The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ

Why religion is never created nor destroyed in any society, but merely conserved in various guises

Scene from ‘Wise Blood’, an overlooked classic from John Huston, based on one of Flannery O’Connor’s darker novels about a preacher who creates a 'Church of Christ without Christ’.

Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly; Man got to sit and wonder 'why, why, why?'

Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land; Man got to tell himself he understand.

-Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

One advantage of a religious education these days is identifying the residue of religious thought in the atavisms of contemporary secular culture. ‘White privilege’, with its inescapable culpability and ritual self-flagellation, is the updated Catholic notion of Original Sin, wherein everyone descended from Adam (or possessing ‘whiteness’) bears an unpardonable burden. 

Burning Man attendees, departing their always-online lives stewarding techno-capitalism, congregate in a remote desert as a form of hipster Hajj. After returning to their routine lives of electric scooters and $3,000-a-month studios, they’ll append ‘burner’ to their identities just as some Muslims append the honorific ‘hajji’ to their names. 

In the case of the Kurzweil-ian Transhumanists, who believe in the imminent union of man with machine and thus into virtualized immortality, switch out the phrase ‘the Singularity’ for ‘the Rapture’ in one of their screeds and you’ve got an evangelical Christian sermon, complete with anxiety around missing the big event1

Paleo, ketogenic, vegan: the diet-conscious fussbudget fretting over what’s in his Asian/Latin fusion pozole pho isn’t much different than any adherent of halal or kashrut. Certainly, the list of acceptable, non-offensive foods for students of the average San Francisco private school is as convoluted as anything in Leviticus2. Almost every item in my overpriced SF grocery comes festooned with multiple dietary labels such as ‘non-GMO’, ‘organic’, and the ‘pareve’ symbol of Judaism: we all mark clean versus unclean foods our various ways.

The COVID scolds who rail at people to wear masks while distanced outdoors or campaign to close down parks and beaches, despite no evidence that such measures impact COVID transmission, are like the Orthodox Jews in Israel who throw rocks at people driving on Shabbat. The jokes comparing the shifting orthodoxy around masks—initially unnecessary, now at least two are required— to Talmudic ruminations on yarmulkes practically write themselves.

The heavens and earth revolt against our abuse and bad stewardship in the form of excessive material consumption, requiring repentance to stave off the end times: climatology re-interpreted as secular eschatology. Only a complete restructuring of society, much of which has little to do with climate, can spare us our well-earned apocalypse.

The planet warming is, of course, an incontrovertible empirical fact. Equally incontrovertible is dying of trichinosis due to eating undercooked pork from the dodgy cooking implements of a nomadic Middle Eastern tribe. One can discuss the phenomenology of trichinosis via the parasitology of Trichinella spiralis, or via kashrut law. One can also discuss climate change via the photochemistry of CO₂ in the troposphere or via the dueling narratives of our current political partisanship. Either way, the Israelites dodged the roundworm bullet (though TBD if we’ll dodge the climate-change one).

The point isn’t the predictive power of the scientific hypothesis, but how it gets actionably internalized as religious doctrine: It’s possible to speak of objective empirical realities religiously and mythically, and that’s mostly what we do. Note how many climate-change discussions fixate on the flooding aspect of global warming (among the last of the effects we’ll actually see), flooding being a near-universal myth seen everywhere from Native American origin stories to the Greeks, the Hindus, numerous Mesopotamian traditions, and (of course) Genesis.

All the avowed secularists mentioned above would reject the religious parallels and inveigh against any silly belief in ’sky fairies’ and associated theologies. Were they to read about the Jewish notion of tzelem elohim or the Catholic one of Imago dei—the shared notion that humans are made in the image of God, thereby possessing a unique and indelible ‘divine spark’—they’d laugh in mockery. Imagine further that they were delve into religious history and read about, say, the heretical 14th-century Cathar sect and its belief that humans are the incarnated vessels of a divine spiritual realm. Divine sparks! Angels made flesh! Violent crusades to stamp out the Cathars! Pshaw!

And yet it’s a matter of active contemporary belief and a foundation of much liberal thought that Homo sapiens sapiens, alone among the 5,000-odd species in class Mammalia, is born as a blank slate, devoid of inborn genetic influence over behavior. Our precious culture is so powerful (and our anthropocentric self-regard so preponderant) that we exist in a disembodied realm that allows us to transcend the physical. ‘Divine spark’ can go by many names.


The modern condition is this: We’re hairless apes who evolved on the third planet from an unexceptional star in an unremarkable galaxy adrift in a desolate universe ruled by mathematical laws of no discernible purpose. The only thing separating us from the various molds, bacteria, and mammals that swarm the planet is that we’re aware of that fact.

Apocalyptic retribution, anthropocentric exceptionalism, everlasting life for a self-anointed elect, pilgrimage into the wild for divine union, collective sin and indelible guilt, the stigma of taboo, personal sin and repentance, the witch hunt, the scapegoat mechanism, admonitory preachers: they’re all still there, as rich and central to our lives (though with a lower body count) as when Chartres cathedral was erected as a big Gothic arrow pointed skyward at the divine. The seculars don’t understand their own religiosity because, frankly, they don’t know enough about religion to recognize it. 

The first objection to the parallels I belabor above is ‘but I don’t believe in a god or sky fairy’ therefore I can’t be religious. Religion isn’t necessarily about gods, or even faith: that’s a mostly Christian conception (note again how even the Western atheists’ view of religion is largely Christian in origin). Religions like Buddhism and Confucian ancestor worship don’t have explicit deities, for example. Orthopraxic religions such as Judaism or Hinduism are concerned more with practice than belief: what you do matters far more than what you think.

No, this isn’t about sky fairies or who you personally profess as your lord and savior. Religion is fundamentally about dealing with reality via myth, ritual, and folklore, rather than data, empiricism, and skeptical inquiry3. There’s no less of it now than ever before. In fact, I’d go further and posit The Law of Conservation of Religion:

Religion is never created nor destroyed, in any society, merely transformed from one form to another. Ditto ancillary notions like taboo or moral guilt.

The reality is there are no atheists in the, well, anything. Humans are incapable of living while staring into the abyss of total materialist nihilism, not to mention their own looming mortality, for very long. Those who truly internalize that view are likely in a dark pit of drugs, clinical depression, or both, and the goal of treatment is restoring the basic animating delusions—friends, family, a sense of purpose and overarching narrative—necessary for human life. 

The problem with seeing religion for what it is for most Americans is that their default stand-in for RELIGION writ large is evangelical Protestant Christianity. To the extent religion even liminally appears on their intellectual horizons, it’s due to some bible-thumping Texas yokel who wants the school board to include Genesis in the science curriculum, a literalist interpretation that hasn’t gotten much play in the mainstream Catholic or Jewish intellectual worlds in centuries. As an almost intellectual immune-system reaction, we’ve spawned figures like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who suit up for battle against some dingbat creationist and imagine themselves Galileo confronting the Inquisition in 1633. 


Apocalyptic retribution, anthropocentric exceptionalism, everlasting life for a self-anointed elect, pilgrimage into the wild for divine union, collective sin and indelible guilt, the stigma of taboo, personal sin and repentance, the witch hunt, the scapegoat mechanism, admonitory preachers: they’re all still there, as rich and central to our lives (though with a lower body count) as when Chartres cathedral was erected as a big Gothic arrow pointed skyward at the divine.

The New Atheists lead their crusade, and form their own sort of gospel, battling against the forces of fundamentalist unreason, and that’s a necessary fight. But everyone knows it’s a bit staged, and the ‘heel’ comes clearly labeled in the match card (never mind that school-board creationists and religious fundamentalists hardly form the sole source of magical thinking these days).

The real modern-day conundrum among those who agree the Earth isn’t 5,000 years old is this: Science answers the what?, economics and engineering can answer the how?, but it’s religion (or religions in secular guise) that answer the why? It’s that last bit where rationalist empiricism falls on its face. If your only metric for judging a worldview is its ability to predict empirical outcomes like lab experiments, then empiricist worldviews are all you’ll ever accept (and by the way, lab experiments are all you’ll ever be able to talk about). The why? is unanswerable.

But answer the why? we must, at least at the personal level, if not for spiritual reasons then merely practical ones. We must all decide whether to shoplift that new iPhone or murder our spouse’s secret lover. The applied religion of morality —or ethics, if you prefer the secular packaging—is something none of us can ignore. However molecular our understanding of the physical universe, those mechanistic building blocks (including and especially ourselves) have to move according to some compelling drama, whether moral or monetary. Our ability to do a bit of math and cook up antibiotics doesn’t really change the underlying social script we must simultaneously author and act out.

Sit down with an empirical materialist atheist on Clubhouse and try to get to the bottom of how they actually live their moral lives, and they’ll inevitably respond with some version of Benthamesque utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number of people, ethics by Excel spreadsheet. No wonder it’s a favorite of our secular capitalist world run by technocrat wonks. All you have to do is run the numbers and get your answer! Which is fine for figuring out how to dole out building permits or perhaps COVID vaccines, but useless for anything more macro than that.

When you challenge your interlocutor (as I did in a recent Clubhouse room with Sam Harris4) with the notion that bean-counting utilitarianism would condone such barbarisms as indentured servitude or forcible organ harvesting, they’ll start sounding a bit uncomfortable. I mean, why not dismember a prisoner into useful organs and body parts—kidneys and retinas and so on—and thereby save or improve the lives of a dozen people? The math works out. 

“But human life is sacred, and everyone has rights,” comes the frequent objection5

Suddenly we’ve got numerical infinities on that ethics spreadsheet, inputs that win out against any finite moral optimization. Where to put the infinities on the spreadsheet is of course the entire point of this metaphysical endeavor. We need the axiomatic moral imperatives, whether they be human life or free speech or something else, to which everything else loses in the moral calculus. The rest is mere arithmetic. 


Anything anybody believes beyond the purely empirical is so much sweet metaphysical frosting on a pretty bitter nihilist cake. The adherents of Sunni Islam or ‘effective altruism’ are engaged in a debate among flavors of frosting, chocolate or vanilla?, with no obvious criterion other than maybe picking the flavor that’s least bad for your (and society’s) health while still allowing you to pay your taxes and not step in front of an oncoming Caltrain.

And this is precisely where the rationalist worldview grows mute: there’s simply no way to derive the absolute moral principles that should rule our lives from lab experiments, and any such proposal will necessarily require a faith-based leap--the ‘dignity’ of human life, the sanctity of private property, etc.—not very different than the tzelem Elohim or Imago Dei of Genesis. Science is absolutely mute here. There’s no such thing as a ‘scientific ethics’ or a ‘scientific foreign policy’, and the people who claim as much are precisely the same naifs who treat science as a body of knowledge rather than an epistemology, i.e., those who’ve never actually practiced it.

The modern condition is this: We’re hairless apes who evolved on the third planet from an unexceptional star in an unremarkable galaxy adrift in a desolate universe ruled by mathematical laws of no discernible purpose. The only thing separating us from the various molds, bacteria, and mammals that swarm the planet is that we’re aware of that fact. We’re so barely in this existential funk, we’ve only had this realization for a couple of centuries; large numbers of us aren’t even educated and well-fed (or simply bored) enough to realize it yet.

Anything anybody believes beyond the purely empirical is so much sweet metaphysical frosting on a pretty bitter nihilist cake. The adherents of Sunni Islam or ‘effective altruism’ are engaged in a debate among flavors of frosting, chocolate or vanilla?, with no obvious criterion other than maybe picking the flavor that’s least bad for your (and society’s) health while still allowing you to pay your taxes and not step in front of an oncoming Caltrain.

I’ll draw one last (and perhaps most bizarre-seeming) religious analogy:

It’s a misconception that the Western Wall is the holiest site in Judaism. That’s actually the Temple Mount above it where the Second Temple once stood (you’ve definitely seen photos of the current occupant, the golden Dome of the Rock). All that photogenic prayer at the Western Wall happens mostly due to the local geopolitics and the fact that, according to a strict interpretation, the exact site of the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount—the sanctuary of God’s presence on Earth—is now unknown.

And what was in that holy sanctuary where the divine presence is still thought to lurk and which casts a geographic shadow 2,000 years later?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing at all.

The holiest site in Judaism, which every Jew faces while praying, was completely empty for the half-millennium of its existence. Per Tacitus’ Histories, Book V:

The first Roman to subdue the Jews and set foot in their temple by right of conquest was Gnaeus Pompey [in 63 AD]; thereafter it was a matter of common knowledge that there were no representations of the gods within, but that the place was empty and the secret shrine contained nothing.

Postmodern humanity stands as Jews in the Second Temple period did6: the sanctuary is empty, the original ark marking the founding covenant is long gone, and the period of founding monarchs like King David no more than a dusty legend from a thousand years before. It’s our task to fill that empty space with something sacred that can once again inspire in us the better angels of our nature.

Whether God exists or not is irrelevant: He exists as much as FICO scores or habeas corpus or the Fourth Amendment does, as mental concepts we collectively bring into being via belief and which shape our actions thereby. Not worshipping—not interpreting reality via a binding web of narratives and values—isn’t actually an option. Nobody can escape the metaphysical trap; we must all deal in collective fantasies and delusions beyond the purely molecular (which isn't to say all delusions are created equal). If we persist in believing we can live lives free of belief, in the end, we'll only fill that empty sanctuary with some makeshift idol that will one day lead us into even darker pits of unreason, or simply eat us alive7.


1

This is more than a trolly joke. Take Matthew 3:2: ”Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Replace ‘kingdom of heaven’ with ‘Singularity’ and you have the title of one of Transhumanism’s gospels: The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. The author himself admits the divine order Transhumanism is meant to replicate (though never quite reach):

Evolution moves toward greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, and greater levels of subtle attributes such as love. In every monotheistic tradition God is likewise described as all of these qualities, only without any limitation: infinite knowledge, infinite intelligence, infinite beauty, infinite creativity, infinite love, and so on. Of course, even the accelerating growth of evolution never achieves an infinite level, but as it explodes exponentially it certainly moves rapidly in that direction. So evolution moves inexorably toward this conception of God, although never quite reaching this ideal. We can regard, therefore, the freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form to be an essentially spiritual undertaking.

Transhumanism is millenarian Gnosticism for the tech set.

2

For your daughter’s third birthday at a San Francisco private school, out of respect for the other students’ various and overlapping dietary restrictions, you will be bringing cupcakes that would make matzo seem flavorful, and nobody will finish them.

3

Or as William James wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experiences: “Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”

That order can be the Kingdom of God on Earth as described in the Gospel of Matthew, or ‘equity’ as defined in more contemporary gospels. Either way, we must ‘fix the world’—the Jewish concept of tikkun olam comes to mind—under the auspices of this or that prophet and gospel. The progressive obsession with moral improvement over time is itself a Christian concept: the early social progressives, be they abolitionists, suffragettes or temperance activists, were largely crusading Protestants. Update the language of select passages from Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum, and they'd be indistinguishable from AOC tweets.

4

Clubhouse is the first truly oral form of social media. I’d link you to the conversation, but indexing is itself a textual convention, and nothing there is recorded or transcribed. We had a conversation, virtualized via smartphones perhaps, but like every piece of oral culture it existed for a moment and was gone. The only record of it now is via faulty and self-serving human memory.

5

The other objection is that I’m inventing absurd, strawman-y scenarios. In actual fact, organ harvesting is actively practiced today in China. The challenge that China presents—a technologically advanced, economically successful society that utterly rejects many Enlightenment principles—is forcing (some) Westerners to survey their moral foundations. For too long, we’ve been able to assume that the Enlightenment package moved in lockstep with other such goodies as capitalism and science, and we’d always be able to wrap some gauzy, feel-good metaphysics around the smartphones and vaccines. That’s no longer so conveniently true.

6

The rabbinical Judaism that followed the destruction of the Second Temple filled that virtual sanctuary with the most abstract (and portable) elements of a religion that, like every religion of the time, was inextricably intertwined with a certain political order and physical nation-state. To a people suddenly on the run after a failed and quashed revolt, virtualizing your nationhood in the form of a shared text—a decentralized cloud solution avant la lettre—was the means of preserving a people. And it worked: The peoplehood was deserialized after 1,848 years of cloud storage in the State of Israel, and there it stands.

7

From David Foster Wallace’s viral commencement address: “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”