Darkness descends over civilization and freedom. It flows not from any external threat but from within the human heart. We are beings capable of happiness and flourishing, but sometimes we push our fears and anxieties into the shadows. There they fester. And from those deep psychological bowers, fear and anxiety reemerge transformed.
To live right now, then, is to live in paradox. Despite conditions of relative peace and abundance, a psychosocial pathology has taken hold. It manifests itself as something like a replacement religion. Where people once turned to their temples and communities for reassurance, more turn now to political authority. Merchants of fear magnify the significance of certain human problems, which obscures complicated truths and feeds the dogmas of this new faith. Adherents believe they are on the side of the angels, but their faith threatens to bring about a new Dark Age. Why? Because more and more people in the grip of this religion are willing to use illiberal means.
The Church of State
In a past column, I suggested it’s no accident that as people have become less religious, they have taken their need for its trappings and transferred it into the political realm. That religion, which I call the Church of State, offers people three Articles of Faith:
Wealth as Immorality is the notion that our abundance is the product of our sin;
Society by Design is the idea that society and economy can be ordered administratively by elites; and
Authoritarian Urge is the will to control others, whether to quell our fears, overcome sin, or force one’s ideals into existence.
Now, cross these Articles of Faith with three big problems, and you can see how this new Church of State is currently organizing itself:
Wealth Inequality. One sect is obsessed with the idea that some people control considerable resources while others have too little. Such obsession causes the adherents to focus on what the rich have rather than what the poor lack. They seek equality of outcomes, which means using illiberal means to confiscate wealth.
“Inequality is the root of social evil.” – Pope Francis on Wealth Inequality
Climate Emergency. Another sect is preoccupied with an impending apocalypse due to energy consumption which leads to runaway warming. Positive climate feedback loops will eventually cause fragile ecosystems and societies to collapse. They seek climate stability, which requires the abrupt curtailment of production and consumption.
“This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.” – Greta Thunburg on Climate Change
Social Injustice. The third sect fixates on the idea of justice as a cosmic scoreboard. They think neutral, liberal rules not only perpetuate racism but allow the privileged to preserve their power over oppressed minorities. They seek equity, which means using illiberal means to right historical wrongs or correct perceived power imbalances.
“One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.” – Ibram X. Kendi on Social Justice
The most powerful aspect of the Big Three problems is that each has a grain of truth: Some rich people have gotten richer through a rigged game as poor people continue to struggle; Climate change is happening to some degree, and we have all contributed to it; Certain people benefit from a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, while overt racists gather and march from time to time. These are all problems that people of conscience should come together to address.
But those dedicating their lives to the Big Three tend to exaggerate their severity. Indeed, the most zealous put these issues at the center of all moral, social, and economic life. Once there, no other concerns or values matter. And that changes an ideological prior into a religious dogma, particularly when people organize around said dogma.
Consider how the Articles of Faith intersect with the Big Three Problems:
Because people are primarily greedy, wealthy societies are disastrously unequal, which means unfair and unjust.
There is an ideal distribution of resources and wealth in society; we must design society to realize that ideal.
Those who control excess wealth and capital must be brought down peg by peg through wealth distribution.
Because consumers are greedy, they use too much energy and release too many greenhouse gases, hastening a crisis.
There is a mix of personal commitments and renewable energy mandates that will save us all.
Industrialists drive catastrophe, so authorities must regulate them at any cost, even to economic growth.
Because the powerful and the privileged are mostly greedy, they will oppress minorities to preserve their privilege.
Use state power to bring about ideal social justice, including reparations, quotas, and unequal treatment.
Intersectional power must ascend to dismantle the power and privilege of the oppressor class by any means.
Wealth as Immorality
The Authoritarian Urge
Because we are still in a global pandemic, it’s tempting to add that dynamic into the mix. After all, Covid has stoked widespread fear and anxiety to the point that, for many, totalitarian measures have become palatable. But concerns about public health, like the pandemic itself, will likely be transitory. People are already moving on, which is overwhelming the political class.
In other words, concerns about viruses, though real, might not have the same durable features as the Big Three, simply because inequality, climate change, and social injustice deal in abstractions and claims that are even more difficult to falsify. That makes solving such problems far harder, but converting people to the Church of State much easier. Thus:
There is no vaccine for racism. So we place our faith in something else: We have to ‘do the work’ of antiracism, which means the privileged must first confess to the Original Sin of whiteness. These sinners must then allow an enlightened ruling class to launch illiberal measures to dismantle ‘white supremacy,’ which is everywhere. Only then can they atone.
There is no drug for the climate emergency. So we place our faith in global bodies and confess the Original Sin of consumerism and corporate greed, which threatens to boil our fragile ecosystems. The sinners must then allow an enlightened ruling class to control the means of production, and curb consumption. Only then might the climate crisis be averted.
There is no herd immunity for inequality. So we place our faith in politicians promising to deal with the billionaires building their space toys as the homeless wander the streets of San Francisco. The sinners must then allow an enlightened ruling class to confiscate their wealth so that the poor get housing, the hungry get fed, and the sociologists get student loan forgiveness.
Elements of a New Religion
By now, hopefully, you’re starting to see the outlines of this new religion coming into view. But to make it a little starker, consider how the new religion maps onto features of an older one.
Omniscience. The entity is all-knowing. We must install its most devout and trust in its institutions. If you don’t, you have simply lost faith, which you must regain.
Omnipotence. The entity is all-powerful. Therefore, it can solve all social problems, as long as the benighted are out of the way and the enlightened are empowered to realize its plans.
Enlightened vs. Benighted. There is a special class of people who possess wisdom and correct opinion, and it is that class’s job to shed light on those still living in the dark.
Impending Apocalypse. If we do nothing — where “we” refers to authorities — x will happen, which will result in humanity creating hell on earth.
Ideal Place Awaits. There is a better society just waiting for the enlightened class to conceive it, design it, and build it for everyone else. But first, we must give up our wickedness. And then we must acquiesce.
Original Sin. A mysterious force keeps us from doing the right thing, and, in many ways, it always has. It is not really in our control, but we must try to overcome it nevertheless.
Good vs. Evil. Those who agree with us are good, and those who disagree with us are not.
Indulgences. If you give financial support to the right authorities, you can atone for sin. This will eventually translate into social good, and you and subsequent generations will someday arrive at a better condition.
Faith vs. Rationality. Eschew evidence, reason, and neutral rules of discourse. Instead, the faithful find truth in narratives, myths, and appeals to “lived experience,” you know like that of Jussie Smollett. (When it works, seize power.)
Asceticism and Self-Flagellation. You are evil. To cleanse yourself, you must deny yourself pleasure and self-administer pain so that you never forget you are weak and flawed.
The Priesthood. You should follow and recite the proclamations of the most well-known and active among the enlightened class. Follow them and heed their words.
Sacred and Profane. Some places symbolize that which is pure, and other places symbolize that which is morally depraved. (DEI-designated spaces are sacred. Nature is sacred. Egalitarian commons are sacred.)
Embodied Evil. If an omniscient and omnipotent entity represents the good, then a powerful, countervailing entity must embody the evil.
Blame and Shame. If they cannot yet be coerced, one must at least hector the unbelievers. They will eventually identify with us, if not to assuage their guilt, then to get away from the “wrong side of history.”
Messianic Figure. Occasionally, someone appears who promises to save us. The priesthood must rally around this figure so that the laity will too.
Scapegoat. Someone or something has to be killed or destroyed who symbolizes the sin. (Twitter is a great place to find sacrificial animals.)
I could go on: There are chosen people, eschatologies, and methods of converting those who risk damnation. And as with the above list, each sect might differ in terms of which of the Big Three she references. One wonders if such differences create the conditions for a schism.
Schism or Scapegoat?
Currently, this new religious order is holding itself together, but that could change. After all, in most religious orders, there is one true way. Whether that way lies in the pieties, rites, and liturgies one sect adopts — or in determining what particular sin is most egregious — the more differences each sect finds in the details, the more they will see the other sects as competitors.
To maintain unity, it might not be enough that the sects all worship in the Church of State. They might have to maintain unity through the sacrifice of a common scapegoat. And that scapegoat could well be you, Dear Reader.
I don’t suggest such things to strike fear in you. Instead, we should consider that it might be time to create another form of civil association into which a new generation can transmit and transmute their fears. Because if I’m correct that the Church of State is more or less the apotheosis of transferred anxieties, then people will always be looking for an outlet — whether in government power or something else. The State is a fundamentally violent institution, so we must fear it most of all.
We must also be concerned about vengeful reactions to this new Church of State because reactionaries share a willingness to use illiberal means to put down their enemies, which expands state power and risks making the rest of us collateral damage in a 21st-century civil war.
My hypothesis, though fragile, is that we must upgrade liberal humanism. We do so by integrating both ancient wisdom and modern innovation. It must be a liberal humanism that unifies people in the secure bosom of community but preserves decentralization and pluralism. But at the core of this improved doctrine, we must rediscover timeless moral truths. Nonviolence. Integrity. Compassion. These truths require not just lip service but active, daily practice. Finally, in viewing one another as sacred individuals, even the godless might just find something a little closer to God. If we don’t reestablish a doctrine of sacredness of persons, we risk returning to the horrors that marked the twentieth century.
“Never again,” we promised, but only liberalism can keep that promise.