This is episode 4, Toward a Functionalist Understanding of Religion. This is part one of a three-part series.
(You can find my other podcasts here)
In the first episode I will explain my functionalist theory of religion. Though I have many influences, this framework is original to me.
In the second episode we will discuss the American Civic Religion through the lens of my functionalist theory.
In the third episode, we will talk about religions as organisms, the online right, and the possibility of Christo-Nietzschean synthesis.
But First, a Disclaimer
Today I am going to speak about the nature of religious sentiments.
This is an easy topic to understand if you can maintain an impartial disposition, but it is a nearly impossible topic to talk about, because it occupies a mental territory which is perpetually inflamed
In order to understand the nature of religious sentiments, one must view them “from the outside” — that is we must be able to look at them from the perspective of one who is not possessed by them
I am not suggesting you should abandon religion, in fact I think that is impossible, rather I am telling you that if you can emulate the intuitions of an unreligious person sincerely, with neither condemnation nor acceptance, then you can also broaden and deepen your perspectives as a man of faith.
This is much harder than it sounds, because most anyone who is sentient — and I must point out here that I believe a great many people, maybe even a majority, are not sentient. They have phenomenology and base desire but they lack a certain ineffable quality, an inner spark —
Most anyone who is sentient is governed by something quite like a religious sentiment, though often, and in our modern age in particular, he denies it
to the modern man, an important article of faith is that his religion is not a religion; it is the pure and self-evident truth about the world, informed by rationality and dispassionate observation
And a huge part of my message to you, to every single one of you, is that no matter what you believe, it’s retarded to think that your worldview is the pure and self-evident truth about the world
This is one of the many ways that revealed religion is better than deduced religion, because the former is self-aware, open and honest about the necessity of faith.
For Christians, this is hardly a novel observation, I know. But here we have a sort of tension in this talk I am about to give, because there are two very different sorts of people who I think are probably listening to it, and so I have to couch every statement about religion in a kind of double disclaimer, one for the Christian, and one for the modern
And I contend that if you are a Christian, and you primarily try to justify your beliefs on the basis of evidence or rational argument, you are actually doing your faith a disservice.
He who lives by the sword dies by the sword, and he who pins his faith to empiricism and logic will see his faith broken on those very same instruments
Now the atheist on the other hand scoffs at faith, usually, but he’s the bigger fool, as every Christian knows, because he has faith, but he lacks the honesty to admit those things he believes on the basis of faith.
Christians tend to suspect that when you talk about religion from the outside, it is your goal to undermine it.
They are suspicious and understandably so because of the way their teachings have been abused in secular discourse especially in the last half century, let’s say
But I promise that’s not my intention here
I have no interest in dissuading anyone from holding religious views or from participating in religious life. Again, I do not believe such a thing is possible, because nature abhors a vacuum, and you can’t believe nothing
That’s right, there is not even one nihilist in the whole world. There’s no such thing as nihilism, it’s not possible. The man who proudly declares that he believes in nothing still esteems himself highly as a man who believes. He thinks his declaration is worth something, in other words. He believes in himself
When one religious sentiment disintegrates in the mind of a believer, a new sentiment always replaces it, usually a more primitive one
Although I am not a Christian myself, I was raised as a devout protestant, and in my youth my family changed to a new denomination, and we moved about as far from our previous beliefs as it was possible to move while staying within the Protestant tradition
As a result, I observed quite intimately that there is an essential fungibility between religious or ideological convictions of different flavors
(I know many of you will bristle at this claim, but I’m asking you to accept that it’s true psychologically, even if it’s not true theologically. This is a critical distinction, and making it is the key to understanding what I am here to talk about today)
What do we mean when we talk about religion
So I want to begin by defining religion, and explaining what I mean when I say that this talk is towards a functionalist definition of religion.
Functionalism is the idea that we should try to define objects in terms of the functions they perform rather than in terms of any particular constitution
Often people have positive or negative associations to words which have nothing to do with the meaning of the word itself, which can make it impossible to think clearly about those words.
We’ve all observed this on twitter, I think, when someone you don’t know sees a tweet you’ve made and they really latch on to your usage of a particular word
It’s as if they’ve built up a kind of allergy to a triggering word, and they can’t hear it without calling up some long dead, far-away argument that possibly hinged on it
A functionalist approach tries to evade this problem by first acknowledging that the same word has different meanings to different people
And second, by trying to look beyond the word in order to understand what it signifies in terms of behaviors or functions.
In the case of the word religion, I see both positive and negative associations with this word from both christians and atheists.
Some Christians see Christianity as a religion, caveat it’s the only true religion, but they recognize it as part of a class of entities which also includes Judaism, Buddhism, and so on.
For these Christians, they can recognize the shape of a religion in something like communism, wokism, and similar. In fact, it’s a common Christian refrain that, from their perspective it takes “just as much faith” to be an atheist.
We’ll come back to that.
I’ve also met Christians who see Christianity as something greater than a religion, who relegate all mere “religions” to the realm of falsehood. You can see, I think, the instrumental value in this type of self-understanding
For many atheists, they see religion as fundamentally a negative thing, as a “mind virus,” as something parasitical, or as a hoax or a con, something which exploits or controls its victims. This is an incredibly stupid position to hold, but it is common
I’ve also met atheists, and I am among them, who think that religion can be a noble thing, something that orders the passions and facilitates game-theoretic cooperation
And sometimes you will hear people say that a worldview, in order to be a “real” religion, must be ennobling or capture some particular value, maybe it has to be non-zero-sum for its practitioners, something like this
But we are interested in taking an outside view on religion today, which means that we want to reason about moral valuations without judging them, at least not too much
In general I claim that you should not strive to eliminate bias, that this corporate mantra against civil rights litigation is an attempt to do something impossible in the service of a goal that’s undesirable
To live and to be alive is to continually judge the world, to render YOUR judgment upon it, and the four letter word bias is an attempt to rob you of this power.
Regardless, this is a discursive arena that we should enter with impartiality, before we pass our judgment according to our good taste.
Varieties of religious experience
Taking a functionalist approach to religion means that we try to decompose religious belief into the various functions that it serves.
The following taxonomy is based only on my personal observations and contemplations. I first proposed this taxonomy on twitter, five years ago, and for that reason I expect it will be unfamiliar to most of you.
In the interim I have made some small adjustments. I believe that each of these components of religious belief that I am about to enumerate fulfill an imminent psychological need that each person feels.
A man may not think of himself as religious; nevertheless he will—perhaps unwittingly—cobble together a worldview, usually in his youth, when these demands feel most pressing, in order to satisfy the following imperatives.
The first is what I call gnosis, which just means knowledge. I don’t want to confuse people and make them think of Gnosticism, which is something specific.
But within Gnosticism, they believe that the world is an illusion, and when you see behind the curtain, when you acquire real knowledge of the world, that’s called gnosis.
So all religious beliefs, every single one, begins with a concept which is structurally identical to this idea of gnosis.
in Marxism, they call it class consciousness, and they say everyone who doesn’t have it has something called false consciousness
Which is when people of the working class, in particular, act on behalf of the ruling class. The working class has a false consciousness because, instead of acting in their own interests, they have internalized the thought processes and ways of being which benefit only the bourgeoisie, their class enemy
Marxism triumphs when the workers “wake up” from the false consciousness and learn to start acting on behalf of their own class
A more generalized version of this story is to say that there is a common, false understanding which the majority of people possess.
And there is a truer, better, rarefied understanding which you and your co-ideologists share. Awakening to the true understanding, acquiring gnosis, sets the insiders apart from the outsiders.
Induction into the religion occurs when we have a revelation that necessitates a new way of being.
In many cases, there is an element of truth to a false consciousness story. And moreover, we can find examples of gnosis that in no way constitute a religion.
Most hobbyists, for example, possess an implicit understanding of gnosis. Specialty coffee enthusiasts, audiophiles, and Ray Peaters all set themselves apart by means of esoteric knowledge.
They look out and down on the unwashed masses who don’t know any better, who drink commodity coffee, or who listen to shit audio devices, or who haven’t awakened to the evil of seed oil and the value of a nice carrot salad
At this moment I make no claims about the truth or falsity of any body of esoteric knowledge. I only observe that there is a pattern.
The possession of esoteric knowledge makes the insiders feel special; as if they cracked the code, and now they are part of the secret club, the cool kids
Awakening from a false consciousness, by means of esoteric knowledge, fulfils a psychological need that everyone has, which allows them to build up a positive self-image cheaply.
It allows them to feel better than everyone else—and I need to emphasize this—that’s not a bad thing. In fact it seems to be a necessary thing, what psychologists call “self-esteem.”
One of the things that first red-pilled me, — you see, red-pilled, that’s our term for acquiring gnosis — a very long time ago, was when I read in a psychology textbook that black people have the highest self-esteem of any race. And I thought to myself, doesn’t his undermine every racial narrative I’ve ever heard?
But to return to the quotidian: I have noticed that often a particular brand loyalty, such as a preference for a certain shoe or a car or a brand of tea can serve this function, can meet this need for gnosis. It doesn’t have to be profound, though it can be.
In a mass consumer society, the blandest, dumbest, easiest way to satisfy the need for this feeling of awakening is through consumption.
It’s possible to feel a meager kind of gnosis through what is called brand loyalty.
But I’ll give you a few more examples of some more respectable, classic instances of gnosis:
Christians believe that we are born into a life of sin through our fallen human nature. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of god. Accept salvation through Jesus to be redeemed
Buddhists believe that we exist in an endless cycle of reincarnation into suffering caused by desire. We must escape it by mastering our minds through meditation.
Veganism teaches that eating animals is sadistic and murderous and bloodthirsty. Omnivory is a great evil and we are oblivious to it, strangely complicit in animal suffering, which is no different from human suffering
Feminism teaches that everyone is constantly unconsciously oppressed by patriarchal and phallocentric norms and assumptions which suppress and devalue female ways of knowing and being.
Antiracism teaches exactly the same thing as Feminism, except the sacred cows are black instead of female. In any case, they, the sacred cows, could lose weight.
Now you get the idea. All of these things are examples of gnosis, of a secret knowledge that divides the world in half. So we’ll move on.
The next component of religious experience I want to examine is something I call Nemesis, which I mean in the sense of an archenemy.
There is a funny thing about this word, Nemesis, in that it also refers to inescapable divine retribution, and the nemesis works best, in a religious context, if it’s something the initiate can never personally overcome.
Having a far-away, abstract rival that you view as the principal source of wrongness in the world gives your life a sense of drama, a kind of focus and narrativity which would be hard to acquire otherwise.
For some people, perhaps a personal rivalry can fulfill this need, but for most, and for moderns especially, the nemesis is a kind of inversion and antithesis of the divine.
The poet John Donne wrote in his poem The Prohibition:
But thou wilt lose the style of conqueror,
If I, thy conquest, perish by thy hate.
Then, lest my being nothing lessen thee,
If thou hate me, take heed of hating me.
Life is pointless without conflict, and so a sense of ultimate conflict bestows a sense of ultimate purpose. The nemesis is at once a Schelling point, a unifying enemy, and also a scapegoat, who can be blamed for any human contingency without implicating anyone in particular.
It is not only a comforting way to evade responsibility, but a very practical one, which is often necessary to smooth over human relations.
Again, I’ll give you some examples:
For Christians, the nemesis is Satan, the angel fallen from heaven, the first whig, a rebel against God. He will promise you many good things, and then he will destroy you out of hatred. He will tempt you away from the straight and narrow with lies and pleasant sins.
For Marxists, the enemy is capitalism. For unwitting marxists, they tend to say “the corporations” or “corporate interests” instead, but it’s the identical sentiment. All the evil in the world comes because capitalism makes us do it. There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, right? Everything you do as a capitalist is bad. You can only get redemption by abolishing the system.
For feminists, it’s the patriarchy. For Wignats, it’s the jews. For antiracists it’s the Whites, or the concept of Whiteness, a distinction they constantly and intentionally elide.
For Buddhists, I think this is the funniest one, maybe, for Buddhists the nemesis is your own self. It is each person’s internal attachments, desires, their belief in themself as a self which is the enemy. That’s what Buddhists are trying to destroy.
So we can see that there is a relationship between the gnosis and the nemesis. Often a key component of the gnosis, of secret knowledge that inducts you into the religious practice, is the knowledge of the nemesis.
The nemesis is the thing that is preventing most people from grasping the gnosis. It’s the binary opposition. Gnosis is the inside, and nemesis is the outside.
The existence of the gnosis implies the existence of the nemesis, as we say on the internet. And it’s instrumental, it’s useful, in most cases, to believe that most people are hapless rubes who are deceived.
That means there is hope for them, that means you just have to bring the gnosis to them, or maybe some great world-clearing event will do so. And then you’ll finally win. I’m sure that will make you feel better.
Now we will take a short break.
So we are discussing my six-factor framework of religious belief, and so far we have spoken of gnosis — the revelation that necessitates a new way of being, and nemesis, the antagonistic entity that keeps it from you
The next element of religious experience I want to highlight is what I call ecstasy, which more or less contains all the varieties of what you might call mystical experience —
And these types of experiences tend to be pretty similar across every religion or ideology, no matter what its actual content is.
William James said the four qualities of a mystical experience are its passivity, its transience, its noeticism, and its ineffability.
That is, he thought a mystical experience was something beyond the mystic’s ability to control, and of a limited duration, and that it transmits knowledge to the mystic, and that the experience is beyond words, that it can’t be described, and has to be experienced
Now I want to quibble with at least those last two qualities. I think mystical experiences can absolutely be described with words, in fact I don’t even think it’s hard.
People who have these types of experiences are very attached to them, they think that mystical experiences are profound and profoundly important, but the thing they can’t convey in words is the good feeling that they had, because all feelings are on some level ineffable
We can only describe feelings by allusion to a common experience we assume all people share. When I say I’m happy or sad, I can’t really say “what it feels like to be happy” — we rely on a shared understanding for that
So mystical experiences are ineffable in the trivial sense that all subjective experience is ineffable, but they aren’t superlatively ineffable, they don’t exist on some higher plane of unspeakability than any other subjective quality.
Mystical experience is a particular cocktail of emotions, of feelings, which aren’t even that hard to invoke. Those feelings are multiple and simultaneous, they are an overlapping sense of humility, joy, smallness, largeness, confidence, contentedness, optimism, fear, ignorance, and wisdom.
All at the same time, and that’s why it’s a bit overwhelming, and it’s a lot, but it’s all things you can feel in other capacities
If there is something really unique about mystical experience it’s that many of the emotions we feel while we are in them are overwhelming and paradoxical. A simultaneous sense of fear and optimism, or of ignorance and wisdom.
Those things don’t make a lot of sense at the same time.
That is, we feel ourselves to be very small and limited, we get a feeling of how little we know, and yet we also feel very wise, as if we’ve glimpsed something profound and previously hidden that encompasses all of existence, like we’ve seen behind the curtain
Now I claim—and this is something that tends to offend a lot of people—that there is no actual ground truth behind these mystical experiences. That the ostensibly “noetic” quality to mystical experience is an illusion
And that the reason no one can articulate these supposedly profound truths is because they have no content, because there is no specific knowledge contained in them
Rather, in the mystical state of mind, we are taken by the feeling of profundity, of revelation, divorced from any actual profundity or revelation
Any concrete propositional statements that people seem to derive from mystical experience tends to be vague platitudes about love or the interconnectedness of all things, saccharine banalities, echoes of moral or spiritual ideas that are already latent in everyone owing to our shared culture
And without making this about me, I will note here that I have spent a fair bit of time seeking mystical experiences, through fasting, prayer, meditation, time alone in nature, and also through drugs, rock concerts, and sex.
I believe I have had mystical and ecstatic experiences through both hedonistic and ascetic pathways. And I am not impressed.
I find such experiences to be ultimately masturbatory. I have never met a mystic who seemed to be an expert on anything but getting high on his mystical practice of choice.
I have some respect for the ascetic mystic who at least finds his ecstasy through discipline and self-mastery, that’s about the nicest thing I can say about it
But I myself am quite atypical in this regard. Most people seem to thirst for religious ecstasy in the same way they thirst for gnosis and nemesis.
There are some common pathways to religious ecstasy. Most of them hinge on expectation: there is a certain feedback loop between mental openness to ecstasy and a belief that you will enter it.
One of the best-documented and best-understood ecstasies is Buddhist Meditation: dissociating the mind by focusing on repetitive stimulus can cause you to enter an altered state of consciousness where your sensation of yourself is greatly reduced
It may be interesting to note that in Matthew 6, Jesus speaks against the practice. “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions”. It’s almost as if he is speaking against Buddhist style mantras specifically
Some Catholics also practice a form of dissociative meditation, sometimes even by accident when they pray the rosary over and over.
We can see a kind of syncretism, perhaps an emergent syncretism between Buddhism and Catholicism in the writings of St Teresa of Avila.
But even without an explicit tradition of meditation, Christian prayer can sometimes veer into the ecstatic
Similarly, charismatic Christians may engage in glossolalia, a practise also associated with forms of primitive shamanism. Sometimes this seems to affect the enthralled involuntarily, as if it’s some kind of hysteria.
Psychedelic drugs such as mushrooms, acid, and ayahuasca can also induce glossolalia, you know this verbal incontinence, where people say a lot of nonsensical syllables. And these drugs are also famous for inducing feelings of ego loss and the sensation of a spiritual presence
Church services, political rallies, and rock concerts, all of which are very nearly the same thing, can instigate what is known as the ecstasy of crowds, wherein one feels overcome by a sense of group being.
And all these kinds of gatherings make use of music, which can also induce a kind of trance and an altered state of mind.
Now this is not an exhaustive list, of course.
The fact that all religious practices seem to share the same types of ecstasies and the same pathways to ecstasy gives rise to what is known as perennialism, to the belief that deep down, all religions are really the same religion.
That there’s a secret grand unified religion, and all the different names of god and the different rituals and prayers and so on are all superficial attributes that primitive monkeys have built up around this actually real, invariant, transcendental experience that all spiritual ecstasies somehow point to.
Aleister Crowley argues for this perspective in his books on occultism, and ends up playing an almost perfect foil to Christianity, which seizes upon his perennialism and says, yes,
that grand unifying mystical religion is the worship of satan, that’s the reason all earthly religions have these mystical practices, which are conspicuously absent from Christianity, a few cranks and heretics excluded
But there’s a strictly practical, functional reason that ecstatic states are tightly coupled in religious beliefs, which is that people in ecstatic states are highly suggestible. They become credulous, they will believe just about anything that is presented to them
A person in an ecstatic state is hypnotized, which allows them to receive religious teachings uncritically. It provides a method for a priest or a teacher to spread and synchronize his teachings amongst all his followers.
This is very important for the propagation of religion, because when you try to share your beliefs with another person, they never quite copy perfectly, but when you transmit beliefs to someone in an ecstatic state, you get a much higher-fidelity copy
Ken Kesey, a highly charismatic individual, in any case, managed to start a cult around himself overnight when he discovered that he could give his followers acid and instantly throw them into a high-intensity ecstatic state. It was like a cult in a bottle.
We mentioned music also, how music can induce an ecstatic state, especially when combined with a crowd or with drugs, and the song lyrics can become especially important here, because they often contain an ideological payload.
A lot of the time, people might have mystical experiences alone, with no one to influence them in the moment. In that case, the mystic tends to hypnotize himself, or to reaffirm past convictions that were placed in his head by society.
And there is also another type of ecstatic pathway, which is a bit different to the others, and in a William James sense, it probably doesn’t pass the test.
I am speaking, of course, about sexuality. Sex is an ecstatic experience, but it isn’t strictly speaking a mystical experience. It is neither ineffable nor passive nor noetic, though it is transient. But despite this, some religious practices do incorporate sexuality into their ecstatic component.
We think of tantra, in particular, but various forms of occultism and witchcraft have also made use of sacred sexual practices.
Arguably, from a functionalist perspective, there is an aspect of modern progressivism which also sacralizes sexuality — specifically, they sacralize a ritualized form of sex called BDSM
BDSM has an elaborate system of rules, ceremonial clothing, and techniques, which are for the most part non-procreative, and which seek to induce a state of sexual ecstasy in the participants.
Most BDSM participants probably don’t consider their practice to be mystical, but these practices bear a striking resemblance to other ritualized ecstasies. People who engage in these practices consider it to be a form of sexual liberation, which is indeed one of the sacred values of the American civic religion.
So to wrap up, William James says the mystical experience is passive, transient, noetic, and ineffable, but I say that’s wrong.
It’s paradoxical — consisting of intense and contradictory emotions
credulous — being a state of extreme suggestibility
ecstatic — it feels good even when it feels bad
And banal — there’s no propositional content inside of it
This brings us to our next topic, which is taboos.
All religions or ideologies contain taboos, which is to say, things that are prohibited. There is an etymology to the word taboo that floats around, that it means “to mark an intensity” — the internet tells me this etymology is false or at least dubious
But regardless of whether it’s etymologically true, it is psychologically true. Taboos satisfy the will to superstition, as if you could somehow protect yourself from all the evil in the world this this one weird trick. Just don’t say the name of god. Just don’t wear a mask. Just stop eating gluten.
But the taboo is not so much a marker of intensity as it is a conveyor of intensity. As soon as some mundane action is placed behind a velvet curtain—as soon as it becomes forbidden—then it also becomes intense and exciting.
For example if all women walked around bare-breasted, it seems likely that the breast would cease to titillate.
[hello I am friend. I have sugars. You must give]
Often, those things which are taboo are also pathways to ecstasy. In primitive, animistic religions, there is a notion of something called Holy Time. Holy time is a time of jubilee, or festival. During holy time, sacred taboos become inverted, and that which is ordinarily prohibited may become mandatory.
Prohibitions on murder may be excepted for the sake a of ritual human sacrifice, or maybe we think of the Jewish high priest entering the holy of holies on yom kippur. Something he ordinarily could not do, which would be taboo.
But in more sophisticated religions, this distinction does not exist. In Christianity for example, all time is holy. The Jewish taboo against entering the holy of holies, the dwelling place of God, is inverted, because now God lives in everyone’s heart, and all time belongs to God.
The most common types of taboos are dietary, linguistic or sexual. I think the idea of sacred prohibitions may be the strongest and the most primitive religious instinct of all
It’s pretty rare to meet a person who doesn’t follow any dietary taboos, though most people may not think of it that way
Probably when we think of food taboos, we think of kosher laws, or of Hindus who don’t eat beef, something like this
And from an evolutionary perspective we must at least suspect that we have an evolved hunger for taboos to help protect us against poisonous plants, or animals that carry parasites
But the instinct can only evolve in a scattershot sort of way, and it seems that we long to be told which foods to avoid
Following a dietary restriction gives us a sense of purity, and also a sense of identity and community. A dietary taboo sets us apart, and it becomes a vehicle for belonging
A few examples:
Mormons consume no alcohol or caffeine.
Catholics may avoid meat on Friday, and they even create their own personal taboos to uphold during lent.
Korean Buddhists avoid alliums such as onions and garlic, claiming that these foods excite the mind and disrupt meditation
Vegans extend dietary taboos farther than almost anyone else, inventing a diet that totally removes them from ordinary society, eating many things that are only possible in techno-industrial society
Jews and Muslims both eschew pork, among other things.
Very well, but what about linguistic taboos? We see that most languages contain rude words, and in more insular communities, they often develop their own idiosyncratic rules about which words you can and cannot say
In wider anglophone society, most people don’t care if you take the name of god in vain, but among Christians, many of them still observe this taboo
In progressive society, which is to say, all of American society and many of its vassal states, they no longer worship the Christian God, but they have retained the taboo
Progressive society is negrolatrous, which means that they worship Africans. Consequently, and owing I think to the trace of Christianity in progressive society, it is forbidden to ever say the name of God.
I am going to slightly digress here and violate a frogtwitter taboo and point out that whereas the right dehumanizes blacks by identifying them as subhuman, inferior, the left dehumanizes blacks by identifying them as super humans, as gods, as superior.
To the right, blacks can only sin, and to the left, blacks are incapable of sin.
N****r. The name of the progressive god is N****r. You can’t say it. It’s forbidden. They have other linguistic taboos for their lesser deities too. Gays are almost as sacred as blacks, so you can’t say faggot either
In earlier eras, when sex was considered sacred, many of our taboos revolved around genitals or sexual acts. You couldn’t say fuck or cunt or ass or tits. Now we still think of those words as lewd, but they are basically socially acceptable and no one would care at all if a public figure said them.
Now, sex has been radically desacralized, and race has taken its place. Now, most of our taboo words center around race.
A brief note on this — there are progressive sexual taboos, but just as Christianity inverts jewish dietary laws, progressivism inverts Christian sexual laws. It demands sex out of wedlock, it demands sodomy, it demands that the woman — not the man — is the head of the household.
Anyway, if George Carlin gave his famous seven words you can’t say on television speech today, the words would be N*gg*r f*gg*t k*k* d*k* tr*nny sp*c ch*nk or something like that (to print them we must remove all the vowels, as in the tetragrammaton)
But this would be unthinkable, unsayable, much more unsayable than Carlin’s original list was at the time
And I feel I should mention that George Carlin was a shitlib, not funny at all, and his only innovation was convincing his audience that sanctimonious political sermonizing somehow constituted standup comedy.
Whereas I am trying to convince you that standup comedy somehow constitutes sanctimonious political sermonizing.
Most comedians today have followed his template, as sanctimony is much easier than humor, especially for so called “female comedians”
In any case, the taboo can also sometimes take the form of an anti-taboo, a negative image in which saying the word, or eating the forbidden food, becomes a requirement for membership in a rival group.
In Yiddish they call this a shibboleth, though it’s a word that most English speakers have also adopted.
Young men especially desire to transgress, so these things have instant appeal. In our case for example, my friends, we find it expedient to say certain words if only to signal to each other that our minds are not hobbled by progressive moral intuitions.
It is hard to trust anyone who is afraid to blaspheme against the progressive god, at least in private, because we suspect such a person still worships them.
OK. The fifth component of religious belief is Eschatology.
If we know the beginning and we know the end then we know our place in the world. Eschatology frames humanity, and it gives us a feeling of knowing where we stand
A shared anticipation of the end gives us something to look forward to. On some level, no one wants to be the middle child. If the end is imminent, then we are very special, the last people, the transitional generation into a phase shift for the entire world
There’s a kind of grandiosity and simultaneously a parochiality to this, to believing that the world ends with you, personally, which is part of the appeal.
Marxists believe that there will one day be a true and glorious uprising of socialism, the real socialism, the kind that has never been tried before, and then —
you know Trotsky really wrote this, at least according to Jonathan Bowden, he said when socialism was perfected and man was finally free of the burdens of capitalism, there would be a wagner or a shakespeare on every corner
You know what? I said we wouldn’t pass judgment but we are going to stop and judge a little bit.
If you add it up pound for pound, Marxists are more delusional than any famously crazy cult you’ve ever heard of. Jim jones, Keith Raniere, Scientology— they have nothing on the average communist
Moving on—Singularitarians, of the Ray Kurzweil sort, but also of the Eliezer Yudkowsky, Scott Alexander sort, they roughly believe in this idea of the technological singularity,
that a self-bootstrapping intelligent computer will become so smart and so powerful that it renders all existing human modalities obsolete, discovers new laws of physics, and develops seemingly magical powers using its superior understanding of science
Some singularitarians think this could happen in a single day, possibly, an AI becoming god, because it will be able to think so fast and design new improvements for itself as a form of compounding interest
Once the threshold is reached, boom, they call that AI takeoff. And as fantastical as this sounds it’s still less insane than communism
I enjoy these kinds of more esoteric eschatology but obviously the really well known example is Christian eschatology, the second coming of Christ in glory, to judge the quick and the dead.
The trumpet sounds and the resurrection of the body and all this.
But even very normal people, that is, normal modern day people, who believe in equality, in democracy, who don’t go to church or believe in anything all that strongly
People who ostensibly go outside and touch grass and who have the ability to discern whether or not this is a Wendy’s
Those people also subscribe to a cataclysmic vision of the end—and we’ll talk more about this shortly—
Most normal people satisfy their need for eschatology via the mythology of climate change. I am not saying that no ecological change is occurring—
only that the nature and cause of those changes is poorly understood and wildly exaggerated—some of you may be old enough to remember the catastrophic predictions of the late 90s
They used to tell us that by 2010 many of the world’s major cities would be halfway under water, due to rising ocean levels
The total ecological disaster, the one that justifies unlimited government spending, severe austerity for the masses,
the disaster where all the plants and the fish die and the weather gets so extreme that we have to live underground
That disaster is always ten years away, and when ten years elapse, oh, the science gets better every year, there was an error in the model, now in 2030, that’s when you’ll see the real eco disaster
This same pattern is repeated all throughout history with every doomsday prediction that has ever been made
You may have heard of the great disappointment for example
The world will end tomorrow, they will tell you, and when tomorrow comes and the world is still here. Next Tuesday then, assuredly
Because these end of the world stories fulfill, again, a psychological need that people have to believe they are the last
Because having a sense of the end in many ways can give you something to live for, even if it’s a false sense and a false end
There’s something exciting, titillating, monumentous about contemplating the end of the world, a salacious enjoyment, a bit like reading a trashy clickbait header
Anyway. In the earlier version of this taxonomy, my final component of religion was what I called evangelism. That is, the engine inside of the religious experience that compels its adherents to spread it. I have revised this understanding.
It’s true that, in order to be a vital religion, the matrix of religious experiences has to spread. It has to be a replicator. But it’s probably better to think of evangelism as a rent that the religion extracts from the adherent, instead of as a behavior that fulfills a psychological need
It’s true that some people exercise their will to power in evangelistic terms, and we’ll talk more about meme replication in part three of this talk. But for now, we will relegate this behavior under the more general term “telos”
The sixth component of religious experience is “telos” — a greek word that means “end” or “purpose” — and that can sometimes include evangelism, especially in Christianity
I have chosen this word to maintain a certain greek-ish flavor to all of the concepts, herein, but the better way to think of it is “score keeping”
what thing, in other words, does the adherent do for its own sake, as if life were a game and the goal is to have as many points as possible at the end, what then would be a point?
this is subtly different from asking, what is the meaning, or to be more playful, what is the point of life?
instead it is asking, when all of your needs are met, what do you do with your leisure time? Often we think of leisure nowadays as people taking vacations or languishing in idle comfort.
but this is not the true meaning of leisure. At the least it used to mean a time for exploration or research, one could read for leisure, or follow scientific pursuits for example.
many of the great discoveries of the British royal society were acts of leisure
but when we see Christians devoting their time to making new converts, or progressives doing volunteer activism to make the world uglier and gayer,
when we see someone working in a soup kitchen or doing charitable work, we should understand that as a kind of leisure activity as well
because they are doing something wholly unnecessary to the exigencies of life.
Telos, in the Religio-Functionalist sense that I intend it, tells us how one ought to arrange one’s life in order to accumulate the most treasures in heaven. It’s the logic of score-keeping
i think when you say it that way sounds crass, maybe selfish or déclassé. But this is the crass truth of all religious practice, is it not?
God will reward me for my faithfulness, for my devotion, for my piety, my submission!
Of course Christians at least have an implicit understanding of Goodhart’s law. That’s why they teach that salvation is not by works, but by grace.
The grace of god isn’t something you minmax, because it’s illegible, irrational, it’s a gift given freely to all. But Christians still have their scorekeeping,
they want to win the most converts for Christ, not out of a desire to keep score of course, but because God commands it, because Christian love demands it
Buddhists believe that Enlightenment is the point you are trying to score. After that perhaps there are deeper levels of enlightenment, more karma to purify, who knows.
Did you ever hear of a Buddhist who stopped meditating after becoming enlightened? Of course not! That’s the logic of Buddhist score keeping.
But I think we have to look at revealed preference when we think about this, too. How does the modern man keep score?
Drugs, casual sex, harvesting internet clout or lazing about on his ass in front of the television~~
these are all harmless vices compared to the scorekeeping of so called high status individuals, whose preferred point system is supporting progressive causes
Telos tells us what actions to esteem. It is a prescription for the way that we realize our moral values, our moral understanding.
In most religions, a major part of the scorekeeping is tied up in evangelism. Vegans wish to make more vegans, for example. But not all religions are evangelistic.
Jews want to make more jews, but they usually do this by procreating. Religion is highly heritable, after all.
Missionaries who dig wells and build schools are investing in the fertility of poor, faraway places as a way to memetically capture the children, trading capital to propagate ideology
Islam spreads by the sword, imposing jizya upon nonbelievers, incentivizing them to convert with social and economic pressure. Christians conquer through a kind of domineering generosity, muslims through war and invasion
In the past, Christians also spread through conquest. Constantine is probably the most famous example.
Scientologists set up reading rooms and offer free dianetics analysis, “personality tests” and other forms of consultation that appear to be a kind of psychotherapy or medical intervention
Marxists exploit an idiosyncrasy of developmental psychology, teaching a doctrine of seizing the property of the rich, appealing to young people at a time in their life when they have little property, when they most covet the possessions of their elders
So it’s a quirk of psychology, they can get in the brain at a formative time, and the moral judgment sticks long after the urgency has passed. People get stuck in their beliefs, whatever they land on in their early 20s usually.
But this is only one of the ways that religions keep score. The other way is through conspicuous sacrifice, which is a form of virtue signaling. And the more expensive the signal, the better.
I think most people by now are at least acquainted with the concept of virtue signaling. But this term has been poorly understood by the masses. Most people seem to use this term to mean hypocrisy, that is, they think that if someone is signaling virtue it indicates an underlying lack of the virtue being signaled.
In fact the opposite is true.
The whole point of a virtue signal is that it is authentic. The way that the signaler signifies authenticity is by sending a signal which is “hard to fake.” If someone tells you they support trans rights, that’s a cheap signal. Anyone can say that, and it proves nothing.
But if that same person donates a lot of money to trans activists, then we are very inclined to believe them. “A lot” of money here means an amount of money that would feel like “a lot” to the person in question. For a normal person it might be a thousand dollars, it might be ten thousand. For a billionaire it might be millions of dollars.
It is impossible to cynically donate money to a cause, because at the end of the day, you really did take actions that advanced that cause. It does not even matter if you were reticent to donate that money, how you felt about it.
You cannot donate money insincerely any more than you can read illiterately. It’s a contradiction. So the meaning of a signal is evaluated by how hard it is to fake.
The other kind of hard-to-fake signal is to sacrifice time or other scarce resources, such as children, to the cause.
a sacrifice is a hard to fake virtue signal, which means it is a transaction between a man, his community, and his beliefs.
a sacrifice allows a man to buy a better reputation in his community by sacrificing his resources.
so there is always a selfish component in any sacrifice, because there is social value and hedonic value to the person making it
naive retards believe that if a sacrifice has a selfish upside, it’s not real. They think that it has to be a pure cost
in other words, they demand that a sacrifice be a zero or negative sum game, where no value is created for anyone
we witness this kind of stupidity in many ideologies, but it’s especially prevalent in communism and low iq Christians
a good ideology, one that is uplifting, is one that harnesses the sacrifice into a positive sum transaction.
But there’s also this idea from Georges Bataille, who had many interesting things to say on the topic of religion, and he believed in something he called the Accursed Share
The Accursed Share is the idea that there’s an excess of energy in everything we do, as for example most of the sun’s energy doesn’t fall on any planet or anywhere at all. we only capture a tiny, tiny fraction of solar energy
And the rest just diffuses out in space, pointlessly, a glorious waste
But Bataille suggests that the same is true of human endeavors, and that we have have to spend our own excesses in a lavish and sumptuous way, or else it is destined to be used catastrophically, destructively, such as in revolution, war, mass violence
There’s something poetic in this, almost as if we have to mimic the environment that has given rise to us, that our energy has come to the sun, and most of it is wasted, and we must in turn waste most of our energy
But I don’t think there’s any kind of logical underpinning in Bataille’s understanding, it’s not a rational conception, but it’s a striking observation
And when we look at the west today, we see that all of us, even our poorest people, are rich beyond the wildest imaginings of past eras
It is now a hallmark of poverty to be obese to the point of illness. This is the affliction of a disastrously wealthy society
And when we look at the ways that we religiously expend our excesses, it’s hard not to see things like diversity, equity, and inclusion as a kind of accursed share, as a way of lavishly and foolishly burning our excess wealth.
To Sum Up:
a functionalist approach to understanding religion tries to look at the various aspects of religious practice and experience.
as dispassionately as possible, we try to examine the different beliefs that the adherent has, how they relate to those beliefs, and how those beliefs interact with the world
i have identified six components of religious belief:
gnosis - the life-changing hidden knowledge
nemesis - the enemy who wants to hide it from you
ecstasy - the transcendent mental states that are given to the elect
taboo - the forbidden actions which those with gnosis understand to avoid
eschatology - a model of how the world will end
telos - a prescription for how to spend your surpluses beyond the necessity of survival
Now I want to talk a little bit about the way these pieces interact with each other at a macro level.
When we look at the six-factor functional analysis of religion, we can see many of these concepts can stand independently as units of belief and behavior. A taboo or a unit of gnosis can stand on its own, and people will propagate it, even if it’s not connected to anything else
Many superstitions or dietary taboos are this way in particular. You find all kinds of trends around supplements, or beliefs that certain foods are bad for you in a secret way, or morally bad, but those taboos exist independently, and they aren’t necessarily connected to a larger complex of ideas
For example gluten-free diets are a kind of dietary taboo. A small number of people actually do have gluten intolerance, but there are far more people eating gluten-free foods than is medically necessary.
And this taboo is not connected to any kind of eschatology, telos, nemesis, or ecstasy. Similarly, we may see pathways to ecstasy, such as through certain psychedelic drugs, or through something like ASMR, as corny as that sounds
These things aren’t connected to taboos, to eschatology, etc, either. So these things can stand alone. But in order for a single unit of behavior to become a religion, it has to fill out, maybe not all of the slots, but most of them, and people have to feel compelled to spread the complex of behaviors and ideas there-constituted as a package
It’s also not strictly necessary for every slot to be filled out. Christianity does not natively contain any ecstatic pathways. I have mentioned how there are some heretical offshoots of Christianity which do include ecstatic components
Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians engage in ecstatic glossolalia and in snake-handling. Some Catholics, as I noted earlier, do something similar to Buddhist meditation in the tradition of St. Teresa of Avila. But these are not standard Christian behaviors.
Christianity contains many taboos, but out of the box, it does not contain any dietary taboos, either. Buddhism, on the other hand, is light on eschatology, though it’s not entirely absent, and it seldom conceives of a nemesis in the way that something like Christianity does, though I make a mild case for it.
But what I claim is that people have a psychological need for all of these things, for gnosis, nemesis, ecstasy, eschatology, taboo, and telos. And when their religion isn’t meeting one of those needs, they find something to fill the gap.
You see this all the time, the missing slot in the religious idea complex becomes an opening for a rival religion to colonize someone and convert them.
I’ve known Christians who became vegan, for example, and then this led them all the way to full blown atheism followed by progressivism. Because Christianity specifically repudiates dietary taboos — Jesus said, “it’s not that which goeth into a man’s mouth, but that which comes out of it, that makes him unclean”
And that may be shocking and interesting if you’re trying to convert people who have strict dietary laws, but it fails to live up to a psychological need that I think is mostly innate and instinctive.
And once you have the first vegan doctrine in your mind, that becomes a wedge, it becomes a pathway, to start introducing ideas about climate change eschatology, about right and wrong and the gnosis of animal suffering, and so on, and so on
Sometimes it doesn’t even take a missing slot, just a more powerful — what I mean is a more salient — belief to fill an already existing slot. Sometimes you can graft half a religion onto an existing religion, and then you get a mutation which is a kind of synthesis.
You can come along with a new piece of gnosis, maybe a new eschatological vision or a new set of taboos, and that can feel new and exciting, especially to people for whom their current gnosis feels like a default condition.
I’ll give you several examples here: a majority of democrat voters — progressives — self-identify as Christian. But they believe that racism is a sin, and they subscribe to racial language taboos, they believe in climate change as eschatology…
We’ll get into this a lot more in the next episode, but these people end up adopting a whole new set of beliefs, and yet they still think of themselves as Christian, they don’t see a discontinuity at all.
They may be nominally Christian, but they are functionally progressive, because when we look at different facets of their belief structure
Heaven and hell and salvation and sin have taken a back seat to equality and diversity and social justice.
And since it’s topical, I’m going to give you a second example, something we see a lot in the last year maybe, a kind of revival of christian quasi-nazism, where the nemesis is the jews, the shibboleth is naming the jews,
the gnosis is something like the thesis of Kevin MacDonald’s book Culture of Critique, wherein he describes jews as having a “group evolutionary strategy” centered around ethnic nepotism. I’m not making any comments about the truth or falsity of this.
But all this gets tacked on to Christianity, which has always contained some antisemitic undercurrents owing to the fact that it is fundamentally an offshoot of Judaism, (not of modern rabbinical Judaism, mind you, which is a relatively recent invention)
And the result is that Christians come to believe that Christianity has always been centered around jew-hatred, and they reduce the actual content of Christianity to a couple of slogans, in precisely the way the progressives do. Nominally they are Christian, but functionally they have raised antisemitism to the level of a religion
I have a lot of contempt for the antisemites here, not because they hate jews, I don’t care who you hate, I endorse racism. My contempt isn’t a defense of jews, it’s a hatred of idiots.
If these people had their way they would create a society every bit as tyrannical and anarchical as the progressive society which we currently occupy, and anyone with an IQ over 84 can see that
And what I would like you to take away from all this is not some moral judgment of progressivism or antisemitism or any other religious practice besides.
What’s interesting to me about this is not so much the content of any particular cluster of religious ideas, but rather the ways that those ideas scatter and coalesce and recombine,
And I’m interested in relationships that they form both with themselves and with the humans who hold them.
In the next episode we’ll focus on the American Civic Religion, and we’ll talk about Ordeals of Civility, and about the possibility of cynicism in religious belief.