I would like to add a periodic feature to this blog: whenever I have a question for which I would like to know the answer, I will not just ask it in a single post, lost to time; I will also add it to a master list linked in the upper header of the blog. If I ever get an answer to a question, I’ll share the answer in a new post and link from the master list to the new post.
I bring this up because I have a question about what I’m calling churchpunk.
(I am not sure about the name churchpunk, since “church” is a Christian and Christian-derived word. Other contenders might be faithpunk, ritepunk, religionpunk, relspunk, or cultpunk, but these also have problems for me. “Faith” is not an important or meaningful concept in all religions; ritual is only one component of religion; religionpunk sounds awful; not enough people will know that “rels” is shorthand for “religious studies”; the English “cult” has not just connotations but also denotations that the Latin “cultus” does not. Until I settle on another name, I’m going to stick with churchpunk.)
The various –punk genres that have spun out from cyberpunk are usually designated by some technology they comment on or employ: steampunk originated from fiction about steam-powered computers, but has mutated into something else; atompunk uses Atomic Age ideas about the future; biopunk is typically set in a near future similar to cyberpunk, but focuses on biotechnology over information technology. Although there are variations, what is typical of these subgenres is that they consider how their chosen technology changes people’s day-to-day lives and how it changes social relations, always bearing in mind the ways in which pre-existing power structures can use these technologies to entrench their power and the ways in which new actors can try and wrest some of that power for themselves with the same technologies. So if you can imagine a set of technologies as somehow related to each other, you could probably make a –punk subgenre about it: printpunk (or Guttenpunk), powderpunk, horsepunk, dogpunk, seedpunk, and so on, each with a spec-fic take on that technology’s relationship with social relations, economics, and power structures.
Therefore, if we understand religions as sets of technologies—social and psychological technologies, to be sure, but technologies nonetheless—then it makes sense that we could write –punk subgenre fiction about it. By “we could” here I mean “I can”: it’s something I am thinking about doing.
I don’t think I’ve come up with this idea ex nihilo. Off the top of my head, based on what I’ve read and seen, I think the following films and books have strong elements of what I’m calling churchpunk: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and After the Flood, Scott Stewart’s 2011 Priest, Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, William Gibson’s Count Zero, and some of the more mythical writing on Slate Star Codex, like “Meditations on Moloch.” That said, to the best of my knowledge, no one has come closer than Atwood at seeing religion as a technology rather than religion as influenced by and influencing technology, and I’m not sure even Atwood would use those terms.
No one has come closer except, possibly, for real people who have designed religions. If I’m going to do my homework, one of the things I’m going to have to do is look at cases where people have purposely created religions for some functionalist task. This comes to my question, at last: does anyone know of cases where someone made a religion to achieve some independent end?
I am not particularly interested in cases where there is a present cult leader upon whom the religion is dependent. This does not really strike me as a separate object or technology in itself; the religion is not its own entity there. For the same reason I’m not as interested in Scientology, even if it is more obviously the sort of thing I’m asking about: it is still maintained by a shadowy organization without which it would probably wither.
Nor am I particularly interested in cases where the person who made the religion seems to have done so as a response to some truth they believe they have discovered rather than as an instrument to achieve an end. Perhaps I am wrong, but my impression of Raëlism is that Claude Vorilhon, aka Raël, believes what he’s preaching at least to some degree; at any rate, it is unclear whether Raëlism will survive Vorilhon.
Nor am I interested in religion-like things which do not stand up to most well-considered definitions of religion, like parody religions (which do not produce an “air of facticity”) or social movements which have many religion-like traits but not enough to quite meet a definition.
The ideal case, if it exists, is a religion which someone has made with the express purpose of making a religion rather than articulating a truth, and then that religion became independent of its creator. The creator’s motives could be selfish (make money, attract women) or altruistic (protect the environment by convincing people it is sacred). However, any example which has traits of this would be interesting to me. Please let me know in comments or through other communication channels you might have with me.
(I have given this a once-over in Google, but so far the results have been unsatisfying. I will keep looking, but if any readers happen to know of an example, that would save me some looking.)
If you are interested in how I could see religion as a technology, here are some examples of theories of religion with functionalist elements:
For Ernest Becker, religion (and worldviews generally) allow individuals to work on immortality projects, thus denying the existence of death and preventing our anxieties about death from consuming us. You could call it a technology for avoiding anxieties about death by denying the existence of death.
For W. Paul Jones, religion (and worldviews generally) allow individuals to articulate fundamental psychological anxieties and to conceive of satisfying responses to those anxieties. You could call it a technology for addressing psychological tensions.
For Rene Girard, religion allows societies to resolve conflicts, concentrate violence on scapegoats unable to retaliate, and then create elaborate lies (myths) so that the society’s members can forget that they did such a thing. You could call it a technology for conflict resolution and community preservation.
For Karl Marx, religion creates an illusory inversion of the present world, offering a distraction from and a compensation for otherwise intolerable conditions, preventing social uprising and class warfare. You could call it a technology for maintaining existing economic relations.
For Sigmund Freud, religion is an expression for repressed sexual drives and fantasies, rising from various stages in a personality’s development and strengthening a personality’s neuroses. You could call it a technology for releasing psychosexual tension without bringing the tension’s causes to the level of consciousness.
Of course anyone of these thinkers could be wrong about particular aspects of religion—Freud in particular is of only limited value, and Marx does not seem to have recognized religion’s revolutionary potential—but they give a sense of how functionalism can be part of a wider understanding of religion.