(We’re basing this discussion on Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries)
We tend to think of a secular society as one with no religion, but in fact no such animal exists – or ever has existed. Instead, a “secular society” is one in which religion is not a central organizing principle but exists only as one of many potential forms of amusement or self-help.
“Societies become secular not when they dispense with religion altogether, but when they are no longer especially agitated by it,” Eagelton notes at the opening of this chapter. “Another index of secularization is when religious faith ceases to be vitally at stake in the political sphere, not just when church attendance plummets or Roman Catholics are mysteriously childless.”
This unites religion with art and cultural cannons, all of which have been impacted by what Eagleton refers to as “the privatization of the symbolic sphere.”
“It is when artists, like bishops, are unlikely to be hanged that we can be sure that modernity has set in,” he writes. “They do not matter enough for that.”
For artists to matter socially, art has to be more than just a matter of private taste. Indeed, for anything beyond raw power and money to matter culturally, it must invoke a common bond – be more than a matter of personal taste or fashion. Burning Man is one among many kinds of culture that fall under this shadow. To the extent that Burning Man is attempting to re-enchant the world or make life more meaningful … to the extent that we want art to matter … Burning Man faces off against the same forces that have displaced religion.
But these forces are not necessarily the ideas of Enlightenment per see; Eagleton devotes much space in this chapter to the observation that the western Enlightenment was not actually hostile to God. Far from intending to disprove God, many Enlightenment thinkers believed his existence could be deduced rationally. “For the most part, it was priestcraft rather than the Almighty that the movement had in its sights,” Eagleton says. “The task was not so much to topple the Supreme Being as to replace a benighted version of religious faith with one that might grace coffee-house conversation in the strand.”
As with many conflicts that are seen as being religious, much of the bloodshed surrounding the Enlightenment was in fact political conflict with a religious gloss. The theological issues in question often turned out to be proxies for “who rules this land” and “who should pay for all this.”
Yet if much of the Enlightenment was not, in fact, hostile to religion, then how is it that the Enlightenment led to a secular society?
Eagleton – like Marx before him – suggests that it is material forces. “It was middle class society itself that, contrary to its own best intentions, succeeded in bringing religion into disrepute. In this respect, science, technology, education, social mobility, market forces and a host of other secularizing factors played a more vital role than Montesquieu or Diderot.”
Once economic forces become the central organizing principles of a society, society has entered modernity … and secularization follows modernity like day after night, because of course a society organized around currency cannot allow the sacred to transcend the pound sterling. American capitalism loves religion to the extent it can make blockbuster movies about Biblical figures and sell religious tchotchkes – but it would never consider allowing the principles those figures stood for to influence the way they do business. The meek pay full price.
The philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment were important, but secondary. “The pieties and principles embedded in age-old forms of life are not to be uprooted by a few eloquent polemics,” Eagleton notes. Ultimately we moved towards secularization because we didn’t want to have to subject the conveniences of the market to an ethical (let alone spiritual) review. We ceased to put God in the center of the universe because we liked easy access to textiles and tobacco.
Once again, Burning Man appears to be in the same boat: a movement that is lauded by market forces to the extent that we have the potential to move capital around. If we would only sell t-shirts and bottled water, accept sponsorships and product placement, we’d have conquered the world without changing a thing. Instead, we are at our most radical – and hard for the culture at large to swallow – when we place the 10 Principles above the capacity to cash in on them.
The simple act of not selling this culture out is a radical one. Burning Man may not be religious, but by positing a higher value than profit and its conveniences, we are lumped into the same basket as religion by the forces that led to secularization.
Yet it is important to note that while the loudest philosophes were agitating for a God free world, the actual forces of secularization pushed Christianity no further out than they absolutely had to. From a truly atheistic perspective, they left a lot of work undone. “The Enlightenment sought to reconstruct morality on a rational basis, but as Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out, the morality in question remained largely Christian in provenance.”
This is a deeper problem than most of our modern atheists appreciate. “Frederich Jacobi recognized that the Enlightenment conception of Reason has a prehistory, one which includes elements of the very Christianity it challenges. In our own time, Jurgen Habermas has also claimed that the values of freedom, autonomy, egalitarianism and universal rights derive from the Judaic ethic of Justice and the Christian ethic of love.”
We can go on. Eagleton continues:
“Critics of religion … dismissed Eden as mythical, but looked back wistfully to a golden age of Roman virtue. Some adhered to an all-powerful, self-founding, self-determining power, but its name was now Reason rather than God. They renounced the sovereignty of church and Scripture, but betrayed a naïve trust in the authority of Nature and Reason. They dismantled heaven but looked forward to a perfect human future; spoke up for tolerance but found the sight of a priest hard to stomach; scoffed at miracles but believed in the perfectibility of the human race, and substituted a devotion to humanity for the love of God. They also replaced divine grace with civic virtue. For all their brave talk of hanging the last king in the entrails of the last priest, ‘there is more of Christian philosophy in the writings of the Philosophes,’ Becker remarks, ‘than has yet been dreamt of in our histories.’”
To Eagleton, then, the secularization of society actually has very little to do with God and theology per see, and everything to do with the material principles around which society is organized. Or as Philip Rieff noted: “The Sacred Order is the Social Order” – what we do is, ultimately, what we believe. God was dethroned and religion pushed to the side to exactly the point where it stopped interfering with the free market, and pushed no further. To the extent that religion could get on board with market capitalism its influence was welcome. The Protestant Work Ethic not only didn’t try to put any checks on industrial capitalism, it suggested that industry was next to godliness. No godless capitalists went on record as objecting. Martin Luther probably would have.
The new view placed “rational principles” just were God had been. There was still an implicate order to the universe. “Whereas Darwinism sees randomness in apparent order,” Eagleton writes, “the Enlightenment did the reverse.” There was tremendous faith (the word is used deliberately) that with enough rational thought, all answers to the problems and questions of living would be found and answered. God may have been moved to the side, but “salvation” stayed exactly where it had always been.
Eagleton lists a number of prominent Enlightenment thinkers – including Voltaire and Samuel Johnson – who did not believe in salvation. But they also tended to doubt the ultimate efficacy of Reason, and thus while important and influential were also outliers to the spirit of the age. To the extent that technology and economics requires that rationality be lauded, we laud it. We do not doubt. We have faith – and thus can cue those technophiles who believe we’re just years away from uploading our consciousness into a heavenly network and attaining eternal life in a digital paradise where we will never know suffering or want again. Amen.
If keeping Christian society largely intact strikes you as a conservative position, remember that many of the Enlightenment thinkers were in fact staunch social conservatives … as befit their status as aristocrats or members of the middle class. They had a lot to lose if their theories of universal reason led to universal social change.
“Holbach and Montesquieu were barons, Condorcet was a marquis and Condilac an abbe. Voltaire sprang from the minor gentry, grew immensely rich and lived like an aristocrat. Helvetius, the son of a millionaire who moved in courtly circles, made a fortune as a tax farmer; Bentham lived off inherited income; Gibbon was a Member of Parliament and the son of a prosperous landowner. They were, as Peter Gay remarks, ‘a solid, respectable class of revolutionaries.’”
Indeed many Enlightenment thinkers, believing that the common people were impervious to Reason … or at least would not understand why, in a world governed by reason, there should be aristocrats … actively encouraged orthodox religion as a force of social stability.
Eagleton quotes Carl Becker: “They courageously discussed Atheism, but not before the servants.”
The parallels with today are many: the world is full of people who want to ‘disrupt’ every system but the one that brings them millions. If many of the contemporary acolytes of Pure Reason wonder why we have not stamped out religion once and for all, it is in part because many acolytes of Pure Reason prefer the society they have to the one that might come out of a true re-examination of basic principles. (And they might have a point.)
In the end, of course, the Enlightenment would indeed lead to a world where religion was no longer a truly common social bond – in a capitalist society, Eagleton points out “the dull compulsion to labor” is the only real common social bond – but much of the ethical and epistemological systems that religion put in place still remain. As do religious people.
As we shall see in the next chapter, the Enlightenment created ideals that much of humanity is perfectly happy to live with, but are not inspired by. We may agree with rational propositions, but we will not fight and die for them – let alone write poems, symphonies, or love one another because we have heard their call.
“The more you ground morality in Reason,” Eagleton notes, paraphrasing Hume, “the more it may rob you of initiative. … A purely technical rationality can have nothing to say about questions of value.”
Burning Man could be seen as one of the reactions against the excesses of the Enlightenment, but only after 500 years of continued development. Certainly Burning Man, in its preference for embodied ritual over abstract symbolism (it’s in the 10 Principles –look it up), could be a response to the kind of Reason that began to emerge in the Enlightenment and has returned with a vengeance in the era of Big Data: abstract, purely formal, and entirely disembodied.
“Once Reason cuts loose from the sensuous constraints of the body, it turns on humanity like a lunatic and tears it limb from limb,” Eagelton writes. “A rationality unhinged from human fleshliness is a Lear-like form of insanity.”
Burning Man may also be a reaction against “the fact that when rationality becomes for the most part instrumental, a matter of calculation and cause and effect, it risks emptying social existence of meaning and value.”
To the extent that Burning Man places meaning and value back into social existence, it finds itself fighting with Enlightenment values in much the same way as religion did – except from the position of social outsiders, rather than an ancien regime attempting to retain control.
Which makes Burning Man’s cultural appeal all the more interesting. While it attracts all kinds of people, the population of Burners is largely made up of the very people who have benefitted from the secular systems the Enlightenment built. Why would a largely secular and privileged group support this fight after all this time, and the proven successes of capitalism?
“Rationalized societies tend not only to impoverish their symbolic resources, but to pathologize them as well,” Eagleton notes near the end of the chapter. And here I think we’ve hit precisely on one of the appeals of Burning Man: Burning Man enriches our symbolic resources, and makes them collective again rather than privatized … but without demanding an obedience to creed and clerisy.
It offers a desperately needed visceral link to the collective unconscious, without authority attached.
To people with First World Problems, reconnecting to shared symbolic resources may very well feel like coming home.
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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