Religion is Downstream of Technology, Part II
The Dynamic Age (roughly spanning from the final decade of the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century) was one of man’s liberation. Liberation from the outdated mores and the old superstitions, from agrarian life, from backwardness, and even from nature itself. Liberation came (or was promised to come) through mastery—mastery of the self and environment (and history). As part I attempted to show, this trend of the Dynamic Age, which radically changed religious forms and expression, was instigated in the first instance by technological development.
In nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe, massive and rapid technological advancements turned people’s lives upside down, uprooting them and detaching them from older aspects of life, including religion. Something had to fill the void. As I will argue below, in many cases, the state filled that gaping hole. Just because technology disrupted religious expression did not mean that it diminished religious sentiments, it merely redirected them—as much as technology promised mastery of nature, it cannot diffuse the sensus divinitatis. It is no coincidence that the nineteenth century saw the largest, most dramatic religious realignment and birth of new sects at the same time that the world was industrializing, urbanizing, and globalizing.
Coinciding with these technological shifts were ideologies that fitted modern man to modern society, and also filled the religious void brought on by technologically-induced upheaval in one way or another. The predominate outlooks can be categorized politically as liberalism and socialism. The two are distinguishable chiefly in their application of the same basic theory.
As Patrick Deneen reminds us, “Technology does not exist autonomous of political and social norms and beliefs, but its development and applications are shaped by such norms.” Whilst Deneen neglects the extent of the reciprocal nature of technology and ideology, the point is well taken and affirmed, in part, below. Deneen would attribute the “results” of technology to the ideology predating and undergirding it. In this view, technology does not make us, rather we make technology and then fool ourselves into believing the contrary.
Deneen may be right that the use of technology is determined by preexisting political commitments. Yet, it cannot be denied that liberalism—with its emphasis on the radical autonomy of the individual and mastery of nature—was not conceptually viable prior to certain developments, and likewise did not gain its full momentum until the Dynamic Age, wherein the life conditions of average people conformed to the ideals of liberalism.
Put another way, liberalism’s ability to undermine its competition, would not have been possible without large scale urbanization, industrialization, and all that followed therefrom. The church, family, and township—environments in which liberalism would suffocate, as Deneen implies by his proposed solution rooted in recovered localized solidarity and principles of subsidiarity—did not have real competition prior to the nineteenth century (whatever Deneen and Brad Gregory might think). Deneen implicitly accepts this fact throughout his book, such as when he acknowledges that the ideal American living arrangement in the post-war years (the suburbs), which induced loneliness long before the internet, was only made possible by the automobile.
Recently, in an interview with Colin Hansen, Carl Trueman insightfully pointed out that the church parish ceased to be a source of rootedness and authority when it lost its ability to discipline its members. And this happened with the advent of the affordable automobile. Thenceforth, “church shopping” and “hopping” were possible, and local parish authority was totally undermined. Enter the “attractional church” model.
Of course, as Deneen partially concedes, there is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario here. Americans were already predisposed to rugged individualism before the Model T hit the road. Nevertheless, it was certain key technological advancements that dealt the final blow to prior forms of connectivity, community, and moral authority. Until then, at least, the local parish, the township, and the family had a fighting chance. Tension existed, at least. After the Dynamic Age, it was clear who the winner was. Whilst Deneen’s narrative is a bit too clean and one-direction, his point about Amish people living a more free existence because their use of technology is constrained by the values of the community, and what will be conducive thereto, is well taken. But that’s just the point. The Amish are the exception, wherein preexisting commitments not drawn from a technologically volatile age dictate the use (or non-use) of any invention (especially those devised for convenience).
Liberal societies follow no such restrictions. And this not because, as Deneen argues, liberalism presents its own preexisting commitments not drawn from a technologically volatile age, but because it was forged in the fires of an industry and emerged from the ash of revolution. It is my contention that liberalism reflects the disruptive technological logic of the Dynamic Age, not the other way around.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The French Revolution marked the beginning of the transferal of political power from landed gentry to those who had risen to prominence via the forces of commerce and industry, the upstart middle class (or bourgeoisie). By the middle of the nineteenth century, the middle class had solidified this power across Western Europe, especially where agrarian interests were still dominant. But during the same period, widespread revolutions (especially of 1848), many of which were instigated by the intellectualist middle-class attempt to supplant the gentry “old guard,” led to violence and unrest, as revolutions are wont to do. The excesses of the working class pushed the middle class back into assimilation with the landed class, contrary to the original intent of the former. This unlikely alliance, which was most evident in England but was nevertheless prevalent throughout Europe, ended up providing the best vehicle for the middle class to gain the political power it desired by the opening of the new century.
The philosophical outlook of the capitalist middle class came to be characterized as liberalism, and through the dominance of its most ardent disciples, came to inform most of European policy throughout the twentieth century.
Yet again, in many ways, the philosophy of liberalism (which constitutes more, but certainly not less, than bare proceduralism) was dependent on market and technological analogies. The emphasis on the freedom of the individual (his essence being that of contract-making or bargaining and profit generation) from all controls (social, cultural, religious) was its bedrock dogma. John Stuart Mill was most vehemently opposed to any kind of restrictions upon the individual, including even social stigma. (Of course, Mill’s fundamental elitism endured; the illiterate rabble, to whom he would not even give basic suffrage, were not what he had in mind.)
The faith in progress, specifically man’s, necessarily accompanied radical autonomy. Vigorous competition, not only in the marketplace of commodities but in the marketplace of ideas, was seen as the best governing mechanism for the realization of man’s infinite progress (which was tied to his insatiable appetites, now unleashed)—perpetual friction leading to ceaseless innovation.
The political and social framework was tailored to suit the needs of human progress, which were best realized by technological and economic expansion and advancement—man’s mastery of nature (even his own). Ultimate freedom was the path to happiness—and more important, the success of the amalgamation of atomized individuals that was the nation state. (The language of this mission, from the beginning, reflected the technology that made it possible, another fact that mitigates against Deneen’s more linear thesis.)
In a world of vigorous and sometimes vicious competition and competing interests, however, certain assurances of freedom were needed. Hence, European liberals of the early twentieth century were nothing like American libertarians. In short order, intense nationalist sentiments characterized middle class liberals. The political and economic role of the state grew. As Black and Helmreich note, “[M]any who marched behind the banner of liberalism were inclined to believe that the individual could achieve his fullest expression only within the boundaries of a well-organized and secure national state.”
Contra James Joll (in his The Revolution of the Intellectuals), this shift from revolution to nationalism in the aftermath of the mid-century revolutions, was a feature, not the antithesis, of liberalism. As Deneen insightfully points out in Why Liberalism Failed, the advent of radical individualism inevitably led to increased statism. “[I]ndividualism is not the alternative to statism but its very cause,” says Deneen. Statism, in the myriad forms it took in the twentieth century, was the natural result of the dissolution of traditional communities and institutions. The “quest for community” drove people to radical nationalism and even more radical communitarianism. Deneen continues:
Statism arose as a violent reaction against this feeling of atomization. As naturally political and social creatures, people require a thick set of constitutive bonds in order to function as fully-formed human beings. Shorn of the deepest ties to family (nuclear as well as extended), place, community, region, religion, and culture, and deeply shaped to believe that these forms of association are limits upon their autonomy, deracinated humans seek belonging and self-definition through the only legitimate form of organization remaining available to them: the state.
The greatest atrocities of the long, violent twentieth century followed directly misplaced allegiances and enthusiasms created by this longing for community and communal meaning. Thus, Deneen says, “The expansion of liberalism rests upon a vicious and reinforcing cycle in which state expansion secures the end of individual fragmentation, in turn requiring further state expansion to control a society without shared norms, practices, or beliefs.” In other words, liberalism’s solutions to its own problems are, inevitably, self-referential. The state, within the liberal system, serves no real purpose other than securing the maximum autonomy of its conglomerate of citizens—and the state is worshiped for this very reason (though it never delivers on the pure freedom or true connection it promises).
The twentieth century saw the ultimate personification of the state. By extension, relationships between states were considered in terms of the values that liberalism placed at the forefront for the individual: radical autonomy and progress through competition—and, of course, the supreme value of liberal democracy. This produced an ever-so-slight shift in the balance of power the state system established in Europe at Westphalia. Whereas, during the seventeenth century, in an effort to avoid conflict and the accrual of inordinate power by any one state, European states acted through shifting alliances to counteract any encroachment on any single state for the sake of balance of power, the twentieth century strained the European state system by shifting from interests of balance to interests of competition. The latter necessarily infers winners and losers. Balance and equilibrium cannot be the priority under competition-based international relations.
As international competition (economic and political) grew, liberals looked to the state for protection of interests and to channel their competitive bent into international relations. National interests soon came to dominate individual ones; the nation became the individual. The fragmentation and disruption caused by the ambitions of liberalism were (at the behest of liberalism) laid at the feet of the state to be solved. This happened on both the national and international level leading to, ironically, a subjugation of the individual to the state, but an abandonment of inter-state cooperation for national competition.
As the identity of the individual was transferred to the state, so too was his religious sentiment—the final ingredient to be applied to the state in order to produce a destructive nationalism that exceeds natural, appropriate patriotism; and this is the case especially when the triumph of the state is infused with eschatological expectation. In its final form, the pseudo-religious public aspects of Nazism, and its more secretive occultist components, illustrate this shift. In both cases, whether through Hitler Youth rallies or Himmler’s “esoteric Hitlerism,” the state took on religious significance to the detriment of traditional religious affiliations, including Lutheranism and Catholicism, but most obviously and directly, Judaism.
But just as technological change induced reassignment of religious sentiments, and the advent of the radically autonomous but unrooted individual, so too did, in turn did technology itself come to take on eschatological significance. That is, after inaugurating the god of Progress, it constantly asserted itself as the means to the end.
As the Nazi state became the source of community and belonging—personal and collective identity and purpose—it, not coincidentally, obsessed over technological advancement unto its desired end (i.e. the perfection of man). Nazi eugenics, of course, are the most notorious representative of this bent and it serves to illustrate the point well.
Technology, married to Progress, in the hands of the radical individual (allied with his projected individualism in the state), promises mastery, not only of external impediments but internal ones, too—even the self is no longer unmalleable and the body is just a personal jar of play-doh. Put another way, technology enables re-creation and tempts with perfectionism—that is, perfect freedom.
In our own day, transhumanism, transgenderism, wellness culture—what Tara Burton calls the “California Ideology”—and more, all exhibit the interaction between religious sentiment and technology; or more directly, the subjugation of nature and the liberation of the self—the total denunciation of the given in favor of the expressive and emotive self.
And the celebration of this absolute freedom—the advent of the technologically enabled, perfectly malleable man—takes on, within liberalism, an increasingly religious flavor. Liberation is both remembered and perpetuated in a sort of sacramental form. The central liturgical expression of this characteristic of liberalism (as a comprehensive political-theological order) is what Adrian Vermeule calls the Festival of Reason (an “anti-liturgy”), which takes on many forms for many occasions, but always for the same purpose and end, viz., the celebration of ahistorical snobbery and the myth of progress over and against the anachronistically minded detractors. (In Vermeule’s phrasing, “the dynamic overcoming of the darkness, superstition, and slavish authoritarianism of the irrational past.”) The main features of this sacramental liberalism is the “immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton” (to borrow from Eric Voegelin) and its Pelagian-Gnostic ambitions. But the main occasion of celebration is the overcoming of liberalism’s enemies—those, by design, never being in short supply. Liberalism’s realized eschatology keeps the intensity up: enemies being many, disruption perpetual but Progress ultimately inevitable. Vermeule refers to this as the “ever-receding horizon,” adding that “even after more progress is made, the goal never seems to have come any closer. If the real aim is always to create a justification for fresh and ever-repeated celebrations of the Festival, however, this makes perfect sense.”
Note well that the Festival of Reason is, in part, a celebration of technological advancement—the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. The point is that liberalism feeds on, and flows from, the emergence of modern technological advancement and cherishes that fact. But its object of ultimate allegiance remains the omni-managerial state. It alone can protect and embody liberalism’s aims.
Again, fealty must be pledged to the state, even as the individual (and his progress) is worshiped, because it has 1) taken on the projections of the individual and serves to preserve its autonomy, and has, therefore, 2) been both personified and collectivized; 3) by filling the communal void created by technological upheaval, it has garnered the religious sentiments of its citizens, and, therefore, 4) has taken on teleological and eschatological significance (i.e. the destiny of man is attached to the destiny of the state). The deification of the state is part and parcel of the faith of liberalism, which has been made possible by seismic shifts in technology and thereafter replaced (or at least morphed with and significantly altered) older religious commitments. (It should also be noted that the prioritization of the nation, at the expense of all other commitments, inevitably leads to the demise of the nation itself; with nothing sitting conceptually below, so to speak, the nation, there is, then, nothing to tether it to the earth, nothing to prevent it from giving way to what is conceptually above, viz., the whole world.)
As mentioned above, the next installment in this series will treat socialism as liberalism has been above, and then tie these lessons to our own more recent technological revolution (where Deneen’s thesis is more applicable, but even then not perfectly so).
Image: Frédéric Sorrieu, “Le Pacte,” La République universelle démocratique et sociale, 1848 (Wikimedia Commons)