Big Tech’s Accidental Religious War

How Silicon Valley bots make “spirituality” obsolete

You can understand the future of the politics of technology through a single phrase: “spiritual but not religious.” In fact, this popular expression of faith is the key to grasping what has already happened where politics and tech meet—developments that don’t predict or determine the future but weigh heavily upon it. 

The popularity of identifying as spiritual but not religious comes from a desire to enjoy the benefits of faith but not the burdens—a desire, in turn, which arises from a deeper faith that the true religion must be one that frees the devoted from any and all burdens. Unplugging from attachment is, in the West, often associated with Buddhism, but if Tocqueville was right in the mid-1800s that Americans were “practical Cartesians,” living out through pragmatic experience what Descartes had to imagine in order to access, today many Americans are practical Buddhists in their habits and mores, aiming through their everyday life to feel the kind of unity with the All that would free themselves fully of all natural suffering.

This would appear to contradict Tocqueville’s own conclusion about where our practical Cartesianism leads. In democratic conditions, where conditions that shape everyone to the same significant degree progressively spread and deepen, experience leads people to seek out ways to “delineate vast objects with little pains and draw the attention of the public without much trouble.” Descartes had to withdraw into his study and his mind in order to develop a philosophy premised in quite similar fashion on the intuition of universal principles through the isolated action of what he considered common sense. 

But rather than staying Cartesian, Tocqueville observed, Americans were driven by their democratic conditions into the arms of two competing religions: Catholicism and Pantheism. “Many of the doctrines and the practices of the Romish Church astonish them; but they feel a secret admiration for its discipline, and its great unity attracts them.” Tocqueville, who counseled that religion was the permanent state of mankind, saw within that state a permanent religious inclination among many toward “floating at random between liberty and obedience” out of what we might call a kind of strategic hypocrisy, wanting to have our devotion “to the principle of authority” and eat it too—that is, “exempt several other parts of their faith from its influence.” Democratic conditions destabilized this social and psychological pattern: “Men living in democratic ages are therefore very prone to shake off all religious authority; but if they consent to subject themselves to any authority of this kind, they choose at least that it should be single and uniform.” And here Catholicism had not cornered the market. 

Pantheism held out the prospect of the same benefits in a different way. Unity dominates the moral imagination in democratic life; democratic man is so driven to experience it “that if he thinks he has found it, he readily yields himself up to repose in that belief.”

Nor does he content himself with the discovery that nothing is in the world but a creation and a Creator; still embarrassed by this primary division of things, he seeks to expand and to simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole. If there be a philosophical system which teaches that all things material and immaterial, visible and invisible, which the world contains, are only to be considered as the several parts of an immense Being, which alone remains unchanged amidst the continual change and ceaseless transformation of all that constitutes it, we may readily infer that such a system, although it destroy the individuality of man—nay, rather because it destroys that individuality—will have secret charms for men living in democracies. All their habits of thought prepare them to conceive it, and predispose them to adopt it. It naturally attracts and fixes their imagination; it fosters the pride, whilst it soothes the indolence, of their minds.

For those willing to trade away more of their individuality for lighter burdens, Pantheism has an edge over Catholicism, in Tocqueville’s formulation. And this is what fueled much of the cultural revolution that began in America in the mid-twentieth century. The spiritual revolution of increasingly organized Pantheism, however, did not aim at the political establishment of its faith in the American regime or at its enforcement as America’s official faith. This is only natural to a faith that is “philosophical”, in Tocqueville’s terms, not religious—and doubly so in the case of a faith that is not the product of systematic philosophy or academic instruction but of (typically American) intuition, socialization, imagination, and experimentation: in other words, a faith that is spiritual, not religious. 

Where “the Germans introduce it into philosophy, and the French into literature,” the Americans uncovered Pantheism through the course of everyday life. By Tocqueville’s lights, due to the very social and psychological forces of democratic life that first made them practical Cartesians, Americans would, over time, sort into a “religious but not spiritual” Catholic culture and a “spiritual but not religious” Pantheist one. And so it we have—in a manner that still exhibits an undeniable geographical divide. Although Americans remain an only quasi-regionalist people, it grew increasingly plain by the turn of the century that east coast Catholicism would define the “religious but not spiritual” culture of American intellectual life. Over the same time span, the “spiritual but not religious” wing of the culture asserted itself with tremendous power through west coast Pantheism. 

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The significance of this divide is that Pantheism became a cultural “third way” in America—one that enabled its adherents to achieve massive gains in power and influence amid the culture war taking place primarily between Christians and secularists. Both Christians and secularists had serious problems with the west coast Pantheists, but despite California’s massive influence on America at large, it remained a geographically self-contained culture with even more locally-concentrated centers of “spiritual but not religious” faith and works. 

Foremost among these was “tech” in its first instantiation—the very early Silicon Valley of the Whole Earth Catalog and the first years of Burning Man, where Pantheist spiritualism of a decidedly hippie bent fed directly into the founding of the California technologist class and its vision of the good psychological and social life. Crucially, these founders were thoroughly shaped and formed not just by democratic life but by televisual life, which trained them body and soul to believe authority and power were bestowed with cosmic justice on those who equally emancipated the fantasies of all by building tools that easily aided everyone in the arts of imaging and imagining. At its origins, the Silicon Valley ethos was “spiritual but not religious.” It is intriguing to say the least that, on close inspection, so much of the founding of this ethos arose not from red blooded Californians at all but from Englishmen and Anglophiles. But the fusion they concocted—of sex, drugs, and consciousness expansion into a spiritual practice meant to free the world from all burdens—took swift, deep root in American soil, seizing the imagination of the Okie stepping off the Greyhound bus in Tinsel Town no less than that of the Madison Avenue ad man, the Washington spin doctor, the Hollywood creative executive, or the corporate woman smashing the glass ceiling. 

But at some point over the past fifteen years, things began to change. The technological tools created by the spiritual-not-religious class began to have unexpected consequences. Today, both Left and Right see the effect of technology on their adversaries in the same way—empowering greedy, evil oligarchs who hack our brains to hook us on authoritarian misinformation. Today, the Left blames Big Tech greed for the rise of “racist” authoritarian propaganda; the Right blames Big Tech greed for the rise of “woke” authoritarian propaganda. Yet what is at work in both cases goes deeper than this formula, which merely reacquaints people with the reality that the characteristic function of televisual media, including “social” media, is to produce and distribute propaganda. What is new is that Left and Right are now experiencing a dawning recognition that “spiritual but not religious” ethics are not a viable way to control the digital bots that Silicon Valley has flooded our inner and outer worlds with. “Based” people on the Right now sense that only a religion is strong enough to make people certain it is better to be a human than a bot, and to give them the tools to master the bots with a good conscience. “Woke” people on the Left are arriving at a similar conclusion: the rush to replace liberal ethics with woke religion evinces a shock of recognition that only new religious institutions and doctrines can restore human control and authority over the bots. 

Of course, there are big differences. But even in the extreme cases, the pattern holds. Transhumanism, for instance, is probably the closest the “spiritual but not religious” ethos of tech gets to religion. Yet the woke religion is already more a driving force toward transhuman life than the spiritualistic dreams of otherwise “rationalist” technologists, and the kind of technologically supplemented superhumanism that based religion promises to accept already holds more sway over human souls than the visions of sterile augmentation promoted by those who simply idolize science. 

At its heart, the masters of Big Tech still want us to be spiritual, not religious—a path now made untenable by how their own machines have worked us over. In America, they now face a choice between Christian masters or woke ones. 


James Poulos (@jamespoulos) is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.