The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Saturday, May 05, 2012


It is Easter as I write this, and once upon a time that would have seen me in a church; I was formerly religious.  Perhaps that is an overstatement.  I was once a churchgoer, and attended a Catholic school; thus religion seemed normal to me.  

People presumably generalize about religion from their own experiences.  For me religion is ritual, lightly applied -- I am too young to have attended mass in Latin, but my churches were constructed with stone pillars and stained glass and smelled pleasantly of candles and incense.  A distant deity, but one you can personally appeal to.  The expiation of sins through confession.
Various important prayers and creeds, memorized.

If asked “what is religion?” I would probably instinctively recite some or all of the above points -- but would be wrong to do so.  No religion replicates all the features above.  Confession is peculiar to various Christian sects.  Buddhism seems to get along fine without a deity.  Appealing to the deity is frowned upon by Jews.  I am reading a history of Rome, and the religion of that city would be incomprehensible to a Catholic churchgoer.  Certainly Jupiter was nothing like the Christian God.

There are many strange religions.  One is practiced here in this country.  It is of the deityless kind, but it has beliefs and a creed, which I shall list below:

  • There are sins, and the gravest amongst them is a petty character flaw presented as demonic choler.
  • There are many rituals, and innumerable ways in which the faithful may purify themselves.  In some benighted communities, non-believers are persecuted for not participating in them!
  • The religion is strictly caste based.  The higher castes are permitted a wider latitude of behavior -- even participation in the most mortal of sins.  In fact it is denied that the highest caste can commit said sin.
  • Properties of natural science are denied, replaced instead with superstitious beliefs.  Believers travel at specified times and in prescribed ways.  
  • Sins and demons abound.  Furthermore there is a deity, named Tenven -- actually TNVN if you want the full tetragammonic feel.  Tenven is, and is not a deity, but is widely ascribed to have magical powers, is propitiated, has her own holiday.

I imagine by now you’re thinking -- what is this crazy shit?  It’s weirder than Mormon ethnology.  Is it perhaps Pentecostal, a side branch of the serpent handlers?

Well, dear reader, I have a confession to make -- and since I no longer consort with monsignors, I must unburden myself on you.  I exaggerated the luridness of this sect, and obscured the details.  Here are the true beliefs and practices of a religion followed by millions -- though I cannot give it a true name, because it does not have one.  (Its practitioners mostly claim to be atheists; some are Christians or Jews, but they care little for the Trinity or the Pentateuch -- these are the beliefs they hold dear.)  To call it the American Civic Religion is close enough.

  • The unforgivable sin is that of racism.  As in Christianity, it is deemed original sin; unlike Christianity it does not apply to all humans equally.  Blacks and other minorities cannot be racists.  Sexism and homophobia are also mortal sins.
  • The automobile is regarded with extreme disfavor.  The godly ride bicycles, or take public transportation.
  • Recycling is an important ritual.  If a believer is unable to recycle, he or she becomes uncomfortable.
  • Men and women are equal in all forms of intelligence.  If you are high church, you believe that they are equal or near-equal physically, and that the predominance of men in professional sports is due to social conditioning and prejudice.  (This is, by the way, completely and utterly batshit insane.  It’s the Overclass equivalent of thinking that your scriptures provide detailed instructions for expelling demons, or that your local aborigines are a lost tribe of Israel.)
  • TNVN is of course my own invention -- the word is a rot-13-encoding of Gaia, the Earth God.  Gaia is believed to be insulted and injured by humans -- and those humans are in danger of suffering her wrath.  It is also believed that there are simply too many humans for Gaia to support.
  • In addition to being free from racism, the believer must seek out organic food -- which is to say that the godly reject farming practices that have liberated millions from drudgery and hundreds of millions from starvation.  There are all sorts of other minor sacraments, such as the patronage of “fair trade” (what is unfair about regular trade is never precisely explained).  Disposable grocery bags are sinful; the true believer brings a cloth bag to his or her organic supermarket, and preens pridefully as in Matthew 6:5.
  • Gay marriage is wonderful and holy, and is to be celebrated as a sacrament.

Is this fair?  Well of course it’s not fair, it’s mean and vicious.  But is this an exaggeration? Allow me to relate some anecdotes:

  • In my home town of Sunnyvale, there are recycling bins which are split vertically; one side is for glass, plastic, and aluminum containers, the other is for paper.  When the garbage truck comes, every Thursday, it lifts the bin … and dumps all the carefully separated recycling into a single compartment.
    Which indicates that the middle class American’s desire for recycling greatly exceeds the sanitation department’s actual need for separating different varieties of trash.  (Why not do so at the dump?)
    In many communities, failure to recycle is illegal.
  • The link above states that encouraging North Carolinans to recycle plastic bottles is "good for the environment." Of course this is nonsense. Trees will grow and flowers bloom regardless of the number of bottles that sit in a landfill. "Good for the environment" is just a meaningless religious nonce phrase, like "Judeo-Christian values."
  • The use of “carbon offsets” is not morally distinguishable from the medieval sale of indulgences.
  • Your workplace or your school may be consumed by idiotic and tiresome debates over whether its cafeteria should use disposable containers, whether the campus should provide bottled water, etc.  At one large Silicon Valley enterprise the kitchens were decorated with posters of a cartoonized smiling earth asking passersby to drink water from the earth, because “the earth will thank you.”  Of course the earth is not actually sentient, being a large ball of iron, nickel, and silicates.  And if it were sentient, it’s hard to imagine why it would _care_ about some infinitesimal fraction of its carbon content converted to thin cylindrical containers.  The impending red-giantization and nova of Sol, that we can expect to capture Terra’s imagination.  Plastic bottles, not so much.

As I write this essay, I come to realize that religion is a slippery concept.  I can’t prove that the American Civic Religion exists, and you can’t really prove that it doesn’t.  Religion exists in a continuum with cultural practices and politics.  If you clasp your hands together and kneel tensely with furrowed brow, you are obviously praying -- unless you do so while practicing yoga.  Then you’re just having a good stretch and emptying your mind.  Or again, consider the religious practices of the republican Romans.  The animating idea of said religion consisted of a belief that if certain traditional practices of the Republic were adhered to, Rome would be successful.  There was no Roman scripture or revelation as such.

Religion can blend into cultural practices, but cultural practices are to some extent optional.  In America in 2012 one would suffer less risk of ostracism for declaring a dislike of Halloween than for claiming one did not recycle.  (Though to be fair, if you don’t put candy out for children on Oct 31 one is considered to be somewhat of a jerk.  You’re at least supposed to put your lights out and pretend not to be home.)  

Religion can also be subsumed into politics, but people do actively analyze their political beliefs.  One might have a debate with one’s friends about whether the poor should be subsidized, or whether America’ military should drop bombs on this or that nation.  

But one rarely sees an average American ask just why he is supposed to prefer buses to the private automobile, or human power to the internal combustion engine.  

Where did our American Civic Religion come from, and why?  Well, at this point I have to beg off.  This post has already gone on way too long.  Certainly ACR does not have a long and glorious history.  My childhood was safe from the demonization of the automobile, and if you had requested organic fruit, you’d get a smart reply that inorganic fruit was unlikely to be of any use.  The fetishization of the environment was just beginning; we were commanded to pick up trash, but I don’t remember there being recycling bins.

“Mencius Moldbug” wrote a useful essay about the religion of the American overclass, which he calls “Universalism.”   Mencius “defined the four principal Ideals of the creed as Social Justice, Peace, Equality and Community.“  There is a lot of overlap with what I call "High Church" above, but that doesn't make the American Civic Religion synonymous with the left-wing ideals of the Overclass. There are many people who sneer at peaceniks who nonetheless feel uncomfortable if there is no appropriate receptacle for their empty soda can.

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