The Corner

Secular Religions

This is a subject of enormous interest to me. While working on the book, I became entirely convinced by Eric Voegelin’s understanding of fascism as a political religion. But you’ll have to wait for that. In the mean time, I’ve written a couple pieces for the magazine (see here and here, neither on NRO for reasons that baffle me) in which I discuss liberalism as a political religion. A relevant quote from one of them:

But there was a considerable downside to the displacement of the Almighty by the trinity of the slide rule, the microchip, and the test tube. Eric Voegelin was among the most alarmed critics of the rising progressive tide. According to Voegelin, you cannot eliminate the religious instinct. “When God is invisible behind the world, the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.” Translation: When you rely on science and technology to do God’s job, it won’t be long before you worship science as a god. Marxism, the apotheosis of progressivism, purged the divine and replaced it with materialism. For the Marxist, proclaimed Voegelin, “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.” For many people today, the steam engine has been replaced by the embryonic stem cell as the promise of the realm to come.

Update: Interesting email, from a reader:



Historian Christopher Dawson made a career of writing about “displacement of the Almighty”:   

“Every living creature must possess some spiritual dynamic, which provides the energy necessary for that sustained social effort which is civilization.  Normally this dynamic is supplied by a religion, but in exceptional circumstances the religious impulse may disguise itself under philosophical or political forms” (Dawson, Progress and Religion (London:  Sheed and Ward, Ltd., 1929; reprint, 1945), vii).

The three main political substitutes for religion in the modern age, according to Dawson in 1934, are:  Democracy, Socialism, and Nationalism.  Each are based on fundamental factors: 

“Democracy bases its appeal on the sacredness of the People – the consecration of Folk; socialism on the sacredness of Labor – the consecration of Work; and nationalism on the sacredness of the Fatherland – the consecration of Place.  These concepts still arouse transcendent religious values or sanctions.  It is religious emotion divorced from religious belief” (Dawson, “Prevision in Religion” [1934], in The Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (London:  Sheed and Ward, 1958; reprint, Wilmington, Delaware:  ISI Books, 2002), 103).

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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