In 1997 I delivered a presentation to the World Futures Society conference titled: The future of sex, politics and religion. In it, I used a few slides outlining secular substitutes for religion that constitute what I called ’21st century piety’. I’ve repeated my analysis many times since and still hold firmly by it, virtually unchanged since then. A lot of evidence since has backed it up, and lots of other people now agree.
My theory was that as people move away from traditional religion, the powerful inner drive remains to feel ‘holy’, that you are a good person, doing the right thing, on some moral high ground. It is a powerful force built into human nature, similar to the desire to feel social approval and status. When it is no longer satisfied by holding to religious rules, it may crystallise around other behaviours, that can mostly be summarised by ‘isms’. Vegetarianism and pacifism were the oldest ones to be conspicuous, often accompanied by New Ageism, followed soon by anti-capitalism, then environmentalism, now evolved into the even more religious warmism. Some behaviours don’t end in ism, but are just as obviously religion substitutes, such as subscribing strongly to political correctness or being an animal rights activist. Even hard-line atheism can be a religion substitute. It pushes exactly the same behavioural buttons.
I fully support protecting the environment, looking after animals, defending the poor, the powerless, the oppressed. I don’t mind vegetarians unless they start getting sanctimonious about it. I am not for a second suggesting there is anything bad about these. It is only when they become a religion substitute that they become problematic, but unfortunately that happens far too often. When something is internalised like a religious faith, it becomes almost immune to outside challenge, a faith unaffected by exposure to hard reality. But like religious faith, it remains a powerful driver of behaviour, and if the person involved is in power, potentially a powerful driver of policy. It can drive similar oppression of those with other world views, in much the same way as the Spanish Inquisition, but with a somewhat updated means of punishing the heretics. In short, the religion substitutes show many of the same problems we used to associate with the extremes of religion.
That’s the problem. The western world has managed pretty well over centuries to eventually separate religion from front line politics, so that politicians might pay lip service to some god or other to get elected, but would successfully put their religion aside once elected and the western state has been effectively secular for many years. Even though they have gained acceptance in much of the wider population, because these religion substitutes are newer, they are not yet actively filtered from the official decision processes, and in many cases have even gained the power levels that religion once held at its peak. They feature much more heavily in government policies, but since they are faith based rather than reality based, the policies based on them are often illogical and can even be counter-productive, achieving the opposite of what they intend. Wishful thinking does not unfortunately rank highly among the natural forces understood by physicists, chemists or biologists. It doesn’t even rank highly as a social force. Random policies seemingly pulled out of thin air don’t necessarily work just because they have been sprinkled with words such as equality, fairness and sustainability. Nature also requires that they meet other criteria – they have to follow basic laws of nature. They also have to be compatible with human social, economic, cultural and political forces. But having those sprinkles added is all that is needed to see them pass into legislation.
And that is what makes religion substitutes a threat to western civilisation. Passing nonsensical legislation just because it sounds nice is a fast way to cripple the economy, damage the environment, wreck education or degrade social cohesion, as we have already frequently seen. I don’t need to pick a particular country, this is almost universally true across the Western world. Policy making everywhere often seems to be little more than stringing together a few platitudes about ensuring fairness, equality, sustainability, with no actual depth or substance or systems analysis that would show reliable mechanisms by which they actually would happen, while ignoring unfashionable or unpleasant known forces or facts of nature that might prevent them from happening. Turning a blind eye to reality, while laying the wishful thinking on thickly and adding loads of nice sounding marketing words to make the policy politically accepted, using the unspoken but obvious threat of the Inquisition to ensure little resistance. That seems to be the norm now.
If it were global then the whole world would decline, but it isn’t. Some areas are even worse crippled by the extremes of religion itself. Others seem more logical. Many areas face joint problems of corruption and poverty. With different problems and different approaches to solving them, we will all fare differently.
But we know from history that empires don’t last for ever. The decline of the West is well under way, with secular religion substitution at the helm. When reality takes a back seat to faith, there can be no other outcome. And it is just faith, in different clothes, and it won’t work any better than religion did.