The ultracalvinist hypothesis: in perspective

The “ultracalvinist hypothesis” is the proposition that the present-day belief system commonly called “progressive,” “multiculturalist,” “universalist,” “liberal,” “politically correct,” etc, is actually best considered as a sect of Christianity.

Specifically, ultracalvinism (which I have also described here and here) is the primary surviving descendant of the American mainline Protestant tradition, which has been the dominant belief system of the United States since its founding. It should be no surprise that it continues in this role, or that since the US’s victory in the last planetary war it has spread worldwide.

Ultracalvinism is an ecumenical syncretism of the mainline, not traceable to any one sectarian label. But its historical roots are easy to track with the tag Unitarian. The meaning of this word has mutated considerably in the last 200 years, but at any point since the 1830s it is found attached to the most prestigious people and ideas in the US, and since 1945 in the world.

The trouble with “Unitarian” as a label is that (a) it exhibits this evolutionary blurring, and (b) it at least nominally refers to a specific metaphysical belief (anti-Trinitarianism). So I took the liberty of coining “ultracalvinist.”

The “calvinist” half of this word refers to the historical chain of descent from John Calvin and his religious dictatorship in Geneva, passing through the English Puritans to the New England Unitarians, abolitionists and Transcendentalists, Progressives and Prohibitionists, super-protestants, hippies and secular theologians, and down to our own dear progressive multiculturalists.

The “ultra” half refers to my perception that, at least compared to other Christian sects, the beliefs of this faith are relatively aggressive and unusual.

In fact, they are so unusual that most people don’t see ultracalvinism as Christian at all. For example, on the theological side, ultracalvinism is best known as Unitarian Universalism. (It’s an interesting exercise to try to find any conflicts between UUism and “political correctness.”) Ultracalvinists are perfectly free to be atheists, or believe in any God or gods – as long as they don’t adhere to any revealed tradition, which would make them “fundamentalists.” In general, ultracalvinists oppose revelation and consider their beliefs to be pure products of reason. And perhaps they are right in this – but I feel the claim should at least be investigated.

I am not a theist, so I don’t care much for theology. Paranormal beliefs are not beliefs about the real world, and cannot directly motivate real-world action. As a result, they are usually of no adaptive significance, tend to mutate frequently, and are a dangerous basis for classification.

And when we look at the real-world beliefs of ultracalvinists, we see that ultracalvinism is anything but content-free. By my count, the ultracalvinist creed has four main points:

First, ultracalvinists believe in the universal brotherhood of man. As an Ideal (an undefined universal) this might be called Equality. (“All men and women are born equal.”) If we wanted to attach an “ism” to this, we could call it fraternalism.

Second, ultracalvinists believe in the futility of violence. The corresponding ideal is of course Peace. (“Violence only causes more violence.”) This is well-known as pacifism.

Third, ultracalvinists believe in the fair distribution of goods. The ideal is Social Justice, which is a fine name as long as we remember that it has nothing to do with justice in the dictionary sense of the word, that is, the accurate application of the law. (“From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”) To avoid hot-button words, we will ride on a name and call this belief Rawlsianism.

Fourth, ultracalvinists believe in the managed society. The ideal is Community, and a community by definition is led by benevolent experts, or public servants. (“Public servants should be professional and socially responsible.”) After their counterparts east of the Himalaya, we can call this belief mandarism.

Now, where do these beliefs come from? What is their origin and etiology? Why do so many of us in 2007 believe in these particular concepts? Were they invented in 1967? Or 1907? Or 1607? Or what?

Richard Dawkins has referred to his beliefs, which certainly include the four points above, as Einsteinian religion. Dawkins’ description of this creed is poetic and extremely reminiscent of Emerson’s Divinity School Address. Has he never heard of Transcendentalism? Is he unaware that Emerson was a Unitarian minister?

Einstein certainly believed in the four points as well. Did he invent them during his annus mirabilis? Did they arrive in a stroke of light along with Brownian motion, special relativity and the photoelectric effect? Probably not, because the four points also feature very prominently in a little book called Looking Backward, which appeared in 1888 and sold about a bazillion copies. The author of this novel was not a Hindu. His readers were not Zoroastrians. The political movement Bellamy helped spawn did not put its faith in Allah. And nor were any of these folks atheists, which was still quite a dirty word at the time.

In fact, the four points are very common and easily recognizable tenets of Protestant Christianity, specifically in its Calvinist or Puritan strain. You can find them all over the place in the New Testament, and any subject of Oliver Cromwell’s saintly republic would have recognized them instantly. Rawlsianism is definitely the last of the four to develop, but even it is very common in the 17th century, when its adherents were known as Diggers – a name that, not surprisingly, was later reused. Ultracalvinism fits quite neatly in the English Dissenter and low church tradition. (Note the blatant POV of the latter page, with loaded words like “reform,” a good indication that Wikipedians incline to ultracalvinism.)

So the proposition that “Einsteinian religion” is some kind of 20th-century novelty is at least as much of an offense to Occam’s razor as any Flying Spaghetti Monster. It’s like saying that the modern inhabitants of France are not in fact the French, because sometime in the Middle Ages the French died out and were replaced by immigrants, who coincidentally happened to also speak Old French.

If the above is an accurate analysis, what we have here is very interesting. Because it is a modern, thriving, and remarkably well-camouflaged, example of crypto-Christianity.

Ultracalvinism’s camouflage mechanism is easy to understand. If you are an ultracalvinist, you must dispute the claim that the four points are actually Christian, because you believe in them, and you believe they are justified by reason rather than faith. Therefore they are universal and no one can doubt them, whether Christian, Muslim or Jew.

If you are not an ultracalvinist, you are probably some other kind of Christian, presumably one who still believes in God, the Bible as revelation, non-universal salvation, etc. Therefore you see ultracalvinism just as Catholics once saw Protestants, or Trinitarians saw Unitarians – as not Christians at all. So the result is the same. The ultracalvinist cloak of invisibility is only at risk from freethinking atheists, such as myself – a tiny and mostly irrelevant population.

The question is: why? How did we fall for this? How did we enable an old, well-known strain of Christianity to mutate and take over our minds, just by discarding a few bits of theological doctrine and describing itself as “secular”? (As La Wik puts it: “Despite occasional confusion, secularity is not synonymous with atheism.” Indeed.)

In other words, we have to look at the adaptive landscape of ultracalvinism. What are the adaptive advantages of crypto-Christianity? Why did those Unitarians, or even “scientific socialists,” who downplayed their Christian roots, outcompete their peers?

Well, I think it’s pretty obvious, really. The combination of electoral democracy and “separation of church and state” is an almost perfect recipe for crypto-Christianity.

As I’ve said before, separation of church and state is a narrow-spectrum antibiotic. What you really need is separation of information and security. If you have a rule that says the state cannot be taken over by a church, a constant danger in any democracy for obvious reasons, the obvious mutation to circumvent this defense is for the church to find some plausible way of denying that it’s a church. Dropping theology is a no-brainer. Game over, you lose, and it serves you right for vaccinating against a nonfunctional surface protein.

We can see this very easily with another modern crypto-Christian movement: intelligent design. Supporters of intelligent design claim it is not Christianity at all. Rather, it is good science, derived like all science from pure reason, and the fact that it seems to resemble the Bible is (a) a coincidence and (b) evidence for how true the Bible is, after all. Therefore, like all good science, it should be taught to innocent young people.

I wouldn’t want my children to go to a school where they learned intelligent design. At least not if they learned it as simply reason and reality. But I also wouldn’t want my children to go to a school where they learned ultracalvinism as reason and reality.

Unfortunately, the latter is a lot harder to avoid.

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