On civic atheism

With the decline of organized religion in western societies, beginning with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, but continuing into the twenty-first century, many practices and ideologies emerged to take its place as the guiding institution- both entwined with and autonomous of the state. The nineteenth century saw the rise of romantic nationalism, which motivated social action and conflict much like the religious wars of previous eras.

Encompassing nationalism, but more varied, is civic (or civil) religion. The concept, originating with Rousseau, is that a new, unifying and exalted force takes the place of the church, with its own myths and sacred figures and texts that function in a similar fashion.

Civic religion is highly developed in the United States, and instantly recognizable, even to those who were not born here and did not experience American socialization. From the Oxford Encyclopedia of Religion:

Thus, in philosophical terms, civil religion is the appropriation of religion for political ends. The American version of civil religion, though, differs from Rousseau’s idea by incorporating the nation’s Christian heritage more deeply into an understanding and judgment of America.

In the American context, civil religion had to accommodate the country’s variety of faiths and Enlightenment rationalism, but was just as deeply influenced by the power of popular and elite religiosity to order American life. Thus, American civil religion has echoed Protestant values and assumptions, while enshrining the mythic nature of the Puritans, founding fathers, and common people who gave their lives in wars and conquest. Moreover, while Americans do not pray to their nation, they have no trouble praying for their nation; they see presidents and preachers as both serving in capacities that minister to the people in times of crisis, and they invest sacred meaning in events and documents to help them imagine that America is as much an idea as it is a place.

Civic religion saturates the political and social mainstream of American society. Both political parties invoke the Founding Fathers, treat texts like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence much as prior societies did the Bible. The difference is in interpretation and emphasis- whether the American myths and legacy are compatible with a diverse and multicultural population. Though President Trump’s refrain of ‘America First’ is rightly seen as historically tied to intolerance and fascist ideology, exalting America as above all else, either the material nation or the abstract idea of America, is not particularly controversial. Even those that support multilateralism and international cooperation are often fiercely patriotic, and appeal to the civic canon to justify their decisions.

What is civic atheism?

As far as I can tell, nobody has ever discussed the idea of civic atheism, and given it a definition. Similar ideas exist- it is implicit in socialist internationalism, for instance- but I feel it is best to use the term as a contrast to civic religion. If there is religion, if there is a sacred and holy, there is its opposite, a negation.

Civic atheism is defined asa worldview that rejects the mythology of the state, the primacy of its core figures and texts, and exceptional narratives as irrational or otherwise indefensible.

Why civic atheism? 

  • Civic religion is ahistorical. It creates myths and rearranges history to glorify the nation and the state. Acceptance of, and participation in, civic religion is predicated on overlooking social problems and injustice when it doesn’t ‘fit the narrative’.
  • Principles of American civic religion have problematic ethical and moral implications. The ‘American dream’ (‘a happy way of living that is thought of by many Americans as something that can be achieved by anyone in the U.S. especially by working hard and becoming successful’ [Merriam Webster]) can interfere with empathy, as it assumes that success is the result of hard work, and failure is a shortcoming explained by individual factors. Belief in meritocracy is not fair to the less advantaged. Civic religion has a lack of understanding of both power structures and intersectionality.
  • Civic religion is the foundation of xenophobic nationalism and is used to marshal support for unjust wars. How often was the flag used to rally support for the invasion of Iraq, despite a complete lack of evidence that the country was involved in the 9/11 attacks, or could be occupied without massive consequences?

Civic religion is the true inheritor of the established churches- it also inherits the same fundamental issues from dogmatic religion.

Groups that try to tell a different story of America- the indigenous tribes that lived here long before, and live here today; the black community with its history of slavery and discrimination that predates the founding of the country; the immigrant communities from all over the world who are told to accept civic religion in order to be accepted, no matter its wisdom. It is fine to be a civic atheist, and have a cultural system that does not exist to bolster the state. It may be the healthiest way forward, in the light of profound and systemic social problems.

Noah: filling Biblical plot holes

This contains spoilers for Noah. Yes, it’s not just the Bible tale verbatim.


Today I saw Noah. Overall I found the film engaging and well-constructed. It definitely is a Biblical film for the 21st century- drawing deep into the Apocrypha and willing to make the lead protagonist something more than a paragon of virtue in a wicked world. It wrestles with the whole Flood in human terms- what would it be like to be doomed as the flood began? And what would it be like to be one of the few who survived, but had to listen to the cries of the dying?

The Old Testament has known consistency issues. If one thinks of scripture as something more than a set of books, it would be trite to call them “plot holes”. Revelation is not plot. But there are lots of outstanding questions in Genesis, and the Noah story is no exception.

Director/writer Darren Aronofsky digs deep into both the Apocrypha and modern fantasy literature to create an alien antediluvian world- a time where fallen angels walked the earth, and artifacts from the Garden of Eden were still carried by Adam and Eve’s descendents.

Aronofsky solves a couple logistical questions people have about Noah. How did a single man and his small family create a giant wood boat the size of a cruiser? The fallen angels, turned into horrible rock monsters, help Noah (who clearly has the favor of God) to seek redemption. How did they get so many animals together? God sent divine rivers out across the world and called the animals to the Ark? How did they feed all of them? Noah and his family concoct a sleeping smoke that puts them all into hibernation.

The approach to the nuts-and-bolts issues in Old Testament scripture is interesting, and it is nice to see a Biblical film try to flesh out the realities of life in the time of Genesis. By far the largest, and most important effort in Noah is to clarify why Noah’s clan were selected by God (though in the film, “the Creator” is exclusively used), and why everyone else was so terrible that they needed to be purged from the Earth.

Genesis itself is incredibly unhelpful. Here is the entire explanation of the moral landscape, in Genesis 5:11-13:

11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. 12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. 13 So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.

Clearly things had degenerated to an awful point- using “corrupt” three times in two verses gives that impression. But besides being corrupt and violent, there is not much to go on. Noah is described as righteous and godly, but not much past that.

Noah centers its entire story and conflict around the differences between the two groups. It casts most of the world as descended from Cain- they are violent, wasteful, and have an insatiable lust for land, resources, and the flesh of any animal they can get their hands on. Noah, his wife, and their three sons are descended from Seth. They appear to not be not only vegetarian but do not rely on animals in any capacity. Noah preaches conservation- use only what is needed, and look after the Earth that God gave man.

The landscape of the film is desolate- whole forests cut down, mountains turned into vast now-abandoned mines. Animal and plan life is scarce because the people of Cain have used it up to create their technologically-advanced civilization- at least Iron Age. One could see God’s flood as an environmental necessity- Nature must defend itself from complete destruction. In this light, the central idea of the Flood becomes more acceptable. Noah understands responsibility and stewardship. He will be able to create a better world. That is why he is chosen.

Overall this helps one wrestle with the theology of the Noah story. While I am not a Christian, my beliefs and current participation in the Unitarian Universalist church make me sympathetic to the idea of a universally-loving god As written, the Noah story seems like God killing a vast number of people due to general grievances. Used to a modern system where guilty parties need to be tried in an evidence-based system, it feels odd to think of such a vague scenario as holding a critical moral and religious lesson. The argument in Noah is consistent and frequent- there is great danger in people who think of humanity as supreme, and all of Nature subservient and there to please and fulfill. Characters deal with the flood in a realistic way- drawn between their duty and their common ground with those said to be wicked. It is more satisfying, and the detail that Noah injects gives the whole tale depth and dilemma.

The film is not perfect, but I appreciated a narrative that attempted to supplement scriptural stories and provide a new idea of what the land that Noah and his kin saw was like. The myth is fully realized- it feels distant, yet the underlying themes draw in the modern audience.


To tread behind is myth

Vellum lays, still
supple after centuries
in a library long vacant
ink greyed, now translucent
holy secrets stand the
test of time.

At some point
letters cross a plane,
to tread behind is myth
forward, history

Even with the grandest
and most intricate tech,
some books
bring forth a glorious
epic, enraging
and the past
rarely clarifies mysteries
like any quality magician.