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Varieties of Civil Religion by Robert Bellah and Phillip E. Hammond


Robert N. Bellah is Ford Professor of Sociology and Comparative Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Phillip E. Hammond is Professor of Religious Studies and Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara. Copyright by Robert N. Bellah and Phillip E. Hammond.


Chapter 7: New Religious Consciousness and the Crisis in Modernity


 

(This chapter was originally published as Chapter 5 in The New Religious consciousness (University of California Press, 1976), edited by Charles Y. Glock and myself. It has been somewhat revised for inclusion here. The New Religious Consciousness is a report of research that Glock and I directed from 1973 to 1974 on new religious groups in the San Francisco Bay Area. In this chapter I attempt to sum up the meaning of our study. Our research project was an effort to understand the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s. We chose to study what we believed to be the deepest dimension of that upheaval, that is to say its religious dimension, and to interpret that meaning in the context of modern American history. As it turned out, our study got under way just when the upheaval in its most dramatic forms had subsided. We studied the successor movements to the counterculture rather than the counterculture in its effervescent stage. But to interpret our findings I must begin with the developments of the 1960s that lie immediately behind our study and with the nature of the society in which those developments occurred. If, as I argue, the 1960s represent a break in the line of continuity in American culture generally, they certainly also represent a break in the line of continuity of American civil religion. Toward the end of this chapter, I speculate on the meaning of that break.

Signs of Crisis

The disturbances and outbursts in America in the 1960s are hardly unique in modern history. Indeed, in reviewing a century where irrationality and horror of all sorts -- mass executions, mass imprisonments, wars of annihilation, revolutions, rebellions, and depressions -- have been common, the events of that decade might even be overlooked. But it is precisely the significance of that decade that the irrationality and horror of modern history were seriously borne in upon Americans -- so seriously that for the first time mass disaffection from the common understandings of American culture and society began to occur. Far more serious than any of the startling events of the decade was the massive erosion of the legitimacy of American institutions -- business, government, education, the churches, the family -- that set in particularly among young people and that continued, if public opinion polls are to be believed, in the 1970s even when overt protest had become less frequent.

The erosion of the legitimacy of established institutions among certain sectors of the populations of many European countries -- particularly the working class and the intellectuals -- began at least a hundred years ago. In many of the newer third-world countries the nation-state and modern institutions have not yet gained enough legitimacy to begin the process of erosion. But in America, in spite of a civil war, major social and religious movements, and minor disturbances of occasionally violent intensity, the fundamental legitimacy of the established order had never before been questioned on such a scale. This is in part because that order was itself a revolutionary order, the result of one of the few successful revolutions in the modern world. The messianic hope generated by the successful revolution and nurtured by the defeat of slavery in the Civil War for long made it possible to overlook or minimize the extent to which the society failed to achieve its own ideals. The promise of early fulfillment, which seemed so tangible in America, operated to mute our native critics and prevent mass disaffection, at least for a long time. But in the decade of the sixties for many, not only of the deprived but of the most privileged, that promise had begun to run out.

Biblical Religion and Utilitarian Individualism

By way of background we may consider those interpretations of reality in America that had been most successful in providing meaning and generating loyalty up until the sixties: biblical religion and utilitarian individualism. The self-understanding of the original colonists was that they were "God’s new Israel,"a nation under God. (From this point of view the addition of the phrase "under God" to the pledge of allegiance in the 1950s was an indication of the erosion of the tradition, not because it was an innovation but because it arose from the need to make explicit what had for generations been taken for granted.) In New England this understanding was expressed in the biblical symbol of a covenant signifying a special relationship between God and the people. American society was to be one of exemplary obedience to God’s laws and subject to the grace and judgment of the Lord. The notion of Americans as an elect people with exemplary significance for the world was not abandoned but enhanced during the revolution and the period of constructing the new nation. It was dramatically reaffirmed by Lincoln in the Civil War and continued to be expressed in the twentieth century in the thought of men like William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson. This biblical aspect of the national self-understanding was strongly social and collective, even though it contained an element of voluntarism from its Protestant roots. Its highest conception of reality was an objective absolute God as revealed in scriptures, and its conception of morality was also based on objective revelation.1

A second underlying interpretation of reality that has been enormously influential in American history, utilitarian individualism, was never wholly compatible with the biblical tradition, complex as the relations of attraction and repulsion between the two were. This tradition was rooted ultimately in the sophistic, skeptical, and hedonistic strands of ancient Greek philosophy but took its modern form initially in the theoretical writings of Thomas Hobbes. It became popular in America mainly through the somewhat softer and less consistent version of John Locke and his followers, a version deliberately designed to obscure the contrast with biblical religion. In its consistent original Hobbesian form, utilitarianism grew out of an effort to apply the methods of science to the understanding of man and was both atheistic and deterministic. While the commonsense Lockian version that has been the most pervasive current of American thought has not been fully conscious of these implications, the relation between utilitarianism and Anglo-American social science has been close and continuous from Hobbes and Locke to the classical economists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to the social Darwinists of the late nineteenth century and finally to such influential present-day sociologists as George Homans.

Whereas the central term for understanding individual motivation in the biblical tradition was "conscience," the central term in the utilitarian tradition was "interest." The biblical understanding of national life was based on the notion of community with charity for all the members, a community supported by public and private virtue. The utilitarian tradition believed in a neutral state in which individuals would be allowed to pursue the maximization of their self-interest and would be allowed to pursue the maximization of their self-interest and the product would be public and private prosperity. The harshness of these contrasts was obscured, though never obliterated, by several considerations. The biblical tradition promised earthly rewards as well as heavenly for virtuous actions. The utilitarian tradition required self-restraint and "morality," if not as ends then as means. But the most pervasive mechanism for the harmonization of the two traditions was the corruption of the biblical tradition by utilitarian individualism so that religion itself finally became for many a means for the maximization of self-interest with no effective link to virtue, charity, or community. A purely private pietism, emphasizing only individual rewards, that grew up in the nineteenth century and took many forms in the twentieth, from Norman Vincent Peale to Reverend Ike, was the expression of that corruption.2

The increasing dominance of utilitarian individualism was expressed not only in the corruption of religion but also in the rising prestige of science, technology, and bureaucratic organization. The scientific instrumentalism that was already prominent in Hobbes became the central tenet of the most typical late American philosophy, pragmatism. The tradition of utilitarian individualism expressed no interest in shared values or ends, since it considered the only significant end to be individual interest maximization, and individual ends are essentially random. Utilitarianism tended therefore to concentrate solely on the rationalization of means, on technical reason. As a result the rationalization of means became an end in itself. This is illustrated in the story about an American farmer who was asked why he worked so hard. To raise more corn, was his reply. But why do you want to do that? To make more money. What for? To buy more land. Why? To raise more corn. And so on ad infinitum. While utilitarian individualism had no interest in society as an end in itself, it was certainly not unaware of the importance of society. Society like everything else was to be used instrumentally. The key term was organization, the instrumental use of social relationships. "Effective organization" was as much a hallmark of the American ethos as technological inventiveness.

The central value for utilitarian individualism was freedom, a term that could also be used to obscure the gap between the utilitarian and the biblical traditions since it is a central biblical term as well. But for biblical religion, freedom meant liberation from the consequences of sin, freedom to do the right, and was almost equivalent to virtue. For utilitarianism it meant the freedom to pursue one’s own ends. Everything was to be subordinate to that: nature, social relations, even personal feelings. The exclusive concentration on means rendered that final end of freedom so devoid of content that it became illusory and the rationalization of means a kind of treadmill that was in fact the opposite of freedom.

That part of the biblical tradition that remained uncorrupted or only minimally corrupted found itself deeply uneasy with the dominant utilitarian ethos. Fundamentalism in America is not simply an expression of backward yokels. Even Bryan’s opposition to evolution was in part an opposition to the social Darwinism he saw as undermining all humane values in America. But that opposition remained largely inchoate, in part because it could not penetrate the facade of biblical symbols the society never abandoned even when it betrayed them.

The Challenge of the 1960s

It was this dual set of fundamental understandings that the eruption of the 1960s fundamentally challenged. It is important to remember that the events of the sixties were preceded and prepared for by a new articulation of Christian symbolism in the later fifties in the life and work of Martin Luther King. King stood not only for the actualization of that central and ambiguous value of freedom for those who had never fully experienced even its most formal benefits. Even more significantly he stood for the actualization of the Christian imperative of love. For him society was not to be used manipulatively for individual ends. Even in a bitter struggle one’s actions were to express that fundamental love, that oneness of all men in the sight of God, that is deeper than any self-interest. It was that conception, so close to America’s expressed biblical values and so far from its utilitarian practice that, together with militant activism, was so profoundly unsettling.

We are accustomed to think of the "costs" of modernization in the developing nations: the disrupted traditions, the breakup of families and villages, the impact of vast economic and social forces that can neither be understood nor adapted to in terms of inherited wisdom and ways of living. Because it is our tradition that invented modernization, we have thought we were somehow immune to the costs or because the process was, with us, so slow and so gradual, we had successfully absorbed the strains of modernization. The sixties showed that in America, too, the costs have been high the strains by no means wholly absorbed. In that decade, at least among a significant proportion of the educated young of a whole generation, occurred the repudiation of the tradition of utilitarian individualism (even though it often persisted unconsciously even among those doing the repudiating) and the biblical tradition, too, especially as it was seen, in part realistically, as linked to utilitarianism. Let us examine the critique.

The criticisms of American society that developed in the sixties were diverse and not always coherent one with another. What follows is more an interpretation than a description. In many different forms there was a new consciousness of the question of ends. The continuous expansion of wealth and power, which is what the rationalization of means meant in practice, did not seem so self-evidently good. There were of course some sharp questions about the unequal distribution of wealth and power, but beyond that was the question whether the quality of life was a simple function of wealth and power or whether the endless accumulation of wealth and power was not destroying the quality and meaning of life, ecologically and sociologically. If the rationalization of means, the concern for pure instrumentalism, was no longer self-evidently meaningful, then those things that had been subordinated, dominated, and exploited for the sake of rationalizing means took on a new significance. Nature, social relations, and personal feelings could now be treated as ends rather than means, could be liberated from the repressive control of technical reason.

Among those who shared this general analysis there was a division between those who emphasized overthrowing the present system as a necessary precondition for the realization of a more human society and those who emphasized the present embodiment of a new style of life "in the pores," so to speak, of the old society. The contrast was not absolute, as the effort to create politically "liberated zones" in certain communities such as Berkeley and Ann Arbor indicates. And for a time in the late sixties opposition to the Vietnam War, seen as an example of technical reason gone mad, took precedence over everything else. Yet there was a contrast between those mainly oriented to political action (still, in a way, oriented to means rather than ends, though it was the means to overthrow the existing system) and those mainly concerned with the actual creation of alternative patterns of living. The difference between demonstrations and sit-ins on the one hand and love-ins, be-ins, and rock festivals on the other illustrates the contrast. Political activists shared some of the personal characteristics of those they fought -- they were "uptight," repressed, and dominated by time and work. The cultural experimenters, represented most vividly perhaps by the "love, peace, groovy" flower children of the middle sixties, believed in harmony with man and nature and the enjoyment of the present moment through drugs, music, or meditation. In either case there was a sharp opposition to the dominant American ethos of utilitarian instrumentalism oriented to personal success. There was also a deep ambivalence to the biblical tradition, to which I will return.

The question of why the old order began to lose its legitimacy just when it did is not one I have felt equipped to answer. Clearly in the sixties there was a conjuncture of dissatisfactions that did not all have the same meaning. The protests of racial minorities, middle-class youth, and women had different causes and different goals. In spite of all the unsolved problems, the crisis was brought on by the success of the society as much as by its failures. That education and affluence did not bring happiness or fulfillment was perhaps as important as the fact that the society did not seem to be able to solve the problem of racism and poverty. The outbreak of a particularly vicious and meaningless little war in Asia that stymied America’s leadership both militarily and politically for years on end acted as a catalyst but did not cause the crisis. The deepest cause, no matter what particular factors contributed to the actual timing, was, in my opinion, the inability of utilitarian individualism to provide a meaningful pattern of personal and social existence, especially when its alliance with biblical religion began to sag because biblical religion itself had been gutted in the process. I would thus interpret the crisis of the sixties above all as crisis of meaning, a religious crisis, with major political, social, and cultural consequences to be sure.

The New Revival

Religious upheaval is not new in American history. Time and time again after a period of spiritual dryness there has been an outbreak of the spirit. But the religious crisis was in more ways a contrast to the great awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than a continuation of them. By all the measures of conventional religiosity the early 1950s had been a period of religious revival, but the revival of the fifties proved to be as artificial as the cold-war atmosphere that may have fostered it. The sixties saw a continuous drop in church attendance and a declining belief in the importance of religion, as measured by national polls. It is true that conservative and fundamentalist churches continued to grow and that the major losses were in the mainline Protestant denominations and in the Catholic church after the full consequences of Vatican II began to sink in. But in terms of American culture the latter had long been more important than the conservative wing. Although clergy and laity of many denominations played an important part in the events of the sixties, the churches as such were not the locale of the major changes, even the religious ones.

Indeed, it was easier for many in the biblical tradition to relate to the political than to the religious aspect of the developing counterculture. The demand for social justice fitted closely with the prophetic teachings of Judaism and Christianity. The struggle for racial equality and later the struggle against the Vietnam War drew many leaders from the churches and synagogues, even though the membership as a whole remained passive. But in spite of the leadership of Martin Luther King and the martyrdom of divinity students in the civil rights movement and in spite of the leadership of the Berrigans and William Sloane Coffin in the peace movement, those movements as a whole remained indifferent if not hostile to religion. By the end of the sixties those churchmen who had given everything to the political struggle found themselves without influence and without a following. For most of the political activists the churches remained too closely identified with the established powers to gain much sympathy or interest. As dogmatic Marxism gained greater influence among the activists during the decade, ideological antireligion increased as well.

But the churches were even less well prepared to cope with the new spirituality of the sixties. The demand for immediate, powerful, and deep religious experience, which was part of the turn away from future-oriented instrumentalism toward present meaning and fulfillment, could on the whole not be met by the religious bodies. The major Protestant churches in the course of generations of defensive struggle against secular rationalism had taken on some of the color of the enemy. Moralism and verbalism and the almost complete absence of ecstatic experience characterized the middle-class Protestant churches. The more intense religiosity of black and lower-class churches remained largely unavailable to the white middle-class members of the counterculture. The Catholic church with its great sacramental tradition might be imagined to have been a more hospitable home for the new movement, but such was not the case. Older Catholicism had its own defensiveness, which took the form of scholastic intellectualism and legalistic moralism. Nor did Vatican II really improve things. The Catholic church finally decided to recognize the value of the modern world just when American young people were beginning to find it valueless. As if all this were not enough, the biblical arrogance toward nature and the Christian hostility toward the impulse life were both alien to the new spiritual mood. Thus the religion of the counterculture was by and large not biblical. It drew from many sources, including the native American. But its deepest influences came from Asia.

In many ways Asian spirituality provided a more thorough contrast to the rejected utilitarian individualism than did biblical religion. To external achievement it posed inner experience; to the exploitation of nature, harmony with nature; to impersonal organization, an intense relation to a guru. Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in the form of Zen, provided the most pervasive religious influence on the counterculture; but elements from Taoism, Hinduism, and Sufism were also influential. What drug experiences, interpreted in oriental religious terms, as Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert did quite early, and meditation experiences, often taken up when drug use was found to have too many negative consequences, showed was the illusoriness of worldly striving. Careerism and status seeking, the sacrifice of present fulfillment for some ever-receding future goal, no longer seemed worthwhile. There was a turn away not only from utilitarian individualism but from the whole apparatus of industrial society. The new ethos preferred handicrafts and farming to business and industry and small face-to-face communities to impersonal bureaucracy and the isolated nuclear family. Simplicity and naturalness in food and clothing were the ideal, even though conspicuous consumption and oneupmanship ("Oh, you don’t use sea salt, I see") made their inevitable appearance.

Thus the limits were pushed far beyond what any previous great awakening had seen: toward socialism in one direction, toward mysticism in the other. But perhaps the major meaning of the sixties was not anything positive at all. Neither the political movement nor the counterculture survived the decade. Important successor movements did survive and they have been the focus of our study, but the major meaning of the sixties was purely negative: the erosion of the legitimacy of the American way of life. On the surface what seems to have been most drastically undermined was utilitarian individualism, for the erosion of the biblical tradition seemed only to continue what had been a long-term trend. The actual situation was more complicated. Utilitarian individualism had perhaps never before been so divested of its ideological and religious facade, never before recognized in all its naked destructiveness. And yet that very exposure could become an ironic victory. If all moral restraints are illegitimate, then why should I believe in religion and morality? If those who win in American society are the big crooks and those who lose do so only because they are little crooks, why should I not try to be a big crook rather than a little one? In this way the unmasking of utilitarian individualism led to the very condition from which Hobbes sought to save us – the war of all against all. Always before, the biblical side of the American tradition has been able to bring antinomian and anarchic tendencies under some kind of control, and perhaps that is still possible today. Certainly the fragile structures of the counterculture were not able to do so. But out of the shattered hopes of the sixties there emerged a cynical privatism, a narrowing of sympathy and concern to the smallest possible circle, that is truly frightening. What happened to Richard Nixon should not obscure for us the meaning of his overwhelming victory in 1972. It was the victory of cynical privatism.

The Successor Movements

In this rather gloomy period of American history -- and the mood of the youth culture in the period of our study has been predominantly gloomy; not the hope for massive change that characterized the sixties but the anxious concern for survival, physical and moral -- the successor movements of the early seventies take on a special interest. We may ask whether any of them has been able to take up and preserve the positive seeds of the sixties so that under more favorable circumstances they may grow and fructify once again. Some of the successor movements clearly do not have that potential. The Weathermen and the Symbionese Liberation Army on the one hand, the Krishna Consciousness Society and the Divine Light Mission on the other, are parodies of the broader political and religious movements they represent, too narrow and in some cases too self-destructive to contribute to the future solution of our problems. About others there may be more hope.

To some extent the successor movements, especially the explicitly religious ones, have been survival units in a quite literal sense. They have provided a stable social setting and a coherent set of symbols for young people disoriented by the drug culture or disillusioned with radical politics. What Synanon claims to have done for hard-core drug users, religious groups -- from Zen Buddhists to Jesus people -- have done for ex-hippies. The rescue-mission aspect of the successor movements has had tangible results. In many instances reconciliation with parents has been facilitated by the more stable life-style and the religious ideology of acceptance rather than confrontation. A new, more positive orientation toward occupational roles has often developed. In some cases, such as followers of Meher Baba, this has meant a return to school and the resumption of a normal middle-class career pattern.3 For others, such as resident devotees of the San Francisco Zen Center or ashram residents of the 3HO movement, jobs are seen largely as means to subsistence, having little value in themselves.4 While the attitude toward work in terms of punctuality, thoroughness, and politeness is. from the employer’s point of view, positive, the religious devotee has no inner commitment to the job nor does he look forward to any advancement. In terms of intelligence and education the job holder is frequently "overqualified" for the position he holds, but this causes no personal distress because of the meaning the job has for him. For many of these groups the ideal solution would be economic self-sufficiency so members would not have to leave the community at all; but few are able to attain this. As in monastic orders some full-time devotees can be supported frugally by the gifts of sympathizers, but they are exceptions. Many of the groups also insist on a stable sexual life, in some instances celibate but more usually monogamous, with sexual relations being confined to marriage. Such norms are found not only among Jesus people but in the oriental groups as well.

These features of stability should not be interpreted as simple adaptation to the established society, though in some cases that may occur. The human-potential movement may serve such an adaptive function, and perhaps Synanon also does to a certain extent. But for the more explicitly religious groups, stable patterns of personal living and occupation do not mean acceptance of the established order. Our survey found that sympathizers of the oriental religions tend to be as critical of American society as political radicals, far more critical than the norm. While the survey shows that people sympathetic to the Jesus movement are less critical of American society, the Christian World Liberation Front, a Berkeley group, is atypical in being quite critical. All these movements share a very negative image of established society as sunk in materialism and heading for disaster. Many of them have intense millennial expectations, viewing the present society as in the last stage of degradation before the dawning of a new era. 3HO people speak of the Aquarian age, which is about to replace the dying Piscean age. Krishna Consciousness people speak of the present as the last stage of the materialistic Kali Yuga and on the verge of a new age of peace and happiness. More traditionally biblical expectations of the millennium are common among Jesus people. All these groups, well behaved as they are, have withdrawn fundamentally from contemporary American society, see it as corrupt and illegitimate, and place their hope in a radically different vision. We should remember that early Christians too were well behaved -- Paul advised them to remain in their jobs and their marriages -- yet by withholding any deep commitment to the Roman Empire they helped to bring it down and to form a society of a very different type.

Both our survey and our qualitative observations indicate sympathizers of the human-potential movement are less alienated from American society than followers of oriental religions or political radicals. They are, nonetheless, more critical than the norm, and many of their beliefs contrast sharply with established American ideology. A tension exists within the movement over the issue of latent utilitarianism. If the techniques of the human-potential movement are to be used for personal and business success (the training-group movement out of which the human-potential movement in part derives had tendencies in that direction), then it is no different from the mind cures and positive thinking of the most debased kinds of utilitarian religion in America. But for some in the movement the whole idea of success is viewed negatively, and the training is seen in part as a way of gaining liberation from that goal. The high evaluation of bodily awareness and intrapsychic experience as well as nonmanipulative interpersonal relations place much of the movement in tension with the more usual orientations of American utilitarian individualism. Here as elsewhere in our field of research we have found utilitarian individualism is a hydra-headed monster that tends to survive just where it is most attacked.

Common Themes

I have already considered some of the common themes of the counterculture of the sixties. I shall now consider how they have survived and been elaborated in the successor movements. Immediate experience rather than doctrinal belief continues to be central among all the religious movements, including the Jesus movements, and in the human-potential movement as well. Knowledge in the sense of direct firsthand encounter has so much higher standing than abstract argument based on logic that one could almost speak of antiintellectualism in many groups. Yet it would be a mistake to interpret this tendency as rampant irrationalism. Even though science is viewed ambivalently and the dangers of scientific progress are consciously feared by many in our groups, science as such is not rejected. There is a belief that much of what is experienced could be scientifically validated. Indeed, the human-potential groups (and Transcendental Meditation) believe their teachings are in accord with science broadly understood. The study of the physiology of the brain during meditation is seen not as a threat but as a support for religious practice. Since reality inheres in the actual experience, explanatory schemes, theological or scientific, are secondary, though scientific explanations tend to be preferred to theological ones because of the general prestige of science. At a deeper level the lack of interest in critical reflective reason may be a form of antiintellectualism, but the conscious irrationalism of groups such as the romantic German youth movement is missing. Similarly, there is a complete absence of primordial loyalties and hatreds based on race, ethnic group, or even, usually, religion.

In spite of the primacy of experience, belief is not entirely missing. In some groups the stress on doctrine may be increasing. The early phase of the New Left was heavily experiential: Unless you had placed your body on the line you could not understand the reality of American society. Consciousness raising in racial and women’s groups continues to emphasize the experiential aspect of oppression and the struggle against it. But New Left groups became increasingly doctrinal toward the end of the ig6os and remain today more oriented to doctrine than experience in comparison with religious and human-potential groups.

A central belief shared by the oriental religions and diffused widely outside them is important because of its sharp contrast with established American views. This is the belief in the unity of all being. Our separate selves, according to Buddhism, Hinduism, and their offshoots, are not ultimately real. Philosophical Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism reject dualism. For them ultimately there is no difference between myself and yourself, and this river and that mountain. We are all one and the conflict between us is therefore illusory.

While such beliefs are diametrically opposed to utilitarian individualism, for which the individual is the ultimate ontological reality, there are elements in the Christian tradition to which they are not entirely opposed. Christian theology also felt the unity of being and the necessity to love all beings. The New Testament speaks of the church as one body of which we are all members. But Christianity has tended to maintain the ultimate dualism of creator and creation that the oriental religions would obliterate. Christian mystics have at times made statements (viewed as heretical) expressing the ultimate unity of God and man, and in a mediated form the unity of God and man through Christ is an orthodox belief. Still, American Christianity has seldom emphasized the aspect of the Christian tradition that stressed the unity rather than the distinction between the divine and the human; so the oriental teachings stand out as sharply divergent.

Much of the countercultural criticism of American society is related to the belief in nondualism. If man and nature, men and women, white and black, rich and poor are really one, then there is no basis for the exploitation of the latter by the former. The ordination of women by Zen Buddhists and 3HO, even though not warranted in the earlier traditions, shows how their American followers interpret the fundamental beliefs. It is significant that from the basis of nondualism conclusions similar to those of Marxism can be reached. But because the theoretical basis is fundamental unity rather than fundamental opposition, the criticism of existing society is nonhostile, nonconfrontational, and often nonpolitical. Nonetheless the effort to construct a witness community based on unity and identity rather than opposition and oppression can itself have critical consequences in a society based on opposite principles.

Another feature of oriental religions that has been widely influential is their view of dogma and symbol. Believing, as many of them do, that the fundamental truth, the truth of nondualism, is one, they also accept many beliefs and symbols as appropriate for different groups or different levels of spiritual insight. Dogmatism has by no means been missing in the oriental religions and has been traditionally more important than many of their American followers probably realize. But in relation to Christianity and biblical religions generally, the contrast holds. Belief in certain doctrinal or historical statements (Jesus is the son of God, Christ rose from the tomb on the third day) has been so central in Western religion that it has been hard for Westerners to imagine religions for whom literal belief in such statements is unimportant. But the impact of oriental religion coincides with a long history of the criticism of religion in the West in which particular beliefs have been rendered questionable but the significance of religion and myth in human action has been reaffirmed. Postcritical Western religion was therefore ready for a positive response to Asian religions in a way different from any earlier period. Paul Tillich’s response to Zen Buddhism late in his life is an example of this. Thomas Merton’s final immersion in Buddhism is an even better one. Such tendencies, however, are not to be found in the Christian World Liberation Front or other Jesus movements.

But in many of the oriental groups and certainly in the human-potential movement there has been a willingness to find meaning in a wide variety of symbols and practices without regarding them literally or exclusively. The danger here as elsewhere is that postcritical religion can become purely utilitarian. This can happen if one fails to see that any religious symbol or practice, however relative and partial, is an effort to express or attain the truth about ultimate reality. If such symbols and practices become mere techniques for "self-realization," then once again we see utilitarian individualism reborn from its own ashes.

The New Religious Consciousness and the Future

Our study began with the thought that the new religious consciousness that seemed to be developing among young people in the San Francisco Bay Area might be some harbinger, some straw in the wind, that would tell us of changes to come in American culture and society. We were aware that studies of American religion based on national samples could tell us mainly about what was widely believed in the present and perhaps also in the past, since religious views change relatively slowly. Such samples, however, could not easily pick up what was incipient, especially what was radically new and as yet confined to small groups. Even our Bay Area sample, weighted as it was to youth, picked up only a tiny handful of those deeply committed to new forms of religion, although it did lead us to believe the new groups had gotten a hearing and some sympathy from a significant minority. Our qualitative studies of particular groups, based on participant-observation field studies, have told us a great deal about them.

But to assess what we have discovered with respect to possible future trends remains terribly hazardous. The future will certainly not be determined mainly by the groups we studied. What role they can play will depend largely on other developments in the society as a whole. Thus in trying to assess the possible meaning and role of our groups in the future I would like to outline three possible scenarios for American society as a whole: liberal, traditional authoritarian, and revolutionary.

The future most people seem to expect and the futurologists describe with their projections is very much like the present society only more so. This is what I call the liberal scenario. American society would continue as in the past to devote itself to the accumulation of wealth and power. The mindless rationalization of means and the lack of concern with ends would only increase as biblical religion and morality continue to erode. Utilitarian individualism, with less biblical restraint or facade than ever before, would continue as the dominant ideology. Its economic form, capitalism, its political form, bureaucracy, and ideological form, scientism, would each increasingly dominate its respective sphere. Among the elite, scientism -- the idolization of technical reason alone -- would provide some coherent meaning after traditional religion and morality had gone. But technical reason would hardly be a sufficient surrogate religion for the masses. No longer accepting the society as legitimate in any ideal terms, the masses would have to be brought to acquiesce grudgingly by a combination of coercion and material reward. In such a society one could see a certain role for oriental religious groups and the human-potential movement -- perhaps even for a small radical political fringe. All these could be allowed within limits to operate and provide the possibility of expressing the frustration and rage the system generates but in a way such that the individuals concerned are pacified and the system itself is not threatened. The utilitarian individualism latent in all the countercultural successor movements, political and religious, makes this a real possibility. This scenario depicts the society as heading, mildly and gradually into something like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Lately, however, questions have been raised as to the viability of this direction of development. Perhaps there are inner contradictions that will lead to a drastic breakdown in the foreseeable future. Robert Heilbroner has predicted such a collapse, largely as a result of ecological catastrophe.5 But Heilbroner also envisages the possibility that tensions between the rich and the poor nations could bring disaster sooner than would ecological attrition. Even since Heilbroner wrote, the proliferation of atomic weapon capacity in India and the Middle East has strengthened this possibility. Another distinct possibility is worldwide economic collapse bringing social convulsions in train. No matter how the breakdown of the "modernization" syndrome might occur, Heilbroner envisages a relapse into traditional authoritarianism as the most likely result -- providing, that is, the worst outcome, total destruction of life on the planet, is avoided. Simpler, poorer, and less free societies might be all humans would be capable of in the wake of a global catastrophe. The social and personal coherence modernizing societies never attained might be supplied by the rigid myths and rituals of a new hierarchical authoritarian society. To put it in terms of the present discussion, the collapse of subjective reason, which is what technical reason ultimately is, would bring in its wake a revival of objective reason in a particularly closed and reified form.6 Technical reason, because it is concerned not with truth or reality but only with results, not with what is but only what works, is ultimately completely subjective. That its domineering manipulative attitude to reality in the service of the subject leads ultimately to the destruction of any true subjectivity is only one of its many ironies. But a new traditional authoritarianism would set up some single orthodox version of what truth and reality are and enforce agreement. Some historically relative creed, belief, and ritual would be asserted as identical with objective reality itself. In this way social and personal coherence would be achieved, but ultimately at the expense of any real objectivity.

If a relapse into traditional authoritarianism is a distinct possibility in America, and I believe it is, we might ask what are the likely candidates for the job of supplying the new orthodoxy. Perhaps the most likely system would be right-wing Protestant fundamentalism. We already have a good example of such a regime in Afrikaner-dominated South Africa.7 Conservative Protestant fundamentalism has a large and by some measures growing following in America. It has the religious and moral absolutism a traditional authoritarianism would require, and it is hard to see any close rival on the American scene today. The Catholic church, which might at an earlier period have been a candidate for such a role, is certainly not, in its post-Vatican II disarray. Some of the more authoritarian Asian religions might provide a sufficiently doctrinaire model, but their small following in comparison with Protestant fundamentalism virtually rules them out. The future for most of the groups we have studied, all but the Jesus movements, would be bleak indeed under such a neotraditional authoritarianism. It is doubtful if even a group as open as the Christian World Liberation Front could survive. Neoauthoritarian regimes are hard on nonconformity in every sphere. The Chilean government, for example, not only sets standards of dress and hair style but also persecutes oriental religions.

There remains a third alternative, however improbable. It is this I am calling revolutionary, not in the sense that it would be inaugurated by a bloody uprising, which I do not think likely, but because it would bring fundamental structural change, socially and culturally. It is to this rather unlikely outcome that most of the groups we have studied, at least the most flexible and open of them, would have most to contribute. Such a new order would involve, as in the case of traditional authoritarianism, an abrupt shift away from the exclusive dominance of technical reason; but it would not involve the adoption of a reified objective reason either. In accord with its concern for ends rather than means alone, such a revolutionary culture would have a firm commitment to the quest for ultimate reality. Priorities would shift away from endless accumulation of wealth and power to a greater concern for harmony with nature and between human beings. Perhaps a much simpler material life, simpler, that is, compared to present middle-class American standards, would result; but it would not be accompanied by an abandonment of free inquiry or free speech. Science, which would ultimately have to be shackled in a traditional authoritarian regime, would continue to be pursued in the revolutionary culture, but it would not be idolized as in the liberal model. In all these respects the values, attitudes, and beliefs of the oriental religious groups, the human-potential movement and even a group like the Christian World Liberation Front, as well as the more flexible of the radical political groups, would be consonant with the new regime and its needs. Indeed, many of the present activities of such groups could be seen as experiments leading to the possibility of such a new alternative. Neither safety valve nor persecuted minority, the new groups would be, under such an option, the vanguard of a new age.

Such an outcome would accord most closely with the millennial expectations rife among the new groups. Even if an enormous amount of thought and planning were devoted to such an alternative, thought and planning the small struggling groups we have been studying are quite incapable at the moment of supplying, the revolutionary alternative seems utopian. Perhaps only a major shift in the established biblical religions, a shift away from their uneasy alliance with utilitarian individualism and toward a profound reappropriation of their own religious roots and an openness to the needs of the contemporary world, would provide the mass base for a successful effort to establish the revolutionary alternative. To be politically effective, such a shift would have to lead to a revitalization of the revolutionary spirit of the young republic so that America would once again attract the hope and love of its citizens. This outcome too at present seems utopian. It may be, however that only the implementation of a utopian vision, a holistic reason that unites subjectivity and objectivity, will make human life in the twenty-first century worth living.

 

Notes:

1. See Robert N. Bellah, The Broken Covenant, American Civil Religion in Time of Trial (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), for an analysis of the role of biblical religion in the formation of American society and also for the relations between biblical religion and utilitarian individualism. Two related essays are "Reflections on Reality in America," Radical Religion, 1, no. 3 (1974); and "Religion and Polity in America," Andover Newton Quarterly, 15, no. (1974), pp. 107-123.

2. An excellent treatment of the deep inner cleavage in American culture is Wilson Carey McWilliams, The Idea of Fraternity in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).

3. See the interesting study of Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony, "Getting Straight with Meher Baba," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 11, no. 2 (1972), 122-140.

4. My information on the San Francisco Zen Center comes mainly from David Wise, "Zen Buddhist Subculture in San Francisco," Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley, 1971.

5. Robert Heilbroner, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974).

6. The contrast between subjective and objective reason has been developed by members of the Frankfurt School. See, for example, Max Horkheimer, The Eclipse of Reason, (London: Oxford University Press, 1947; Seabury Paperback, 1974).

7. See Dunbar Moodie, The Rise of Afrikanerdom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), for an excellent analysis of Afrikaner civil religion and its Dutch Calvinist dimension.

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