A Thermodynamic Interpretation of History, Div. Two
An Archaeology of the American Feminist Intraworldly Messianism

EPILOGUE 1: The Background to the Feminist Ethic: Speculum Americanae

1. The American Civil Religion and Consumerism
ACADEMY | previous section | Table of Content | next section | GALLERY

Copyright © 2005 by Lawrence C. Chin. All rights reserved.

In the preceding analysis of the American feminist ethic we have traced out three threads of historical forces for its origination: the nature of the open dissipative structure (in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics); the immanentization of Christianity; and the Protestant Reformation (never forget the factor of the differentiation of consciousness in these two historical changes). As we have come to understand feminism in the context of world-history, here we want to elaborate a bit on this context, specifically the context of secularization that constitutes the essence of Western modernity, and the other phenomena that emerge from this context together with feminism and serve as the cradle for it, i.e. the American nation and the American culture itself, whose latest phase today is consumerism turned global. There wouldn't be much of a feminism on this planet had there not been America, and contemporary American feminism (since the second wave) is a dispositif of consumerism, hence a "deployment" of the contemporary American culture, which is itself being universalized today in something like a "religious war." It is thus essential to really understand consumerism in order to understand feminism. The whole picture which emerges when all these are put together is: the goal of secularization is the production of the most massive open dissipative structure possible (Corm: the thermodynamic interpretation of history), the American nation-culture is the most successful model of this secularization process and today its universalization should result in the establishment of a planetary open dissipative sphere (global consumerism), and American feminism is one of the many, but the best among all, dispositifs of this Americanization-consumerization process.

The process of secularization: a synthesis

The process of secularization may be conceived of in three stages. The first is that of the formation of transcendental monotheism sowing the seeds for later secularization. This is first pointed out by Peter Berger (The Sacred Canopy, Ch. 5, “The Process of Secularization”), who has extended many of Weber’s insights. Eric Voegelin1 identifies four components which humans of the “intraworld” religious stage have not yet differentiated within the cosmos: the cosmos itself, human beings, society, and gods. In transcendental monotheism (Israelite Yahwism, Christianity, and Islam) the cosmos splits into three along the four components: God, a thus desacralized nature, and society-man.

“Relativizing the natural order to the transcendent order, as in the opening chapter of Genesis or the Gospel of John, Western monotheism attacked the sacred reality of cosmological religion and rejected the legitimacy of its myths and rituals.”2 In the intraworld religions of humanity before the rise of monotheism “the divine is immanent in the world and the sacred was encountered in the context of nature: the flight of the sun and the journey of the stars, the ebb and flow of seasons, the rise and fall of rivers, the cycles of the moon. No intrinsic separation existed between humans and the natural world that sustained life; so too the social order and the order of the cosmos itself were indistinguishable. Life was a continuous harmony.”3 Then Israelite Yahwism and Christianity elevated the sacred into a transcendental realm qualitatively beyond this world of the cosmos. The desacralization of nature – the second phase of which (below) Max Weber names the “de-magification of the world” (die Entzauberung der Welt) – that occurred with the onset of monotheism really was a “de-animization” of nature, since the “sacred” that was purged from nature referred in the perspective of traditional religions to the divine anima (the divine “air”).

This desacralization of the immanent world corresponding to the constitution of the transcendental realm of (one) God was not to remain a fixed accomplishment. Soon afterwards Christianity, under its establishment as Catholicism, began to experience a “recosmicization” by which nature became sacralized again. The earthly locations associated with saints, for example, became sacred sites fit for pilgrimage. Then “the sacraments of the church, the intercessions of the saints, the recurring eruption of the ‘supernatural’ in miracles”4 re-filled the cosmos with divine spirits. Berger even considers the central tenet of Christianity, the symbolism of Christ as divine incarnation, an instance of re-sacralization of the cosmos.5 This re-sacralization in Christianity can be characterized as “degeneration” or “retrogression” from the perspective of transcendental monotheism. For example, it is not uncommon to find Orthodox Jews considering Christian worship of Jesus as “idolatry.”

The second stage is the Protestant Reformation (for which Weber’s Protestant Ethic has been our most famous source of insight). A second phase of the de-sacralization of nature began, aiming at dismantling the recosmicization of Catholicism. In the words of Peter Berger,

If compared with the “fullness” of the Catholic universe, Protestantism appears as a radical truncation, a reduction to “essentials” at the expense of a vast wealth of religious content. [This repeats the Israelite Yahwism’s “reduction” of the surrounding cosmological religions!]… The Protestant believer no longer lives in a world ongoingly penetrated by sacred beings and forces. Reality is polarized between a radically transcendent divinity and a radically fallen humanity… Between them lies an altogether “natural” universe … Protestantism abolished most… mediations. It broke the continuity… and… threw man back upon himself in a historically unprecedented manner… [I]t narrowed man’s relationship to the sacred to the one exceedingly narrow channel that it called God’s words….6

A secular society devoid of magical sacraments and a profane nature purged of “divine spirits” were thus born. We emphasize that this second de-animization of nature by the Protestant sects went far beyond the first by the Israelites in that the “natural universe” was also purged of all readiness-to-hand (Zuhandenheit) to become entirely present-at-hand (Vorhanden), to use the language of Heidegger: the “natural world” was now that of classical mechanics: a fixed, immutable empty container wherein objects with fixed, immutable properties change places and collide with each other as time passes. This lay at the basis of the Protestant notion of predestination, as “savedness” was made a fixed property and consequently the “saved” must have been predetermined. The Protestant reduction of the world to its presence-at-hand also prepared the way for the rise of religious fundamentalism in the nineteenth century by making possible a positivistic, literal reading of the Bible. Nevertheless, the Protestant notion of predestination and “intraworldly asceticism” (that the doing and earning well at one’s professional job is God-serving and index of one’s salvation) maintained a certain “religious validation of secular activity.”

By validating the secular world, Protestantism also devalued the world of religious meaning. In one sense this tactic was theologically cunning, for by challenging the Catholic assumption that life’s ultimate meaning could be found only through the church, the Protestant impulse to legitimate the secular world served to delegitimate the Catholic religion. In a more profound sense, this tactic was a colossal blunder because the recognition of the viability of a secular society was a de facto recognition of the autonomy of secular society apart from any religious affirmation, Catholic or Protestant. To combat Catholic claims of religious ultimacy, Protestantism aligned itself with forces outside the religious sphere…. [Thus w]hat makes the Reformation different from the ancient situation [i.e. the first phase of secularization] is that in the Reformation religion itself affirmed the legitimacy of a nonreligious (secular) world.7

The natural consequence of this was the isolation and the atomization of the nonreligious, “churchless”, secular society. The Protestant extreme transcendentalization of God – God as entirely beyond and outside the cosmos, “which is his creation but which he confronts and does not permeate”.8 – also gave rise to the same atheistic isolation and atomization of nature as now “Godless”. That “narrow channel” that Protestantism left was too tenuous to be maintained. This is the third phase of secularization. Society and nature began to be conceived of as coming into being and operating according to their own internal mechanisms (“laws of nature”, “laws of history”, “evolution”) without reference at all to that transcendent being beyond the world. This was the atheistic Enlightenment.

Two lineages however can be identified in the third phase. One is the formation of the autonomous world of capitalism, the economic cosmos of “professions” coming out of the Protestant “intraworldly asceticism.” This becomes most developed in the American colonies where the Protestant exiles congregated. The second is the immanentization of Christian symbolism which already began in Catholicism itself before the Reformation. First there was the attempt to immanentize the Christian paradise to be reached when history would finally come to an end with the second coming of Christ, or reversely, to “recover” the original Garden of Eden lost when history began with the Fall of Adam: through technology we can transform the flawed earth into that paradise lost or prepare it for the coming of the paradise to be reached. After Joachim Fiore, David Noble lists a series of Franciscans who championed scientific arts for this reason. First Roger Bacon, who like many others of his time saw Tartar invasions as the signal of the coming of the Antichrist, and who “envisioned such modern inventions as self-powered cars, boats, submarines, and airplanes,”9 thought “that the arts were the birthright of the ‘son of Adam,’ that they had once been fully known while mankind still reflected the image of God, that they had been lost because of sin but had already been partially regained, and that they might yet be fully restored, as part of the recovery of original perfection, through diligent and devout effort.”10 For him, technology, as recovery of “mankind’s divine inheritance,” was furthermore “the means of triumph over Antichrist in anticipation of the millennium” and “preparation for the millenarian redemption of humanity.”11 Following him was John of Rupescissa, “recognized as the true founder of medical chemistry, whose work, especially on the distillation and medical efficacy of alcohol, signaled a shift in chemistry from qualitative to quantitative methods of investigation.” He similarly preached an “eschatology of technology, a perception of the advancing useful arts as at once an approximate anticipation of, an apocalyptic sign of, and practical preparation for the prophesied restoration of perfection.”12 Noble notes that even the Age of Discovery was motivated by Christian eschatology. Since, according to the Revelation of John, the coming of God’s kingdom would be preceded by conversion of all nations, all languages, and all peoples, the Franciscan friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpini was the first to advocate the reestablishment of a land route to Asia to convert the Asians. Christopher Columbus, who accomplished this (so he thought) through a sea route, was similarly trying “to fulfill the prophecies of the apocalypse, to convert the heathen, and to hasten the millennium.”13 Even the emergence later on of political ideologies which attempted through “revolutions” to transform the flawed society into that paradise, now entirely man-made, had Medieval (Catholic) precedent. The Spanish monarchs under which Columbus worked “assumed the mantle of Joachimite messiah-emperors of the third age, leading the righteous into the millennium. According to the Franciscan friar Geronimo de Mendieta… ‘the Spanish race under the leadership of her ‘blessed kings’ had been chosen to undertake the final conversion of the Jews, the Moslems, and the Gentiles…, an event which foreshadowed the rapidly approaching end of the World.’… Both the final defeat of the Moors in Granada in 1492 and the forced conversion, or expulsion, of the Jews that same year were perceived in this light…”14 This second path finally ended in the modern day totalitarian political ideologies, the humanist belief in organizational intervention to perfect human conditions, and many scientists’ belief in the ability of science to perfect the earth.

Secularization (specifically of Christianity) has thus been a long process, and it does not render Western society irreligious, but rather it “de-animizes” the sacred so that the sacred can be transferred from invisible “spiritual” entities (whether the invisible and unreachable transcendent God in monotheism or the immanent polytheistic deities which, though manifest in natural phenomena, and tangible in this sense, are still “invisible”, hidden behind these) to empirical and tangible entities of this world, along the two paths indicated: the sacred is now the nation, the Volk, the man-modified nature, on the one hand, and “production and consumption” on the other. In the European continent the former path predominates; but in America the two paths converge in the construction of the “American civil religion.”

The transition from “salvation” to “liberation” as the motivator of the work ethic which occurred in the transformation of Protestantism into feminism is necessary because of secularization, by which “God” can no longer motivate people but only some other “things” can, such as material possessions associated with “liberty” (below).

We must finally bear in mind that there must have been a close relationship between the rise of science and the second phase of the de-animization of the cosmos. It is after all the positivist sciences which began revealing during the Enlightenment that what had formerly been thought to be the consequence of “animation,” such as the animation of the material body by the “spiritual” soul to produce “life”, was really just the result of the interaction among discrete material chunks (“molecules”) too small to be seen with naked eyes. There were no “spirits” anywhere. Empiricism also placed on the “devout” the demand that the sacred be visible, tangible, even measurable. Spiritual entities wouldn’t do. Finally, the process does not end today. Among the contemporary American Evangelicals, for example, one witnesses again a certain “recosmicization,” a “re-animization” of the cosmos, such as in their obsession with God’s “miracles” in daily life and in political events. But the recosmicization in both Catholicism and contemporary Evangelism can never completely recover the cosmicization of the older intraworld religions; it can at most assert a transcendental god extending into the cosmos like a puppeteer occasionally extending his hand into the “world of the puppets.” Recosmicization in transcendental religions can no longer produce a world with spiritual sacredness embedded in its very structure. The difference however between the Catholic recosmicization and the Evangelical one is that the world for the Catholics is not reduced to its Vorhandenheit but for the Evangelicals it is; the latter have difficulty in recovering also the Zuhandenheit of the cosmos.

The secularization process: a synthesis

The fulfillment of the “American civil religion”

The concept of “American civil religion” was first proposed by Robert Bellah (“Civil Religion in America” in Beyond Belief). That nationalism, or people’s sentiment of national identity and belonging is of a religious nature, i.e. that it shares with traditional religions (especially the primitive, “intraworld” religions of tribes, but also in some way the more developed religions such as Yahwism or Christianity) the same psychological structure of “religiousness,” is somewhat obvious. After all, in its vulgar form this sentiment of national identity is just an “idolatrous worship of one’s nation.” But Bellah defines it more precisely in the American case: “I conceive of the central tradition of the American civil religion not as a form of national self-worship but as the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged.”15 Furthermore he sees the phenomenon of civil religion as inevitable, as the necessary condition for any nation’s existence: “I am convinced that every nation and every people come to some form of religious self-understanding whether the critics like it or not. Rather than simply denounce what seems in any case inevitable, it seems more responsible to seek within the civil religious tradition for those critical principles which undercut the ever-present danger of national self-idolization.”16 Such assertion of inevitability can only be made from the Durkheimian standpoint with regard to religion, that “God (or the Totem) is really just society projected”, i.e. that the religious forms and sentiments of humanity are just reflections of its existence in group, so that collective life necessarily gives rise to religiosity among people. (We do not share this Durkheimian view.)

In his essay Bellah identifies three phases in the evolution of the American civil religion: the first phase took form during the American Independence Movement and was based largely on the Old Testament symbolism of the Exodus. “Europe is Egypt; America, the promised land. God has led his people to establish a new sort of social order that shall be a light unto all the nations.”17 Élise Marienstras provides an excellent analysis of this phase in Les mythes fondateurs de la nation américaine (1976). He cites such revolutionary tracts as Richard Bland's An Enquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies in which the Lockean idea of property and of the “natural rights” of people to give and withdraw (by “leaving for elsewhere”!) consent to and from government was combined with the Old Testament symbolism of the Exodus to legitimate American independence from Britain.18 In Jeremy Belknap’s A Discourse Intended to Commemorate the Discovery of America by Columbus Europe was even denounced as, contrary to prevalent ideas, the dark continent of superstition and tyranny, and America praised as the land of science and true religion (of “liberty”). 19 The crossing of the Atlantic Ocean became identified with the Hebrews’ crossing of the Red Sea. And in his romanticist conception of America as fundamentally rural and populated by self-sufficient, noble, and innocent farmers who had not been “corrupted” by city life but who lived in harmony with nature, Jefferson specifically considered this America to be the Garden of Eden recovered.20 The founding of the American republic was considered by these revolutionaries to be “outside Time,” since Time was a degenerative process and America was purity regained. Clearly the American revolutionaries were under the influence of the immanentization of Christianity going around in Europe mentioned earlier: America was the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, the fulfillment of John’s prophesy in the Revelation, or the final recovery of the initial paradise before the Fall. The “renaissance of the Old Testament” among the Protestants which Weber has mentioned (in The Protestant Ethic) was the foundation of the American civil religion being formed at this time, despite the presence in it of the eschatological spirit from John. Bellah notes specifically that “this religion is… not itself Christianity” for Christ is never mentioned, and “[t]he God of the civil religion is not only rather ‘unitarian,’ he is also on the austere side, much more related to order, law, and right than to salvation and love. Even though he is somewhat deist in cast, he is by no means simply a watchmaker God. He is actively interested and involved in history, with a special concern for America.”21 For many revolutionaries the geographical isolation of America itself (its separation from the Old World by two oceans) was a sign of Providence: the divinely installed protection of this earthly perfection. It is as this perfection of liberty that America was considered by the revolutionaries to be not just a paradise regained for the Americans (who were Adam reborn) but also a model by the emulation of which the backward Europe could attain perfection as well. The symbolism that America was a beacon of liberty among all humanity was present from the start of American civil religion.

According to Bellah, the second phase of American civil religion crystalized during the Civil War, and, interestingly, at this time its conceptual symbolism became the Christian one of sacrifice and rebirth (of the nation), with Lincoln identified with Christ himself. But Bellah then identifies the third phase of American civil religion with his era of the Vietnam War, a phase still in the making before his eyes; but he tentatively traces out a conclusion of this phase in the establishment of a “world civil religion” centered around something like the United Nations (!).

Out of the first and second times of trial have come, as we have seen, the major symbols of the American civil religion. There seems little doubt that a successful negotiation of this third time of trial — the attainment of some kind of viable and coherent world order —would precipitate a major new set of symbolic forms. So far the flickering flame of the United Nations burns too low to be the focus of a cult, but the emergence of a genuine transnational sovereignty would certainly change this. It would necessitate the incorporation of vital international symbolism into our civil religion, or, perhaps a better way of putting it, it would result in American civil religion becoming simply one part of a new civil religion of the world. It is useless to speculate on the form such a civil religion might take, though it obviously would draw on religious traditions beyond the sphere of biblical religion alone. (p. 185 – 6)

It is in fact quite difficult to see what form the civil religion of America took during this “third time of trial” when a confusing array of counter cultures mushroomed across the country. Does one see any national symbolism at all among The New Left or Women’s Liberation Movement? These were immanentization of Christian eschatology wherein the agent of history was not a nation or a people but a “class” or a “female caste.” Perhaps Bellah has misidentified the timing of the third phase? The current Neoconservative “coup d’état” can in fact probably be seen as the real third phase of the American civil religion, and it is just the opposite of what Bellah has hoped: an American civil religion for the world (“universal democracy and free market”) and imposed on the world with military might – to the complete exclusion of any transnational sovereignty. But in reality Bellah’s vision of a world civil religion and the Neoconservatives’ of an American civil religion for the world do not differ that much. In the dream of the Neoconservatives America itself should be substituted for the United Nations: “fantasies of global hegemony, the hubristic notion of America as a universal nation for all the world’s peoples, a hyperglobal economy” – thus the Paleoconservatives characterize the Neoconservative dream.22 America is the world, is that transnational sovereignty, and so should rule the world (The Project for a New American Century). Bellah’s vision has actually come true with the Neoconservatives:

Fortunately, since the American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality, the reorganization entailed by such a new situation [globalization] need not disrupt the American civil religion’s continuity. A world civil religion could be accepted as a fulfillment and not as a denial of American civil religion. Indeed, such an outcome has been the eschatological hope of American civil religion from the beginning. To deny such an outcome would be to deny the meaning of America itself.23

The Neoconservatives have simply taken the American civil religion to be the world civil religion that they fancy the world so hungers for. Even though the Straussian Neoconservatives are frequently, and perhaps correctly, characterized by their critics as “Neo-Jacobins” and “un-American”, it seems that their ideology in practice bears more the marks of American civil religion than those of the first generation Straussian ideology. Some have rightly noticed a certain continuity between Neoconservatism and both Woodrow Wilson’s and Kennedy’s internationalism based on Christian symbolism. (See, for example, Richard J. Bishirjian's "Origins and End of the New World Order" in Modern Age, summer, 2004, p. 195 - 209, where he speaks of the immanentization of Christian symbolism resulting in the conception of America as a "Christ-Nation," a conception implicit in both Wilson's and Kennedy's speeches.) We can already see in the very beginning of the formation of American civil religion the seeds for its eschatological transformation into a world civil religion for the whole humanity. The seeds, that is, that allow us to understand the otherwise seemingly incomprehensible transition of America from extreme isolationism to the active pursuit of a global military imperium.

America was thus partly born from that path of secularization along the line of immanentization of Christian symbolism. But it was also born from the other path. Often, when comparing the French civil religion with the American, one sees that the former is in national terms and well-articulated and the latter, in commercial terms and not well articulated but functional, “praxical.” The “American ideology” – such is how Anne-Marie Bidaud calls the American civil religion – “ne s’exprime pas prioritairement sous forme d’idées et de concepts, son acceptation ne passe pas par la raison et l’intellect: elle fait appel au registre de la croyance.”24 For American civil religion is not constructed entirely out of Old Testament symbolism; an essential component of it is that “American Dream.” In Kennedy’s words:

The opportunity that America offered made the dream real, at least for a good many; but the dream itself was in large part the product of millions of plain people beginning a new life in the conviction that life could indeed be better, and each new wave of immigration rekindled the dream.25

The American dream, the myth of the melting pot, of the self-made man, of the common man – these as components of the American civil religion have been so intertwined with the understanding of “liberty” that liberty itself is conceived of essentially in terms of, or as the basis for, economic prosperity; in “the pursuit of happiness” that “happiness” is essentially understood as material abundance. Hence when, in the terms of American civil religion, America sees itself as endowed with the divine mission of bringing to the world “liberty,”26 this must also be understood as the spreading of free-market economy (“the American way of life”).

The contemporary religious wars

The “free-market” in the content of American civil religion, “democracy and free-market”, today means “global consumerism.” Robert Foltz27 notes that the conflict between the Jihadists and the missionaries (today, the Neoconservatives) of American civil religion (“freedom and democracy”, which of course includes “global free-market” as well) is not one between a traditional religion and Western secularism but actually a religious war: evident already since the “American way of life” is identified as part of the American civil “religion.” But then, in this way, those anti-globalization protestors in the West share a common ground with the Jihadists, even though the two differ in tactics and otherwise don’t like each other that much: they are all resisting the spread of a “religion” – global consumerism – which threatens to wipe out their own, locally based and traditionally derived, identities. These contemporary resistant movements are just the same as the Amerindians in the past centuries resisting European colonizers and Christian missionaries.

Although the Neoconservative missionaries say they want to spread “democracy,” the religion they proselytize is really the religion of the market, “consumerist capitalism.” In practice, Neoconservatism is severely compromised by corporate interests. Democracy becomes necessary only as the necessary political condition in which free-market economy may flourish best. The invasion of Iraq, for example, is as much to make the country accessible as a market (to American corporations) as to turn it into a “safe” democracy.28 This religion of the market is consumerism globalized. Now to understand consumerism as a principal contemporary content of the American civil religion we turn to Dell deChant’s best analysis so far of consumerism as a religion in The Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture (2002).

Some problems with deChant’s notion of the intra-worldly character of the “religion of consumerism”

DeChant focuses on the “religious war” going on within America itself, such as during Christmas between consumerism, whose “patron god” is the Santa, and Christianity. He begins by criticizing in two respects the two major earlier figures in the study of contemporary “secular” culture as “religious”, Eric Voegelin and Jacques Ellul. The first is that both of them focus on politics (nationalism, political ideology) instead of on the mode of economy (consumerism) as the central locus of modern life and therefore as the main ground of “modern religiousness.” (Jacques Ellul also focuses on technology and science as such locus, and in this way continues the study of David Noble discussed earlier.) Both Voegelin (Die politischen Religionen, 1938, followed by The New Science of Politics, 1952 and Science, Politics and Gnosticism, 1968) and Ellul (The New Demons, trans. 1975) take such modern totalitarian political ideology as Nazism and Marxism to be secularized versions of Christianity and religious in that sense. The new sacred texts substituted for the Bible would then be Das Kapital, Mein Kampf, and The Little Red Book. DeChant however does not see the locus (or the all-permeating principle, the “apriori”) of postmodern life to lie in political ideology: politics “is too distinct an institution, existing as a separate entity in society and not usually a part of everyday life for most persons”.29 This is certainly true in America, but anyone who has lived in Maoist China or Hitler’s Germany can hardly agree with this statement as applied to these two cases. Even in a moderate case such as of France, where, until recently, the civil religion remains very “political” and “belief-based” (below), deChant’s statement cannot go too far. The problem then seems to be that models (like Voegelin’s and Ellul’s) developed to analyze the modernity of Europe have difficulty in entering the American sphere with its validity intact. What is going on? Remember that nationalist or political ideology is effective as religiosity in that the religious fervour and the devotion it arouses in people make them more easily integrated into the state, i.e. make them voluntarily submit to state’s exploitation, so that in the end the state may increase its power over its subjects (the state is now more integrated as a unit) and vis-à-vis its competitors. This is the model of the European nation-state in the pre-WWII era of nationalism and racism (the “modern” era). But America has gone a different, better, way. The state’s power ultimately lies in its economy, and, according to our thermodynamic interpretation of history, the purpose of existence of a state is as a unit of open dissipation. Thus the “nation” is ultimately subordinate to the “economic system.” (Think about this: America spends more money on military than does the rest of the world combined, and Japan, constrained by its constitution to spend only 1 percent of its GDP on military “self-defense,” has a military budget larger than Russia’s.) In the totalitarian states so much concentration on political centralization actually impedes economic growth. America’s civil religion, by intertwining the religion of the nation with the religion of capitalism (now turned consumerism), is more effective in generating power for the American nation, though its integrative effect may remain just the same as that of the purer political religion. In this sense America is the fulfillment of world-history, the end of history, its “system” (i.e. its civil religion, ideology, “democracy and free-market”) the best ever. Until the 1990, there were in fact several “religions” competing to win the heart of the world: fascism, communism, and the American “religion of the market.” (And along side all these, in fact existing within them, is the religion of technology that Ellul has singled out; up to 1950s even scientists in America had the attitude that “science was the instrument to perfect humankind and the earth.”) The American emerges triumphant, because it musters more power and is able to dismantle the others. DeChant forgets these others and thinks that there has always been only one “religion,” which Voegelin and Ellul missed – when in fact they were talking about “other religions.”

The second respect of deChant’s criticism is that whereas, as he sees it, the religion of consumerism is “cosmological”, i.e. immanent in this world, Voegelin’s and Ellul’s political (and scientifico-technological in the case of the latter) religion is secularized version of a “transcendental” religion (Christianity). “'[C]osmological’ refers to religions and cultural systems that locate the ground of being or ultimate concern in the natural [actually, in this] world. ‘Transcendental’ refers to religions and cultural systems that locate the ground of being in a supernatural dimension – literally, a realm beyond and radically different from nature.”30 Here deChant apparently has not quite understood, at least, Voegelin. Contemporary, postmodern religion, whether as political or economic, has to be “intraworld” (“cosmological”) and in Voegelin’s scheme a totalitarian political system claiming itself to be the fulfillment of history via the “reason of history” (Hegel’s List der Vernunft as the secularized version of the Christian Providentia!) -- note that not only do Nazism and communism belong here, but also American Neoconservatism as well – can in fact be characterized as “intraworldly messianism.” While giving due credit to Voegelin for recognizing the “cosmological” character of the political religions, deChant nevertheless criticizes him for tracing the origin of these to a “transcendental” religion, not realizing that a transcendental Christian religion immanentized to a intraworldly political ideology is necessarily “cosmological”, just as the recosmicized Catholicism, after its degeneration into a nomos that integrates people to their society instead of isolating them into sects, looks more and more like a cosmological religion, as deChant himself has noted. DeChant’s misunderstanding has much to do with the vagueness of his understanding of the purpose of religions, transcendental or world-immanent. His subscription to Peter Berger’s view of religion as just the totalizing, all-encompassing worldview of a culture (its Weltanschauung, or nomos to use his own words)31 and his consequent definition of the purpose of religion as “mediat[ing] our relationship with the source(s) of ultimate (sacred) power” allow somewhat of a correct understanding of religions in their intraworld, pre-salvational phase, since the purpose of these is to maintain worldly orders (the order of society and of the cosmos) by regularly engaging with the sacred source, drawing from it as from a pool of energy (power) the energy the human order needs to maintain itself, and replenishing it afterwards. But the purpose of a transcendental religion is salvation, allowing the practitioners to escape the worldly orders altogether and to attain a different, better, transcendental paradise beyond these: in Christianity it is to “go to heaven” through a correct belief (in Christ as the son of God and saviour of humankind), in Buddhism it is to attain the state of “Nirvana” through enlightenment of the mind, etc. As such the subscribers of a “transcendental religion” often withdraw from society, and in a sense, from nature-cosmos as well (the orders of monks, the “elects” mentioned in the Revelation). Here religion does something opposite of the sociological function Berger may correctly assign to an intraworld religion, i.e. the integration of the individual into his or her society-culture. Salvation – which in the traditional sense means the resolution of worldly miseries through the escape to an otherworldly paradise devoid of any possibility of misery – is not part of the function of the intraworldly religions of the tribes and the cosmological civilizations, which, concerned only with order-maintenance, can at best be said to “manage” worldly miseries and difficulties. (Berger himself, in The Sacred Canopy, explains “salvation” as simply one of the techniques of theodicy which, by explaining evils and miseries in the world and rendering them intelligible, make them “manageable”.) Many modern and post-modern “secular religions” are mixture of both the “transcendental” and the “cosmological”: while the sacred ground is transferred back to this world, the “correct relation” with this ground is offered as salvation, saving one from some misery completely. Foucault thus talks about the secularization of the confessional technology of the Catholic church into psychotherapy and medical examination: intraworldly salvation (we all know how Freudian psychoanalysis, by allowing you to get in contact with your “suppressed unconscious” – the recovery of the paradise lost – is going to “save you”, make you “whole” again). Voegelin talks about the immanentization of Christian eschatology into the dialectics of historical materialism that will end in universal communism which will “save us all from capitalist oppression”: intraworldly messianism. Now that we come to consumerism as a secular religious form, what we need to understand about it is not simply its intraworldly (“cosmological”) character embedded in all its “rituals” and “myths”, but also whether it purports to “save.”

DeChant’s view seems to be that it does not. First of all, in consumerism this world, the “cosmos”, is not or no longer “nature” with its “natural” rhythm of “the flight of the sun and the journey of the stars, the ebb and flow of seasons, the rise and fall of rivers, the cycles of the moon” as in traditional intraworld religions.32 It has rather been replaced by the human-made economic cosmos (“economy”). But “the role of the economy in postmodern culture is every bit the same as the role of nature in primal and archaic cosmological cultures – if not more. Its order and process are beyond my grasp or anyone’s for that matter, including the chair of the Federal Reserve. The ways of the economy are at times capricious, ruthless, sudden, uncompromising, and uncontrollable.”33 But the function of this religious system of consumerism is not to save us from all the miseries that we might experience labouring and toiling within this capricious economic cosmos, by carrying us to a paradise not yet here. The central ritual of this system, consumption, is to make us integrated into this postmodern cosmos and prosper within it the best we can: “Consumption simply is, and through myth and ritual it affirms and acts out (in a heightened and intensified sense) the truth of the cosmic (economic) order that is already revealed in everyday life. This truth is that the way things are is the way they ought to be; and the way things are in our culture when things truly are, is the way things are when we consume. Thus, we as individuals serve the economy, as does every other entity in the culture; furthermore, when we serve rightly, we prosper. Why? Because of the sacred order and process of the economy itself.”34 There is thus no contempt for and critique of the present, immediate reality as there is as their central tenet in both the traditional salvational religions and the modern soteriological ideologies (Nazism, communism, and [cultural] feminism as well). There is in consumerism only the affirmation of it.

The integrative function of postmodern myth and ritual remains consistent with their function in earlier cosmological [intraworld] systems; all serve to harmonize persons and society with the sacred order, stabilize society itself, and integrate individuals with the social system, which is itself an expression of the sacred order.35

Thus this simple consumerism differs even from feminism, which, although also based on working and consumption, nevertheless purports to “save” (vulgar feminism as “liberation through working and consuming”: when women go to work in the professional world, in the economic cosmos, earn money, and acquire “power” – can consume as they wish – they have “saved” themselves from “patriarchal oppression” now relegated to the dark past.) In this way the process of secularization has with consumerism completed itself and we have come back to the very place where we began as a species. In the beginning human beings through their intraworld religiosity take the cosmos as given and sacred and try to harmonize themselves with it in order to prosper within it without ever questioning its validity; then, during the Axial Age, they take the cosmos as flawed and try with their salvational religiosity to transcend it, to escape it, to reach a paradise beyond it; during modernity, as secularization is in full swing, they take the present society as flawed and with their salvational political ideologies (“revolution” in all its varieties, including feminism) attempt to transform it into a earthly paradise (similarly, they take the whole of nature itself as flawed and attempt to perfect it with technology); now, during the postmodern age, they with consumerism once again take the economic world they live in as given and sacred and try merely to harmonize themselves with it in order to prosper within it without ever questioning its validity.

All modern “secular religions” are intraworld: do not be fooled by the symbolism used. Harvey Cox has found it just as easily to characterize global consumerism with the transcendental terminology of Christianity (“The Market as God” in The Atlantic Monthly, Mar. 1999, 283, 3) and this has no relevance with the fact that the “religion of the market” is intraworld since the market is already here immanent within this world, to which we merely need to adapt ourselves.

The religious structure of consumerism

DeChant is very good in defining “consumption”, the central ritual in the religion of consumerism:

Rather than simply consuming objects and images, postmodern culture can be understood as explicating meaning and value through a three-stage process, which begins with (1) acquisition of products, is clarified in (2) consumption of products, and finally is fulfilled in (2) disposal of products… The first stage is of absolute importance, for without it actual consumption cannot occur. One must first acquire the item before the item can be consumed… The final stage is equally important because it allows the process to begin again, and preferably, with a higher-quality object or image within a particular class of items…. [T]he gratification of disposing of the consumed item may well equal the gratification of acquiring it initially, since only when the item is disposed of can the process begin again.36

He cites Fredric Jameson to characterize the environment of consumerism, the postmodern world, as that wherein “ ‘commodity production [is based on the] frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes), at ever greater rates of turnover,’ in which there is ‘an immense dilation of… the sphere of commodities… a commodity rush, our ‘representations’ of things tending to arouse an enthusiasm and a mood swing not necessarily inspired by the things themselves.’”37 (See how this reflects Robin Morgan’s new women’s culture in The Anatomy of Freedom! C.f. Ch. 4.) Then Kellner’s interpretation of Baudrillard: “The consumer… cannot avoid the obligation to consume, because it is consumption that is the primary mode of social integration and the primary ethic and activity within the consumer society.” Insofar as, for the sociologists, personal identity is a function of one’s being part of society (integration), this means that the ritual of consumption – being a consumer! – is necessary for the establishment of one’s very identity. Being a consumer requires “active labour, incessant curiosity and search for novelty, and conformity to the latest fads, products and demands to consume.”38 We can come to live like this only after being brain-washed by all these postmodern myths narrated constantly by mass-media, “about the masters of business and finance; the stars of movies, sports, and the music industry; persons who win lotteries, make fortunes off of e-trading, win game shows – and then “live large” as a consequence of their success… stories of Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, Madonna, Mark McGwire, Ricky Martin, Britney Spears…”39 Finally, consumerism is the type of religion which “defines persons on the basis of not so much what they believe as what they are; not so much by what they profess to be their personal faith as what they actually do in order to be legitimate members of a collective sacred society; and not at all by what they may dream themselves to be but how they live religiously in the context of the sacred power that overshadows, enthrals, and dominates their world.”40 Consumerism is action-based and not belief-based. In this way, the American society cares very little about whether one’s professed faith is Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Hindu, atheist or agnostic, as long as he or she buys into the “American dream” and pursues it – works, earns, and consumes. But as soon as one does things contrary to the “American dream” he or she is condemned. This is very different from these intraworldly messianisms such as Nazism, communism, and feminism which require usually both the “right belief” and the “right action.”

In the French circle religion is often dissected according to its three main aspects: rites, rules, and representations-myths (rites, règles, representations/mythes), underlying which is consciousness of the force of the sacred, the mana. DeChant’s analysis of consumerism as religious can similarly be organized in this three-fold structure. The mana in the past, though ubiquitous, is found especially concentrated in sacred objects, sites, and constructions. Myths already mentioned, rites today are those of consumption, and the sacred objects are the especially desirable consumer products; the sacred sites and constructions of today, “our grand high temples”, are the shopping malls,41 where we go on Sunday to engage in the ritual of consumption. Rules are the taboos forbidding the misappropriation of the sacred during the wrong time, and today these would be the convention telling us when to consume what and when not to consume what. The shamans of consumerism intermediating between us and the sacred objects at sacred sites are the salesmen (and saleswomen): “Not unlike the shamanistic ‘master of animals’ in primal cultures, shamans of today are intimate with things we know little about and perhaps fear – technological devices (especially computers), cyber systems, investment portfolios, large appliances, automobiles.”42 The postmodern priesthood is composed of “(1) clerks and cashiers, (2) location managers…, (3) store managers, and (4) corporate officials…”43

The focal point of all priestly work – that is, the duties of all priests in a particular community – is the successful consummation of the ritual. In the postmodern context, this consummation is the acquisition of a product, which occurs after a ritual transaction (a sacrifice) involving the most precious commodity of our culture (money). Such transactions, when they are successful, allow laypersons to acquire products and thus fulfill their dharma (social/sacred duty) as consumers, thereby re-establishing their right relationship with the sacred ground of being – the economy. The priesthood facilitates this ritual activity.44

DeChant must be given credit for noting as essential to the ritual of consumption not just the acquisition of products but also their disposal.

Not only must we acquire and consume for the sacred to be fully experienced and our place in the order and process of the economy properly established, we must also dispose of previously possessed object…. In actual practice, some products more readily reveal the importance of this part of the ritual process than others – clothing, automobiles, houses, major appliances, and cutting-edge technological devices, for example. For this reason, popular culture venerates the person who is able to keep up with the trends in fashion, obtain a new car every year… buy a new house, replace appliances on a routine basis, acquire the innovative type of computer, and so on…. Whether the product is a new seasonal wardrobe or a new hair dryer, one must dispose of its predecessor to confirm that one has consumed it in a sacred sense…45

Refusal to dispose of used products is a “sacrilege”, like:

Adding on to an existing house or renting a storage shed, letting old stuff accumulating inside the home, and finally having stuff pile up on the porch or in the yard. While these actions are certainly necessary if one desires to avoid the ritual obligation of disposal, they are clearly violations of the sacred order. In each instance, they indicate a failure to fully consume a large collection of objects, thus failing to properly complete the ritual cycle. In the cases of the home addition or the storage shed, they also inhibit individuals from further ritual activity since a sacrificial resource (money) is being used for non-sacrificial purpose – rather than being used in a ritual performance, the sacrifice itself is being consumed. This act would be analogous to a citizen in an archaic culture eating a sacrificial animal on the way to the temple on a holy day. Instances of piling are even more profane for obvious reasons. In such cases, individuals may be atheists or agnostics, and they are generally social outcasts….

One way or another… we cannot actually dispose of the product until we have acquired another version of the same product. The ritual trigger, then, is not consumption, but rather acquisition; and the ritual is concluded not when an object has been consumed, but only when we dispose of it.46

Elsewhere I have developed the characterization of sacrificial religiousness as a metaphor of metabolism (the whole society being its unit): communion sacrifice (we eat the sacrifice ourselves) is society eating, expiatory sacrifice (for gods to eat) is replenishing the sacred order, and then there is something like society’s defecating when it chases out scapegoats as a way to expel internal “sin” (like the ritual expulsion of pharmakoi in ancient Greece during Anthesteria, and the same scapegoating in ancient Israel…). The ritual of consumption seems to be the same: paying money into the economy is replenishing the sacred order, acquiring and consuming the product is our “eating” of the sacred order; and the failure to dispose of used products is like holding “sin” within ourselves and not expurgating it. We despise someone whose home is a “junk yard” filled with “trash”; the person does not have his or her life in order.

The inclusion of disposal within the religiosity of consumerism – i.e. a religious demand for disposal – thus necessitates for everyone caught up in the consumerist economic cosmos the completion of the dissipative cycle of consumption-defecation. (The goal of a dissipative structure, remember, is dissipation, which is not to be completed without the final disposal of waste – defecation – into which the originally usable order has been transformed.) In this way the “religion” of consumerism assimilates with a most irresistible constraint – i.e. by utilizing the natural human inclination toward religiosity47 – everyone into the formation and growth (Bildung) of a most massive open dissipative structure as merely a cog in this machine, just like the assimilation and enslavement of the mitochondrion into and by the eukaryotic cell during the oxygen crisis. Except that, of course, human beings themselves have created this machine that enslaves them. This is power, and the way power does this since modernity is to turn the traditional religiosity of humanity into “ideology” (the modern version of religion) of all varieties (consumption, feminism… etc.), i.e. with “secularization”, and since human beings are just about always religious they can in no way escape this technique of power’s enslavement.

Note however a difference of our postmodern religion despite its sameness in structure with the earlier intraworld religions:

Unlike our prehistoric forebears, we are not satisfied after a good hunting or gathering expedition, the generosity of the Caribou spirit, or the abundance of berries found in the glen; we believe that what we have is not enough. Ritual consumption is not about food any longer [i.e. we can only eat so much! But the limit of the “symbolic, substitute food” proper to noosphere consumption is not determined by the size of our guts, but only more flexibly by the amount of our time to consume.]… Sustenance is not the sacred ideal.48

This machine (dissipative structure) is “modern”, i.e. progressive, deliberately trying to grow itself, and so the religiosity of consumption contains within its very structure also the “worship” of the acceleration of the ritual performance of consumption. This religious machine of consumerism is moreover so well structured in assimilating us that, “if we abandoned the ritual or were unable to perform it properly and on a large scale, stopping or even slowing down our participation in the sacred cycle of acquisition-consumption-disposal”, we are led to believe, perhaps even correctly, “[w]orlds would end, societies implode, whole continents would ‘melt down’ – as occurred in much of East Asia in the mid-1990s. The catastrophic consequences of nonconsumption, in fact, function as subplots in the sacred story of our postmodern culture, as conveyed through the myth of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the more recent Asian meltdown.”49

As consumerism has restructured the Christian salvational mode of being back to a cosmological mode, the Western experience of time has reverted back to the circular time of cosmological civilization. (Recall, here, cultural feminists’ celebration of “circular time” as the proper feminine triumphant over the patriarchal linear time, this being thus simply a superstructural reflection of the underlying shift of American culture to consumerism.) Hence, deChant reminds us, our sacred holy days, such as Christmas, replicates for example the Mesopotamian New Year Festival (akitu): Christmas, first and foremost, during which production stops and consumption increases several folds, provides for an annual periodic return to the sacred origin of time, the beginning plenitude, “drawing all who participate into closer contact with the primordial power of the economy. The distinctive feature of holy days… is revealed most strikingly in the proliferation of tertiary myths (advertisements) directly related to a given holy day… success and affluence is gained through a proper relationship with the economy and revealed in the ever-expanding material prosperity of society and the ever-increasing acquisition and consumption of products by individuals.”50


1. The Ecumenic Age.
2. Dell deChant, The Sacred Santa, p. 15. More on this book, below.
3. Ibid., p. 16.
4. Berger, ibid., p. 112.
5. Ibid., p. 121. Weber has of course already pointed this out: “... dass die christliche Trinität mit ihrem gottmenschlichen Heiland und den Heiligen eine im Grunde eher weniger überweltliche Gotteskonzeption darstellte, als der Gott des Judentum, insbesondere des Spätjudentums, oder als der islamische Allah.” (Religionssoziologie, “Theorie der Stufen und Richtungen religiöser Weltablehnung”, p. 538; “… that the Christian trinity with its God-man saviour and the saints presented a conception of God which was in principle rather less transcendental than the God of Yahwism, especially of late Yahwism, or than the Islamic Allah.”)
6. Ibid., p. 111 - 2.
7. DeChant, ibid., p. 19.
8. Berger, ibid., p. 115.
9. The Religion of Technology, p. 26.
10. Ibid., p. 27
11. Ibid., p. 28.
12. Ibid., p. 29
13. Ibid., p. 30.
14. Ibid., p. 31.
15. Bellah, ibid., p. 168
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid., p. 171.
18. Marienstras, ibid., p. 47.
19. Ibid., p. 70.
20. Ibid., p. 79.
21. Ibid., p. 175.
22. The American Conservative, emphasis added.
23. Bellah, ibid., p. 186, emphasis added.
24. Hollywood et le Rêve américain, Paris, Masson, 1994, p. 16.
25. Ibid., p. 14.
26. Ibid., p. 15.
27. “La religion du marché: une idéologie dominatrice qui se mondialise et la résistance qu’elle engendre”. Conference given in Dec. 15 2004 at 1085 de Salaberry, Québec.
29. DeChant, ibid., p. 39.
30. Ibid., p. 4.
31. In The Sacred Canopy.
32. Ibid., p. 16.
33. Ibid., p. 39.
34. Ibid., p. 40.
35. Ibid., p. 50.
36. Ibid., p. 28.
37. Ibid., p. 26
38. Ibid., p. 27.
39. Ibid., p. 37.
40. Ibid., p. 49.
41. Ibid., p. 77.
42. Ibid., p. 73.
43. Ibid., p. 81.
44. Ibid., p. 80.
45. Ibid., p. 95
46. Ibid., p. 95 – 6, emphasis added.
47. Note that in our framework the natural human inclination toward religiousness is not based on sociality as is for the Durkheimians.
48. Ibid., p. 89.
49. Ibid., p. 98.
50. Ibid., p. 111.

ACADEMY | previous section | Table of Content | next section | GALLERY