Friday, 9 March 2018

The False Promise of a Return to Tradition and Religion

Jordan Peterson is against political correctness, opposed to the hegemony of feminist standpoint theories on university campuses and favors free speech generally. For that reason and that reason alone he is an ally and should be supported. It's well past time for a reckoning with the pseudo-academic left, the feminist and critical race theorists especially. They simply must accede to demands for ideological pluralism on college campuses and in society in general. Play nice or get out of the sandbox. Simple as that.

That said, he has an appeal to the neoreactionary crowd and there are reasons for this that go beyond their shared dislike of the dogmatic intersectional left, that are embedded in his outlook and the things he chooses to emphasize in his lectures. Ideas that, if left unchecked, can and in the not so distant past certainly have rivaled the current regressive left in the danger they pose to the very ideologically pluralistic social order that Peterson otherwise so loudly professes to uphold.

In particular, his approach to the writings of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, and their apparent warnings that the philosophical "death of God" would eventually lead to nihilism and/or the seduction of some or another kind of totalitarianism. The idea that "a man who loses his people and his national roots also loses the faith of his fathers and his God" as Dostoevsky puts it. Such a man then becomes a sitting duck either for existential angst and nihilistic despair, or the the appeal of a surrogate religion, in the form of a dogmatic ideology. In any event, the death of God narrative describes a concomitant decline in public morality, the dissolution of the family, falling birth rates necessitating mass immigration that drives still further levels of social disintegration until eventually, society is irrevocably changed and not for the better. This is the central narrative of much neoreactionary thought, the "theonomist" branch especially.

While not something that can be proven absolutely, the idea that a decline in religiosity coincides with a rise in nihilism and/or ideological dogmatism does strike me as being highly plausible. The similarities of fascism and communism with religions has been remarked upon repeatedly. More recently, I've been directly privy to the rise in popularity of the "new atheism" online, and the resultant decline in religiosity among millennials. That this generation subsequently embraced tumblr SJW feminism with the fervency that it has did not, therefore, come as a surprise to me. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and company successfully debunked Christian dogmas in the minds of many, but did not address the underlying need for transcendent belief systems that some people, at least, seem to have. Jordan Peterson would seem to be following in Carl Jung's footsteps - quite intentionally - in pointing this out. And good on him for doing so. 

I should also reiterate the fact that Jordan Peterson does not advocate any branch of neoreactionary or far right thought, near as I can tell. He has delivered scathing attacks on fundamentalist and ultra-nationalist thought that should make clear that his views are more nuanced than his leftist detractors make them out to be.

But his efforts should come with a warning label of their own. Attributing nihilism or the emergence of murderous totalitarianism ultimately to atheism has enormous potential to imply a "solution" that actually exacerbates the core problem. If "killing" God had (and continues to have) unforeseen and potentially disastrous consequences, so too might resurrecting and re-enthroning him. Specifically, the lure of a return to political religion, ultra-nationalism or some kind of traditionalism. This is the notion that underwrites neoreaction, and it's false and highly dangerous, since it ends up simply being another version of the murderous totalitarianisms that Dostoevsky fears will replace religion. The "God" chosen by whichever movement manages to do this (and which religion is chosen and how it prevails over its rivals never seems to get discussed) thus becomes, with no shortage of irony, just one more of the "demons" that names Dostoevsky's work that tackles precisely this issue.

Getting back to the religion and tradition of the past has been tried. Many times, and its rate of success is equivalent to that of the communism that it is touted as an antidote to. It was tried in Iran in 1979 and Afghanistan in 1996, to name two examples. The men who brought down the World Trade Center towers were motivated by precisely those kinds of ideals. So too have been numerous abortion clinic bombings and similar acts of domestic terrorism. There's been an ongoing push to bring religion back into public life in red state America since the inauguration of Ronald Reagan. Hasn't been much of "an antidote to chaos" if you ask me. By all appearances, it's made things worse, not better. 

The Antidote to Chaos?
The counterpart to Dostoevsky in predicting where the "resurrection of God" could well take us would be Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Her vision doesn't look terribly appealing to me.  Historically, the Crusades, the European Wars of Religion in the 1600s, the bloodbath that was the Chinese Taiping Rebellion, clerical fascism in Europe, the religious right in America, and ongoing Islamic Jihadist terrorism should dispel us of any notion that religion confers any special immunity to widespread social chaos, oppression and tyranny. The religious identity that lies at the heart of sacred forms of nationalist identity is never anything timeless and eternal, but decided at some point in the past by affairs that were - for their time - no less bloody and chaotic than the great wars of the 20th century. 

Don't misunderstand me, dear reader. If you find solace in a church or mosque, don't let me dissuade you from any of that. Plus, in the interests of fairness, the assertions made by atheists that religion is actually the root of the problem are likewise wrong and dangerous, as the persecution of religious groups in the USSR and its satellites and copy-cats exemplifies. God is neither the problem nor the solution here. The human propensity towards solving problems of identity, meaning and purpose with fanaticism and dogmatism in belief systems is the problem, and this tendency applies with equally deadly results to religious, identitarian or ideological systems of thought.

My quarrel is not with religion per-se, but with the proposal that a universal return to religion as the core of public life and a concomitant social order of serene small towns and suburbs filled with simple, moralistic nuclear families with traditional gender role churchgoing folk will be good for what ails us. It's the right wing counterpart to the romantic infatuation with communal and egalitarian living that has haunted the left for centuries. The core problem is that the entirety of society will not do either voluntarily. So the tried-and-true building blocks of tyranny: dependency on leaders and dogmas, demonization of outsiders and dissidents, erosion of privacy and civil liberties and good old fashioned brute force will end up having to be trotted out should either of these options be attempted in earnest. 

And that's the real reason why the decline of religion led to the problems that Nietzsche and Dostoevsky predicted that it would. It's not religion specifically and exclusively that confers identity and purpose, and keeps the social order intact, it's collectively held belief systems more generally. When these change dramatically or collapse all together, private angst and social chaos accompany the greater personal liberty that also emerges as a result.  The implosion of communism in the east bloc countries was similarly devastating to at least certain portions of their populations, which doubtlessly explains why authoritarianism is making a comeback in nearly all of them. 

While the SJW movement in the west does need to be stopped, and social alienation is a real problem, we'd do well to think long and hard before putting our efforts behind a revival of public, political religion as a means of solving our social ills. It's easy to forget that the regressive left of our time began in large part as a reaction against the religious right. Better to get rid of both than to make a preference of one over the other.

View "The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements" by Eric Hoffer on Samizdat Broadcasts!

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