Matt Perryman

Belonging to a church you never joined

By Matt Perryman

Alexis de Tocqueville, keen-eyed prophet of the young American nation, once made the following remarks:

The French Revolution, though political, assumed the guise and tactics of a religious revolution. Some further points of resemblance between the two may be noticed. The former not only spread beyond the limits of France, but, like religious revolutions, spread by preaching and propaganda.

Political revolution resembles a fanatical religious revolution.

A century or so later, Erich Fromm expanded on Tocqueville’s observation.

A religion is not any particular system of belief, he said. Religions are any shared system of thought and action that offers a “map” to make sense of the world, and a “goal” — an object of devotion.

Look at it like that and it’s impossible for a person, or a culture, to not have a religion. The need for a frame of reference and a direction is built into the human species.

The trick is, you won’t always know it as a religion — or even know that you’re a disciple.

Many people alive today don’t consider themselves religious, living in secular nations with little overt expression of belief, but they’re as committed to a faith as any die-hard Catholic inquisitor.

According to Fromm, that faith is a “secret” industrial religion operating behind the outward appearances. This religion worships work, power, and profit, being party to our condition as isolated, confrontational, self-interested commodities on the “market of personality”.

I’m not totally sold, but the bells of truth are ringing.

We spend most of our days in a barely-conscious haze and only occasionally rise to true awareness.

Those moments of clarity should be sought out as often as possible.

But the way we live does not encourage that. Daily life frustrates the moments of clarity.

I take that to be the meat of Fromm’s point.

We can’t see the secret religion until something goes wrong and we snap out of the trance. That’s when we really see things for what they are.

You can start to see the map and the object of devotion.

Right now plenty of things are breaking down. The objects of the secret religion are coming into focus.

It’s a terrifying opportunity. Like that old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

Here’s the punchline.

These poor souls who need to “see what the data says” worship at the altar of a religion they can’t even see.

Numbers, no matter how good they are, can’t reveal the maps and the strongly valued goals that shape thinking and behavior.

Obsession with quantities is as fanatical a faith as anything a desert prophet ever preached.

It’s not just a faith, it’s got the flavor of revolution to it.

Matt Perryman

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