Today’s political struggle is a nebulous, stormy quarrel. We do not lack for storytellers to inform us, nor channels to express our views in. Nevertheless, correctly diagnosing the nature of the problem appears to elude us. Despite our rational, pluralistic society, we have regressed further into that overt tribalism we may as well call Eternal November. Two increasingly polarized camps give a subtly medieval tone to the whole affair, as the information trebuchets fire their volleys in the general direction of the enemy fort, obliterating the middle ground in the process. No clear victory conditions exist in this fight, only an endless, general siege.
This is a most peculiar state of affairs, and it conflicts entirely with how we think of ourselves as enlightened, rational beings. If we wish to untangle this Gordian Knot, we need fingers of utmost dexterity, and it must be a team effort. Cleaving it with the sword of truth and justice does not work, for it is intricately woven into it, wielded by each side to smite the other. The evidence is already here in abundance, what is required is to turn off the reality distortion field that prevents it from snapping into focus.
The religious dimension, it turns out, is key.
Religion in Action
It’s a popular thing to criticize the Catholic Church, particularly in the skeptic community. Atheist icons like Christopher Hitchens acquired great fame in documenting its hypocrisy and duplicity.
While preaching charity, it sits on an opulent treasure of gold to rival the best dragons. It works for the good of the community, yet harbors and protects abusers. Under the guise of care, it encourages needless suffering and honors the Mother Theresas who set it up. All the way down, it lays out policies on contraception, marriage and homosexuality that seem to contradict its own beliefs and inclinations, stated or otherwise. This is an open secret, such that the news that a Vatican-owned property happens to house a gay sauna merely elicits knowing snickers all around.
Beyond its contemporary failings, there is a long history to look back on. The persecution and torture of heretics and witches is a topic of many a medieval tapestry. The long list of religiously motivated wars and political power grabs are plentiful, by the Grace of God.
None of this is news. We understand there can be an enormous gap between stated moral values and actions taken. The guilty and self-loathing hide best among the holy, and no-one is as committed as the person who hurts you thinking it’s for your own good. Shaming the heretic into silence, or forcing the accused into confession, are very effective means of social control. But most of all, institutional pillars are political entities with a will of self-preservation beyond their individual members.
This is the power of sanctity. According to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, it is a concept that is pervasive—even instrumental—in the development of human civilization. By establishing certain concepts as sacred, we can erase doubts, transcend differences in moral foundations, coming together in shared purpose to achieve both great and terrible things.
Mainly because of the latter, the West has shifted strongly towards a post-religious, secular self-image. Separation between church and state is, ironically, an accepted dogma. With the exception of a few hold-outs like the United States or Poland, we are overwhelmingly post- or recovering Christians.
Religious devotion belongs to the past, or so many think.
It should therefor be a very bitter pill to swallow, if we discover we have fallen into the same old trap. The skeptic community is an enlightening example of this.
Gripped by moral strife in 2011, it perfectly foreshadowed the years to come. The details are irrelevant to the point here. What matters are the tools that were deployed and the effect they had.
Preaching from her YouTube channel, skeptic panelist Rebecca Watson chastized a conference goer for a transgression, which she saw as representative of the community’s norms. It prompted well-known figure Richard Dawkins to respond in dismissal. This made it news-worthy and caused various activist journalists to respond, heaping on the shame and censure. The resulting flood of posts and articles got shared virally on social media, prompted follow-up discussions, triggered more scandals offline, and ultimately lead to a splintering of the community, from which it never recovered.
It’s a neat package: moral pulpits, public shaming, witch hunts, targeted career sabotage and character assassination, all for the greater good. Years before “harassment” became a buzzword on everyone’s lips, the same demographic that now laments it the most was using it to fight perceived white male privilege for the sake of diversity. The resulting Atheism+ group wasn’t long for this world, but an extensive account of their inflicted grievances from 2012 should sound eerily familiar and convince you it never actually went away. All the information is still out there, it’s just been lost in that dustbin of recent history that passes for an eternity on the internet.
There’s a very important contradiction here though, well observed by counter-YouTuber Karen Straughan. How did a community of skeptics and rationalists find itself divided on ideological grounds, becoming the first notable example of a community rift in the current culture war? Shouldn’t they of all people have been the most rational, the most grounded, the most immune to such collective self-sabotage?
But it’s not that complicated, the explanation is pretty simple: the division that was revealed was there all along. On one side you had people who were skeptical in nature, and found others to practice their skepticism with. On the other, you had people who were looking for a shared tribal and religious experience, who were merely dissatisfied with what the conventional options for God had to say about sexuality, abortion, drugs, gender roles, etc. They didn’t mind the adherence to a strict moral code per se, they only minded conservative norms. They didn’t mind purity tests and witch hunts, they only minded it if any of the flames shot back in their own direction. What they were looking for was a sense of belonging.
When forced to choose between skepticism or tribal identity, their differing priorities were revealed, and the tribalists won, undergoing their own schism, supported by willing preachers in media both social and traditional, operating their individual little printing presses.
It is exactly this distributed and decentralized religious movement that has grown over many such incidents to define popular political discourse on the left. Despite fancying themselves skeptics who oppose religious dogma in all its forms, they eagerly established their own moral authority, merely substituting privilege for original sin.
Labelling it is difficult. You could call it contemporary social justice, intersectional feminism, progressivism or social liberalism, but you’d only capture part of it. You’d also be easily baited into arguing the professed ideals instead of the lack of consistency in practicing them. It makes it easy to dismiss detractors as being anti-what-we-stand-for instead of anti-hypocrisy.
In making this comparison, a few obvious rebuttals pop up.
For sure, the people involved will deny any religious intent, the same way antifa will instantly dismiss any accusations of complicity when rioting against perceived fascist oppression. It’s a sobering truth nevertheless: when you define yourself primarily in opposition to _____, it makes you exceptionally vulnerable to _____ism in disguise, especially if it’s a holy war.
You might say there’s no formal mass, no built churches, and no Vatican to point to, but we can tease out structures that carry the same role. You only have to factor in the now omnipresent role of social media in establishing social consensus, along with the increasing atomization of subcultures.
Their Vatican is the ivory tower of political orthodoxy and postmodernism in the humanities, devoid of real ideological diversity. Their churches are the various outlets and communities that publish only the party line, with comments under heavy moderation. Their mass is the churn of the social feed, the rosary beads traversed over and over again in ritualistic consumption. Their dogmas are the foregone conclusions about victimhood, their heresies the inconvenient scientific truths about the nature of humanity and the role of biology. Their piles of gold are the multitude of public grants and patrons buying indulgences and insurance from retaliation, kissing the ring in submission.
You might think we are more skeptical than ever, as fake news has come and gone as a buzzword du jour: Who is saying it, and can I believe them? But we rarely see people question how and why the news reaches us. Why are they telling story A and not B? and Who benefits when it gets shared? The answer is usually that a different story would lack that particular infectious je-ne-sais-quoi that makes you and your tribe want to share and discuss it. It acts as a giant filter on what is possible to hear, confusing coverage for occurrence. The content isn’t newsworthy, the newsworthiness is the content.
Enough people have sensed this that the fake news-genie quickly escaped from its bottle, repurposed to encompass all forms of media malaise, much to the originators’ horror. No! Stop noticing we’re all doing a terrible job! If a paper has to convince its readership that it’s actually publishing the truth, it’s not unlike a parent insisting to their incredulous teenager that they’re actually “cool”. No Mom, if you were cool you wouldn’t have to say it, everyone would just know.
It’s important not to overstate the nature of virality though: the populist model of bottom-up grassroots popularity is a rarity, and does not actually match how most fads spread. What gets popular is what’s shared on already popular platforms, and as such, top-down still rules, spreading along the existing channels slowly carved out by culture.
Direct audience engagement has not made the media apparatus redundant, it merely operates on a much longer tail of distribution scales than it did before. The fact that concepts and catchphrases like fake news, don’t normalize this, alt-right and pepe is a nazi can reach ubiquity in a day, across timezones and through busy workdays, should be proof of that. All it takes is a few well-connected channels all saying the same thing at the same time. The eruption of responses that follow are often misread as targeted mobbings, as the participants underestimate just how far and fast the right trigger can spread.
Moral violations are the guaranteed ticket. It creates a nice interplay between preachers and their congregation: denounce sinners, demonstrate your allegiance to your flock, and allow the watchful eye of social censure to herd you towards the currently most correct moral stance. Deviate too much and you will find yourself ejected, excommunicated and unpersoned. The most charming heretics are left to shout against invisible shadowbans and communal blocklists, as platforms are bullied and coopted into taking sides. Here, Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council has the exact same connotation as a Ministry of Truth. It isn’t enough to censor people, they downplay and hide that it’s being done in the first place.
Just like traditional religion, the twins of guilt and shame are a constant undercurrent, pairing the carrot of acceptance with the stick of rejection. To atone for your privilege, you must act as a good ally and share enough of the right content to focus on the less fortunate. Momentary lapses of faith may be shared in performative flagellation: Does anybody else feel like…? How do I explain to my kids that…? Insecurity and fear of reprisal manifest as approval seeking, with only the speakeasy of pseudonymity acting as a relief valve. Throughout, purity must be preserved by purging the toxic, gross and disgusting outgroup. In times of excessive vice, a moral brigade will form to collectively hunt and report offense. Those suspended in violation must first acknowledge their sins and ritualistically delete the offending posts before being allowed back in. Confess.
In this social one-upmanship for ever more pure and pious stances, we can observe the impoverished spirit on the public square, in the neighborhood bar and in the intellectual arena. Religion appears to have been more built-in than rationalists would like to admit. In our pride we have dismissed the associated rituals and spaces without first understanding what they were there for, and inadvertently replaced them with invisible egregores, distributed organisms, living in the cloud. These appear to act like coordinated conspiracies, even as those involved are not consciously aware of it, and that’s exactly why they’re so pernicious. We make ourselves miserable so that they can be happy.
The writing’s been on the wall for a while, the precedents in plain sight to learn from. In light of this, it is particularly amusing to watch the political left recoil in horror as their more irreverent opponents embrace religious irony, espousing devotion to old egyptian gods, celebrating the rituals of meme magic, longing wistfully for a crusade and the retaking of Constantinople. The political right has won in recent times, but not because their tactics are better. Indeed, they merely copied what the left has been doing and excusing for years now. No, they are winning because they at least have a faction that is self-aware in recognizing the role of religion and tribalism, and it is enough to drive their counterpart clerics across the battlefield into apoplectic fits. This is also why they are having fun.
On the flipside, it’s been difficult to miss the widespread depression and hopelessness displayed in recent times by many on the left, along with side-excursions into the other stages of grief. They can never seem to complete their via dolorosa though, as if their egregore won’t let them.
The critical step seems obvious to me at least: stop equating differing viewpoints with immorality and kick the regressive-progressive priests and nuns to the curb. It’s as simple and as hard as it was to extract the eager hand of organized Catholicism from the institutions it considered its eminent domain for centuries.
It’s supremely bizarre when you think about it though. Muslims may pray to Mecca five times a day in devotion, but the committed progressive enters the confessional booth of Twitter and Facebook with every bathroom break, unaware, in search of penance and absolution.