“So you think you’re a liberal?” or why the concealment of state-worship is destroying the planet

A standard point that liberally minded people bring against any religious perspective is the assertion that they don’t believe anyone should be required or forced to convert from any religion to another. And this is unsurprising – the principle of freedom of religion goes way back in the history of liberal and libertarian thought. But the catch is, for liberals, you’re allowed to have your religion, so long as it isn’t a religion any longer – which is to say, so long as it isn’t the fundamental ground of your social being.

And this is the real religion of liberals – the state. As long as your first allegiance is as a citizen, then subsequent allegiances do not push you out of the in-group. Liberals are not actually tolerant across in/out group lines, they simply draw an in-group line which they pretend to be so obvious that it isn’t there, and then accept everyone right up to the point where a group draws in/out group boundaries that conflict with state loyalty.

Large surprise that Liberals vow for the separation of Church and State – the state is the new religion (which mostly repeats the norms of which ever religion is/was held by the majority or the elite), and the explicit connection of the state to a particular religion is sacrilege – because it puts another religion (in this case, probably Christianity), on the same level as the true religion: the state.

This might be why liberals are so frightened of Islam – for many practicing muslims it is an actual religion, which, unlike most modern forms of Christianity or Judaism, is a more foundational part of identity than allegiance to the state.

Sometimes it is argued that Christianity is one of the first cosmopolitan religion, or at least an important step against tribalism and towards a world where fear of the stranger begins to become neutralized.

The Christian teaching to “love thine enemies” is interesting, but in the end it remains imperialist and genocidal. It doesn’t mean don’t slaughter your enemies in war, and it doesn’t mean don’t kill the heathens – it just means consider your enemies as people basically like you, who are differentiated by contingent aspects rather than essential ones. IIn other words, anyone can convert to Christianity – the in/out group lines are defined, but are fundamentally permeable. If for tactical reasons, it’s not possible to convert someone, their life is of no value – and this becomes very obvious when you study even the recent history of Christianity in Canada. So, a neat teaching, but not really good enough.

The liberal can very quickly point out what is wrong in Christianity – it doesn’t actually shift the frame of moral analysis away from your own perspective – perhaps you must love your enemies, but you needn’t consider the way they order their life as a potential critique of your own framework. The problem with the liberal is that they’ve only created the pretence of considering alternative perspectives – they can love and respect others who practice different forms of life only insofar as everyone shares in fundamental obedience to the state. As soon as people disobey the state, they are criminals, and if they rise against it, they are terrorists and can be shot on site.

But, could the liberal do any better than this? What would it mean for the liberal to give up state-worship, and actually embrace their own ideals of inter subjective tolerance, and re-evaluation of moral codes on a continuos, practical, social level? Well, I think it’s obvious what it would mean – state worship would need to become explicit, and by becoming explicit it would in a sense cease to be “worship”, but instead careful consideration of the extent to which dissent is required and unquestioned authority pathological, as well as the inverse – to what extent is questioning authority pathological, and when should dissent be put down? In other words, liberalism could become honest with itself.

So long as liberalism remains ideology, so long as it maintains itself through various levels of shared deception, anarchism will remain a serious critique of all liberal state worship. The need to create a new world based on solidarity and honesty will not pass – the revolutionaries will always be right about the pathology of the state system. And today this should be more than obvious, when it is considered impossible to raise the highest tax bracket by 1%, when it is impossible to save the world from environmental catastrophe, it is clear that liberalism has become a joke – a thin sheen for corruption, stagnation, and dishonesty.

A truer, more honest liberalism would obey the teaching to “love thine enemies”, but obey it not in the Christian sense, but in the critical-moral sense of not taking your own frame for granted, but always potentially allowing it to come into question when it comes up against that which it excludes. So, stop excluding people’s views because they are “terrorists”, or “radicals”, or “fundamentalists” – maybe you have something to learn from them. Maybe they are more serious than you are, maybe their situations are more honest, less post-modern and consumerist and not engaged in the indefinitely and speedily transforming libidinal desire production machine we call “agency.

12 thoughts on ““So you think you’re a liberal?” or why the concealment of state-worship is destroying the planet

  1. It seems relevant to point out that all major religions are demonstrably, factually wrong when it comes to many of their most important claims about the world.

  2. In my understanding, major religions don’t make factual claims about the world. Rather, they make normative claims about proper social arrangements. This is a major subject of confusion, both for people within and without religions. But, to be honest, for most of the history of religion there was no such thing as a “fact” to confuse people anyway.

    1. They claim that their holy books are factually accurate. Quite clearly, they are not.

      You can try to cover that by re-interpreting them as metaphors, but that seems like a rearguard action designed to make up for what wasn’t known by the ordinary humans who wrote these books in the first place.

  3. I didn’t say they were “metaphors”, I said they were normative claims about social arrangements.

    There is a history in philosophy of understanding certain factual claims to be of normative merit, and these claims might appear factual while actually being normative.

    The clearest example of this might be Kant, who in the Critique of Practical Reason expounded 3 postulates of practical reason – theoretical assertions we are compelled to believe for normative reasons, and which are not provable true or false using theoretical reason or empirical verification. The three postulates are freedom, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God (well, the existence of God one is complicated, you should read it yourself to understand why there might be a way around it).

    Also, the idea of a scientific fact is not older than the enlightenment. You could make an exception for Greek philosophy, but hardly anybody ever read that (i.e. the way Aristotle differentiates between his rational idea of God, and the political ideas of God people use for political control). So, the idea that Christianity is a set of factual claims, when the vast majority of it’s history occurred when the idea of a fact was largely absent from society, seems kind of absurd to me.

  4. Regardless of the history of science, the status of religious doctrine as rife with factual errors seems reason enough to reject religion as a way of trying to understand the world and make ethical choices within it.

    Secular ethics are perfectly adequate for indicating how we ought to behave.

  5. How do you evaluate whether an ethics has been adequate? What time-scale should the evaluation occur over, and who’s interests should be taken into account during the delimited period? And, need it simply to have indicated how we ought to have behaved, or does it bear some responsibility for motivating that behaviour?

    I don’t think it’s obvious at all that what is commonly called “secular ethics” has or will succeed either at indicating behavior or motivating behavior which prevents the catastrophic breakdown of societies and the brutal exploitation of societies by other societies. And to me, that seems like setting the bar pretty law.

    I think it’s possible that historically, the “secular” era in human history will be interpreted as a period where description rather than prescription became the dominant form of knowledge, and the role of normativity was placed to the side. People may have as much difficulty understanding how we understood ourselves as we have understanding how the medievals understood themselves – the common view may be something like “they worshipped facts”, and “the values of short term greed dominated over long term planning and love of the neighbor and enemy”.

    1. The appropriate approach to facts is to remain skeptical of them, not worship them. Perhaps that approach is worshipping being as correct as possible, but that seems a pretty sensible thing to worship.

      Secular ethics is adequate for telling us how we ought to behave (which is usually pretty obvious). The hard part is making us actualy behave that way. Religion can be a motivator, but all the nonsense that comes with it makes it deeply unappealing to me.

      1. I find it is often not obvious at all how to behave. And in difficult situations, I think the knowledge available in myth can be very helpful. I suppose it is possible always to give a scientific account of the practical knowledge available in myths, but it is very cumbersome.

        I think this is basically an instance of the framing problem – if you don’t frame the problem in the right way, it’s almost impossible to solve. I think moral problems often are insight problems – we’re capable of almost immediately seeing the right answer, but only if we’ve posed it in the right way. And, if we try to look at the situation at the wrong level of resolution, we can’t see anything (it’s like staring at a screen covered with numbers).

  6. “…the status of religious doctrine as rife with factual errors seems reason enough to reject religion as a way of trying to understand the world and make ethical choices within it.”

    The fact that religious doctrine contains factual errors is a good reason not to interpret it as science. But, that is trivially true, since facts are a scientific idea and religion is not. It would be highly strange if the people who wrote the West’s foundational religious text had gotten the “facts right”, considering that science hadn’t been invented yet.

    It is not the case that religion’s factual errors can’t be a reason to reject it as a way of making ethical choices unless you believe that there is a direct route between knowing facts about the world, and knowing what to do in the world. The problem with this is, facts never tell you what to do.

    Both religious and secular leaders of today who interpret biblical texts as factual should be ridiculed.

    After the collapse of religion, we are obsessed with continuing to kill it off – as if the problem today was that too much common meaning remains. In fact, the problem is the opposite – we have not replaced religion with a new form of common meaning which can sustain society. What has appeared in its place, the absolute valuation of individual greed, is inadequate. There needs to be a serious conversation about what can replace the role religion played in pre-globalized societies. However, the experiments with self-declared communists have been capitalized on by capitalists and middle class people who have an interest in the status quo to argue that no other world is possible.

    Another world is not only possible, it is inevitable. The question is, will we make it one worth living in.

  7. “The problem with this is, facts never tell you what to do.”

    Sam Harris and company rebut this pretty well. If knowing what people are like shows us how humans should treat one another, then ethics flow pretty naturally from facts.

    Religions are also full of false factual claims that are made heavy with moral significance – for instance, claims that there are huge mental differences between the sexes, or moral differences between races.

    1. Harris is rare in that he takes this problem seriously. I agree that he does offer an account of how normativity flows from a strong factual understanding of the human. I tend to believe humans and human social systems are too complex for a factual understanding of them to lead smoothly to ethical motivation, although I also believe that factual understandings of complex systems can allow productive criticism of existing moral dogma. I think it’s hubristic to think that humans can accomplish a clean switch from one kind of normative thinking to another in only a few hundred years – and I think the current state of political morality is a symptom of that.

  8. I think it comes down to this: the idea of a fact is a scientific idea, and it’s dishonest to claim religion makes factual errors, because it doesn’t make factual claims. But, it’s difficult not to do this, since it seems like nearly every religious person (many religious “authorities” included) today believes that religion does tell them facts. What is actually in scripture is something like myth. And myths are pretty interesting, even from a scientific point of view, because they are an incredibly efficient way of storing complex ideas.

    I watched this lecture the other day, and I think it illustrates the point well – http://blip.tv/jordan-b-peterson/there-s-no-such-thing-as-a-dragon-251120

    I think that liberals have their myths and “religious authorities” as well. You can find them in the constitution, in the legacy of the French Revolution, in the police, and in our political structures. There are things which no questioning is tolerated – if you disobey the police you can very quickly go to jail for a long time, and almost no one seems to think there is a problem with this. What’s the difference between being rude to a police officer and going to jail, and being rude to a priest and going to jail? Would society break down if violence was not used to reinforce the authority of the law? Would past societies not have broken down if violence had not been used to enforce the authority of (religious) law? Why is it bad for societies to break down? Do we think religiously based societies had any right to protect themselves? Do we think those societies were more or less murderous to other people and future generations than our own?

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