Deism and the Development of American Civil Religion: A Case Study in Intellectual and Cultural Revolution from the Top 5

This is an old essay of mine that was originally a grad school paper for a course on the history of American religions.

What I did in this is trace how deism went from being a dissident intellectual movement among radical intellectuals in the West centuries ago to becoming the foundation of both American civil religion and popular religion, as well as the pivotal intellectual force that gave birth to the broader secular intellectual culture we find in the Western world today. The question: How can anarchism, currently a dissident intellectual movement among radical intellectuals, achieve over the course of the next few centuries what deism achieved over the past few centuries?

5 comments

  1. The Deists were successful not only because of their ideas and writing ability but because of the events and thinkers who came before them. True, Deist writers like Voltaire were fantastic. He realized that if he could get someone to laugh at a person, idea, or institution, he or she would have a hard time taking that person, idea, or institution seriously again. An example: he presented a dialogue between a missionary and a Muslim mucky muck in which the missionary was trying to explain the trinity. Finally, he said “and if you don’t understand and believe it, you will burn in hell forever.” At that point, the Muslim exclaimed: “Ah. Now I get it.” Now, Voltaire’s delivery is much better than mine, but my point is, Jackie the Jokeman could deliver his best ethnic joke at a SPLC meeting perfectly and he would be greeted by angry silence. A crowd has to be receptive to jokes. It wasn’t just Voltaire’s wit that won the day. His audience was receptive.

    Now, why were they receptive? I submit there had already been a weakening of Christianity’s hold on the public’s mind. Here’s why: The invention of the printing press allowed people to actually ready the Bible and theological texts. Prior to this, the Christian faith had largely been what is referred (euphemistically in my opinion) as implicit. Catholic parishioners listened to the Latin recitations (and not understanding a damn thing) and looked at the pretty statues and windows. Their faith was half-ass, but as long as they did not profess heresy, that was good enough for the Church. If they dared express heresy, however, Church and State came down on them, lest they convince others of their lies and damn them to eternal fire. Today we chalk inquisitions, witch burnings, etc., to earthly, self-interested motives—e.g., the desire to maintain power. But they really had benevolent intentions. The time we have on earth only matters insofar as it can determine our eternal fate. Allowing someone to believe the wrong beliefs, i.e., tolerance, is uncaring, because if you can torture the heresy out of them, you will save their soul, and if you allow them to walk among others, others may believe the wrong beliefs and go to hell too. With the printing press came a proliferation of competing doctrines. Since getting the doctrine right was infinitely important, the European wars of religion began. The wars became intolerable to the secular rulers, so treaties were entered into, e.g., the Peace of Westphalia,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_of_Westphalia#Religious_toleration

    in which geographical areas were allowed to practice the Christian variation of their choice. In other words, a decision was made that doctrine is not worth killing or dying over, but if one is to be true to the notion of salvation through faith, it most certainly is.

    Along these lines, in the Elizabethan Religious Settlement,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabethan_Religious_Settlement

    the Brits settled on a form of Christianity that took the ritual and grandeur of Catholicism and combined it with the dogma of Protestantism. Ta da, Anglicanism, an ongoing testament to England’s willingness to reach a compromise solution most Brits could live with rather than kill and die over which form of Christianity was the true form. These and other emergences of tolerance created the mindset that Christian doctrines really weren’t that important. The time was ripe for writers to take the next step, which is that doctrines not only aren’t that important, but are actually bullshit.

    The time seems ripe today for anarchists to ridicule the myths propping up the State, but only time will tell. At the risk of being corny, I hereby propose the 3 Rs for intellectual revolution, Recognize, Ridicule, and Rebuke. First, myths must be identified and exposed. Then, depending on the subject matter and the target audience, one can either attack them with wit or with righteous indignation. After that, one must hope for the best.

  2. “I hereby propose the 3 Rs for intellectual revolution, Recognize, Ridicule, and Rebuke. First, myths must be identified and exposed. Then, depending on the subject matter and the target audience, one can either attack them with wit or with righteous indignation. After that, one must hope for the best.”

    There are excellent places to start with this. Such as “The state keeps us safe.” The backlash against the TSA is a good example. Here’s one of my favorites:

    http://www.yourfunnystuff.com/tag/and-then-the-tsa-touch-their-balls%E2%80%A6/

    Maybe we need some anarchists from the marketing field to develop some sustained Ridicule Campaigns?

  3. Along those lines, we can make fun of the notion of traffic cops keeping us safe. They are, in reality, banditos with badges, pathetic and sad, and, in truth, victims too. Many aspiring cops no doubt had dreams of catching bad guys like in the movies (rooftop chases, etc,) or keeping the peace in the neighborhood as Officer Friendly, an image, probably somewhat accurate, of cops from the 50s–no quotas, lots of discretion, there to maintain harmony, not to make money for the town or otherwise make their superiors’ numbers look good.

    Other myths:

    The notion that 50% plus one conveys legitimacy. Says who? Why should it. Most people implicitly believe this, but never think that much about it.

    The idea that all people are equal. Clearly not true. Some are good looking and smart, others ugly and stupid. In the democratic state, the myth of equality is used to justify universal suffrage. In contrast, in aristocratic states, there’s a myth of the superiority of the nobility. Now, often there’s overlap between artificial aristocracy and natural aristocracy, but obviously there were a lot of inferior people with titles back in olden times.

    The myth of the rule of law. Those in power are not constrained by the law. It is what they say it is.

    There’s more, but that’s the general concept. If we bust the myths that prop up the State, the State will lose its prestige. Then people will be open to alternatives to the State.

    As for marketing, I don’t see this project as a series of campaigns but rather as a group of like-minded intellectuals and/or popular writers committed to myth busting, which can take the form of op-eds, longer articles, books, plays, TV shows, movies, etc., just like the philosophes did, led by Voltaire, during the Enlightenment.

  4. When the time comes that the state is finally delegitimized, I think things will move rather rapidly. The historic overthrow of theocracy is the model to draw on. The churches ruled for 1500 years with little opposition. At the time North America was being colonized by the earliest European settlers, the Thirty Years War was heating up in Europe. In England of the era, Hobbes was nearly executed for heresy. Religious toleration even for dissident Protestants did not come until the end of the 17th century in England, which was arguably the most progressive country of the time. During the same time, the Salem witch trials were going on in America. A century later the American Revolution took place which formally institutionalized church/state separation, while the philosophes and American deists were attacking the Christian doctrines themselves and inventing a new paganism. Within another century, Nietzsche was proclaiming God’s obituary. So in the space of two hundred years in the history of Western civilization, we went from theocratic religious persecution to a prevailing secular intellectual culture. Two hundred years is a long time relative to an individual’s life span, but historically speaking it’s very short amount of time.

    My guess is that the state will fall the same way. Already, most forms of the state have been de-legitimized. Few people take seriously doctrines like fascism, communism, monarchy, aristocracy, theocracy, or military government. Only “democracy” retains legitimacy in the eyes of intellectuals and most commoners. If we de-legitimize democracy and its related ideas like the rule of law, the sanctity of the cops, egalitarianism, and (let’s not forget) the corporate state and the military industrial complex, then we win by default. So this is really the core task of anarchist intellectuals: to de-legitimize the modern democratic state.

  5. “So this is really the core task of anarchist intellectuals: to de-legitimize the modern democratic state.”

    That’s what I think. Democracy is the only doctrine left. And, btw, and it doesn’t have the power of the divine right of kings theory, which held up quite a long time historically speaking.

    Another myth, which I’ll write here while I’m thinking of it, is the myth that democracies are peaceful. Hoppe and others have written about this, pointing out that ideological wars, which are the wars waged by democracies, are far worse than the limited wars waged between monarchies:

    “In contrast to the limited warfare of the ancien regime, the era of democratic warfare — which began with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, continued during the 19th century with the American War of Southern Independence, and reached its apex during the 20th century with World War I and World War II — has been the era of total war. In contrast to the limited warfare of the ancien regime, the era of democratic warfare — which began with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, continued during the 19th century with the American War of Southern Independence, and reached its apex during the 20th century with World War I and World War II — has been the era of total war.”

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/hoppe/hoppe17.html

    It’s occurred to me that Augustinian Christianity contained within it the seeds of its destruction. Augustinian Christianity is the system of thought that says were are damned to hell because of original sin but, following Christ’s death and resurrection, we can escape that fate if we believe a certain set of propositions. When Luther revived this form of Christianity, he opened Pandora’s box, because now that everyone could read the Bible, conflicting and competing sets of propositions were inevitable, as was the resulting bloodbath, as competing groups of Christians tried to resolve doctrinal differences through total war.

    “The Thirty Years War was, perhaps, the first World War fought in Europe, for nearly every state in Europe became involved in the war in some way or another. The sheer amount of casualties and human destruction made this war the most calamitious and disastrous war of European history before the nineteenth century.”

    http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/REFORM/WARS.HTM

    A lecture on tape I recently listened to concerned the Thirty Years’ War made it sound like hell on earth. It convinced the secular rulers that fighting on behalf of eternal souls just wasn’t worth it (this reminds me of a point few realize regarding torture in the Middle Ages–if you are tortured into confessing you are a heretic and you aren’t, you’ve committed the mortal sin of lying and risk eternal damnation: obviously, at some point, the hell on earth is such that you are willing to risk it). The result of the Thirty Years’ War was a shifting of the balance of power in Europe to the secular rulers. The Pope denounced the Peace of Westphalia, calling it “null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time.” As the lecturer put it, he was politely ignored.

    Thus, the total war that resulted from the playing out of the premises of Augustinian Christianity caused the secular rulers to agree amongst themselves, ignoring religious leaders, to compromise and tolerate the existence of competing Christian faiths. This tolerance resulted in a watered down version of Christianity, which set the stage for the Enlightenment philosophes to more or less finish the job, leading to the completely half-ass form of Christianity we have today.

    If we point out the horrors of our wars to spread democracy, some people will lose faith in democracy.

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