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What is religion?

| Monday, November 4, 2019

Friedrich Nietzsche once opined within his memorable 1887 work “On the Genealogy of Morals” that “the inexorable decline of faith in the Christian god” has led to a “considerable decline in the human consciousness of guilt.” This legendary atheist philosopher truly believed that the “complete and final victory of atheism” would forever banish all notions of guilty conscience to the dustbin of history.

Nietzsche’s somewhat lunatic thesis on the guilty conscience was that it goes hand in hand with religion, although Nietzsche rejected the existence of both. In his view, this concept of guilty conscience was a religiously and socially-constructed fiction designed to reverse our animal instinct to inflict cruelty back upon ourselves. In other words, “pathetic” modern Christians torment themselves in believing that they stand guilty before God for their sins, as such guilt is merely a symptom of our own perverted imaginations. Naturally, the secularization of society would lead us to ultimately admit not only that “God is dead,” but also that there is absolutely nothing for which we must confess. Our belief in conscience dies along with our faith in God.

Looking back upon this dreary argument in today’s American context, it is clear to me that Nietzsche was profoundly wrong to assume that secularization necessarily implies his own nihilistic brand of atheism and thus the death of guilty conscience. What we are seeing today is not “less religion,” but merely a different kind of religion, and a different kind of guilty conscience.

For example, conservative Catholic Ross Douthat points out in a recent New York Times column that “the decline of Christian institutions and the weakening of Christian affiliation may be clearing space for post-Christian spiritualities — pantheist, gnostic, syncretist, pagan — rather than a New Atheist sort of godlessness.” Although traditional Christianity in the West is quite ill, postmodern forms of religion (nature worship, Gnostic dualism, consumerist idolatry and the like) are very much on the rise.

Thus, the real story is not that religion has declined, but that ancient heresies are proliferating in new and varied ways. Indeed, the kinds of ideas which would for two millennia have been deemed “heresy” have become part and parcel of the new orthodoxy. In a complete reversal of roles, traditional Christians are now the heretics for preaching that marriage is a sacramental union between a man and a woman, that a fetus is always and everywhere gift from God and not a parasite and that gender is likewise a gift by nature and not a choice by right. And where heresy abounds, the quasi-integralist Church of “It’s 2019” must step in to suppress it. “Bake that cake, bigot,” says the state.

Likewise, Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule, a deeply traditional Catholic, has written that contemporary liberalism possesses “a theology and eschatology” along with “a central sacrament and an accompanying liturgy.” Just as the French Revolutionaries of old obliged everyone’s obedience to the “Goddess of Reason” through active participation in liturgical festivals, so too do woke liberals of 2019 demand adherence to a progressive view of history, the march toward “radical freedom for all,” through seemingly endless tweets, political speeches, academic papers, parades, marches and, most importantly, laws.

In particular, liberal dogmatists possess a comprehensive doctrine of atonement and an accompanying “sacrament” of reconciliation which is not confined to an actual confessional but must in fact be rendered in public. Hence, we see throughout the Democrat presidential primary field a myriad of public confessions ranging from Pete Buttigieg’s renouncing his former use of the phrase “all lives matter,” Elizabeth Warren’s finally admitting her misdeed of long identifying as a Native American and Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke’s apologizing for simply being a white male.

This phenomenon has overtaken American life, for this new secular “guilty conscience” is ubiquitous not just among Democrat presidential hopefuls, but also within the hearts of climate activists and gay pride marchers from coast to coast, all of whom take to the streets with a religious enthusiasm hardly ever seen to the same degree since the Palm Sunday event. The guilt that these folks exude is palpable, although it often takes the form of guilt for social oppression generally rather than personal iniquities. After all, the doctrine of intersectionality entails that those oppressed by our nation’s blatant history of racism, sexism, heteronormativity, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and patriarchy (apparently “the structure on which this university was built”) cannot be challenged, for the experiences they share are fundamental to the liberal deposit of faith. Allyship demands nothing less than unequivocal affirmation of the feelings of those oppressed.

My point is not to undermine the legitimate legacy of discrimination that certain minority groups have faced throughout American history and continue to endure today, most obviously through the de facto segregation of cities. However, it is clear to me that contemporary liberalism exaggerates this legacy to an absurdly false degree, such that practical Catholics who maintain the Church’s beautiful teachings on life, marriage and sexuality are somehow responsible for “centuries of dead queers.” Like the Gnostics of old, it takes a lively religious imagination to invent this perverted claim. The forces of light compete against the forces of darkness. The “woke” among us are saved by recognizing and rejecting the systematic oppression imposed by our traditional rulers. President Trump is the real Ialdabaoth.

All things considered, Nietzsche was wrong to claim that the “complete and final victory of atheism” is inevitable, for religion is alive and well in 2019. The key difference today is that ancient heresy has become the new orthodoxy in the form of contemporary liberalism, whose adherents possess a definitive creed, a sacramental structure, rituals, feast days and a philosophy of guilty conscience. The dogma lives loudly within them.

Brennan Buhr is a senior Juggerknott from Albany, NY who studies theology, political science (but really, just theory) and history. He loves drinking cold glasses of skim milk and eating salad for dessert when he is not consuming “the living bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51) at the Basilica. He can be reached at [email protected] or @BuhrBrennan on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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