Liberalism and the religion-shaped hole in the human heart

From the recent discussion on “Liberalism is a Religion” comes an intriguing comment from Bill:

Leftism is to religion as phyto-estrogens are to estrogens.

There are “estrogen-shaped holes” all over the place in the human body. Phyto-estrogens (which are not exactly the same chemically as human estrogens), fit into these holes not-quite-exactly-right and therefore have some but not all of the properties of estrogens.

There is a religion-shaped hole in the human psyche. Leftism (which is almost but not quite a religion) fits it not-quite-right.

Reading this, I was forced to reevaluate my earlier diagnosis of the modern condition as one of “pervasive insensibility to the sacred.” Well, not so much reevaluate as re-express. The modern mind is absolutely insensible to what is actually sacred, but his sacral sensibility is, itself, intact. He is capable of experiencing the awe attendant on sacred things. He is capable of reverence, and the outrage that arises from violations of sacred things, people, and places. It is his sense of what is sacred that his wrong, not his capacity for experiencing it. His is a problem not of deficiency but perversion.

Understood this way, lots of things make sense. The leftist pantheon has its saints and holy martyrs (such as Trayvon Martin, fittingly commemorated with an ersatz communion service with skittles and iced tea standing in for the precious body and blood of Christ and hoodies in place of sacred vestments); it has a parousiastic character and a religious fervor; it has dogmatic tenets and a reactive horror of the heretics who deny them; it has its priestly caste (bureaucratic professionals, especially those with backgrounds in the soft sciences). It has an intense concern for ritual purity, complete with acts of  penance (the confessional press conference / politically-motivated resignation / checking into rehab or the mental health clinic), invocations to ward off ritual impurity (“some of my closest friends are black!”) and an intense aversion to those who are impure (conservatives, “racists,” “homophobes,” “bigots” in general, the “judgmental,” the “intolerant,” etc.). Violations of those things experienced improperly as sacred result in predictable outrage: St. Nicholas of Myra broke the nose of the heretic Arius for denying Christ’s divinity; the modern leftist, similarly, will riot, pillage, harass, and threaten whenever someone presumes to defile the holiness of the institution of “gay” “marriage” by pointing out the ontological error on which it’s predicated. Let’s not forget it even has its own self-identified sacrament. I’m sure we can all think up more similarities; in fact, feel free to shout out some more in the comments section.

All this reminds me of a line in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, in which the title character, a demon, complains, “Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.” Not even Screwtape can fully eradicate man’s sensibility to the sacred, but he can surely pervert it, warp it, confuse it, and orient it toward the wrong objects — even the exact wrong objects. He can direct it inward (and downward). Here is the characteristic danger of liberal modernity: it is prone to all the potential violent excesses of religious fervor, with nothing whatsoever of its redemptive potential. A worthy snare in which to trap souls by the millions.

20 thoughts on “Liberalism and the religion-shaped hole in the human heart

  1. No, you were right the first time, or at least more right. Writers and researchers such as Dacher Keltner and Iain McGilchrist show that rationalist thinking makes you insensible to awe overall.

    This post shows the dangers of metaphorical thinking. You see a potential analogy and think it proves something, without stopping to think that there is a pretty big leap between “estrogen shaped holes” and “religion shaped holes.” All the subordinate analogies are pretty loose fits too. Autism is still the better metaphor. In fact, that may not even be a metaphor as autistic people have a hard time being religious without a fully developed theory of mind.

    • Writers and researchers such as Dacher Keltner and Iain McGilchrist show that rationalist thinking makes you insensible to awe overall.

      The problem with this thinking is that it confuses cause and effect. It is at least equally plausible (more plausible, I would say) that some people are naturally insensitive to the sacred, and these people are more likely to become rationalists.

      Think, for example, of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos video series. In it, he frequently expresses a reverence for the physical cosmos, for Darwinian evolution, and so on. And, of course, Sagan is not the only one. People like this do have a sense of the sacred, but they misidentify it.

      • These are anecdotal accounts from two people, moreover two people who are engaged in a vicious polemic against religion. More typical is Descartes: “One will no longer have occasion to admire anything about what is seen” or Darwin: “I am turned into a sort of machine for observing facts and grinding out conclusions” the one celebrating and the other lamenting their loss of wonder.

        I’m picking away at an essay on the relation of science to art and believe me both the studies and the vast majority of anecdotal observations from philosophers and other writers show that rationalistic thinking tends to kill awe and wonder. You can also read a very good account of this J.S. Mill’s autobiography.

      • In addition to Keltner and McGilchrist, you can also check out the work of Marghanita Laski.

      • Just for fun, here is John Carey taking the piss out of Dawkins:

        “And if you look at subatomic particles and think how awesome they are – well, they’re only awesome because we’re completely unable to deal with them. What Dawkins calls ‘awe’ is actually ignorance.”

      • Really. Just consider the ‘woo-woos’ that sort reports getting when considering “Deep Time”.

  2. It has an intense concern for ritual purity

    Yeah, reading Jonathan Haidt’s ideas about the differences between liberals and conservatives, particularly that liberals don’t care as much about purity makes you wonder whether his IQ is above room temperature. For example, noticing out loud what a repulsive moral leper “Martin” Luther King was provokes a rather strong response in the unconcerned-with-purity crowd. Kind of doubly ironic.

    • He was taking people at their word instead of observing what they actually do. I actually wrote him and pointed this out back when his theory was first hitting the web in 2007 — his own article “When Morality Opposes Justice” included a good example of liberals judging on Ingroup or possibly Purity grounds without realizing that’s what they were doing — but he didn’t pay much attention.

      (I’m not in academia, so I can understand why his basic response was polite but dismissive. Also, he now admits that his own political bias was hampering him significantly as long as George W Bush was President. Which last indicates that he has unusual self-awareness, so I’m inclined to cut him some slack.)

      • Yeah, psychologists are weird. As a matter of routine, they lie to their research subjects, and, as a matter of routine, they assume their research subjects are telling them the truth.

        And I agree with the explanation you are offering. Being a fellow liberal, he does not see his own concern for ritual purity, so he naturally does not see it in others.

    • Actually Haidt mentions exactly what you are referring to in similar terms. He states in his book as an example how an art exhibit deriding Martin Luther King in similar terms as the execrable Piss Christ would cause an outrage amongst consumers of modern art (who happen to be almost entirely of liberal dispositions).

      Liberals care about purity, their sense of purity is just perverted towards different things.

  3. I again must agree with “The Man Who Was…” that “insensibility to the sacred” gets closer to the heart of things. (I would say “hostility to the sacred”, which I suppose does mean some recognition of it at least as an alien perspective.) Much as I admire the atheist Emile Durkheim, his functionalist school is wrong to absolutely identify social phenomena with their functions. Liberalism is obviously playing a similar role to what religion played in past ages, the role of official legitimating ideology. Fulfilling that role imposes certain exigencies on any creed that finds itself in this role. Suppressing dissent and imposing public deference for central symbols of the consensually-agreed good are two obvious ones. I once pointed out that people who want science to become the new public orthodoxy should realize that science will then be forced–by sociological necessity–to start doing all the things these people hate about religion.

    • I once pointed out that people who want science to become the new public orthodoxy should realize that science will then be forced–by sociological necessity–to start doing all the things these people hate about religion.

      Wrong tense.

  4. [P]eople who want science to become the new public orthodoxy should realize that science will then be forced–by sociological necessity–to start doing all the things these people hate about religion.

    A perfect aphorism.

  5. 1. Haidt has never claimed that liberals completely lack intuitions of authority, purity, and ingroup, just that they have them to a much lesser degree. The data backs him up.
    2. You should consider the possibility that you are reading too much religiosity into liberalism through introversion. If you were doing the things liberals are doing you would probably put a religious spin on them, but that doesn’t mean that liberals view these things internally the same way.
    3. There are some small segments of genuine religiosity on the left: some environmentalists, the religious left, some vestiges in Marxist teleology. These appear to usually get there through a really large increase in their harm/care and fairness foundations, while still retaining relatively high scores on authority, purity, and ingroup. But they are dwarfed in numbers by the secular liberals and occupy a small niche, much like that of libertarians, who have low scores on all moral foundations.

    • On 1, I’m afraid that I’m not a big fan of psychologists’ “data.”

      On 2, I can’t offhand think of more than one or two people I know who are less attuned to purity or ingroup/outgroup than I am, so this explanation seems not to be right. In fact, back when I was much leftier, I was always befuddled by the left’s insane, lefter-than-thou sanctimony.

      It’s conceivable that it’s all due to some selection bias, but essentially every experience I have had with crazed sanctimony has come from a lefty. The idea that I should weight some psychologist’s claims over the evidence of my senses because the shrinks get all puffy and babble about “science” is ridiculous.

      On 3, I have no idea what you mean by “genuine religiosity.”

  6. Haidt did a walk through of Occupy Wall Street and looked at the signs. There weren’t a lot of signs referencing purity/sanctity. I took a quick look on the net here myself and I too didn’t find a lot relating to purity/sanctity. Interesting that there weren’t any calls to “purify” or “cleanse” America and such. There weren’t even any references to “cleaning up” Wall Street, which seems to be a standard of anti-corruption rhetoric. Neither were there any references to “capitalist pigs” and similar things. I found a picture one person putting a “corporate snake” sign on the container for his actual pet snake and one picture of the Republican elephant pooping on a smiley face. Some stuff like “lets figure this shit out together” but that doesn’t invoke disgust. In contrast, there were some quite noticeable references to violence and rebellion.

    I was really fascinated at the lack of purity/sanctity references, particularly of the “capitalist pig” type.

    There were some signs evidencing solidarity with each other. Of all the three conservative moral foundations, liberals seem to understand loyalty/ingroup the best.

    • Control group? (Yeah, I know, it’s psychology-science, not science-science) Here is the March for Life. Lots of signs. Not many purity-themed ones (this is a defect, IMO). I initially thought there were no pictures of abortion victims, even, but there are a very few. Even those are not really supposed to generate a disgust reaction, so even they don’t count.

      “Capitalist pig” isn’t a category of disgustingness on the left any more. Nor is Wall St. Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic. Those are the charged topics now. 2012 > 1968. So, really, OWS was not such a good choice. The heresies change, but at least the heretics stay the same.

  7. Paging Alan:

    The court does find a religious hatred motive in the actions of the defendants by way of them being feminists who consider men and women to be equal. Now gender equally is asserted, maintained by the Russian constitution where all people are proclaimed equal irrespective of their gender, race, nationality political affiliation and so on.

    If you haven’t read about this, you should. Russian judge actually calls liberalism a religion!


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