Review and summary of Petit traité de la vraie religion: à l'usage de ceux et celles qui souhaitent comprendre un peu mieux le vignt et unième siècle by Guy Ménard; Liber, Montréal, 1999.

A case study in the current trend of the French School in the study of religion

Ménard’s purpose in this book is to get out of the secularization thesis, according to which the essence of a modern secularized society consists in ir-religiosity, “religion” being a thing of the past, dumped in the trash can of history. Since the secularization thesis derives its force from the traditional manners of identifying “religion,” the treatise begins, in Chapter 1 (“La religion d’hier à demain”), by pointing out the problematic character of the traditional definitions of religion. One is to define as “religion” only institutionalized religions. The problem with this approach, Ménard points out, is that it risks taking as properly a religion what in fact is just the contemporary vestige of what only once was truly a religion, while it excludes as “ir-religion” many phenomena diffused throughout society and not institutionalized but which clearly look “religious.” Attendant upon this approach is also the tendency, fuelled by many scholars’ habit of taking Christianity as the norm in the definition of religion, to connect “religion” with the subscription to one definite doctrine. The situation of such people as the Japanese, most of whom are clearly on a regular basis engaged in religious practices belonging to different “religions” (Buddhism, Shintoism) but do not define themselves as “religious” when asked, then becomes enigmatic. The truth is that the surveyed Japanese have been defining “religious” in just the same erroneous way, as subscribing to an institutionalized single set of doctrines. Ménard equally notes the inadequacy of the other contemporary attempts to get around the traditional narrow way of defining religion, such as making a distinction between “religion” and “religious” or inventing new terms to encompass the modern “religious phenomena” diffused all about but without being named: “invisible religion,” “civil religion,” “popular religion,” “implicit religion”… Can an equestrian statue, he asks, be “invisible,” “crypto,” “implicit,” etc.? “Elle l’est ou elle ne l’est pas!” (24) How then to better explain the contemporary proliferation of religious-looking social phenomena? In opposition to the secularization thesis, and even to Weber’s “de-magification of the world,” he proposes exploring along the path laid down by Roger Bastide’s “displacement of the sacred”: “According to this theory, the experience of the sacred does not disappear forcefully with the advancement of the process of secularization (of institutions and cultures); it simply has the tendency to displace onto other objects and into spheres of existence different from the religious institutions where it was incarnated traditionally.” (28) In other words, the human experience of the sacred which engenders the external forms, doctrines, and institutions of traditional religions is to be extracted from these latter, and only then can we see how this experience has been incarnated in new forms among the contemporary social phenomena, in order to better understand the postmodern society and culture we live in: i.e. as “religious” just as before. In this view, religion should properly be defined as simply the “administration of the experience of the sacred” (la gestion de l’expérience du sacré; 30) This definition will be ever elaborated in the course of Ménard’s study.

In Chapter 2 (“L’expérience du sacré”) Ménard therefore sets out to define the experience of the sacred. He notes that there have been two approaches to this. The first is the phenomenological, started by Rudolf Otto, who defines the primordial human experience of the sacred as of something unspeakable which is fascinating and terrifying at the same time, and which figures as the absolute Other. In every culture, Ménard notes, there are certain “vectors” around which the sacred such as just defined by Otto may erupt (hierophany); but such vectors (the “incarnation of the sacred”) can be anything (34: “à peu près tout, en effet, a pu cristalliser cette expérience de la rencontre du sacré,” 35), even if every culture tends to limit the actual number of such vectors, sometimes even to one. As the communal experience of the sacred, however, can shift, through time, from one vector to another within the same culture, what has happened in Western society since the commencement of secularization is the displacement of the communal experience of the sacred from the vector of the assortments of the Christian church onto a vast number of new, and often mutually incompatible, cultural and social phenomena serving as the new vectors: the postmodern age as the era of pluralism, decentralization, and horizontal diffusion.

Contrairement à d’autres cultures et à d’autres époques, en effet, les sociétés occidentales contemporaines s’organiseraient de plus en plus elles-mêmes autour d’un très grand nombre d’expériences du sacré, à partir de hiérophanies très différentes les unes des autres… souvent très imperméables les unes aux autres. (36)

(Contrary to other cultures and other epochs, the contemporary Western societies organize themselves more and more around a very large number of the experiences of the sacred, on the basis of hierophanies very different one from the other… and often impermeable one to the other.)

Ménard will devote a complete chapter on this. With respect to this phenomenological approach to the explication of the experience of the sacred – fundamentally unspeakable within this perspective – Ménard takes pain to emphasize the symbolic nature of the traditional articulations of it (le langage symbolique), which then should not be taken in the matter-of-fact fashion like scientific pronouncements (la pensée logique), nor be treated merely according to their internal, formal validity as when lawyers manipulate the legal code in the court room:

De l’efficacité du symbole, c’est-à-dire de sa capacité d’évoquer quelque chose d’invisible, on est largement passé à une obsession pour sa validité formelle et juridique. On se trouvait ainsi à perdre de vue, par exemple, que si l’eau du baptême purifie, c’est d’abord et avant tout en vertu de sa capacité symbolique et non à cause des formules stéréotypées prononcées par le prêtre qui la verse sur le front d’un nouveau-né (49).

These two paths of the deterioration and then ossification of the symbolic nature of the religious discourse aiming to articulate the experience of the sacred eventually lead to religious fundamentalism: the problem of literalization.

The second approach to defining the experience of the sacred is sociological, finding it “in a sort of dynamics of culture, founded on a dialectic between the sacred and the profane” (31), and is begun by Durkheim’s famed treatise on totemism, wherein the experience of the sacred is explicated as a function of an individual’s group identity. Ménard will first follow the phenomenological approach in studying the construction of religiosity in the aspect of rites and myths around the sacred.

Chapter 3 (“Le mythe, récit sacré”) hence deals specifically with that genre of the symbolic articulation of the experience of the sacred commonly called “myth.” The first point Ménard notes is that while in regard to one of their functions, the expression of past peoples’ comprehension of how the world works, traditional myths have indeed been supplanted by science, their other function, explaining why the world should have worked the way it does, is completely left out in modern science and so makes them ever still relevant in today’s world. The Biblical creation story, for example, was not solely devised to explain how the world had come about, but also that it came about not through necessity or hazard, but through the loving decision of a good God (61). In regard to this function of myth as providing a meaning for existence, the topics of myths tend to revolve around the telling of origins, which usually involve a time of different order and extra-ordinary actors (gods, semi-gods, ancestors, and heroes) whose actions furthermore provide a model for us in the present. Reversely, myths can also be about the end of time (eschatology). Its structure thus understood, myth can be seen to re-appear in many of today’s national histories (such as the story of the founding fathers and the conquest of the West in American history or the founding of Québec as told by François-Xavier Garneau) and sometimes even in some of the popular scientific telling of origins, even though these modern day versions are ideally non-fictional.

Concomitant with the telling of myths comes the performance of rituals (Ch. 4, “Le rite, mode d’emploi du sacré”) insofar as rituals are basically occasions for the re-actualization of myths – thus carrying us from the profane to the sacred (76) – every once in while so that the experience of the sacred embodied by the myths may not fall into oblivion as time passes. In this sense, not only do the national and tribal periodic re-enactments of their respective myths of socio- and cosmo-gony count as rituals (from New Year Festival to the American Independence Day), but also the anniversaries of a couple may qualify as such as well on the personal level. Of all types of rituals – festivals, expiatory sacrifices, etc. – Ménard devotes special attention to the rites of passage. These may count also as a carriage to the sacred insofar as the passage to the next stage of one’s life or to the next season is always a confrontation with something new (inédit), therefore “other,” and hence sacred (84). The general structure of the rites of passage among tribal peoples has been unveiled by Van Gennep as consisting in the tripartite sequence of separation from the original group from which one is supposed to pass, isolation in the margin of any group, and reintegration into the new group into which one is supposed to pass; this structure has then been reformulated by Victor Turner as the sequence of preliminary, liminary, and postlimenary. Ménard shows how this structure illuminates as well many of the contemporary social problems – the young adult street gangs, for example, are essentially those adolescents that have accomplished the first stage of a modern rite of passage (separation from family) but are permanently stuck in the second stage of isolation at the margin of society and cannot reintegrate themselves to society (third stage) – and, pointing to instances of rites of passages in contemporary societies, from the inauguration of a political leader to teachers’ game of seasonal passage for the children in kindergarten, he indicates the origin of such rites in the symbolic nature of human culture and society which needs always to double a matter-of-fact event of transition with some ritualistic symbolic representation of it (surplus de sens): human beings simply cannot accept a “bare fact” devoid of the symbolic significations they add to it to integrate it into their symbolic world of culture.

In Chapter 5 (“Le sacré: interdit et transgression”) Ménard returns to the sociological understanding of religiosity as a dialectical process between the sacred and the profane articulated in a social context. This dialectical process is for Durkheim a universal constant across all cultures and all times, despite the endless variations in the actual incarnation of the two. Roger Caillois picks up the idea and defines the profane as just the quotidian life in society/ culture and the sacred as just nature from which that quotidian life of culture emerges and draws the energy it needs as well as the reason for its existence (the dialectical process). The sacred is “ce qui donne la vie et ce qui la ravit, la source d’où elle s’écoule, l’estuaire où elle se perd” (106). Hence, we live of the sacred but in the profane, and religion is defined as the administration (gestion) of the circulation between these two spheres (107). Georges Bataille elaborates on this trend of thinking and characterizes the sacred (nature as a whole with all the animals in it) furthermore as continuous and unconscious and the profane as the discontinuity introduced into it when human consciousness produces a culture with all its tools for the domination of nature and effectively distances itself from that nature. He elaborates on the idea of the social process as the administration of the dialectic between the sacred and the profane by noting that living is a process of carefully harvesting and channelling the undifferentiated and continuous nature into the “dykes” of differentiated and discontinuous culture without being swallowed up in the undifferentiatedness of the former. This means that even though human beings have to guard themselves against the sacred (undifferentiated nature) in order to keep their culture with all its artificial differentiations intact (the sacred is hence forbidden: interdit), from time to time they must transgress their own guard, their own taboos on the sacred, in order to draw out some of the sacred energy to keep culture going, to keep it from being exhausted and sterilized: re-charge. Inherent in such periodic transgression of taboos is a human nostalgia for the undifferentiated, chaotic source (the sacred nature) from which they came. Hence Ménard emphasizes, “La transgression affirme donc tout à la fois la nécessité habituelle du respect de l’interdit (sans quoi il n’y aurait simplement pas de vie humain possible) et la nécessité de son dépassement périodique (sans quoi la vie humaine s’étiolerait dans une usure mortifère)” (113). One wonders, of course, how much Bataille is projecting the modern Western experience of alienation from nature through industrialization onto the primitives.

Although the characterization of the sacred as the energetic source capable of recharging our life to make it continue – but also capable of destroying it if we are not careful in the channelling and recharging process – is quite correct, Ménard’s adoption and use of it has essentially reduced this meaning of the sacred to a psychological phenomenon. Not so. The sacred for the primitives is actual and physical energy, just as sunlight and nuclear power are for us today; and just as the sunlight nourishes life in the biosphere as well as destroys it when it is overly exposed to the former, and just as nuclear power can sustain the city’s energy needs when channelled carefully and by small bits at a time as well as destroys it if, in the form of a bomb, it is released all at the same time, so is the sacred ambiguously beneficial and dangerous at the same time. The profane, furthermore, is an illusory construct. Ménard’s rather impoverished understanding of the sacred and subscription to an illusory concept will, as will be seen, destroy much of the validity of his analysis of the “postmodern religiosity.”

In Chapter 6 (“Religion, ponts, et pontifes”), relying on Caillois’ etymology for religio, Ménard defines the personnel in such administration of the dialectical process between the sacred and the profane (i.e. priests, etc.) as the pontifex, those that make bridges (ponts) connecting the two sides. Since the sacred is tabooed, dangerous in its undifferentiatedness (according to Bataille), these personnel who are in frequent contact with the sacred are also usually considered “tabooed” (even “contaminated”) and isolated from the rest of the (profane) community. (In reality, they are isolated because they have been overly energized by the sacred.) The displacement of the sacred has resulted today in the shift of the function of pontifex onto pop-culture icons such as movie stars, sex symbols, and pop musicians, who, by transgressing the ordinary custom (such as dressing outrageously), are straying into the undifferentiated, lawless sacred realm, and, through our imitation of their behaviour, are revitalizing our ordinary work-a-day world of the profane about to petrify due to its boredom. The diffusion of the sacred in the postmodern age has also resulted in ordinary people acting from time to time in certain circumstances as pontifex: teachers at school or mothers at home trying to “initiate” the children to the next stage of development…. Religion, after all this, can be defined as the administration, through definite personnel, of the timing and manner of both the respect of taboos (interdits) and the transgression of them (121).

Chapter 7 (“La fête, moment sacré”) deals with the most conspicuous instance of the transgression of taboo, the festival (la fête). The meaning of transgression of the ordinary rules of culture (the profane) is evident here, as work stops and “orgy” so to speak is sought. And as such transgression the festival has as its purpose “the search, through excess and expenditure, for a surplus of energy or meaning in order to continuer to live” (125): the transgression of the sacred as re-charging, again. Ménard notes that, although the contemporary (consumer) culture likes to abolish all rules and taboos and go into the mode of permanent festival (“party non-stop”), this is essentially impossible: “La fête, en tant qu’expérience du sacré, n’a de sens que dans la mesure où elle est la transgression ponctuelle d’un interdit que la vie profane doit habituellement respecter, ne serait-ce que pour en conserver le désir intact” (130 – 1).

In Chapter 8 (“Sacré domestique et sacré sauvage: le paradoxes de l’institution”) Ménard discusses Roger Bastide’s distinction between the sacré domestique and the sacré sauvage. If religion is so far defined as the administration of the carefully controlled harvest of the sacred energy without being hurt by its surplus of power (133), then it is also in a sense the domestication of the sacred, the integration of the sacred to the profane life of the community (136; a nuclear power plant then would be an instance of the “domestication of nuclear energy”). The sacred as yet un-domesticated by religion is then “wild” (sauvage). But Ménard warns us not to confuse “wildness” with “intensity”, as the manifestation of the wild sacred may be quite mellow while that of a domesticated sacred (such as those frenzied voodoo rites) may be quite intense. He calls the religious rites which so domesticate modes of employment (modes d’emploi), which, after permitting access to the sacred, allow return to the profane world. Many, he notes, in the contemporary time go after the raw or wild sacred such as when using hallucinogenic drugs to attain ecstasy; but because they are not doing so within a framework of control or domestication – the modes of employment – such as offered by ritual settings, they often end up overdosing and dead. In tribal societies people also get into contact with the sacred through hallucinogens, but they always do so within a ritual context and guided by pontifex and so return “home” safe. This illustrates the importance and function of religion as administration of the access to the sacred pool of energy and meaning.

Chapter 9 (“La religion dans la postmodernité”) deals with the diffused religious situation mentioned earlier of the contemporary “postmodern” consumerist era. This postmodernity, although merely the maturation of modernity (aboutissement de la modernité; 148), has broken with the paradigm (worldview and values) of the latter. The shift of the sacred onto other vectors is noted by some as the “re-enchantment of the world.” Even though the new (postmodern) vectors of the sacred look in many way like a retrogression to those of pre-modernity as many of the latter are re-taken up – e.g. the recycling by New Age spirituality of many of the Eastern and tribal religious elements; the recast, in light of these, of the Christian religious symbolism of the West such as angels and astrology; Neo-Paganism (such as Wecca); the cult of extraterrestrials; and re-investment in all sorts of superstitions – postmodernity differs from pre-modernity in significant ways. Ménard lists: the crumbling of the Grand Narratives (l’effritement des “grands récits,” following François Lyotard, e.g. his La condition postmoderne) – the comprehensive explanation of everything in terms of a single, holistic framework or principle – which characterize not only the “modern myths” (e.g. Jacques Ellul: Reason, Progress, Science, the Universality of Man; 152) but also those of pre-modernity (the Old Testament and other Books of historiogenesis from other civilizations, and the creation and cosmogonic myths of tribal cultures) – “in favour of new narratives with an amplitude generally much more modest (in terms of duration if not in terms of impact), more shattered, and fragmented, in a generally composite culture” (151 – 2). Even if the traditional Grand Narratives are still being told (the Bible, the Koran, Democracy or Progress; ibid.) “these myths have largely lost their capacity to mobilize the beliefs of the masses and to galvanize them to action. In the supermarket [the consumer market!] of worldviews which our pluralistic culture has for the most part become, we search less and less after ‘the’ truth – unique and exclusive, eclipsing all others – and more and more just ‘one’ way of expressing the meaning (of the world, of life), one way among many others, compatible and… combinable with these others” (ibid.). In other words, in clearly the Marxist manner, the economic mode of production and consumption of consumerism (the bewildering proliferation -- through microlization and segmentation -- of consumer products along both the temporal and the spatial scale and the “religious” pressure for us to consume and dispose of them as fast as possible for the sake of corporations’ profit margin) have similarly determined the manner in which we shall express our natural instinct for the sacred: “Think only, for example, about the prodigious emotion which, in the beginning of the autumn of 1997, has consecrated just about everywhere in the world the tragic myth of Lady Di…” However much this event may have constituted “a formidable source of meaning and communion, even of ‘pontification’ in the sense proposed above” it was completely forgotten in just a few weeks (153). The expression of our feeling for the sacred has not only expanded and proliferated horizontally into an immense decentralized, disorganized, and fragmented field of endless varieties like the super-malls, but each small chunk of these is of extremely short life-span like those consumer gossip magazines and novels and pop-culture movies that we read and see today and forget about and throw away tomorrow: a life of discontinuous series of meaningless flashes even when it comes to “religion.” Although Ménard does not see the postmodern religiosity in this negative light,[1] its consumerization in fact constitutes the essence of the second of the postmodern peculiarities he notes: the proliferation of “micromythologies,” especially of pop-music, that privileged vector of the sacred in postmodernity, such as those of James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Elvis, Bob Marley, and Kurt Cobain around whom countless youths gather as their cult figure. For these children of the postmodern age, these musicians, just like the semi-divine actors in traditional myths, constitute the recipe for a formulation of a “histoire sacrée d’origines fondatrices” and offer themselves as the models and directions for action (156), providing a reason to live – and hence also a reason to die (e.g. those following Kurt Cobain to death; 155). But the “micro-lization” of narratives and episodes of the eruption of the sacred in the postmodern age not just across the spatial but also the temporal axis (short-lived) prompts Ménard to take issue with Hervieu-Léger’s definition of religion:

Tout dispositif – tout à la fois idéologique, pratique, et symbolique – par lequel est constituée, entretenue, développée et contrôlée la conscience individuelle et collective de l’appartenance à une lignée croyante particulière (154).

(All dispositives – ideological, practical, and symbolic all at the same time – by which is constituted, maintained, developed, and controlled the individual and collective consciousness of belonging to a particular line or system of belief.)

This definition of religion is quite shallow, as will be seen, but is common nowadays. For example, Robert Bellah offers pretty much the same definition.[2] Ménard objects that such definition

a pour effet de restreindre le domaine du religieux à ces ‘dispositifs’ qui enracinent dans une mémoire le sens d’une appartenance à une ‘lignée croyante.’… Dans la mesure où, comme l’ont bien mis en lumière plusieurs penseurs de la postmodernité, cette dernière se caractérise aussi par une accentuation du présent (au détriment de la mémoire du passé et de la prospective de l’avenir), il ne répugne donc pas à l’intelligence de considérer des cristallisation beaucoup plus éphémères comme vecteurs d’une authentique religiosité, fût-elle orpheline d’une ‘mémoire’ qui rendrait possible l’existence de ‘lignées croyantes’, tout entière vouée à l’émotion fugace de présent (ibid.).

(has the effect of restricting the domain of the religious to those dispositives which plant the sense of belonging to a particular line of belief in memory… To the extent that, as many postmodern thinkers have already shown, this line of belief is also characterized by an accentuation on the present (to the detriment of the memory of the past and the prospective of a future), it therefore should not repulse the mind to consider [as well] those far more ephemeral crystallizations as the vectors of an authentic religiosity, be this the orphan of a “memory” that would make possible the existence of a system of beliefs, devoted entirely to the fleeting emotion of the present.)

He apparently does not consider that constant exposure to such “vectors of authentic religiosity” devoured entirely in “the fleeting emotion of the present” at the expense of all memories of the past and any prospects of a future, i.e. without any sense of unity and coherence in one's life, or with only enough mind-space in one’s head for the instantaneous shallow flash of the moment (the mode of Zerstreuung or Uneigentlichkeit of Dasein with Heidegger, which, as we characterize elsewhere ["Consumerization of Mind and Culture"], is the consumerist, dissipative, or the intestinal mode of existence -- authenticity for Heidegger is then precisely the transcendence of such intestinal mode to find a unity for one's life), is precisely what is destroying the mind of the contemporary youths -- because it reduces their Being, and the Being of their mind, to that of a mere intestine --, making them at best illiterate thoughtless robots like Beavis and Butthead and at worse attracted to gratuitous violence in a gang environment where the meaning of life is reduced to the “thrill” of the moment.

The other characteristics of the postmodern religiosity follow from this consumerization: “la religion à la carte” (a menu of religions, as he adopts the phrase from Reginald Bibby’s Fragmented Gods) where traditional religious elements, taken out of their traditional institutional context, are inserted into the framework of what can only be called the random menu of consumerist pop culture (that supermarket, that consumerist market) and, with this, instead of being imposed by authorities as before, are chosen as one likes them today and discarded tomorrow as one gets tired of them. Then there is the inversion of the relationship between myth and ritual, but also the re-figuration of tribalism: small cliques formed on the basis of identical affinity rather than on the basis of pre-established identity and rationality and with ephemeral and constantly shifting membership:[3] the increasingly fragmented postmodern society both temporally and spatially. And finally, “light religiosity”: Ménard notes that postmodern religiosity follows the “lightness” of many consumer products like light cigarettes, 2% milk, diet drinks… The postmodern people no longer take religiosity with the sort of gravity that characterizes pre-modern people’s subscription to their religions (e.g. Christianity) or even modern people’s to their ideology (like Marxism) (164). This in fact fits with the present-oriented hedonism of postmodern people (“Dance, eat, drink, because tomorrow…”; ibid; might we add, “Spend today – put on the credit card”). The postmodern rupture consists in “no longer accepting sacrificing the pleasure of the present for the sake of the promises of some extra-worldly paradise or some radiant future” (165; “… qui n’accepte plus de sacrifier la jouissance du présent aux promesses de quelque paradis extramondain ou de quelque avenir radieux”). Here again Ménard seems to have failed to discern the cause for this in consumerization: The rapidity of consumption that comes with the temporal and spatial fragmentation of the consumption process – for the sake of the profit of corporations – results in the limitation of the mind to an extraordinary short time-span, i.e. the flash of the present. And “light products” also increase consumption (and so profit) by cutting reality into lighter chunks – we then need to buy more to attain the same satisfaction. As the mind becomes so conditioned, it can do no more than pursue “light” and “now” also with regard to religious beliefs and expressions. Or rather: the postmodern "religiosity" is just an instrument of consumerism to reduce our way of Being to that of a mere intestine (a dissipative structure pure and simple).

In Chapter 10 (“Religion et morale”) Ménard focuses on the relationship between religion and morality. Although people ordinarily assume an intimate relationship between the two as if they were two sides of the same coin, Ménard here argues, firstly, that the two came from different origins and, secondly, that the morality in religion originally have nothing to do with “right” and “wrong.” With regard to the second point: religious prescriptions – such as the Islamic one that one take off one’s shoes before entering the mosque to pray – originally have to do with maintaining purity and abstaining from defilement – one certainly will have a hard time seeing how there is anything ethical at all in most of the religious demands such as fasting in certain days or the muslim one just mentioned. They are about the need to maintain purity in face of the sacred, of which the underlying meaning is furthermore the assurance of a safe passage from the profane to the sacred and back again: “Ce à quoi nous nous référons en parlant ici de pureté ou de souillure… s’inscrit essentiellement dans le cadre religieux et ritual de l’aller-retour entre la sphère du sacré et celle du profane” (169). The safe passage to the sacred requires us, profane beings, to render ourselves compatible with it beforehand; hence “l’impureté consiste… à vouloir faire coïncider deux ordres de réalité qui s’opposent irréductiblement” (ibid.). To better understand this, Ménard refers us to similar instances in contemporary society: for example, a night club may demand a certain dress code (such as no jeans) for entrance, while an adolescent needs to wear a particular brand-name jean for hang-out with his or her friends. It’s not about right or wrong, but about appropriateness and compatibility. Hence those sacred personnel, upon returning to the profane world after contact with the sacred during ritual, have to be “de-contaminated” – i.e. rendered compatible with the profane, de-sacralized – before he can have contact with any of us profane creatures and be re-integrated to society. Ménard again points out that it is the same thinking that underlies the contemporary scenario of a mother having just given birth and needing to be insulated for a while before she can have contact with others.

Le flux menstruel de la femme ou le fait qu’elle vienne d’accoucher ne la rendent pas “impure” au sens où ces réalités seraient considérées comme répugnantes ou immorales – comme des péchés… -- mais bien au sens où elles ont mis la femme en contact avec certaines des manifestations du sacré qui ont le plus frappé l’imaginaire des humains : le sang, fluide de vie, et cette chose inouïe qui consiste à donner la vie à un nouvel être (170).

With respect to the first point, Ménard points out that whereas the origin of religion lies in the relationship between humans and the sacred, that of morality lies entirely in the profane world, in the necessity of humans living harmoniously with one another. Moral rules may often have mythic origins, but this is not always the case, and “with time…. Morality tends to liberate itself from the tutelage which religion has been able to exercise over it… and to become autonomous completely” (175). Morality, of course, frequently attaches itself to religion – to the sacred – in order to furnish itself with more authority, and religion, for its part, often arises quite impregnated with the morals of the culture of its origin which it otherwise would implicate little in its doctrines.

Ménard begins Chapter 11 (“En deçà du bien et du mal”) with the changes that Christianity has brought into the structure of the original experience of the sacred, which is:

The sacred as the powerfully energetic which revitalizes our profane life is its positive manifestation, while it as just this powerfully energetic which can also destroy our profane life is its negative manifestation. These two manifestations erupt from time to time (vertically) within the quiet (horizontal) flow of profane life. Just as it has been pointed out that Ménard misses the actual physical – not just psychological – reality of the energetic nature of the sacred, so here he misses that what he considers to be the destructive principle in life consists not just of the sacred energy improperly handled, but also of the destructive disordering and disordered forces pure and simple. That illusory “profane” being put aside, the actual structure of the sacred as originally experienced is actually:

The changes caused by Christianity (transcendentalization of religion) result in:

The sacred, objectified as God, henceforth occupies only the positive pole with all that of the profane life having something to do with Him (such as the sacrament and the church) likewise “sanctified.” “On the other hand, the ancient somber and negative pole, as exemplified by the fallen Lucifer, finds itself so to speak sent for vacation out of the sacred, to the side of the profane not transfigured, not sanctified by its allegiance to the positive pole of the sacred… This inflection also significantly affects the universe of the profane” (187).

In the last Chapter (12, “De quelques fantômes: dieu, l’âme, et le salut”) Ménard attempts to expose the illusions of “god,” “soul,” and “salvation.” Reverting back to Otto’ explication of the sacred, he takes “gods” as just the products of an attempt to represent the ultimately un-representable sacred: like an icon which always tends to fossilize into an idol. Therefore, he contends, it is possible to have a religion without god (195). “Soul,” too, is for him just “one of the ways in which humans have expressed the conception which they made of themselves” (205). There is no soul and religion can be equally without soul. (This understanding of “soul” is not only shallow, but wrong.) Now Ménard tries to expel salvation out of religion by pointing out, first, that not all religions have salvation in them – of course, since tribal, intraworld religions are pre-salvational, and only “transcendental” or “world-denying” religions (including the Chinese, though immanent, Daoism) are for the sake of salvation – and by secondly reducing salvation to merely one of the many solutions of theodicy (following Peter Berger). He mistakenly identifies the source for such concept as salvation to be the necessary psychological anxiety in face of the necessity of death. Ménard wants to de-construct these past religious categories in order to legitimize postmodern hedonism as the new “atheistic religion.” As will be seen, there is a good reason why he does not understand salvation.

Ménard represents the other way to the sociological approach of the reduction of religion to socio-symbolic functions. By adopting Otto’s explication of the sacred, he can be classed among the phenomenological. But this reduction of the sacred to a psychological experience is an impoverished and shallow way of understanding the primitive experience of the sacred. Ménard figures as just one of the long line of “scholars of religion” who read so much about the variety of the external appearances of religion but have no understanding at all of its inner core. Why? Because they are atheists and have never had any “real” religious experience (and the modern versions of transcendental Christianity which constitute the cultural milieu in which they grew up are really just forms of atheism as well -- since they are de-animized -- and so cannot count as “religious experience”): the past perspective in which traditional religions take form, in which the experience of the sacred has a necessity to crystallize into gods and spirits, and in which salvation makes perfect common sense – this perspective has so disintegrated that, unfortunately, it can indeed be said to have gone to the trash can of history – without anyone even capable of noticing. This fact has completely escaped the awareness of Ménard. A person who grew up in the modern secularized mechanized society of the West simply cannot be expected to understand religion. In fact, if he or any of the many scholars of religion should hear any genuine articulation of the experience of the sacred as it used to be, he or she would not even recognize it and would just think it as so much babble. Ménard’s picking with Hervieu-Léger’s definition of religion is not a rejection of it, for he defines religion in a way that is not any less shallow:

Du point de vue adopté dans ces pages, la “vraie” religion ne serait dès lors rien d’autre que celle qui fait vivre les humains au maximum; qui, pour reprendre librement les beaux mots déjà de Yourcenar, leur “dilate la vie” aux dimensions de l’infini (220 – 1).

(From the point of view adopted in these pages, the “true” religion would then be nothing other than what makes human live to the maximum; what, in the beautiful words of Yourcenar, “dilates their life” toward the dimension of the infinite.)

He is trying to justify the religion of consumerism, as will be seen shortly. But this aside for now. We may make two comments at this point. First, the shallowness of such definition of religion can be illustrated with an analogy. People eat because if they don’t they’ll die. Now imagine that one day people somehow “evolve” to a point where they no longer have to eat to live. Eating, and the amount of ritual that has formerly accrued around eating, now become perplexing. Why did people eat anyway in the past? This is like the foundation of atheism, and the past cognitive perspective of religion is like the past physiology of human beings that requires eating as a matter of life-and-death necessity – not just as a matter of some psychological satisfaction. So two schools emerge to explain this “enigma.” First, the sociological school thinks that eating, together with the proper manners attached to it (ritual), had the effect of unifying the group, indeed was necessitated by group feeling (Durkheim), or constituted a symbolic order (of variety of food) that cemented the group and perpetuated its worldview (from Mary Douglas through Robert Bellah to Hervieu-Léger); then the other school reduces the past human need for eating to a psychological need (Otto), and is so able to find a continuation of eating comportment among human beings in the postmodern, atheistic age (Ménard), unaware that it is only the exterior appearance of comportment (ritual) which is re-manifested, the inner core having completely vanished. “Eating” becomes here a psychological search for the meaning and pleasure of living, rather than a physiological necessity.

After putting Ménard in the context of scholarship in this way, we can find the place of this Petit traité in the larger historical context. Ménard is squarely situated in postmodernism. Postmodernism is the superstructural reflection of the consumerist economy, and can be discerned according to its “left” and “right” strands. The essence of the left strand consists in going along with consumerism and so celebrating its “mentality”: atheism, meaninglessness, fragmentation, eclecticism (i.e. quantity for the sake of quantity and at the expense of quality), horizontal decentralization and diffusion, and the consequent hedonism (gratuitous short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term meaning). “Its image is generally frivolous and light. Politically it is regarded as a philosophy of liberation intent on unmasking the excesses of Enlightenment rationalism [modernity], with its attendant regimentation of life, subtle oppressions and exploitations” (Shadia Drury). The right postmodernists, such as the American Straussians, while subscribing no less to atheism and nihilism (morality as having no ultimate objective basis), attempt to react against the mind-destroying effect of the horizontal movement and re-establish traditional vertical hierarchy, in the process promoting traditional religions as the opium of the masses that will keep them subdued. Both are Nietzschean in their atheism and nihilism. But their inability to deny atheism and nihilism is purely due to their being stuck in the modern perspective – and atheism and nihilism are not “true” but simply the product of the modern cognitive perspective just as much as gods are in the past cognitive perspective. Because of his shallow understanding of the experience of the sacred, Ménard has completely failed to inquire, and understand, whether there is any objective basis as to why this experience has had to in the past crystallize into precisely these icons called “gods.” His recast of the ecstatic pop-culture hedonism as “postmodern religiosity” is essentially a way to celebrate and justify it by furnishing it with a intellectual backbone. In this way he facilitates our transition to the next Dark Age of Mindlessness that awaits us in front. Remember that as our capitalism has shifted from its production phase (modernity) to its consumption phase (postmodernity) -- and this is why the rationalistic regimentation of life and mind of modernity geared for production must be dismantled now -- it wants us to just consume, and enjoy the present moment of consumption, without regard for past and future (the intestinal life and the re-cyclization of Time). It seems that Ménard's "postmodern hedonistic religiosity" is just trying to socialize us into this intestinal mode of existence now required by consumerism. His non-comprehension of religion has helped tremendously in this respect. Recall Robert Bellah’s observation of the history of religion as consisting (so far) of the three stages of intraworld, world-rejecting, and the return to intraworldly concerns again during modern time[4] which is dictated by the rise of the nation-state and modern economy (the Vernunft of history, if one will) which requires us to rid ourselves of those unproductive otherworldly concerns and return to this world to produce – and now to consume: secularization. Ménard’s invalidation of world-denying salvation and celebration of worldly pleasures – see, for example, his quotation of Qoheleth’s atheistic hedonism of the present (205 – 6) – come in handy in this respect as a dispostif of this trend (of consumption). In other words, while trying to get out of the secularization thesis (of the lesser atheists), Ménard’s project helps the secularization process by re-designating secular consumerist (postmodern) phenomena as “religious”: a smarter atheism. Whatever traditional religions are left are thoroughly delegitimized by this technique. (Bravo!) This is really the true meaning of the "displacement of the sacred," simply secularization veiled by the language about a shift or dispersal of the sacred.[5] In this manner Ménard becomes squarely a participant in the Vernunft of history without having ever wanted it. (This is the danger an academic falls into when he or she tries to “get into the trend.”) Hence the more and more usual role or function of an intellectual in the modern-postmodern era: the distortion of the past and the celebration of the dominant trend of the present in the service of nation-state or modern economy, and, in the consumerist context, even or especially the celebration of the destruction of the mind of the next generation (the “postmodernists”). Recall the reason for which Ataturk invited Georges Dumézil to the university of Istanbul to establish and head a department of religious studies: Ataturk understood well that such department would contribute to the destruction of Islam and facilitate secularization, which his program of modernizing Turkey into a modern nation-state requires. The purpose of the “scholars of religion” in the religious studies department at universities is the destruction of religion – precisely through mis-comprehension of it. While Ménard thinks that he has some insight to offer – that “religion” has not disappeared from his native, formerly priest-ridden land of Québec which a révolution tranquille has rid of all church influence (secularization, modernization) – he is in fact a pusher in this (from a spiritual perspective) spiritually degenerating modernization process.

P.S.. Note that the criticism leveled here makes sense only within the theoretical perspective previously established (modernity-postmodernity or the Reason of History in the Therm. Interp. of Hist. and the essence of religion in Scient. Enlight. Div. 1, Bk. 1). In a preliminary reply G. M. points out that (1) to speak of his project as getting out of the secularization thesis is correct only if this secularization thesis is taken in the “radical” sense (“prévoyant la fin de la religion”); if not, the approach of P.T. is not incompatible with the thesis of secularization; and that (2) it is a mis-understanding to consider him a “postmodernist.” He also takes issue with the consideration of the argumentive course of P.T. as a technique to de-legitimize traditional religions. Note however that the criticism here is concerned with raising the issue of whether the effect of (from the present theoretical perspective) a mis-construing of the phenomena of consumerist life-leading as “religious” on more or less the same par as traditional religions might be such de-legitimization and the facilitation of secularization. Our point of view is that although modern and postmodern phenomena may be "religious" in having the structure of religiosity, their inner-core (i.e. a worldview based on de-animization) is radically different from that of the past religions (a worldview based on the animistic perspective of the cosmos).


[1] He prefers, instead, to see this horizontal diffusion and micro-lization of the sacred as the consequence of new technology. C.f. “Technique et dissacralité: l’impact des ‘nouvelles technologies’ sur l’économie contemporaine du sacré”, in Ménard (dir.),  “Aspects du sacré, formes de l’imaginaire”, 1988.

[2] “Religious Evolution” in Beyond Belief, p. 21.

[3] "Par ce terme [tribal], et à la suite des fécondes analyses de Michel Maffesoli, notamment… on entendra ici une forme de socialité ou d’être-ensemble typique de la postmodernité, mouvante et non exclusive, oscillant entre l’individualisme et la masse, davantage fondée sur l’affectif et les affinités identitaires que sur la rationalité et les identités préétablies." (161)

[4] Ibid., p. 22 - 3

[5] No wonder, then, that "L’étude des déplacements (de l’expérience) du sacré et du religieux coïncide largement, au Québec, avec la rupture qui s’est opérée, vers la fin des années soixante, dans l’étude institutionnelle de la religion, avec la fin de l’hégémonie des approches théologiques et l’émergence des 'sciences de la religion'" ("Les déplacements du sacré et du religieux," Guy Ménard, 2001: http://www.erudit.org/livre/larouchej/2001/livrel4_div23.htm: "The study of the displacements (of the experience) of the sacred and of the religious coincides largely, in Québec, with the rupture which has taken place, at the end of the 60s, in the institutional study of religion, with the end of the hegemony of the theological approach and the emergence of the 'science of religion'"). The "science of religion" or religious studies appears as a dispositif of the secularization process -- i.e. to destroy traditional religion (below).

Copyright © 2005 by Lawrence Chin (May, 2005)