In the post-Judeo-Christian Western world, we search for meaning. Looking for something to believe in, activism is taking over the hearts of Generation Z. Want it or not, there’s gradually less space for traditional religions in the modern, rational world. Is activism a new, godless religion?
As Nietzsche observed in 1882, our renaissance anthropomorphic cultivation of the mind, rationality, and reason left no place for divine spirits, exalted judges, and holy entities:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
Ridding ourselves of fairy tales opened a door for science to enter our society and root itself deeply in our mentality. We’ve formulated elaborate theories on evolution and the structure of the universe. Step after step, we’re getting to know the world better and understand it from a logical point of view. Given all the empirical evidence and research, how can you believe in people walking on water or old men creating the universe in a week?
If your critical common sense hasn’t disproved the literal layer of holy scripts, maybe you should think twice – question what is certain, what you’ve been taught. There’s nothing rational about talking to burning bushes1 or resurrection.
We have killed God through science and reason. But have we killed the need for meaning? What the holy scripts give us, in a non-literal way, is a moral code – instructions on how to live and why. Looking at the Bible as a collection of such allegories is a game-changer. If we interpret the Testaments as tips on how to have a good life, which values to pursue, and what ideas are worth believing in, then it no longer seems so stupid. The Bible is a ready-made recipe for life – telling us how to reach our heaven (the life we want to have) and avoid our hell (the life we want to omit by all means).
Beliefs give us something more than just stories. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, religion is “human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence.” In plain English, it is the connection with some spiritual part of ourselves – a craving for meaning.
Yet, if we strip religion from the magical make-believe fairy tales, it’s conspicuous why religion came into existence in the first place. We simply needed it.
- Religion gives us a sense of community and unity with other people.
- Religion gives our lives meaning, something to live and die for.
- Religion gives us a set of worthy values to pursue to have a virtuous life.
- Religion gives us a vision of two futures: one to look forward to, and one we want to prevent; this heaven and hell motivate us to take actions in the present.
- Religion gives us a collective identity to console ourselves in the bottomless abyss of searching for our own identity; it’s a way out from the tiresome search for meaning.
- A religion’s dogma is presented as the one and only truth, giving us the sense of being found and having a moral advantage over non-believers.
These six statements have nothing to do with Jahweh, Jesus, or Buddha. They’re fundamental observations of why we’re so prone to falling into a religion. Now, read these six theses again, but replace “religion” with “mass movement.”
Still makes sense, doesn’t it?
That’s because, when stripped of the irrational dogmas, religion is a mass movement. We’ve come to a point when we can no longer take the fairy tales for granted, hence people reject theistic religions. Nonetheless, there’s still a capacity to believe inside us. If you look at the current political situation, you can clearly see how we have spiritualised politics and turned to new atheistic religions – mass movements.
Nationalism, feminism, communism, capitalism, climate and LGBT activism – they all give us a pre-generated outlook on the society, how we want it to look like, and what we want to change (the idea of heaven and hell). They also give us a sense of community, as strikes are nothing more than Masses. We gather on the streets, listen to sermons/speeches, sing together, then go on processions/marches – similarities between a Mass and a strike abound.
Is activism a new religion? All forms of political activism and action can be called a religion only in terms of the role mass movements play in our lives. We have exchanged God for femininity, climate, state, philosophy, minorities – we believe in politics just as we would believe in a religious doctrine. Yes, those are more rational beliefs, but beliefs still.
Humans have the capacity to believe deep within themselves – it’s our human nature. For millennia, every belief, religion, or a movement followed very similar patterns. Carl Jung proposed the idea of the collective unconscious. He reasoned that the mind has been evolving for thousands of years just like the body has, hence there is some unconscious, deep layer of ourselves that we all share – symbols or patterns of belief. He based his hypothesis on his observation of mythology and ancient religions, and how the same character and story structures have occurred in different cultures, often without interacting with each other.
Is activism but an evolved form of religion? In “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements,” the author Eric Hoffer outlined the six unifying agents of mass movements. Based on his brilliant findings, I’ll compare climate activism with Catholicism, as I believe working on a particular study case is far easier to understand than mere theorizing.
Political activism has taken the role of religion. Mass movements strive to gather more people and expand their political influences, since the more people identify with the movement, the easier it gets to realize a common goal. The feeling of being a part of something greater than oneself can become one’s main character trait, as the individual identity is pushed to the background.
Yes, mass movements bring about change – no doubt about that. Yet, regardless of your political views and the motivation behind your joining a mass movement, be aware of why you joined it in the first place.
A firm believer might say that it’s more than justifiable to give up on yourself for the cause as exalted as the survival of humanity. Fanatical climate activists resign from their private selves for the sake of saving the Earth from a climate catastrophe, hence their actions are all for a greater good, for future.
Those motives seem to be noble in almost every aspect, yet my scepticism forced me to question what is certain. Do activists really want to selflessly sacrifice themselves for a cause, or is it all just a farce? What if all the manifestations and strikes are only to give you a sense of your own morality, instil you in your political views, show how much of a devotee you are, and give you meaning in your life?
Are you vegan because you love animals so much, or is it mere virtue-signalling? The similarity between climate activism and Catholicism comes to the foreground again. Sacrificing yourself is the index of your devotion to the cause. Fasting, going to church, keeping away from sin – giving up on momentary pleasures to prove to yourself (and others) how strong your belief in God is.
What is resigning from eating meat, making the effort to recycle, or paying more attention to sustainable fashion, if not sacrificing yourself? Isn’t it showing how much you care about the planet and humanity’s future? You might say that it’s completely different, that’s it’s for an actual, tangible cause – a better future. But aren’t Catholics fasting and praising virtue for the very same reason?
Isn’t it all for glory – a largely theatrical concept? Isn’t it all just trying to prove something to yourself, fully aware of the audience watching you?
Or maybe you’re just a naive child who wants to save the world. If that’s the case, then more power to you. But if you’re a sheep, even with the noblest of motives, watch out for the lions – because they don’t care what you stand for.
I have dropped out of a local Fridays for Future faction, as I’ve seen how I was slowly giving up on my individual identity for the sake of collective, group identity. I decided to take responsibility for myself instead of falling for the idealistic mass movement.
Ipso facto, I’m not saying that there are no problems to be addressed in society – climate change, social pressure and inequality, the search for meaning. We’re fucked. In all this mess and psychological warfare, I advise you – especially young people – not to give up on yourselves for the sake of ready-made political and ideological entities.
The sense of community, a set of values, mass events, structure – there’s no doubt in my mind that activism and politics have taken the place of religion, giving us meaning. Is it a good or a bad phenomenon? At this point, it’s hard to tell what the long-term effects of this major shift in society’s mentality will mean.
Having killed God, we replaced religion with mass movements. Just as I would do with religion, I recommend you rationalize your membership in any mass movement. We should all look for solutions to climate change (and other sociological issues), yet I’d advise you not to trade your individual identity for group identity.
You’re a human being more than you’re an activist, a citizen of a country, or a member of a community. Before you take the easy way out and fall for a collective belief, search for the truth that’s within you.
- Unless the burning bush is a metaphor for smoking pot or other psychoactive plants. All revelations might be but people’s psychedelic experiences described in an allegorical way, and seeing God is nothing else than tripping on acid. This argument was put forward most profoundly in “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross” by John M. Allegro.