Secular Religion
By Alexander C. Chirila
This essay cites the following Library of Social Science Newsletters:
• Demopoulos, Panayiotis. Götterdämmerung: Suicide Music and the National Self as Enemy.”
• Gentile, Emilio. “Politics as Religion.”
• Kimura, Akio. “Mishima’s Negative Political Theology: Dying for the Absent Emperor.”
Alexander C. Chirila PhD, holds a PhD in Writing and Criticism from the State University at Albany, and currently teaches English and Literature at Webster University, Thailand.

Dr. Chirila is founder of The Center for Comparative Spiritual Studies. For information, please contact Alex at symboldreamer@hotmail.com

His book True Immortality is available from Amazon.

For information on how to order, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

In the first chapter of his book, Politics as Religion (2006), Emilio Gentile introduces us to the idea that worldly persons or institutions may serve as objects of sacredness and veneration—commanding no less fanaticism than faiths dedicated to the worship of supernatural deities.

In the West, the advent of secular religion coincided with the rise of Nationalism, and found its nadir during Hitler’s rise to power and the apocalyptic mythos of the Third Reich. In the East, the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China replaced the iconography of Mahayana Buddhism with the stately monoliths of the Communist Party of China (CPC), a spectacle that reaches absurdist proportions in modern North Korea under the Democratic People’s Republic.

While traditional definitions of religion involve supernatural beings, secular religion implies that these elements are essentially replaceable. Gentile suggests that human beings are psychologically predisposed towards an elevation of sentiment characterized by a range of behaviors that include fear, adoration, and submission. Religion requires a matrix of symbols, beliefs, and ideas—around which a group can congregate. Representations of this matrix—flags, buildings, icons, etc.—are focal points for the release of exaltation and passions.

Freedom, the State, the Fatherland—all are examples of representational matrices that can “hold the charge” of a community’s devotion and provide tangible outlets for its release. The number of soldiers who have willingly killed and died for the sake of these secular gods is a staggering testament to their viability. These ideas are conceived as greater than the individual—in order that each individual may feel subordinate to them. As Durkheim stressed, they are communal: each individual feels himself/herself a part of them.

Are these matrices “real?” This question is no less important in secular religion than it is in traditional theology. Ultimately, the real can be experienced only momentarily and represented a posteriori. As long as the representation is linked back to an actual experience (of the sublime, numinous, etc.), this representation (fetish, effigy, idol, etc.) can become legitimate. The power of the representation depends on the psychological investment made by human beings: the stronger the investment, the greater the potential for explosive displays of religious sentiment.

An important question revolves around agency. Religion has always been coopted by those who understand how to manipulate the psychology of faith. The first stable agricultural societies deified their emperors, committing their exploits to precious writing—sealing humankind in a cycle of despotism that would last until the first stirrings of populism.

From the Church Militant and Henry VIII—to radicalized Islam—organizations and states have harnessed the power of belief to amass wealth, foment conflict and civil unrest, overthrow governments and influence international relations. Religious officials often enjoy standards of living far more luxurious than those who prostrate before them.

One of the trademark of popular belief, whether secular or traditionally religious, is that skepticism is discouraged in favor of unquestioning loyalty—a quality found in extreme form in cult groups and violent militias. Logic, reason and religion have always had an uneasy relationship (1). Empowering the individual to be the agent of his/her own liberation is at odds with the totalitarian desire to psychologically manipulate or dominate people.

Fascism and Nazism (2) played on the religious sentiments of Europe in the same way the beguiling myth of divine sovereignty was cast over 20th Century Japan via State Shinto. Panayiotis Demopoulos suggests (3) that Norse mythology, rendered in apocalyptic tones by Wagner in his Götterdämmerung, informed German nationalism under the Nazi party during WWII. He writes, “A theological basis for cruelty is behind every expression of brutality or unreason. Men mirror their Gods and Hitler, however confused as to his human or divine nature, was mirroring Odin.”

According to Japanese historian and scholar Akio Kimura (4), “At the center of State Shinto ideology lies the idea of arahitogami (incarnate divinity) or akitsumikami (manifest divinity), defining the emperor as a direct descendant of Ameterasu, the goddess of the sun in Japanese mythology.” While this was a relatively new concept to the Japanese people, Kimura points out that “many Japanese thought it was natural to sacrifice their lives for the country. However, to sacrifice one’s life for the country is not as natural as sacrificing one’s life for the family, which can be seen even among animals. If they take it for granted to sacrifice their lives for the country, they are confusing a feeling that has resulted from the ideology with a natural feeling.”

This “natural feeling” is independent of religion, but it is one of many that can become confused in the same way. Just as religion casts humankind’s most basic fears (5) in forms that can be fastened to various models, so too can other elements of our psychological hardwiring become entangled with representational structures designed to validate certain extremes of irrational and emotional behavior (6).

This is often accomplished with the most primitive and universal of appeals: fear and desire. On a popular level, the fear of retribution and punishment is balanced against the desire for good fortune and reward. These structures are found the world over, and can be effectively syncretized to political systems. Consider, for example, the dangerously polarized rhetoric in the United States between “liberals” and “conservatives,” and how certain platforms are explicitly linked to utopian and dystopian mythologies.

It is less clear how the industrialized urbanization of Communism, with its decidedly anti-religious rhetoric, could have hoped to replace Christianity or Mahayana Buddhism. To a certain extent, this presupposes that the State, or even the Nation, could become the focal point of a matrix as emotionally and psychologically numinous.

The sort of religious rhetoric that aims at stirring up mob mentality can only go so far. At some point the ritual and the pageantry end, and each individual is left to himself/herself with the afterglow—the symbols and narratives that retain an echo of the transformative, ecstatic experience.

Still, it is important not to look at religion as if it were a singular, monolithic thing. It is a term used to classify an incredibly diverse spectrum of belief systems. Monotheistic religion can be more easily corrupted to serve authoritarian needs, while indigenous and shamanic religions are less systematized and can function as points of social resistance.

More generally, while psychologists and anthropologists have identified what may well be a root “religious sentiment” that can be focused on a secular object or representation, this link cannot be sustained unless it supports a consistent renewal of the original peak experience.

The sheer distance and abstraction that surrounds a supernatural deity ensures that it cannot disappoint those who willingly submit to the “fear and awe” that is demanded of them. A Nation, Country, State or Flag is subject to no less demanding a standard—and it is often the soldier who ultimately bears the terrible weight of the sacrificial offering that reifies and rejuvenates the secular god.

(1) Among the world faiths, Buddhism is often considered the most rational, encouraging a constant process of doubt and questioning—as well as powerful introspection. Buddhism is not an authoritarian system in Asia. The individual is ultimately responsible for his/her own fate.

(2) According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Nazi Party openly supported Christianity, declaring in Article 24 that “The Party as such upholds the point of view of a positive Christianity” (1920). While many Protestant Churches and the Catholic Church aligned in opposition to German nationalism at the time, there were nonetheless “Deutsche Christen” who supported the ideals of Nazism.

(3) In a paper published by Library of Social Science: “Götterdämmerung: Suicide Music and the National Self as Enemy.

(4) In another paper published by Library of Social Science: “Mishima’s Negative Political Theology: Dying for the Absent Emperor.”

(5) Psychology recognizes five basic fears: extinction, mutilation, loss of autonomy, separation and ego death.

(6) During the Red Scare in the United States, Sen. Joseph McCarthy sought to use paranoia to his advantage, and didn’t hesitate to emphasize the “godlessness” of the communist.