Just when you think that religious analogies cannot become more banal. This is from a recent interview with (social anthropologist? climate migration expert?) Calum T. M. Nicholson:
“Social media, however, is a space where we are always right, where we surround ourselves with people who agree with us—it is a bit like a monastic order, or, rather, a sect; we have become digital monks.”
Now a monastic order is not something where we are always right, and we sorround ourselves with anyone. Moreover, a sect is certainly not like a monastic order. Or, if one says that something is “rather, a sect” then its members cannot be monks. Digital or analog. Just another example of how shallow (and how ubiquitous) this kind of talk nowadays is. No wonder that the journalist enthusiastically suggests that this (Digital Monks?) should be the title of the interviewee’s new book.
A new piece by Alexander Grau from the Neue Züricher Zeitung. The title goes: “Only those who respect limit values will be redeemed: we have dethroned the old gods [but] all the more eagerly believe in new ones.” Not very interesting, it actually repeats the usual mantra of dogmatism, intolerance, preachers, heretics, exorcism, etc., the whole Hollywoodian parody of medieval religiosity. This time in connection with climate activism, migration politicies, minorities and gender, but this is nothing new, either. (See some of my earlier posts here or here or even here.)
I’m really starting to be afraid that such journalistic clichés may destroy the whole credibility of secular / religious comparisons in the academia as well. Hm, I must finish my book as soon as possible.
It has very little to do with secular religions, or who knows. Two years ago, when there was an urge to remember the 1989 regime changes in Eastern Europe, I spoke at a conference organized by the Hungarian Fulbright Committee. I’ve just found a video about it. It seems that I emphasized the loss of faith in communist ideals even by those whose main task was to safeguard ideological orthodoxy. (Btw, I also presented a paper on something similar this spring at Saint Louis University’s Central Slavic Conference.)
I don’t know if it is interesting or not, so decide it for yourselves:
It claims to be about teaching math while founded on shielding students from the requirement to actually do it. This is unempirical. It does so with an implication that only a moral transgressor numb to some larger point would question the contradiction. This is, as such, a religious document, telling you to accept that Jesus walked on water.Humans may grievously sacrifice the 9-year-old, the virgin, or the widow upon the pyre in worship of a God. Too, humans may sacrifice the black kid from the work of mastering the gift of math, in favor of showing that they are enlightened enough to understand that her life may be affected by racism and that therefore she should be shielded from anything that is a genuine challenge. This is not pedagogy; it is preaching.And in this country, religious propositions have no place in the public square.
Which is simply wrong, for they’ve always had, from the Declaration of Independence to the Pledge of Allegiance, from President Lincoln to Martin Luther King, and I could cite more recent examples from President Obama to Joe Biden. But this is not the main point here. What I find more interesting is the way how the religious analogy (that is almost always a Christian analogy, as if no religions other than Christianity had ever existed) is once again used as a defamation. I’m really starting to wonder whether any contemporary comparisons of so-called “secular” and so-called “religious” views will ever return to a more balanced, analytical approach.
Probably not, especially if authors like McWorther themselves admit that they don’t know what religion is and don’t even care:
Some think it’s just that I don’t like religion and haven’t studied it. And they’re right.But that doesn’t mean we haven’t watched a religion emerge since last year.
And this is already from the discussion of another “religion”, that of “electism“. So much for the secularization of the public sphere.
Today I had the pleasure of attending a panel at the 26th World Congress of Political Science titled ‘Technological Innovation, Religion, and Politics in the 21st Century: Current Debates and Prospective Developments.’
My own contribution was a small piece on ‘Transhumanism’s prophetic future’ which compared certain medieval prophecies – like those of Joachim of Fiore around 1200 – to some more recent ones like Ray Kurzweil‘s The Singularity is Near of 2005. A brief summary:
Transhumanism’s Prophetic Future
Although it has always been a favorite pastime of poets, philosophers, and historians to divide the unmanageable chaos of history into more user-friendly ages or epochs, the ultimate boom of such speculations began with the Middle Ages in Europe. The main reason is not difficult to figure out: the linear (or rather vectorial) concept of time as something with a beginning and end, as well as a definite direction, made it possible not only to speculate about the past but to link this up with the even more exciting project of speculating about the future. It would have indeed been strange if it had not happened in ‘a time when all minds lived on the memory of an historical fact, of an event to which all previous history led up, from which was dated the beginning of a new era; a unique event, which might almost be said to mark a date for God himself’, as Étienne Gilson wrote.
Although there are many examples of projecting historical periodization into the future, the most important and most influential one is arguably that of Joachim of Fiore in the late 12th and early 13th century. Based on a chronological understanding of the Holy Trinity, the Calabrian abbot transformed earlier doctrines of the three ages (‘before law’, ‘under law’, and ‘under grace’, meaning the age before the Mosaic law, the age of the Old Testament, and the age of the Christian Church) into the ages of the Father (combining ‘before’ and ‘under’ law), the Son (the present age ‘under grace’), and a new addition, the age of the Holy Spirit, a coming future state under ‘greater grace.’
The exact details of the latter are no doubt intriguing but are beyond the scope of the present investigation. There are only a few important points that are worth remembering for later comparison:
According to Joachim, history is a linear process. It comes from somewhere and goes somewhere. (In Joachim’s case, from the creation of Adam to the end of the world.) There is no turning back or decline.
Historical time is not homogeneous, it may be divided into different epochs which are highly different from each other. (Joachim and his followers used various names to call these: the ages of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; the ages under law, under grace, and under greater grace; the ages of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Eternal Gospel; of hope, faith, and charity; of patriarchs, priests, and monks; etc.)
There is, however, also an intrinsic unity, a historical logic in the process, and that is why, based on the knowledge of previous phases, predictions can be made about the next one. These predictions, moreover, are not mystical ramblings, but can be proven mathematically.(The main argument of Joachim was based on calculations about the number of generations in human history – which he, of course, equated with its biblical description – and the time of appearance of several key persons and events in this history.)
There is also a last age to be expected, and – fortunately for us – this last one is right now at the threshold. (Based on the calculations mentioned above, Joachim’s disciples took it for granted that after the first 42 generations from Adam to David, and the second 42 generations from David to Jesus, the present age could also not last longer than 42 generations, or, counting with 30 years per generation, 1,260 years. Which was, by the way, also confirmed by many other examples from the Bible. See e. g. the 42 months’ trampling of the holy city in Revelations 11, after which two witnesses will prophesy for another 1,260 days; but also in Revelations 12, the woman clothed with sun flees into the wilderness for 1260 days; while ‘three and a half years’ is also mentioned in the Old Testament, see Daniel 7:25 and 12:7.) So, the beginning of the last age was expected in 1260; in the near, but not very near future.
The last age will not only be different from anything humanity experienced so far, but also better, transcending all physical limitations, a truly spiritual awakening. The age of the ‘Spirit’ explicitly refers to this transformation, when people – at least the most advanced among them – will no longer need priests or books, because they communicate with the Spirit itself, understanding its ‘eternal gospel’ not by traditional learning but by immediate experience.
This is also something unavoidable: whether or not someone joins the trend, the process will reach its climax, because it is the work of a higher force.
The historical lineage of Joachimism was long and tortuous: from heretical movements in the Middle Ages to Thomas Müntzer during the Reformation, and from there to the German enlightenment (Lessing, Hegel, Schelling) and Karl Marx, not to mention more obscure figures like Merezhkovsky or Moeller van den Bruck, who directly link the tradition to the Third International or Hitler’s Third Reich. In a less radical way, however, all historically oriented political utopias betray a degree of Joachimism, when they treat humanity’s movement toward prosperity, democracy, freedom, or world peace (any or all of them) as a movement from somewhere to somewhere, taking distinct epochal steps in the process, the next one of which can be predicted, and we are almost there, in this – obviously happiest – state of affairs, which may be hindered for some time but not ultimately avoided.
Some of today’s most fashionable predictions are related to technology, artificial intelligence, and transhumanism. To review all those would require a whole book, so here I choose only one example, Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, first published in 2005. The title is already a paraphrase of Mark 1:15, ‘The Kingdom of God is near,’ and this is no mere accident. The very idea of singularity means that constantly accelerating technological growth at one point becomes so fast that it becomes independent of human control, manifesting a ‘superintelligence’ that surpasses everything we call human intelligence today. In Kurzweil’s own words, ‘It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.’
Although Kurzweil does not call his own view of history ‘linear’ but ‘exponential’, it is only to emphasize the growing speed of changes, not to abandon the original idea of history as a process coming from somewhere and going somewhere (as in point 1).
He also divides history into epochs (see point 2). Not into three as Joachim did, but into six, it is true; which is, however, not a crucial difference, since the medieval abbot himself used the more traditional scheme of six epochs sometimes (that corresponded to the six ages of human life). In any case, it is not the number of epochs that is important here but the idea that history – however linear or exponential it may be – is not a continuous series of events but something that produces momentous qualitative changes from time to time. Epoch one is that of ‘physics and chemistry’ (from the Big Bang to the emergence of living organisms); epoch two is about ‘biology and DNA’ (until the appearance of organisms ‘that could detect information with their own sensory organs and process and store that information in their own brains and nervous systems’); epoch three is about ‘brains’; epoch four is about ‘human-created technology’; and this is where we are at the moment. Epoch five is the imminent future, ‘the merger of human technology with human intelligence’, while epoch six is the more distant – albeit not very distant – future, when ‘the universe wakes up’, which is the most mystical part of the speculation.
Whether our civilization infuses the rest of the universe with its creativity and intelligence quickly or slowly depends on its immutability. In any event the ‘dumb’ matter and mechanisms of the universe will be transformed into exquisitely sublime forms of intelligence, which will constitute the sixth epoch in the evolution of patterns of information. This is the ultimate destiny of the Singularity and of the universe.
All this may sound scientific only if by ‘science’ one means the most fashionable discipline of the day. For Joachim it was mathematics and biblical history (see point 3 above), for Kurzweil it is information science. Predicting the future in a scientific way always requires such reductions; what we should not forget is that detecting any ‘inherent logic of progress’ depends on explanatory frameworks that are not ‘given’ but are themselves the constructions of human minds. We may describe the history of humankind or even the history of the whole universe in terms of an increasing capability to store and handle information, but this will never be more than one possible approach among others.
Kurzweil’s prophecies about the last age also repeat the age-old pattern of being ‘almost there’ but still a little far away (see point 4). Citing other authors who put the beginning of singularity to the 2040s, he himself votes for 2045:
“So we will be producing about 1026 to1029 cps of nonbiological computation per year in the early 2030s. This is roughly equal to our estimate for the capacity of all living biological human intelligence. Even if just equal in capacity to our brains, this nonbiological portion of our intelligence will be more powerful because it will combine the pattern-recognition powers of human intelligence with the memory- and skill-sharing ability and memory accuracy of machines. The nonbiological portion will always operate at peak capacity, which is far from the case for biological humanity today; the 1026 cps represented by biological human civilization today is poorly utilized. This state of computation in the early 2030s will not represent the Singularity, however, because it does not yet correspond to a profound expansion of our intelligence. By the mid-2040s, however, that one thousand dollars’ worth of computation will be equal to 1026 cps, so the intelligence created per year (at a total cost of about $1012) will be about one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today. That will indeed represent a profound change, and it is for that reason that I set the date for the Singularity – representing a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability – as 2045.”
Which is, apart from the technical language, the most convenient solution, regarding that Kurzweil will be 97 years old at the time. As for points 5 and 6, we have already seen that being ‘transhuman’ means exactly the same as the spiritual awakening implied by Joachmist prophecies, and it is just as unavoidable as anything that a superhuman (divine) force brings about.
Let us add, however, that none of the above claims is self-evident. The most important question to be asked is what makes them more plausible when they are made by a computer scientist and not by a medieval theologian. In what sense are computer scientists in a better position to make such bold claims than the prophets of earlier ages?
The main problem with prophecies was neatly summed up by Arthur C. Danto in his 1985 book Narration and Knowledge:
“A prophecy is not merely a statement about the future, for a prediction is a statement about the future. It is a certain kind of statement about the future, and I shall say, pending a further analysis, that it is an historical statement about the future. The prophet is one who speaks about the future in a manner which is appropriate only to the past, or who speaks of the present in the light of a future treated as a fait accompli. A prophet treats the present in a perspective ordinarily available only to future historians, to whom present events are past, and for whom the meaning of present events is discernible.”
To which it might be added that to view history in its fullness, as a process with meaning and purpose would require an observer who stands ‘outside’ or ‘above’ history, a divine point of view. For Joachim, this point of view was provided by revelation, but computer scientists can only rely on themselves and their own divine interpretation of history, without realizing how deeply embedded they are in a specific human tradition.
As for social and political implications, Kurzweil’s futurology is even less imaginative. Joachim’s Liber figurarum at least outlined a form of ‘government’ for future communities: a hierarchy of monks who would reign over the rest of society (an obvious extrapolation from the theocratic principles that had been present in Europe since at least the monastic reform movements and the Investiture Controversy).
The most striking feature of the Singularity is Near is not that it also extrapolates from our present social and political institutions, values and principles, but that it readily admits this is the case: nonbiological intelligence ‘is and will be embedded in our societies and will reflect our values’; ‘our application of these greater intellectual powers will be governed by the values of its creators’; ‘democratic values’ or values like ‘liberty, tolerance, and respect for knowledge and diversity’, while the exact nature of future social institutions remains vague, and political institutions (like forms of government or models of democracy) are barely mentioned at all.
One might of course say that Kurzweil is not a political philosopher (let alone a political scientist), so it would be foolish to expect from him a detailed description of what sort of political regime (or rather regimes) will come in an age of singularity. The issue is a bit more complicated, though:
If someone thinks that singularity is indeed something beyond the scope of human understanding, it is difficult to see how any prophecy can be made about theconsequences of technological progress, regardless of whether these prophecies are social, cultural, economic, or anything else.
Yet, if someone’s aim is indeed to prophesize about such consequences, it is impossible to avoid prophecies of a political nature, unless one implicitly suggests that the political will somehow be dissolved in the social, the cultural, or the economic; but this is already a claim of political nature.
Moreover, such a claim presupposes an approach that is but one among many, and not something inevitable or self-evident. The strange thing is that sometimes even Kurzweil himself admits that his approach is something worth fighting for in the face of opposing ideologies (even if in the long run it is bound to be triumphant).
And this is where the argument which otherwise relies on ‘social and political innovations’ takes a paradoxically conservative turn: one that explicitly commits itself to ‘our’ (whose?) ‘traditional’ (liberal, democratic, pluralistic, etc.) values, a commitment that is once again difficult to defend on purely rationalistic grounds, especially in the pluralistic intellectual environment of the 21st century, in which ‘different gods’ (different social and political Absolutes) may appear as well.
As John Gray ironically remarked in his Seven Types of Atheism:
“Humans may well use science to turn themselves into something like gods as they have imagined them to be. But no Supreme Being will appear on the scene. Instead there will be different gods, each of them a parody of human beings that once existed.”
Which is itself a sort of prophecy, however; showing that most authors in the Western tradition (Joachimist or otherwise) are still incapable of omitting the ‘prophetic future’ from their vocabulary.
Just a few days ago, I came across a picture at a social media platform that tried to explain what is ‘fictional’ and what is not in human personality.
Now let us read this carefully. It says (if I read it correctly) that someone’s NAME, RELIGION, NATIONALITY, and RACE are all parts of a FICTIONAL identity. Which is a very strange claim, regarding that all of us have a name, a race, at least some of us have a religion (if secular religions also count then all of us), and almost all of us have a nationality.
When someone asks me who I am, I reply ‘I am Tamás, I am a Christian, I am Hungarian’ and many other things. Maybe I am completely mistaken when I think that all these belong to my real identity, but I wonder what does if all these do not.
Yes, I may be someone else, but who is this ‘else’ or ‘my real self’? Is it my biological constitution? Is it my genome? Certainly not, because these are things that are even more definitely given than any of my ‘cultural’, ‘social’, or ‘political’ characteristics. The latter are not entirely impossible to change, after all, while the former – at the present level of biotechnology – seem at least postnatally immutable.
So what is my real self that the text suggests to be ‘non-fictional’? A self that I believe is there, before everything else. Something that doesn’t have a material existence, an empirical description, not even a name. A mystical entity that is nevertheless the ‘most real being’ (ens realissimum). I hope that all my faithful readers begin to understand now what I’m trying to say: that this is just one more example of a ‘secular’ idea that is impossible to distinguish from so-called ‘religious’ ones.
It seems you just can’t avoid those off-hand references to “new religions.” Today I saw a review of Paul Embery’s book Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class published last year. I haven’t read it yet, I confess, but at least one chapter bears the title “A New National Religion: Liberal Wokedom.” Which is no great novelty, of course, I myself have cited similar examples before. The only reason I think it’s still worth mentioning is to show how widespread this sort of “new”, “secular”, etc. religion discourse is. Of course, as I said many times, most of this discourse is merely metaphorical or sensationalist. But the very fact that people from all walks of life use such language points to our secular age’s profound interest in (and uncertainty about) what religion is. But don’t panic: this time I will not go into the details of defining religion. Maybe in my next post.
No, these words are not from a book on medieval church history. They are from a recent article on artificial intelligence in New Atlantis, written by Adam Elkus. The article, moreover, also mentions spirits, demons, demonic forces, heresies, rituals – and again, this is not just a play with words. In a refreshingly erudite manner, it draws an analogy between our recent trust in algorithms to save us from ourselves and our more ancient belief in non-human agents to do the same. The author even uses Charles Taylor’s concepts of “porous” and “buffered” selves from his famous book A Secular Agein a way that is an overt criticism of the whole idea of so-called “secularization”.
To be sure, Elkus is no religious scholar, and this is still not an article on secularization or secular religions. It makes some very profound comments on human desires and the intentions to control them, while also points to some serious misunderstandings about human nature, ethics, and rationality. What seems nevertheless obvious is that a “religious” language (in this case, more precisely, the language of medieval Christianity) remains unavoidable when discussing any such question. This is no mistake, and not – or not only – a form of clickbait journalism.
Which all of us are forced to practice sometimes, anyway (see e.g. the title of this post). Or the picture below.
At this very moment, I’m at an international workshop on patriotism. What makes it especially interesting is how many presentations (about half of all) explicitly deal with religion. My own preliminary paper (a full version is expected to appear in 2022):
From Political Religion to Religious Politics and Back
The term “political religion” (religio politica) was first used in the 17th century by authors like Tommaso Campanella or Daniel Clasen (Seitschek 2007, 103). It originally meant the official religion of a community (polis), similarly to what the ancient theologia tripartita called “political theology” in distinction from philosophical and mythical theologies. With all their political implications, however, these were “real” religions or theologies that openly confessed belief in God or gods, exercised explicitly religious rituals, and had their own priesthood named as such.
In contrast, when the word was revived at the end of the 18th century by Condorcet, “political religion” referred to a set of teachings, practices, and institutions that were self-professedly secular, yet continued to show an unintended (and, in the eyes of the critic, deplorable) resemblance to traditional religions. Condorcet’s target was the new system of public education in revolutionary France, or, more precisely, its proposal for the teaching of the Constitution:
“It has been said that the teaching of the constitution of each country should be part of national education. This is true, no doubt, if we speak of it as a fact; if we content ourselves with explaining it; if, in teaching it, we confine ourselves to saying: Such is the constitution established in the State to which all citizens must submit. But if we say that it must be taught as a doctrine in line with the principles of universal reason or arouse in its favor a blind enthusiasm which renders citizens incapable of judging it; if we say to them: This is what you must worship and believe; then it is a kind of political religion that we want to create. It is a chain that we prepare for the spirits, and we violate freedom in its most sacred rights, under the pretext of learning to cherish it.” (Condorcet 2005 , 42)
Although Condorcet’s aim was to “unmask” a purportedly secular system’s hidden similarities to “religion” (which for him, as for most contemporaries, usually meant Christianity), it is doubtful whether there was anything to unmask at all. The Fête de la Constitution, it is true, was only made into something like a religious celebration in 1791 (Ozouf 1976, 102), but other, “patriotic” feasts had already begun with the creation of the Fête de la Fédération in 1790, all with the aim to propagate – a still non-existent – national unity (Ozouf 1976, 63). The spatial center of these festivities was always the “Altar of the Fatherland” (another explicitly religious reference) and already in 1790, two years before the outbreak of revolutionary wars, they were primarily military events symbolizing the unity of the army and the people (Ozouf 1976, 99).
Later developments (the creation of the Panthéon as a “temple of the nation” or the adoption of the Marseillaise as a national anthem with lines like “amour sacré de la patrie”) also reinforced the nation and the homeland as the center of this political religion, so much so that even counterrevolutionary authors like Joseph de Maistre acknowledged that the successful amalgamation of patriotism and revolutionary spirit established the military triumphs of the French armies (Maistre 1994, 16-17). The political religion of homeland and nation – with all its belligerent features – was therefore ready for adoption by other European nations in the nineteenth century.
Examples of such patriotic / nationalistic religions were many and varied. Some of those in the nineteenth century were still associated with traditional Christianity (much in the same way as the first Fête de la Fédération involved a Catholic liturgy in France); others translated Christian symbolism into a new context; and still others acted as open rivals to Christianity.
The perhaps most famous one was the “Christ of Nations” or “Christ of Europe” idea in Poland, popularized by Adam Mickiewicz’s dramatic poem Dziady (Forefather’s Eve, 1832), which identified the vicissitudes of Polish history with the redemptive sufferings of Jesus Christ on the cross. This idea – a peculiar combination of belief in the Christian God and the Old Testament view of a chosen nation, but also with a European outlook, since the sufferings of the Poles was expected to bring salvation to other oppressed nations – became widespread all through Europe, especially France, where Mickiewicz took refuge after 1832. In Italy, the Risorgimento was also often seen as a religious undertaking (Mazzini 2009, 124), sometimes in agreement with Catholic doctrine, sometimes in open hostility with the latter (or at least with the Papacy, after it rejected to take a leading role in the liberation of Italy, see e. g. Chadwick 1981, 545).
In other countries such as Hungary, poems like the 1823 Himnusz by Ferenc Kölcsey (later to become the national anthem of Hungary) also adopted the chosen nation imagery for Hungarians: a “nation that suffered for all sins of past and future.” By the 1848 revolution, references to the “God of Hungarians” became commonplace in popular literature (see Sándor Petőfi’s National Song or Gergely Czuczor’s Alarm), even though the exact meaning of such phrases remained ambiguous: on the one hand, adherence to traditional Christianity was still explicitly professed, while the very idea of a national God stood in obvious tension with Christian universalism. The leader of the revolution, governor president Lajos Kossuth was also called the “Moses of Magyars” (even in official documents like municipal records), while after the defeat of the war of independence in 1849, the thirteen Hungarian generals executed by Austrian authorities were not only called “Martyrs”, but a full-fledged cult arose around them, with their bones and parts of their gallows placed in reliquaries (similarly to the veneration of the relics of Christian saints or pieces of the holy cross in medieval Europe, see Nyirkos 2018, 100). The link between religious patriotism and military efforts is once again hard to dismiss.
The image of Hungary as a chosen nation, or a Christ of Nations gained a new impetus after the First World War, when two-thirds of Hungary’s former territory had been lost to Romania, Czechoslovakia, and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (the later Yugoslavia). Although the replacement of Christ with a secular entity like the nation or the nation-state should once again seem problematic from a Christian point of view, it remains true that in Hungary, the new (political) and the traditional (Christian) aspects of the patriotic religion continued to be intertwined. It was only after the Second World War that such rhetoric became unacceptable or outright forbidden during the Communist era, only to reappear – but still in a rudimentary form and certainly not as an official political religion – after the regime change in 1989-90.
Something like an official recognition only arrived with the 2010’s, when prime minister Viktor Orbán (who previously defined his “national approach” to politics as “illiberal”, see Orbán 2014) changed his vocabulary to “Christian democratic” in 2018, while still maintaining that the two concepts were basically identical:
“Let us confidently declare that Christian democracy is not liberal. Liberal democracy is liberal, while Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal: it is, if you like, illiberal. And we can specifically say this in connection with a few important issues – say, three great issues. Liberal democracy is in favor of multiculturalism, while Christian democracy gives priority to Christian culture; this is an illiberal concept. Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration; this is again a genuinely illiberal concept. And liberal democracy sides with adaptable family models, while Christian democracy rests on the foundations of the Christian family model; once more, this is an illiberal concept.” (Orbán 2018a)
For our present purpose, the main point of interest is the reference to anti-immigration policies, which seems most obviously to involve a defense of national unity; or, as the prime minister more explicitly put it in a radio interview also in 2018, Christian democracy meant the protection of the nation against all outside forces: “global ideologies are rejected; because we believe in the importance of the nation, and in Hungary we do not want to yield to any supranational business or a political empire” (Orbán 2018b). Linking nationalism or patriotism to Christianity – despite the tension with Christian universalism mentioned above – is, however, still not what we might call a political religion. It rather looks like a mixture of politics and religion, at least until one reads it together with the most interesting passage in the 2018 speech where it is repeated no less than three times that this sort of Christian politics is “not about defending religious articles of faith”, “our duty is not to defend the articles of faith”, and “not the protection of religious articles of faith is the duty of Christian democracy” (Orbán 2018a).
In other words, Christian democracy is not a religious, but a secular ideology, a transfer of religious concepts into the political realm, which is the exact definition of what is usually called a political religion. Many other examples might be listed, but let me just cite one more from 2020, the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon, which formally ended the First World War for Hungary, and, as I mentioned earlier, meant the greatest loss of territory and population for the Hungarian state in history. In his commemoration speech on June 6th, Viktor Orbán outlined a complete eschatological vision of “five Trianon generations”: four until the present day and one more in the future, whose task is to fight a last “decisive battle” for Hungary, another invocation of military imagery (Orbán 2020). Similar “immanentizations of the eschaton” or “secularizations of salvation history” are, of course, well known from the works of Eric Voegelin or Karl Löwith (among others), but here, the location of the speech is also significant: the so-called “Hungarian Calvary” near the town of Sátoraljaújhely (which was itself divided by the new border drawn in Trianon). The monument was erected in 1936, and its very symbolism expresses the analogy of the nation’s sufferings with the passion of Jesus Christ, a core feature of many political religions since the nineteenth century.
At the same time, however – and especially with regard to the many ambiguities involved in such rhetoric –, it is yet to be seen whether all this constitutes a full-fledged “political religion” or just one aspect of a complicated ideological framework that tries to connect patriotism and the defense of one’s homeland at a higher level than a simply secular commitment would suggest.
Chadwick, Owen (1981): The Popes and European Revolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Condorcet, Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat (2005): Cinq mémoires sur l’instruction publique. http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/condorcet/cinq_memoires_instruction/Cinq_memoirs_instr_pub.pdf
Löwith, Karl (1949): Meaning in History: The Theological Implication of the Philosophy of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Maistre, Joseph de (1994): Consideration on France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mazzini, Giuseppe (2009): A Cosmopolitanism of Nations: Giuseppe Mazzini’s Writings on Democracy, Nation Building, and International Relations. Edited by Stefano Recchia and Nadia Urbinati. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Nyirkos, Tamás (2018): Politikai teológiák: a demokráciától az ökológiáig. Budapest: Typotex.
Orbán, Viktor (2014): Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech at the 25th Bálványos Summer Free University and Student Camp.
Orbán, Viktor (2018a): Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech at the 29th Bálványos Summer Open University and Student Camp.
Orbán Viktor (2018b): Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the Kossuth Radio programme “180 Minutes.”
Orbán, Viktor (2020): Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Commemoration Speech.
Ozouf, Mona (1976): La fête révolutionnaire 1789-1799. Paris: Gallimard.
Seitschek, Hans Otto (2007): Early Uses of the Concept ‘Political Religion’: Campanella, Clasen and Wieland. In Totalitarianism and Political Religions, Volume Three. Edited by Hans Maier. London: Routledge.
Voegelin, Eric (2000): Political Religions. In The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin. Volume 5. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
Another anniversary, that of the Hungarian revolution of 1848. As the renowned historian András Gerő remarked today on DunaTV (and also in an article on 24.hu), the phrase “the God of Hungarians” was so widespread at the time that it in fact became part of a secular religion of the nation. Which is no novelty, of course; I myself have written on several aspects of this national religion in my 2018 book onPolitical Theologies.
Just to name a few: beside references to a national God in poems and political speeches, the new religion also produced its own patriarchs like the revolutionary governor-president Lajos Kossuth (“the Moses of Hungarians”) or saints like the martyrs of Arad (thirteen Hungarian generals executed after the defeat) whose memory has developed into a fully-fledged cult afterwards.
A few years ago, I even saw a reliquary containing the bones of the martyrs and parts of the gallows where some of them were executed (just like pieces of Christ’s cross):
All this, however, was nothing extraordinary. The “civil religion” of America (as Robert Bellah wrote in his famous study) also relied on a part biblical, part national symbolism; or, as Carlton Hayes put it, nationalism everywhere had the same religious underpinnings. Not even in the form of a “secular” religion but as a “religion” per se.