The Handmaid of Modern Nationalism

I grew up firmly ingrained within the Roman Catholic church; baptized as a child, sang for the worship team, and promptly confirmed at 16. I spent the entire first quarter of college discerning whether or not to stay within the faith; I joined Christian clubs (Protestant ones much to my mother’s horror), attended Sunday services, and even went to retreat. In the end, I decided to drop my self-prescribed “Christian” label because I couldn’t reconcile some of the logical jumps (or “faith” they called it) needed to fully commit, and Yahweh doesn’t tolerate half-heartedness. Even so, my mother still reminds me to pray when I call her and I still find a strange urge to say “I’ll be praying for you” when someone tells me especially bad news.

The 17 years I spent within the church were definitely formative. It gave me an inherent interest in philosophy, taught to me in Sunday classes as theology, making me curious about the nature of our reality, why and how we think, and the ethical, moral balances of our world. Jia Tolentino in her essay titled, Losing Religion but Finding Ecstasy in Houston, compares the appeals of religion to ecstasy (yes, the drug) saying, “Both provide a path toward transcendence, a way of accessing an extra-human world of rapture and pardon. To be in ecstasy is to stand outside yourself.”

I can relate to that statement. There were certainly moments during my cultivation in the church when I felt truly enveloped by a sense of belonging, community and love. When I could feel deep in my bones I was placed on this earth for a reason, a divine purpose for my existence. This is the promise and gift of religion to the individual, but not the only source of fulfilling it. And I’ve found growing reasons to believe that it might not be sustainable.

No matter how we spin it, many of the problems we face on an individual-level are increasingly global: the climate crisis, technological disruption (i.e. job automation), and COVID-19 to name a few. The fact is global dilemmas require global solidarity and cooperation to solve. In recent years, this global harmony has been tested by the collision of global problems and local identities, leading to the rise of nationalism. Just look at the response to COVID-19 with countries hoarding PPEs and pointing fingers like on a pre-school playground.

The rise in nationalism could prove to be fatal if we do nothing about it. It doesn’t matter if Japan and Europe reduced carbon emissions to nil if the United States doesn’t reduce emissions. Japan will still be the first to get the death sentence. These problems simply cannot be solved locally.

Yuval Noah Harari in his book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, called religion the “handmaid of modern nationalism”. He details that out of the technical, political, and identity problems that our species face, religion can only answer questions about identity.

The twenty-first century religions don’t bring rain, they don’t cure illnesses, they don’t build bombs — but they do get to determine who are ‘us’ and who are ‘them’, who we should cure and who we should bomb

Modern nationalism already know to use the universal tools of science to solve technical and political problems, and now they’ve discovered the use of religion to preserve a unique national identity. Unfortunately, it is an identity that cuts into the global community that we so desperately need to build, attempting to sever itself from the whole.

From my personal point of view, I feel like religion is reaching its maximum utility. It gave humankind the power of mass cooperation through the belief in shared fictions. We now have alternate shared fictions to do the job: liberalism, capitalism, etc. I don’t want to discount the role religion has played in our society, and the experiences it has given me personally, but I think it might be time to retire some of its sovereignty.

[Ecstasy] is what it feels like to be a child of Jesus, in a dark chapel, with stained-glass diamonds floating on the skin of all the people kneeling around you. This is what it feels like to be twenty-two, nearly naked, your hair blowing in the wind as the pink twilight expands into permanence, your body still holding the warmth of the day. You were made to be here. The nature of a revelation is that you don’t have to re-experience it. In the seventies, researchers believed that MDMA treatment could be discrete and limited—that once you got the message, as they put it, you could hang up the phone. You would be better for having listened. You would be changed.

They don't say this about religion, but they should.

Like what you're reading?

Subscribe to my newsletter Cathode Rey Tube where I write about technology, culture and philosophy!