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in: A Man's Life, Philosophy, Podcast

July 20, 2020

Podcast #628: The Rise of Secular Religion and the New Puritanism

There has been a lot of civil and political upheaval lately, and what makes the atmosphere particularly disorienting, is that beyond the more obvious proximate and commonly-discussed causes for the turmoil, it feels like there are even deeper cultural currents and contexts at play, that are yet hard to put one’s finger on and understand. There’s a fervor in the debates and conflict that almost seems . . . religious.

My guest today would say that’s exactly the right word to describe the tenor of things. His name is Jacob Howland, he’s a recently retired professor of philosophy, and the currents at play in today’s world are things he’s spent his whole career studying — from Plato and Aristotle to the Hebrew Bible and Kierkegaard, with a particular emphasis on the political philosophy of the ancient Greeks. Howland draws on all those areas to weave together a kind of philosophical roadmap to how we’ve arrived at our current cultural zeitgeist. In particular, Howland makes the case that what we’re seeing today is the rise of a kind of secular religion, a new Puritanism, that worships at what he calls “the Church of Humanity.” This new Puritanism bases the idea of moral purity around one’s views on issues like race and gender, and seeks to purge anyone who doesn’t adhere to the proscribed dogma. 

Jacob walks us through the tenets of the dominant influence on this secular religion — a strain of modern thought called “critical theory” — and offers a kind of philosophical genealogy on what led up to it, which includes the ideas of Rousseau, Marx, and Hegel. We discuss how critical theory contrasts with classical liberalism, and approaches people as members of groups rather than as individuals, and as abstractions rather than particulars, and how this lens on the world leads to identity politics and cancel culture. We delve into Kierkegaard’s prophecies on the leveling of society, and how the modern tendency to make man the measure of all things can leave us feeling spiritually and intellectually empty, and looking to politics to fill an existential void it can’t ultimately satisfy. We end our conversation describing the sustenance which can.

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Show Highlights

  • The Christian quest for certainty in salvation and how it changed society
  • What does “secular salvation” look like? What is “the church of humanity”?
  • The tribal echo chambers of modern institutions 
  • Virtue signaling and performative ethics 
  • The genealogy of this secular protestantism 
  • What is classic liberalism? 
  • Understanding society through the prism of large groups vs. individuals 
  • Why we’re really good at criticism and not-so-good at positive thought 
  • How does humanism change human behavior?
  • The cancellation of Socrates 
  • How can studying philosophy help people navigate our crazy age?

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