A God, unknown at present, seems to be developing, growing, and revealing Himself from time to time. In the intervals, so it seems, He leaves the world to itself, like the farmer, who lets the tares and wheat grow together till the harvest. Each epoch of revelation shows Him animated with new ideas, and practically improving His methods. Thus Religion will return, but under new aspects, for a compromise with the old religions seems impossible. We do not await an epoch of reaction, nor a return to out-worn ideals, but an advance towards something new. But of what sort? Let us wait!
August Strindberg - The Inferno (1897)
The Inferno was written during a period when Strindberg appeared to suffer from depression or some other mental ailment, although he may also have exaggerated his problems for dramatic effect. He was also drinking heavily, particularly absinthe, although he may have exaggerated that too.
Did he foresee a genuine social trend though? It is difficult to say with any confidence, because if his new god was unknown in Strindberg’s day, then it also seems to be unknown today. Yet there are many clues suggesting that our usual distinction between politics and religion is misleading. In both cases people take belief beyond the evidence and into the realms of political control.
Other clues are to be found in the righteous nature of modern progressive attitudes to social norms; in attitudes to the environment, equality, economics, race, immigration, education, social uniformity and moral behaviour. Political correctness sums up much of it, but is there a god lurking in the righteous recesses of political correctness? A cult perhaps - but a god?
Suppose we go with cult for now.
Suppose we take hold of the idea that a global cult is evolving within the shallow souls of susceptible social progressives. To begin with the cult could be called socialism even though at first sight socialism may have too much historical baggage to serve as a peg on which to hang this particular shroud.
Yet socialism has always had a strongly righteous air beyond a natural desire to correct social wrongs. These righteous overtones are significant enough to warrant treating socialism as political cult if we are to understand the modern world. We see frequent associations between socialist politics and the incremental enforcement of uniform behaviour using propaganda, harassment, ostracism and legal restrictions on free speech.
It may be going a little too far to paint socialism as a secular religion but there are interesting parallels once we focus on behavioural control and blur the distinction between politics and religion. Socialism has its priesthood, evangelists, taboos and possibly sacred texts. The Communist Manifesto for example. It may not be a church but it has a collection plate where even the unrighteous have to cough up their compulsory donations, compulsion being essential to progressive ideas.
As a somewhat entertaining example we also seem to have a home-grown socialist saint in Jeremy Corbyn. Since his elevation to the Labour leadership, the cult name ‘socialism’ is allowed to circulate again. Clearly the name is seen as important to believers, totemic even.
During the dark and unenlightened days of Tony Blair the name of socialism was suppressed in the pursuit of secular respectability. Since St Jeremy cleverly isolated the wicked majority of Labour MPs, believers are now free to use the sacred name once more.
Maybe Strindberg was right in one sense at least. We seem to have a progressive socialist cult and perhaps we have a god to go with it. If socialism is worth defining as a secular political cult then maybe its god is a cloud of somewhat nebulous ideals with Marx as an important prophet. The religious parallels are certainly there.
Religions may disappear, but religious feelings will always create new ones, even with the help of science.
Emile Zola - Rome (1896)