Tag Archives: Carl Sagan

Greer’s “Progress Religion”

FURTHER EDIT: I somehow find this a little funny, but Greer’s post today is mostly addressed to the comments of doubters, and several remarks are directed toward ideas I put forward, one very specifically to me:

One interesting wrinkle on this last point comes from a commenter who insists, quoting a scholar of religious studies from India, that the concept “religion” is purely a modern Western notion and can’t be used outside that context.

… which forces me to set the record straight even though I wanted to move on!

The guy I quoted, Balagangadhara, whom I wrote a little about here, of course does not say that at all; I probably didn’t get across his thesis very well. Balagangadhara thinks Western Abrahamic religion is in a fundamentally different category from other sorts of religion, as I said, because of its strongly ideocratic and orthodoxy-creating character, which separates it even from other types of orthodoxy in several respects — so much so that calling them something other than religion might be more accurate in his opinion. What Greer says today:

The phenomena assigned to the category “religion” in English still exist in those languages and cultures—you’ll find, for example, that good clear translations of words such as “deity,” “worship,” “temple,” “prayer,” “offering,” “scripture,” and the like can be found in a great many languages that have no word for “religion” as such.

… doesn’t invalidate Balangangadhara in the least, because his point is that so many pre-reformation travellers (whom he quotes in detail) took careful note of all those foreign elements of “deity”, “worship” and so forth, but still said the cultures “did not have religion” — not that they didn’t have “our” religion, not that they had “false” religion, but that they had no religion. That is, they didn’t believe the morphology was universal. This is what makes Balagangadhara’s point so much more interesting than a mere quibble about available vocabularies, a point I made last week… but if interested to see where Balagangadhara takes that evidence just check out his actual book. It is very interesting stuff — is “scripture” the same idea the world over? is all religion creedal? etc. — but I wasn’t planning to talk a lot more about it!

I also wasn’t intending to derail Greer’s, well, “progress” — I genuinely thought he might be interested in some of those ideas! They don’t invalidate what he’s saying, they just nuance it differently — basically the post-Abrahamic nature of Greer’s “progress religion” sets it off against other forms of religion as fundamentally different, and that would include his own Druidry as far as I can see. Yes I did and do foresee problems with the series, based not uncomedically on a morphological approach vis-a-vis previous Greer series, but I’m not going to endlessly blather about them either, at least until everything upcoming is done. So as far as I personally am concerned this current post of his wasn’t necessary.

Goethe’s morphology, like several other things Greer mentioned and will mention, plays a role in my series too, albeit the two series have rather different approaches, which means they may clash or dovetail. But neither of those eventualities would be such a frightful thing, would it? :)

Oh — and as I said, I’m not going to spend any more time on this. Positively, this is my last word on it. Comments here are closed.

EDIT: It looks like no-one else is really bothered about this. :) Some people are happy to just go along with Greer, others have already given up on the whole “progress religion” thing as a straw man… but the idea between those two positions, of doing a lot more discussion of the points below, doesn’t seem to have any traction by contrast with my usual posts. So I will let it lie.

In fairness to Greer, he has said I’ve misunderstood him. In fairness to me — he hasn’t said how, and I quoted him verbatim at least on some things.

But anyway, we’ll move swiftly on…

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So before I go any further, a little situation has been building that I want to explore. John Michael Greer (one of the two excellent writers who unequivocally showed me the necessity of a historical approach to SBNR, William Irwin Thompson being the other), has just begun his own biiiiiig series on religion and peak oil. The latest post is a fair sample if you haven’t been following so far.

Like some other readers I’m having a little trouble with this series, and wondered if anyone else would like to discuss it. I will post to Greer’s comments page — link here as soon as it’s been put up — but there isn’t room there for everything I want to say.

The basic idea of the series is that everyone who has made any use of the “progress” concept since the Enlightenment can be seen as part of a “religion of progress”, which is “the most widely accepted civil religion of the modern industrial world”, and turns out to be intolerantly post-Abrahamic. Its major belief, Greer says, is that “humanity is moving inevitably onward and upward toward some glorious destiny”. To him this religion encompasses for instance “researchers who have risked their lives, and not infrequently lost them, to further the progress of science and technology” and “moral crusaders who have done the same thing in the name of political or economic progress”, amongst a big crop of other examples.

I don’t — yet — really see the application of this analogy. I’d love a bit more discussion and demonstration about its huge mass of grey areas, but Greer himself seems disinclined. (The shrift given in his comments page to those who question the idea’s explanatory power is short to say the least.) I don’t think progress really “is a religion”, of course, but more importantly I will take a lot of convincing that it can usefully be seen as one — nor do I think it’s necessarily the only or best hinge idea to pick, in persuading people to prepare for difficulties ahead.

But a lot of my problem at the moment is that Greer, who so often inveighs against dualistic, black-white thinking, seems to be indulging in it liberally himself. I wondered if anyone else had found this. He is scripting the content, not just the style or direction of people’s beliefs — and, not for the first time in his blog’s life I think, over-simplifying too liberally.

I’m actually thinking about the little Carl Sagan quote that was posted in his comments this week as an example, of all things — not because I care much for Carl Sagan, but because I don’t, and am pretty neutral. The quote, about awe before the universe, was smeared instantly by Greer as a disingenuous attempt to manipulate Sagan’s readers into the evils of scientism, pretending to reverence its author didn’t feel. The idea that it could have had any sincerity (however mistaken) didn’t seem to cross his mind at all. Sagan was Pope of progressism, which apparently condemns him to hypocrisy.

My problem is that Greer is laying out his theses mostly in order to help people transition away from any addiction to hampering progress myths, in the difficult upcoming age. Thus he’s claiming to pinpoint what is motivating them — and yet, as accurate as Greer is on fact and historical position, I’ve often felt him to be wrong about psychology, even though he puts forward his ideas in the same tone as facts about peak oil! The Sagan thing is just a miniature example of this.

In last week’s comments, Greer promulgated some ideas about scientism as a whole, which explain his evaluation of Sagan: “Nature is what science is supposed to conquer; nature is the Devil of scientism, the old enemy who will eventually be bound in chains and made to drag the glorious chariot of humanity wherever ‘we’ (however defined) want it to go.” Of course, since this has been declared the case, the scientistic Sagan’s awe before nature must be “appeal to a mass market” and nothing more. Sagan’s psychology has to conform to Greer’s categories. Does it?

In my reply to Greer’s comment last week I put forward some remarks of William Irwin Thompson’s which illustrate that scientism as a whole is just not that simple, because there is more than one type of human personality and culture present in it, and showed there are two sides to the story. Greer ignored this. I should mention that Thompson is expecting a dark age every bit as much as Greer is, and has also guffawed a great deal about what he sees as the “ideology of progress that places our industrial culture at the pinnacle of human civilization”, quite rightly so (although even there — notice that isn’t quite Greer’s definition of “progress”). But he seems to tolerate psychological ambiguity better than Greer does. And that may be very, very important when we are claiming to be able to help people change their minds for the better.

Sagan was a true believer in the techno-progress he promulgated, but his sense of wonder at Nature, from what little I know, seems perfectly genuine too. Contradictory? From Greer’s angle it seems so — but humans are. Certainly other people whom Sagan saw (or used) as “prophets” of scientism may well have been in awe of Nature itself, as the Thompson quote makes clear. I found on another site today a reply to Greer which showed a different side to Sagan, but Greer’s response on his own page was to see it as a defence of “Saint Carl” — implying anyone who wants to rebalance distortion about Sagan must be idolising Sagan! That’s what I mean by not being able to tolerate ambiguity. It’s very, very us-them.

Sagan’s ignorant campaign against mysticism and spirituality is hardly likely to endear him to me! He comes off like a purblind fool in my eyes, on that subject, when I chance to stumble across him. But the picture of scientism as “nothing but” this (anti-Druidry!) caricature is in fact precisely the kind of ideological rolling-over that Sagan himself, that scientism itself, resorts to in its worse pseudoskeptical moments — Druidry “nothing but” insane old-fashioned nonsense, etc.. We’ve all seen enough of that (“cold pricklies”). And it is precisely the kind of thing we need to avoid in getting people out of their fixed ideas about the future, in my opinion. (Which leads me to wonder whether Greer hasn’t perhaps been contemplating the enemy too long and begun to imitate it, another process he’s warned others about!)

I admit, another reason I have a problem with all this is my recent research for the series I talked about last post, which revealed in the previous three hundred years an incredibly multiform resource to draw on spiritually for the next three hundred. I began research primed by my interest in Greer’s writing to notice progress ideology wherever I found it, knowing it would need careful questioning in light of the reality ahead. But things weren’t quite that simple when I actually looked in detail. Perhaps this was because I was researching spiritual people — but then, Greer avoids discussion of spirituality on his blog.

“Progress” sometimes was very important to the people I researched, and I made a point of featuring it — I’ll start out my series with a guy who was one of the most progressy of all. But to examine his ideas, and many others, I had to look in practical detail at particular subtleties of thought about the future. When I did that, a single overall ideology of progress was not present. Yes, I’ve seen a couple of people who are close to caricature “progress religionists” in spiritual form (hello, Ken Wilber!), but they are definitely a minority.

Deciding that “progress” is the problem, above all other problems, is perhaps a natural piece of rhetoric for someone with Greer’s inherent conservative slant, but it is a concept he has barely defined, and certainly he hasn’t given anyone’s definition apart from his own (except maybe he’ll give Nietzsche’s!) How do we know it holds with the kind of breadth he’s claiming? Is he possibly thinking the problem into a box which it doesn’t altogether fit? At the moment I think he might be. Above all, I think the post-Abrahamic period has been characterised by enormous multiplicity and ambiguity, and deciding what to take forward that best prepares us is a process requires careful understanding of multiplicity, at least as much or more than simplifying into a single intolerant “religion”.

Any thoughts?


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