Religion is a meaningless term

Neoreactionaries appear to be going on the annual discussion of religion merry-go-round, however, there has been no added research on the issue so it goes nowhere. I would heavily recommend they read Cavanaugh’s book The Myth of Religious Violence.

One of the key things that Moldbug did that allowed him to criticise liberalism so well is to actually engage in historical research, especially in the form of primary sources and in giving credence to revisionist historical accounts. When one does this, it becomes obvious that the historical accounts which fuel liberal theory are so groundless that it calls into question liberalism on a fundamental level.

On the issue of religion, liberal history is clear that the liberal order saved the world from religious irrationalism and violence, and that it is still the key to doing so in the greater world. The solution to sectarian violence in Iraq for instance is a secular state which banishes religion, the same for Libya, Afghanistan and all the rest. This was the key to making the west a peaceful rational scientific pluralist society. The problem with this account, as Cavanaugh takes pains to dissect, is that you have a number of serious problems with this story. The first such problem is defining religion. In the first chapter of his book he cites a number of attempts to define religion by a collection of eminent anti-religious and pro-religious theorists which makes it obvious that none of them can do so. Take Confucianism for example – religion or not? How about Marxism? Buddhism? All definitions of religion fail.

So, OK where did this word religion come from? Cavanaugh makes the point that it is modern and western. There was no such word before the 15th century. This seems a slight oversight by everyone before this point, or maybe there is something fishy about the concept of religion. It turns out the term religion is bullshit from start to finish. Citing an early theorist of religion Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury he notes:

“Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583–1648), one of the most prominent of the early modern theorists of religion, attempted to reach a concord among all the world’s religions by identifying the five essential beliefs of religion as such: 1. That there is some supreme divinity. 2. That this divinity ought to be worshipped. 3. That virtue joined with piety is the best method of divine worship. 4. That we should return to our right selves from sins. 5. That reward or punishment is bestowed after this life is finished.


It is important to note that Herbert’s interiorization and universalization of religion go hand in hand with his support of state control over the church. This may seem like a contradiction, but Herbert has no intention of privatizing worship. Herbert’s scheme for toleration is part of a larger shift toward the absorption of ecclesiastical power by the rising state in the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, served the English Crown as ambassador to France and wrote a history of King Henry VIII and a short paper in English, “On the King’s Supremacy in the Church.” In the latter document, in looking over the biblical and historical record, he finds that “noe Change of Religion, during the Reigne of their Kings did follow, which was not procured by their immediate power,” an echo of the policy of cuius regio, eius religio. He also argues that “it is unsafe to diuide the people, betwixt temporall, and spirituall obedience, or suspend them, betwixt the Terrours of a secular death, and Eternall punishments.”

I have previously noted that Protestantism was in effect a monarchical friendly development for reasons of power selection, and Cavanaugh is working on the same line.

Having developed the concept of religion as a natural means to isolate and remove ecclesiastical power centres by making the practice of Christianity an internal one, this concept was then applied internationally with the invention of the Hindu religion and the Buddhist religion:

“The invention of Buddhism as a distinct religion was based on the discovery of Sanskrit texts that could be used to trace the origins of disparate rites in Asia back to the figure of Gautama. Buddhism was born as a textual religion, on the model of Protestantism. Once this work was done, the actual living manifestations of these rites were understood by Western scholars as corruptions from the original spirit of the texts. The purity of the universal, interior, spiritual message of the Buddha had been debased into materialistic ritual. The Buddha was commonly presented—by Max Müller, among many others—as the “Martin Luther of the East,” a reformer who had rejected the ritualism of Hinduism to found a purely spiritual religion. Where Hinduism was a particularistic national religion, Buddhism was universal, originating in the mind of Gautama and capable of being practiced anywhere. The fact that Buddhism itself had been degraded in practice from the founder’s original insight did not prevent the designation of Buddhism as a world religion. It was, however, considered to be a world religion based on its original form, not on its actual corrupt forms as practiced in the Orient.”

The secular states in effect had no need for a concept of religion which was not a private and internal “spiritual” thing which is a complete fabrication and modern invention. I have mentioned before that this ties in heavily with MacIntyre’s thesis of the collapse of the virtues which are inherently a practical and social endeavour. Their replacement with voluntarism which makes ethics a matter of epistemology is clearly a result of power action and selection.

So where does this leave the question of creating a new religion? Well the question is nonsense and elides a great deal. It is a quixotic task to create a new “thing which has no definition” within a political arrangement based on separation of secular (has no real definition) from religious (has no real definition.) A great example of this nonsense of modernity covering for this incoherence which is only lent shape by ignoring the surface and concentrating on power is supplied by Cavanaugh in relation to Shinto which so interests neoreactionaries:

“The creation of Shinto in Japan is one of the most fascinating examples of how—and for what purposes—the category of religion has been introduced into non-Western contexts. The term “Shinto”—which refers to worship of the kami, gods associated with natural forces such as the sun—has been known since the eighth century. Until the nineteenth century, however, worship of the kami was interwoven with rites associated with the Buddha and buddhas. Shinto and Buddhism were not two separate traditions. In the face of the forced opening of Japan to Western trade and influence in the mid-nineteenth century, however, a nativist movement clamored for the creation of a distinctly Japanese cult. The Meiji state after 1868 undertook a nationwide “separation of kami and buddhas” (shinbutsu bunri). The Meiji government took control of the shrines thus “purified” of Buddhism and declared that “shrines of the kami are for the worship of the state.”

By the mid-1870s, however, the Meiji government was under pressure both from Western powers and from educated Japanese elites who had studied in the West, such as Mori Arinori, later to be minister of education. In 1872, Arinori wrote a treatise in English declaring that the government’s “attempt to impose upon our people a religion of its creation cannot receive too severe condemnation.” In 1875, the government officially declared freedom of religion, provided that religion did not impede the acceptance of imperial proclamations. This qualification led to an official distinction between Shinto performed at government-sponsored shrines (shrine Shinto) and that performed elsewhere (sect Shinto). Sect Shinto was conceived of as a doctrine and was therefore defined as religion (sh¯uky¯o, a technical term borrowed from Buddhist monastic practice meaning “group teaching” or “sect teaching”). Shrine Shinto was dedicated to the worship of the state and was not considered religion but “rites” (jinja). Belief in religious teachings was therefore a private matter of choice, but the performance of rituals for the state was a public duty. From the 1880s to World War II, official state rhetoric made a sharp distinction between Shinto and religion. Buddhism, Christianity, and other sects were religions, symptoms of selfishness and disunity. There was a movement, therefore, to classify all shrines of the kami as national shrines, to avoid the taint of religion.

The officially endorsed national cult of Shinto had gained such power in the early twentieth century that the victorious U.S. government moved immediately to remove shrine Shinto from public power at the end of World War II. Sarah Thal explains: At that time all government support of Shinto shrines, teachings, rituals, and institutions was expressly forbidden in order “to separate religion from the state, to prevent misuse of religion for political ends, and to put all religions, faiths, and creeds upon exactly the same legal basis.” After years of denying the religiosity of Shinto, priests and apologists found themselves suddenly defined as religious, limited by the very principle of freedom of religious belief which they had once overcome by defining themselves against religion.”

One can see the same game being played by current progressives which I am sure a successor regime maintaining the current system could easily label “religious” cutting them off from power. The “secular” –“religious” divide is a complete fabrication based on a power dynamic that arose in the medieval period, but which is still in play. This results in a bizarre game in which strange definitions and concepts are made up on the fly that are only coherent in reference to the power arrangements.