problems through political action. There can always be more laws, more rules, more controls, more state-imposed fairness and more state-imposed safety and one can find purpose in one's life by agitating for greater societal control to fix all these problems that are everywhere. That's a good solution to the fundamental religious problem of mankind for many people who grew up in the Sixties and later. Much good can come of this.

There are however some downsides to the politics religion. For many who are in the Sixties generation, they have become obsessed by politics instead of being obsessed by their chosen vocations or professions. Thus we see Noam Chomsky completely focussed on his anti-American political obsessions rather than Linguistics, his chosen profession. American campuses are filled with adherents of the Poltics Religion, people who have no more interest in scholarly activities than they do in ditch-digging, but who have entered Academia merely because they perceived it as an opportunity to carry out the political activities demanded by their religion.

There is also the problem of good choices in public policy. A religious person cannot be reasoned with because rationality is not the issue. Every public policy is a tradeoff between liberty, safety, cost, and other factors. Every new law passed will alter this balance. Some problems are fixable but only at great cost, a cost which is not worth bearing when considered against the magnitude of the problem. Not worth bearing, that is to say, for someone whose religious needs are being met in some other manner. For a person for whom the very act of fixing this problem is providing their purpose in life, there is nothing that is more important than this action, this new law, this new regulation, and costs be damned. For most of us, this isn't necessarily the best use of our limited resources. And the True Believer in the Politics Religion cannot be dissuaded in the least. This can lead to unavoidable conflict and polarization and to flatly bad public policies.

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