Read more about Book Club and the book we’re reading.
According to the 2013 Blackrock City Census, 73% of Burning Man attendees say they belong to “No Religion.” Of the remaining Burners, 6% claim to be Jewish, 5% Catholic, 5% “other Christian,” 4% other, 3% Protestant (although isn’t that “other Christian?”), and 2% each for Buddhism, Pastafarianism (although can’t we just call that “Atheism with a shtick?”), and Paganism.
Yet by the same count only 22% of Burners self-identify as Atheists, 49% of Burners say they are “spiritual,” and about as many Burners say they practice prayer/meditation/contemplation as Burners who say they don’t.
So while a majority of Burners clearly aren’t religious, neither have a majority of them abandoned the things that one generally looks to religion to provide. We may not see religion as providing any answers about God, the spiritual aspect of reality, or a sense of connection to the world around us – but neither have we given up on those things. A compelling argument can be made that we are looking for religion by another name.
This is precisely the condition of the world that Terry Eagleton examines in his book “Culture and the Death of God.” This is not a book about whether God exists or religion is “correct” – it is a book asking the question: “what does a culture that for thousands of years put religion at the center of morality, political authority, and epistemology, do when it has secularized?”
We have to ask the question because we still don’t have an answer. As Eagleton notes in the preface: “(D)espite the fact that art, Reason, culture and so on all had a thriving life of their own, they were also called on from time to time to shoulder this ideological burden, one to which they invariably proved unequal. That none of these viceroys for God turned out to be very plausible is part of my story.”
There are a couple of points to note here, the first of which is that Eagleton does not in fact believe that our culture is really all that secular. Indeed, a Harris poll conducted at the end of last year finds that 74% of American adults believe in God. That’s down from 82%, but it’s still very clear that we are not a “secular” society in the common sense of the word.
- 72% of Americans believe in miracles
- 68% believe in heaven
- 64% believe in the survival of the soul after death
Which … wait a minute … how is it possible that more Americans believe in heaven than believe in the survival of the soul after death? Who are these 4% of Americans who believe in heaven but not an afterlife? I’d kind of like to meet them.
Which I bring up not just for its own sake (although yes, that too) but to admit that there are inconsistencies in such data. I have no doubt that if you design a survey properly and slice the answers up you can accurately say that the American people believe in anything you want them to believe, or not.
We can debate the question, then, of whether America (and the West as a whole) is really secular or not – the point is that Eagleton sees the evidence and believes that not only did God never really go away, he’s now making a comeback.
But among what we can call the “epistemological elites” – the people who get quoted in the mainstream media as impartial sources and whose opinions set the standard for what is respectable for social institutions – there has clearly been a move towards secularization, and indeed that is a dominant force driving Western culture today. The “elite” (the word really deserves to be in quotes) are far different from the general populace on this point, and always have been. Hence Eagleton’s statement (again, from the preface) that.:
“(R)eligion has proved easily the most tenacious and universal form of popular culture, though you would not suspect so by leafing through a few university cultural studies prospectuses. The word ‘religion’ crops up in such literature about as often as the sentence ‘We must protect the values of a civilized elite from the grubby paws of the populace.’ Almost every cultural theorist today passes over in silence some of the most vital beliefs and activities of billions of ordinary men and women, simply because they happen not to be to their personal taste. Most of them are also ardent opponents of prejudice.”
So the first major issue the book asks us to consider is the one I started with about Burning Man: “how ‘secular’ is our society really?”
Some may suggest that this question is moot because, statistically, our society becomes more secular every year – slowly but inexorably. Eagleton disputes that data, and indeed points out that according to the sociologists and futurists of the late 19th century, we should have stopped printing Bibles decades ago. They were wrong then and he thinks they’re wrong now. But let’s take this argument at face value for a moment: let’s say we are getting gradually, inexorably, more secular.
It is at this point that Eagleton’s second issue kicks in: how does a society, once it secularizes, deal with the impact of that change?
I’m not a New Atheist, and can’t speak for them, but there seems to be a pervasive sense among their published works that society can do away with religion and keep on going more-or-less exactly as it was: that the “before” and “after” pictures are identical except insofar as everyone now supports a kind of middle class neo-liberalism that is the natural way to view the world once the scales of religion have fallen from our eyes. The idea that a world without religion would experience upheavals broad enough to impact the academics, technorati, or middle class, seems to be entirely absent.
This was not a belief that the “old atheists” shared. On the contrary, Nietzsche’s warning that we have killed God was precisely that: a warning. Human society cannot remain ordered as it was once God is dead. In the absence of religion, if we don’t take succeed in becoming ubermench, Nietzsche said, we’ll destroy ourselves. Not being religious imposes necessary responsibilities to development and conduct.
Eagleton too rejects the notion that religion can fade quietly. On the contrary: the way power in society has been distributed for millennia was based on a religious epistemology. Take that epistemology away, and everything will need to be re-examined: from capitalism (“the Protestant Work Ethic”) and human rights (it was the churches, after all, that led the fight against slavery in both Europe and the New World, and against Jim Crow in the American civil rights movement) to education (the university system as we know it today was founded on an explicitly religious model) to political power.
Eagleton is NOT saying that you have to be religious to be a good person – not at all. What he is saying is that the structure of the institutions we have was built on religious bedrock. To the extent that these structures have not come tumbling down in favor of … what? How does a secularized society organize itself if it doesn’t want to wear religion’s skin? … is exactly the extent to which we’re not really secularized.
Finally, there is the question of why we’re not actually so secularized. There was a firm belief in the last century that religion would be dead in this one. Yet even our epistemological elites, having firmly banished religion from their minds, constantly seek a replacement in the form of Culture, Art, and various “-isms.” What is it that religion did (or does) that we keep feeling a lack of, and why haven’t we been able to replace it effectively?
“(A)theism is by no means as easy as it looks,” Eagleton notes.
Which again, brings us back to Burning Man. While I have argued ardently that Burning Man cannot actually replace religion, and should not try, we would be fooling ourselves if we didn’t admit that many people come to Burning Man because there is a hole in their lives where religion might once have been. They are looking for something that they believe religion can no longer provide – but they are still looking, and in that sense they are still believers.
You’ve met them. Maybe you are them.
Like it or not, many people are looking to Burning Man as a stepping stone in the secularization of society – a way forward from the dilemma of what to do now that religion is gone. Many others are looking at Burning Man to re-infuse spirit into the world: to de-secularize it. We can’t do both (can we?). Maybe we can do neither.
What we can do is better understand the condition of the world we live in. “Culture and the Death of God” sets out to do just that. So we read.
Ladies, gentlemen, and others: the comments section is open for discussion. See you next week with chapter 1: “The Limits of Enlightenment.”
Everyone is welcome to comment in this space, though only comments germane to the topic at hand will be kept. To join the Burning Book Club, just say you want to join in the comments section and leave an accurate email in the “email” field.
is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com