A Godless Age and its Theocratic Religion
I love listening to podcasts on my drive to Ridley College, and I just happened to listen to two podcasts back to back which, it turned out, were about the same topic albeit in curiously different ways.
First, The Rest is History, had an episode on the Marquis de Sade where Tom Holland explained the biography of the mischievous and masochist Marquis of 18th/19th century France. But he also pointed out how Sade was in his philosophy a man way ahead of his times. Sade, who reviled Christianity as a grotesque moral and sexual horror, believed that nature offered an ethic of fulfilling sexual desire and rewarded the avarice of the powerful. Yes to women’s equality and gay rights for Sade, but also, yes, to rape, murder, and even genocide. Only Nietzsche exceeded Sade in seeing what a post/anti-Christian philosophy might actually look like in practice. Only Freud exceeded Sade in regarding sex as the single most controlling aspect of desire and identity. You have pure autonomy, the self utterly free to pursue all desires, even those that are ravenous, rapacious, malevolent, sordid, and brutal. That is a post-god world. There is no god but power and sex is her prophet.
Next, I listened to the Quilette Podcast with Jonathan Kay interviewing Kushal Mehra about Canada’s sexual and racial politics. It was very interesting, especially to get an Indian perspective on things like trans-identity politics and ethnic issues. What stood out for me is how Kay acknowledged and even lamented how a post-Christian society is making sex and power the default state religion. He thinks it no coincidence that immediately after the rise of the new atheists came the sacralization of sexual identity as a kind of gap-filler to stand in the place of religion. Whether it is exorcising the body of the demon of heteronormativity, or discovering the authentic self like attaining enlightenment, there is a strange religious quality to much of progressive culture.
I urge you, I challenge you, to listen to both podcasts back to back. The two podcasts are different, one is historical biography, while the other is political commentary. But it is truly staggering how they both come to the same point of seeing the present cultural moment as an expression of a re-ordering of society situated between sex and power in a post-god world.
As I keep saying, in a godless age, there will be gods. What replaces religion is either the quest for power or the lust for pleasure, the clenched fist or a phallus, an M-16 or sex toys, Putin or Pornhub. Or, in a more grim prospect, sex and power are combined, the strong dominate the weak in rituals of orgiastic violence, a domination that is social as well as sexual. Imagine a world ruled by Nymphs following the philosophy of Nietzsche.
This brings me to my next point, how an anti-religious and anti-god movement can so easily turn into a theocratic state religion.
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I’ve been reading French philosopher Bernard-Henri Georges Lévy’s The Testament of God which is a critique of many things including Marxism and Anarchism. But he makes a good point in that the death of god leads to the cult of politics. In a godless age, God is immanetized into political life. Where there is no religion, politics becomes the religion.
In fact, contrary to received opinion, real theocrats are always recruited eleswhere, from among the murderers of God rather than his worshippers. Saint-Just, for example, who killed the absent God, that is God himself, only in order to make the Supreme Being the omnipresent governor of his ‘republic institutions, was, in the strict sense, a theocrat. Marx and Nietzsche, who executed Christ only in order realize him more fully, to resurrect him everywhere, in the body of the new man, who on the ruins of the end of history, or those of the eternal return, were also theocrats. The terrorists of Germany and Italy, who chant ‘Neither God nor master’ only in the name of a holier God, more divine master, a superstitious law whose text they tattoo and machine-gun on the flesh of their victims are also theocrats. If we call ‘theocratic’ the will to confuse, to embody God in the world, then a revolutionary politics is always theocratic in nature; and it always, in practice, leads to barbarism.
Lévy is right. Atheists make the best theocrats.
The most zealous theocrats are the anti-religious revolutionaries. For they must exhibit the wrath of a merciless god in order to expunge the state of the contamination of the former regime and any remnants of religion. Only a state with godlike power and that demands god-like devotion from its subjects can rescue the people from the pieties of the faithful and the failures of the past. A past which is not so much critiqued as it is erased entirely. Pieties which are not outlawed per se, but must now be directed at the celebration of the new revolutionary order.
The godless void is filled, not with bread and circuses, but with the state’s ability to fulfill the most debased desires and impose the tariff of death on dissenters. A government that basks in spectacles of pleasure combined with a reign of terror. Unfettered debauchery as a reward for the compliant and the perpetual danger of being de-personed if one dares to pray to a power beyond the palace. Opiates and orgies for those who prostrate themselves before the regime, but exile or execution for those who dare to hope that one day:
The kingdom of the world has become
the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
and he will reign forever and ever
This critique certainly applies to Fascist, Stalinist, and Maoist states, the extreme varieties of authoritarianism, and whatever expression they might attain today. Yet that would seem far from us. Even the most regressive Western nation is more Oprah than Orwell. Yes, on the one hand, in liberal democracies, Christianity has virally entered the political DNA, so that our culture wars are merely variations on a theme. That is why libertarians and progressives share the same ancestor hanging up on the cross, the one from whom both groups champion the promise of freedom. But on the other hand, there is still the prospect of a state, whether to the left or to the right, that might one day aspire to types of power that make it, not divine, but accede to the office of prophet, priest, and king. A more deadly seduction because such a state pretends not to be absolute while acting as if it is. Alas, theocracies come in both naked and disguised varieties.