The Dehumanizing Religion of “Progress”

Can a political ideology be a religion? I suggested in my post entry that people who are willing to countenance the murder of their political adversaries in pursuit of a glorious cause are in fact not engaged in politics at all: they are members of a religious cult. But how can a belief system be styled “religious” if acknowledges no deliberate agency in cosmic affairs other than the human? If it recognizes no spiritual reality but only the material version, if it accepts no afterlife other than the bequest of technical learning that allows one’s grandchildren to live longer and better… then where is the religion?

Let me try to state this “faith” as fair-mindedly as I can. Jules Romains, a French novelist whose most successful works were penned almost a century ago and about whom I’ve written quite a lot, authored a manifesto early in his career for a movement he called “unanism”. I can bring its general terms to mind without too much effort–and it’s about as eloquent an expression of the progressivist vision as I have ever seen.

The unanimist (or exponent of “one spirit uniting us all”) sees the human race as fulfilling a kind of destiny into which it has stumbled, but which is now its grand and inescapable calling. We might have continued living in trees and caves… but we didn’t; and once we evolved the ability to manipulate our environment and to organize our societies, we became permanently endowed with the power to perfect ourselves. Diseases could be conquered; violent weather events could be mitigated; hunger could be minimized through agricultural innovation and social discipline; crime could be bred out of us slowly through education; even the inevitable degeneration of our planetary home as the solar system entropically wears out could be averted if only we might reverse certain forces, travel to a new solar system, or create one ex nihilo out of our genius.

In a sense, we would live forever; and individuals might quite literally live for thousands of years with the help of nano-technology and cybernetics. Yet that failing, our species–our human collective–would bear our vision and our values undyingly into the future. And in that certainty within each of us that our efforts had laid one more brick onto the great ascending wall, we would partake of a kind of eternity, even though our personal consciousness would have been terminated somewhere along the way.

If this is not a religion rivaling others on earth today–if it is not, indeed, the dominant religion of the Western political and economic elite and of our educational institutions–then I can’t think why it should not be so. Its faithful may protest, “But the system you have outlined has nothing of the irrational about it! Religion clings to belief in invisible spirits flitting about behind the scenes: this is all science and reason!” No, actually: it’s not. The most basic assumption that we have some high duty or other to continue evolving has no empirical basis whatever. Where would this duty come from? If it was always in our genetic material, then some mysterious Creator must have put it there; but if we just happened to beat dolphins and crows out in the battle to survive, then our “mission” would be to continue surviving and thriving at the expense of anything in our way. We might build spaceships in the future–but we would do so to keep from getting fried when the Sun explodes–not “to boldly go where no man has gone before” (splitting infinitives and dropping sexist referents along the way).

Finally, the whole “grand’ enterprise would end up an exercise in futility–an instance of what the deconstructionists liked to call “postponement”. No matter how many solar systems we might create or colonize, all suns all throughout the cosmos must eventually burn out; or if the universe’s matter collapses upon itself and re-ignites, then we and everything belonging to us or stemming from us must all likewise be melted down utterly. So where is the omega in this quest for perfection if not in a fantasy to which no materialist has a right?

Yet the votaries of progress are willing to kill people who get in their way right here, right now–or at least to crack jokes about such murders and shrug. “Small loss… no big deal.” About the only thing that can make people forget their common humanity to this degree and morph into the glassy-eyed nightmare-robots of a sci-fi flick is cultic fanaticism. Naturally, the fanatic resents his faith being labeled a faith, a belief system, because… because it’s true, damn you!

 

Life Isn’t Managed by a Diagnosis and Some Pills

I just read a student paper that discusses bipolar disorder at some length. We used to call it manic-depression. To my untrained mind, the latter sounds more like moodiness and the former more like some sort of cerebral malformation. Of course, that’s exactly the impression that the medical community desired to promote. You should be depending on your doctor, not yourself. It’s caveman logic to think that, if you’re having mood swings, maybe you should do some soul-searching. Delving into spirituality, taking pride in developing a tougher character, fighting your darker half, learning how to be your life’s hero… scary, primitive stuff, that.

For none of it sounds very “medical”, does it? Let’s call the dark place a disease, instead, and let’s prescribe lots of expensive drugs for it (with unpleasant, perhaps fatal side-effects: but to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs). The public, having long been primed to take the easy way out of every predicament—to believe, even, that the Constitution (whatever that is) guarantees a right to a corrective pill for every complaint—readily delivers itself into the hands of white-coated technicians. Add to that the glory and mystique of belonging to some class of “sufferer” (any will do—and the more, the better)… and you find Americans lining up to receive their “bipolar diagnosis” and its special batch of talismans and magic potions.

My student has confided to me that she, having herself received the diagnosis, bravely chose to fight her war through therapy rather than drugs; yet she has noticed that the medical establishment expresses ever less interest in tolerating this approach. Too much money to be made peddling the drugs… and, I suspect (since I’ve long concluded that the will to power is the strongest of all corrupt human motives), there’s too much joy in Medico-ville associated with know-it-all diagnoses and consequent prescription-writing. Why would a doctor seek to empower you when he can easily sweep up that portion of control and add it to his own plate?

I’ve probably fought depression all my life. I don’t really need a term for it, other than “the human condition”. I’ve never seen a doctor about it and never taken a pill for it (or booze, or a joint). I had two pretty close passes with suicide when I was young, and I feel that the ordeals made me far stronger and reordered my vision of reality.

When I made a very casual and fleeting joke about absenteeism in a class last fall, however, in which suicide played a part, I was hooted at by several students as some kind of insensitive brute. “Sufferers” must be cuddled in a warm blankie like little lost puppies retrieved from a hailstorm: they must be smothered in sympathy and nursed on carefully filtered optimism. My experience at the receiving-end of this spontaneous outrage played no minor part in my decision to retire this coming year. The feelings of that day will forever remain with me… and they will forever disgust me.

I am outraged at the outrage. Life is tough, and I have found it sometimes miserably so. But I don’t need a diagnosis and a fat bottle of pills, any more than I need big hugs and Teletubby-colored glasses… or a fifth of Jack Daniels, or a Sunday School sing-along. Jesus was crucified, and he promised us about the same fate if we walked in his footsteps. Mulling seriously over that has been the ultimate therapy for me.

Dismissing Conspiracy Is the Shortcut to Being Duped

No one wants to be a “science-denier” these days. As insipid and fatuous as the phrase is (I thought that skepticism and receptiveness to revision were essential to scientific thought?), twenty-first century Americans accept it as an especially caustic version of “stupid idiot”. If experts in white coats tell us one thing in peer-reviewed professional journals, therefore, while relatively uncredentialed protesters howl away at them from personal websites, we smirk at the protest. What a bunch of losers! What a lot of wacko conspiracy-buffs and flat-earth troglodytes!

At the same time, we—the general public—are pretty troglodytic on any given issue. We really don’t understand the intricacies of the cyber world or the medical world. How could we? How could any one human brain? Perhaps a brilliant, devoted professional might understand in some detail the current state of learning in one advanced science; but of other sciences (and often ones related to his own field), he is necessarily as ignorant as a Dante scholar of electrical engineering. Ours is the age of the specialist—and as Ortega y Gasset noted a century ago, every specialist tends to think that he knows everything about everything just because he knows almost everything about one tony group of things.

Well, maybe that’s not quite true. I incline to believe, rather, that we invoke holy “science” in areas where we have none because we’re all too aware of our deficiency. By endorsing what the “scientists” have discovered in that field, however, we demonstrate to the world that we understand the pedigree of true knowledge. No, we’re not biochemists… but we’re smart enough to know when biochemists should have the last word, unlike those loony conspiracy-theorists!

This makes us easy prey for genuine conspiracy. Since our egotism inhibits us from asking such obvious questions as, “What if they’re cooking the books?” and, “What if no one dare blow a whistle lest he or she be forever banished from the profession?” we’re left sprawling in childish gullibility. We simply take it as an article of faith that the “science god” wouldn’t lie to us. What if the flu vaccine really isn’t any good, or what if chemotherapy is so liberally prescribed simply because the pharmaceutical-medical complex wants to recoup its immense investment in researching and developing a bunch of toxic drugs? How would we know… because professional ethics would compel the white coats to come clean? Really?

I suppose another reason why we scoff at wacko whistleblowers is what used to be called “whistling in the graveyard”. We need to put on a brave face… because if we once admit our enormous degree of unknowing and exposure, we’d hardly be able to shut our eyes at night. Better to stop our ears, shut our eyes, and repeat in a loud voice, “It’s science! It’s science! It’s science!”

And yet… quis custodes custodiet? Who will guard the guards?

God and Science: A Delicate Balance

I’ve been trying to shuffle around some vague ideas in the context of a class where we read a lot of ancient literature. Cultures that don’t have reading and writing are called oral-traditional by the scholars (and sometimes tribal by me): they have a certain way of looking at the gods, who are generally associated with powerful natural forces that only make sense to a pre-scientific mind as projections of human-like thinking and feeling into a super-human setting (a.k.a. anthropomorphism). Everything in this world is instantly “god”. The wind is an angry or restless god. The midday stillness is the sun god’s touching earth briefly with such imminent presence that you tremble under his golden breath. A huge, oddly shaped stone is not a representation of an earth god, as by a symbol: there are no symbols here, only nearer and farther brushes with the divine. The stone therefore is the god… and so is the mountain upon which it sits, and so is the broad world running down to the ocean.

In science, things are likewise not representative or symbolic of higher realities: they are mere things embodying the operation of unseen yet wholly natural, impersonal forces. They have no higher meaning because nothing has higher meaning, in a sense that would convey plan or purpose. The laws of nature run as they do because… because that’s how nature is set up. Out of chaos came an order which seems random to us since it has no affective content—no beautiful or noble objective. The intricate wheels of that order turn because all is enlisted into the turning, and what does not turn cannot exist.

Of course, the evolution of science was highly dependent upon literacy, since accurate records of previous observations and wide dissemination of those observations were essential to the new method. (The printing press, in fact, was needed to disseminate ideas with sufficient breadth, speed, and cost-effectiveness.) Yet literates are not necessarily devotees of the cult of science. Letters teach us to distinguish between sound and its representation; and, with a little further reflection, we realize that the sound itself represents an idea rather broader and vaguer than any one word. We slow down and ponder more deeply when we read and write, too. We understand that the stone is not the god. We start looking into ourselves for the source of that admiration, that reverence, that finds a crude symbolic expression in physical vastness and grand stillness. We begin to appreciate the separation of the ideal from the imagined, created, or fancifully interpreted objects with whose help we chase after that ideal. The world grows allegorical. A little thing may stand for an immeasurable and very sketchy truth. A sunset is not “the god” in person, but neither is it just a refraction of light through a thicker cross-section of the atmosphere’s prism. To both the tribesman and the scientist, the sunset is “thingness”; but to the former it is the greatest of things, and to the latter the merest of things. One has indiscriminately deified everything, and the other has systematically demystified everything. Neither offers a “yes and no” option where an alternative reality—not entirely captured by material but working through the material—may exist.

The ultimate challenge to the modern mind has been to proceed with the scientific analysis of material reality while not dismissing the possibility of another—a higher—reality to which litmus tests are unresponsive. One may in fact believe in one kind of knowledge and simultaneously believe in the other kind; but in practice, this proves to be a position commonly despised by the most advanced scientific minds.

The reason, I must suppose, is human arrogance: hubris. Once we create a system, we’re not content to let anything escape it. We like being in control. Upon our Mt. Olympus of scientific method, we reign like so many Zeuses. We adore our own intelligence in having been able to produce explanations that account for so much—we will not accept that the “so much” is not eventually “everything”. In this respect, science may indeed become a cult, a kind of religion unto itself. It takes on faith that nothing exists which it cannot understand and explain.

I think I prefer the tribesman, in all his ignorance. He at least clings to a natural kind of humility. He puts gods where they shouldn’t be—in stones, in winds, in sunlight; but he abstains from elevating to godly status his own capacity for imposing order.