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When Secularism Becomes a Religion

The Alt-Left, the Alt-Right, and Moral Righteousness

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”The surest way to work up a crusade in favor of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behavior ‘righteous indignation’—this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.” —Aldous Huxley

THE ALT-LEFT AND THE ALT-RIGHT ARE SECULAR religious ideologies. For both, if only the right group is subjugated and the government purged of their influence, history will take a new turn toward righteousness. Indeed, the similarities between the two ideologies are troubling. The Alt-Left and Alt-Right are two panicked grasps for power, driven by a seething distrust of people, government, and society. I will endeavor to explain these dynamics as I see them, in addition to what I perceive to be the causes of both the Alt-Left and the Alt-Right. The answer, in brief, is that secularization, increasing income and wealth inequality, along with declining trust and civic engagement are giving rise to charismatic authorities with dark utopian dreams on both the Left and the Right. Whether the Alt-Left and the Alt-Right are equal in their number of adherents is an empirical question, and not one I address here. Here, I will show how the emergence of anti-enlightenment ideologies on both sides of the political spectrum threaten the fabric of civil society.

The Ideologies of the Alt-Left

The Alt-Left’s essential axioms originated in the concept of universal human rights in the 18th century, and in the fervor for immediate equality that animated the French Revolution. Subsequently, the Alt- Left has been tinged with large doses of the Marxist view that history is a dialectic between the economic oppressor and the economically oppressed, and of Jacques Derrida’s view that a proper deconstruction of culture reveals oppression as multi-dimensional, not merely class-based. Michele Foucault’s portrayal of how dominant groups subtly and clandestinely institutionalize their power and control underwrites the Alt-Left’s claim of systemic oppression. Underlying all of this is a Nietzschean view that life is merely a ruthless struggle for power enmeshing all people. The Frankfurt School, Critical Race Theory, and Feminist Theory have been very influential in porting this combination of philosophy into university social science and humanity departments.

The German Frankfurt School entered the American public conscience in the 1960s. As regards the Alt-Left, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse are the most influential figures. For Adorno,1 capitalism failed spectacularly to address the most important human needs. Instead of selling community, tolerance and self-actualization, Western markets sold cars, clothes, and TVs. Satiated with their shiny objects and their sanitized media, the masses were forever at risk of being suddenly mobilized by future fascists. Adorno had observed World War II carefully and, to his mind, the civilizational soil was again fertile for more mass bloodshed, and the capitalist economy had made this so.

To prevent this imminent return of fascism, Adorno and his colleagues pioneered the use of statistics in personality studies to develop the “California Fascist Scale,” a questionnaire used to spot such dangerous individuals. In Adorno’s mind, fascists were an intrinsic outgrowth of the Right’s desire for power and dominance—the Left had no choice but to identify and purge them from society.

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CAMPUS CRAZINESS: THE WAR ON SCIENCE No Barriers to Inquiry; I Am Not a Racist, And So Are You: An Unauthorized Peek at the Great Shaming Taking Place at an Institution of Higher Learning Near You, and Other Fireside Tales; Radically Wrong in Berkeley; When Secularism Becomes a Religion: The Alt-Left, the Alt-Right, and Moral Righteousness; When Science Becomes the Enemy SPECIAL SECTION — BIOLOGY & BEHAVIOR Canine Cognition: Did dogs become smarter through domestication? An interview with Dr. Brian Hare; Bird Brains: Are crows as intelligent as some scientists claim?; What Biology Can Teach Us About Crime and Justice ARTICLES: Gary Taubes and the Case Against Sugar; From Camelot to Conspiracy: Memory, Myth, and the Death of JFK; Now Playing at a Cartesian Theater Near You: Dualism Returns COLUMNS: The SkepDoc: Diet Sodas: Are the Dangers In the Chemicals or the Headlines?, by Harriet Hall, M.D. JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Ghost Ships, by Daniel Loxton