The Religion of Progress

To suggest that faith in progress has become the most widely accepted civil religion of the modern industrial world, as I’ve done in these essays, is to say something at once subtler and more specific than a first glance might suggest. It’s important to keep in mind, as I pointed out in last week’s post, that “religion” isn’t a specific thing with a specific definition; rather, it’s a label for a category constructed by human minds—an abstraction, in other words, meant to help sort out the blooming, buzzing confusion of the cosmos into patterns that make some kind of sense to us.

To say that Americanism, Communism, and faith in progress are religions, after all, is simply a way of focusing attention on similarities that these three things share with the other things we put in the same category.  It doesn’t deny that there are also differences, just as there are differences between one theist religion and another, or one civil religion and another.  Yet the similarities are worth discussing: like theist religions, for example, the civil religions I’ve named each embody a set of emotionally appealing narratives that claim to reveal enduring meaning in the chaos of everyday existence, assign believers a privileged status vis-a-vis the rest of humanity, and teach the faithful to see themselves as participants in the grand process by which transcendent values become manifest in the world.

Just as devout Christians are taught to see themselves as members of the mystical Body of Christ and participants in their faith’s core narrative of fall and redemption, the civil religion of Americanism teaches its faithful believers to see their citizenship as a quasi-mystical participation in a richly mythologized national history that portrays America as the incarnation of liberty in a benighted world. It’s of a piece with the religious nature of Americanism that liberty here doesn’t refer in practice to any particular constellation of human rights; instead, it’s a cluster of vague but luminous images that, to the believer, are charged with immense emotional power.  When people say they believe in America, they don’t usually mean they’ve intellectually accepted a set of propositions about the United States; they mean that they have embraced the sacred symbols and narratives of the national faith.

The case of Communism is at least as susceptible to such an analysis, and in some ways even more revealing. Most of the ideas that became central to the civil religion of Communism were the work of Friedrich Engels, Marx’s friend and patron, who took over the task of completing the second and third volumes of Das Kapital on Marx’s death. It’s from Engels that we get the grand historical myth of the Communist movement, and it’s been pointed out many times already that every part of that myth has a precise equivalent in the Lutheran faith in which Engels was raised. Primitive communism is Eden; the invention of private property is the Fall; the stages of society thereafter are the different dispensations of sacred history; Marx is Jesus, the First International his apostles and disciples, the international Communist movement the Church, proletarian revolution the Second Coming, socialism the Millennium, and communism the New Jerusalem which descends from heaven in the last two chapters of the Book of Revelations.

The devout Communist, in turn, participates in that sweeping vision of past, present and future in exactly the same way that the devout Christian participates in the sacred history of Christianity. To be a Communist of the old school is not simply to accept a certain set of economic theories or predictions about the future development of industrial society; it’s to enlist on the winning side in the struggle that will bring about the fulfillment of human history, and to belong to a secular church with its own saints, martyrs, holy days, and passionate theological disputes. It was thus well placed to appeal to European working classes which, during the heyday of Communism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were rarely more than a generation removed from the richly structured religious life of rural Europe.  In precisely the same way, Americanism appealed to people raised within the framework of traditional American Christianity, with its focus on personal commitment and renewal and its tendency to focus on the purportedly timeless rather than on a particular sequence of sacred history.

If this suggests a certain dependence of civil religions on some older theist religion, it should. So far, I’ve talked mostly about the category “religion” and the ways in which assigning civil religions to that category casts light on some of their otherwise perplexing aspects. Still, the modifier “civil” deserves as much attention as the noun “religion.” If, as I’ve argued, civil religions can be understood a little better if they’re included in the broad category of religions in general, they also have distinctive features of their own, and one of them—the most important for the present purpose—is that they’re derivative; it would not be excessive, in fact, to call them parasitic.

The derivative nature of civil religions reaches out in two directions. First, where theist religions in literate urban societies generally have an institutional infrastructure set apart for their use—places of worship, places of instruction, organizations of religious professionals, and so on—civil religions most often don’t.  They make use of existing infrastructure in a distinctly ad hoc fashion. In the civil religion of Americanism, for example, there are sacred shrines to which believers make pilgrimages. Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where the Continental army under George Washington spent the decisive winter of the Revolutionary War, is a good example. 

Among believers in Americanism, the phrase “Valley Forge” is one to conjure with. While pilgrimage sites of theist religions are normally under the management of religious organizations, though, and are set apart for specifically religious uses, Valley Forge is an ordinary national park. Those who go there to steep themselves in the memory of the Revolution can count on rubbing elbows with birdwatchers, cyclists, families on camping vacations, and plenty of other people for whom Valley Forge is simply one of the largest public parks in southeastern Pennsylvania.  There’s a local convention and visitors bureau with a lavish website headlined “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Fun,” which may suggest the degree of reverence surrounding the site these days.

In the same way, it’s hard to speak of the priesthood of a civil religion in other than metaphorical terms; those who take an active role in promoting a civil religion rarely have the opportunity to make that a full time job.  A great many civil religions, in fact, are folk religions, sustained by the voluntary efforts of ordinary believers.  The existing political system may encourage these efforts, or it may make every effort to stamp the civil religion out of existence, but the fate of civil religions are rarely dependent on the actions of governments.  Communism again is a case in point; as a civil religion, it came under heavy persecution in those countries that did not have Communist governments, and received ample state support in those countries that did. Just as the persecutions usually failed to lessen the appeal of Communism to those who had not seen it in action, the state support ultimately failed to maintain its appeal to those who had.

The dependence of civil religions on infrastructure borrowed from nonreligious sources, in turn, is paralleled by an equivalent dependence on ideas borrowed from older theist religions. I’ve already discussed the way that the civil religion of Americanism derives its basic outlook from what used to be the mainstream of American Protestant Christianity, and the point-for-point equivalences between the theory of the Communist civil religion and the older sacred history of European Christianity. The same thing can be traced in other examples of civil religion—for example, the way that the civil religion of the late Roman world derived its theory and practice across the board from older traditions of classical Paganism. There’s a reason for this dependence, and it brings us back to Nietzsche, kneeling in the street with his arms around the neck of a half-dead horse.

Civil religions emerge when traditional theist religions implode. In 19th-century Europe and America, the collapse of traditional social patterns and the long-term impact of the Enlightenment cult of reason made uncritical acceptance of the teachings of the historic Christian creeds increasingly difficult, both for educated people and for the mass of newly urbanized factory workers and their families. Nietzsche, whose upbringing in rapidly industrializing Germany gave him a ringside seat for that process, saw the ongoing failure of the Western world’s faith in Christian revelation as the dawn of an age of tremendous crisis: the death of God, to use his trenchant phrase, would inevitably be followed by cataclysmic struggles to determine who or what would take his place.

In these impending conflicts, Nietzsche himself was anything but a disinterested bystander.  He had his own preferred candidate, the Overman: a human being of a kind that had never before existed, and could never have existed except by very occasional accident as long as religious belief provided an unquestioned basis for human values. The Overman was not a successor species to today’s humanity, as some of Nietzsche’s less thoughtful interpreters have suggested, nor some biologically superior subset of human beings, as Nietzsche’s tenth-rate plagiarists in the Nazi Party liked to pretend. As Nietzsche envisioned him, the Overman was an individual human being—always and irreducibly individual—who has become his own creator, reinventing himself moment by moment in the image of values that he himself has created. 

Nietzsche was perceptive enough, though, to take note of the other contenders for God’s empty throne, and sympathetic enough to recognize the importance and value of theist religion for those who could still find a way to believe in it. In the prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the first person Nietzsche’s alter ego Zarathustra meets as he descends from the mountains is an old hermit, who spends his days praising God. Zarathustra goes his way, being careful to do nothing to challenge the hermit’s faith, and only when he is alone again does he reflect:  “Can it be possible? This old saint in the forest hasn’t yet heard that God is dead!”

For the Overman’s rivals in the struggle to replace God, Nietzsche had less patience.  One alternative that he discussed at great length and greater heat was German nationalism, the local variant of the same civil religion that became Americanism on this side of the ocean.  The state was to him a “cold monster” that claimed the right to replace the Christian deity as the source of values and the object of public worship; he hated it partly because of its real flaws, and partly because it stood in the way of his preferred candidate. “There, where the state ends—look there, my brothers. Don’t you see it—the rainbow, and the bridges to the Overman?”

Socialism was another alternative Nietzsche noted; here again, his assault on it was partly a harsh but by no means inaccurate analysis of its failings, and partly a matter of brushing another contender aside to make way for the Overman. Still, another rival attracted more of his attention, and it was the ersatz deity with which this series of posts is principally concerned: progress, the belief that humanity is moving inevitably onward and upward toward some glorious destiny.

The challenge that Nietzsche leveled against belief in progress will be discussed later on, as it needs to be understood in the context of the most difficult dimension of his philosophy, and that in turn needs to be put into its own much broader context, one that will require more than a little explanation of its own. Still, the point I want to make here is that Nietzsche’s identification of faith in progress as an attempted replacement for faith in God is at least as valid now as it was in his own day.

Compare the civil religion of progress to the others discussed in this and last week’s post and the parallels are  hard to miss.  Like other civil religions, to begin with, the religion of progress has repeatedly proven its ability to call forth passions and motivate sacrifices as great as those mobilized by theist religions. From the researchers who have risked their lives, and not infrequently lost them, to further the progress of science and technology, to the moral crusaders who have done the same thing in the name of political or economic progress, straight on through to the ordinary people who have willingly given up things they valued because they felt, or had been encouraged to believe, that the cause of progress demanded that sacrifice from them, the religion of progress has no shortage of saints and martyrs. It has inspired its share of art, architecture, music and literature, covering the usual scale from the heights of creative genius to the depths of kitsch; it has driven immense social changes, and made a mark on the modern world considerably greater than that of contemporary theist religions.

The relationships between the civil religion of progress and theist religions, to pass to the second point raised last week, have been at least as problematic as those involving the civil religions we’ve already examined. The religion of progress has its own internal divisions, its own sects and denominations, and it bears noting that these have responded differently to the various theist faiths of the modern world. On the one hand, there have been plenty of efforts, more or less successful, to coopt Jesus, the Jewish prophets, and an assortment of other religious figures as crusaders for progress of one kind or another.  On the other hand, there have been any number of holy wars declared against theist faiths by true believers in progress who hold that belief in one or more gods is “primitive,” “backward,” and “outdated”—in the jargon of the religion of progress, please note, these and terms like them mean roughly what “sinful” means in the jargon of Christianity.

The civil religion of progress also has its antireligion, which is the belief in apocalypse.  Like the antireligions of other faiths, the apocalyptic antireligion embraces the core presuppositions of the faith it opposes—in this case, above all else, the vision of history as a straight line leading inexorably toward a goal that can only be defined in superlatives—but inverts all the value signs. Where the religion of progress likes to imagine the past as an abyss of squalor and misery, its antireligion paints some suitably ancient time in the colors of the Golden Age; where the religion of progress seeks to portray history as an uneven but unstoppable progress toward better things, its antireligion prefers to envision history as an equally uneven and equally unstoppable process of degeneration and decay; where the religion of progress loves to picture the future in the most utopian terms available, its antireligion uses the future as a screen on which to project lurid images of universal destruction.

The diverse sects and denominations of the religion of progress, furthermore, have their exact equivalent in the antireligion of apocalypse. There are forms of the antireligion that have coopted the language and imagery of older, theist faiths, and other forms that angrily reject those same faiths and everything related to them. Just as different versions of the religion of progress squabble over what counts as progress, different versions of the antireligion of apocalypse bicker over which kinds of degeneration matter most and what form the inevitable apocalypse is going to take—and in either case, as with other religions and their antireligions, the level of hostility between different subsets of the same religion or antireligion quite often exceeds the level that any branch of the religion directs at its antireligion, or vice versa.  The one great divergence between most forms of the religion of progress and most forms of its antireligion is that nowadays—matters have been different at other points in history—very few believers in progress expect the utopian future central to their faith to show up any time soon; most believers in the antireligion of apocalypse, by contrast, place all their hopes on the imminent arrival of cataclysm. Behind this divergence lies a complex historical situation, which will be explored in a later post.

The civil religion of progress, finally, shares the pattern of twofold dependence with the other civil religions we’ve examined.  Like them, it is largely a folk religion, supported by the voluntary efforts and contributions of its faithful believers, by way of an ad hoc network of institutions that were mostly created to serve other ends.  Those who  function as its priests and preachers have day jobs—even so important a figure as the late Carl Sagan, who came as close as anyone in recent times to filling the role of pope of the religion of progress, spent most of his career as a tenured  professor of astronomy at Cornell University.  Like most folk religions, it receives support from a variety of institutions that find it useful, but routinely behaves in ways that embarrass at least some of its sponsors.

The other side of its dependence—its reliance on a set of ideas borrowed from theist religion—is a more complicated matter. In order to make sense of it, it’s going to be necessary to look into the unexpected origins of the idea of progress in the modern world.  We’ll pursue that discussion next week.