Progressivism as Religion

The usual response to the claim that progressivism is a religion is to treat the matter with a certain amount of derision, or as political rhetoric being used to discredit progressivism. While it is true, I am no friend to the progressive agenda, my point is not an issue of discoloring my opponent, but rather a move towards understanding the conflicts of our times, and pointing out the religious roots of many of our political controversies. One of the back log of articles starting to develop in files on my computer and the back of my mind is a more formal discussion of this topic, though this is outside of most of my studies and may be some time in coming. Some will immediately object, progressivism, they say, builds no churches or temples, there are no sacred texts, or all the other things we associate with religion. But, if my proposal is right, these are accidental aspects of religion, not essential ones, and we must move to what religion is not merely what the guises it wears.

To put this in context, there was a time when medieval European thinkers divided religions into four categories, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Paganism. As the age of exploration began, these four divisions were proven to be inadequate, and the taxonomy of religions expanded, though the activity also influenced religions, themselves. A similar thing has happened in the west as during the enlightenment and post-enlightenment new atheistic, pantheistic and panentheistic philosophies arose that fulfilled the roles not only of philosophy but that held by theologians in the left as well. Naturalism, in the form of Hume’s argument against miracles, or the assertions of Spinoza were accepted as excluding any supernatural content in the world a priori. The atheistic and antisupernaturalistic nature of these philosophies have often led to the claim they are not religious, but the question of the supernatural or God is not the final answer. The atheist claiming he does not practice a religion because he does not believe in anything supernatural is a bit like a Christian claiming Christianity isn’t a religion, it is a relationship. Such statements are good for internal morale, but may not work in actual reasoning.

It will surprise many to know that Communism and Nazism are often noted to have formal, religious elements depending on the system for defining religions. Usually these systems of thought are accorded some related status as “pseudo-religions,” my ultimate proposal is to drop the prefix as unnecessary, and counter-productive. The reason why these philosophies are termed this way is because many philosophical definitions of religion would seem to include these movements, for example, many discussions of religion discuss myth—which is not in philosophy of religion a designation for truth or error, but how stories function, develop and change within a community, and progressives have their myths about the enlightenment, or a cherry-picked version of Western history. Similarly, the utopian dreams of socialism forms their eschatological hopes.

Both Communism and Nazism have been classified as well as “political religions,” this is more common with the Nazis due to some of the rituals the regime engaged in (such as is related to the blood flag or those Nazis who met their deaths during the Beerhall Putsch; and there are indications that Hitler wanted to replace Christianity with a religion based on German blood). Progressives will object that this is again tarring them, but my point, again, is not rhetorical, but taxonomical, and some extreme libertarians (the real “far right” in US parlance, who take the economic principle of markets and turn it into a universal metaphor) would be categorized in the same way, but that is a different argument.

There are two things that are needed to be understood about this proposition, before moving forward. First, I am not using the term “progressive” as a term for the American left, I’m rather using it to distinguish it from the left. The idea of a political “left” and political “right” implies that there are underlying shared premises between the two political sides, but that there are differences in how these principles should be balanced, and applied. That was true when, for example, when Washington was unabashedly in favor of economic capitalism, but there were differences of opinion on how to balance out the needs of social safety nets, and what role government should play in discussions between unions and management. But this is not what I mean when I refer to a progressive, most progressives follow the adage that capitalism should be rejected entirely,[1] this is not a move further to the left on the previous discussions of a political axis, it is rather a rejection of the shared premises that make up that axis, and replacing it with one that is incommensurable. In this sense, the concept of “compromise” with a progressive is impossible to achieve; one can have a capitalist society with safety nets, or one can have a socialist society where industry essentially functions at the will of government, but one cannot have both. Similar things are true about a number of other issues, progressives, for example, issues involving free speech or definitions of justice.

Secondarily, progressivism is not merely another term for “post-modernism” though they are related concepts. One of the major elements in post-modern thought is what news commentators have called “politicization of the humanities;” in colleges, which itself is based some of Nietsche’s ideas communicated into the Academy through Fouchault, the central thesis being that ethics are not about defining how we should live, ethics rather are a lever to control people. Another major component of the genealogical movement are Marx and the twentieth century attempts to repair Marx. This approach is known as the “genealogical approach” to ethics,[2] and it is a major component of the various feminist, ethnic, and queer studies departments on campus. In a sense, this has led to a reversal of the classical Western rational approach to ethics. That is, in the West, the ethics are required to derive their rational basis from other fields, in post-modernism, ethics, particularly social ethics are assumed, and are then treated as axioms for finding truth in fields such as history, where elements of history that do not match the metanarrative are quietly excised. For example, one of the major issues leading to Southern slave codes was the Haitian massacre of 1804, an attempted genocide of the remaining French on the island, and it is often referred to in apologies for slavery. However, in modern treatment (in the dozens of articles I scanned recently on the subject), the importance of the Haitian revolution on slavery on the ante-bellum south is often discussed, usually is propagandized, but the massacre of 1804 is not mentioned (one cannot make the heroes of the Haitian revolution look bad). The “academic” article becomes mere propaganda, and comments to the contrary are not answered with cold reason, but with diatribe, invective, censure and attempts to remove the offender from the academy, itself. That is, the relationship of post-modern philosophy to progressivism is reversed, progressivism is the basis for post-modern philosophy as opposed to the traditional tendency for political systems to be outgrowths of philosophical thought and ideals.

The question, however, is what is a Christian’s response? Our goal should be to win them to Christ, but we need to recognize that this means dealing with progressivism as a religion, not merely as s political ideology. In part, I have a second blog, barely begun and in worse shape than truth in the trenches, in many ways, a political answer is needed to progressivism from the standpoint of countering a false faith. I am not comfortable with this, the tendency for Christians engaging in politics is to let political relationships and alliances dictate truth, this is something to be avoided. Secondarily, the Christian apologist needs to be a defender, in a sense, of the West, as Christianity is, within progressive thought inextricably bound to the west. Works by Rodney Stark are important helps and starting points. Finally, we need to demonstrate the irrational nature of the Progressive ethic. While progressivism is not irrational, it’s proponents believe they are rational. Progressivism is built on the anti-ethical (and anti-intellectualism) of Nietsche, that is, it is based on the idea that ethics (and academic work) are means of power, a way for the weak to control the strong. Ethics, therefore, must be unreal, except that progressives seem to treat their ethical code as if it is both real and self-evident. That is, the progressives do not understand the roots or basis of their own ethical system. For example, pro-abortion proponents rely heavily on a distinction between being human and being a person that is similar to the Nazi arguments that certain racial groups were sub-human, often with the same types of criteria (such as alleged statements of intelligence). There is, therefore, a contradiction in the standard of imitating Nazi arguments on the one hand and decrying them on the other. Some might argue, if progressive ethics are as irrational as I have stated, should I aim for rational discourse? After all, an irrational treatment of an ethic as self-evident must inevitably remain irrational.  But I believe C S Lewis answered this question in Mere Christianity. No matter how much the atheist might try to pretend to deny moral realism (or for that matter rationality), they cannot live as if that denial were true.

[1] Often times this will be objected to, because the left appeals to capitalist states in Europe as models of socialism, but these are actually closer to discussions of welfare liberalism, that is, by American standards they are a left wing movement within capitalism, not a rejection of capitalism.

[2] See MacIntyre Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry