Secular Calvinism

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Illustration, Lorenzo Petrantoni for TIME

Australia is one of the most secular of developed nations. At the last census, 22% of people marked “No religion” as their affiliation, and the attendance at religious services weekly dropped to 16%, from a high in 1950 of 44%.

So why is it that a sizeable minority (around 30%) of Australians oppose gay marriage, blame the poor for their own plight, and treat drug usage as a moral issue? These are only ever justified on religious grounds – that homosexuality is not normal, that the poor get what they deserve from a vengeful god, or that drug addiction is a moral failure.

At the same time, Australians, like the Irish and Americans, are reading daily about the moral failings of religious institutions – the Catholic, Anglican and Salvation Army abuse of children, for example. What is going on here?

Social expectations are rarely justified explicitly. It is simply a given that the normal state is to raise children in a stable heterosexual relationship, for instance. The few who do attack non-hetero, heteroflexible, and plural relationships as the foundations for families are special pleaders for extreme religious views, to be sure, but why do they have impact on a largely non-religious population? Even those who claim to be Catholics or some other denomination on cultural grounds do not take the moral stance of their affiliate churches seriously on many issues.

I propose this has to do with what I call “secular Calvinism”; the internalisation of Calvinist, and to a lesser extent Catholic, morality as secular virtues independently of the affiliations or self-identification of the people that hold these cultural expectations. In short, Calvinist moralism became a secular value.

One classic instance of this was in the refusal of self-confessed atheist, unmarried former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who declared that she would not support marriage equality because:

“For our culture, for our heritage, the Marriage Act and marriage being between a man and a woman has a special status,” she said at the time.

She has since changed her mind, but what inspired her to adopt this view? Partly it has to do with the strong Catholic base of her party, but since most of them are cultural Catholics in any event, the question remains.

Calvinism is a strictly moral theology that holds that people are punished for their sins and that is preoccupied with guilt, sin and violence, either by God or by the ruling authorities. Calvin’s Geneva was as authoritarian as any modern totalitarian state, and the Kirk in Scotland much the same. Shaming those who did not conform to the moral consensus was a Puritan convention in early America (vide, The Scarlet Letter).

Calvinism has been identified as the moral foundation of industrial society ever since sociologists R. H. Tawney and Max Weber identified it as the foundation of capitalist mores. Calvin himself was the founder of the repeal of Christian laws against usury (lending money at interest) that held true for the previous 15 centuries (and is the proximate cause of Jews, being non-Christians, engaging in money lending). Calvinism itself developed along with capitalism, so that the virtues of capitalism – the patriarchal family, the free market, and individual responsibility – have become Calvinist virtues as well. In effect, neoconservatism and Calvinism are the same thing.

In Australia, with its strong class divide between the Anglican and Presbyterian English, and the Catholic Irish, Calvinism virtues became the ruling virtues of secular (i.e., non-religious) society. Even those lower class individuals who entered political life had to conform to these virtues. Family values, straight marriage, personal achievement, and so forth became the sine qua non for public life.

Young people in middle class environments assumed, until quite recently, they would end up having kids in a marriage. They were, in effect, secular Calvinists.

I will discuss these three issues – marriage, poverty, and drugs, from this perspective in subsequent posts…

16 thoughts on “Secular Calvinism

    1. Thanks for that link. I did come up with the term some years back, so I apologise for not giving you credit. One difference in our approach is that I am not saying secular attitudes *are* religions, but only that they are influenced by them.

      1. Oh, I’m sure the term isn’t unique to me, it’s quite an easy one to come up with.

        I’m not exactly saying that secular attitudes are religions, as that they particular forms of secularism spring from particular forms of religion and often have more in common with those religions than their advocates recognise.

        Be that as it may, thanks as ever for your most courteous reply. All the best!

  1. I’m glad to see you back posting.

    So why is it that a sizable minority (around 30%) of Australians oppose gay marriage, blame the poor for their own plight, and treat drug usage as a moral issue? These are only ever justified on religious grounds – that homosexuality is not normal, that the poor get what they deserve from a vengeful god, or that drug addiction is a moral failure.

    I don’t think that’s right. As an example of drug addiction, consider cigarette smoking in public areas. That has become a moral issue, and religion does not seem to be involved. The result is that we breath cleaner air. So it is justified on utilitarian grounds.

    1. Calvanisim may not be the direct cause but the succesfull growth of such moral dispositions within a population may be related to a society psychologically equiped and pre-disposed to making the most of such issues.

    2. Yes I think John slipped up there. I can think of good non-religious arguments in support of all those positions – and in general suspect that when referring to how things are justified, “only ever” is *almost never* appropriate.

    3. P.S. I should have left out the word “good” there. I didn’t mean that I personally find such arguments adequate or convincing, but just that they are ones that I would need to take seriously enough to provide a counter-argument.

    4. A common error noted by early modern historians in regard to Calvinism is the tendency to apply a contemporary and rather narrow definition of what a religious belief is.

    5. It’s worth noting that, at least in the United States, public smoking bans are for the most part pushed by people who support marriage equality, don’t blame the poor, and support drug legalization. They are passed ostensibly as public health issues, but the moral issue is there, as is a class component (as in the US smoking tends to be a practice of the less-educated).

  2. This secular Calvinism notion is interesting as I wonder if some nonbelievers carry baggage from their religious past into their present value systems. You used the atheist prime minister as an example, but could she have been an oddball not generalizable to other nonbelievers? Maybe Aussie society has an increasingly secular subcomponent, but another demographic subset that is still traditional protestant and politically active. Could you be mixing demographics a bit? The secularists may be much less Calvinist. The way society operates could be a function of impact religious conservatives have despite growing secularity.

    I dislike the “nones” category as it doesn’t have as much meaning as I have seen bestowed upon it. I would hazard the actual nonbelievers in Oz are a much smaller percentage if like US. But “nones” might serve as an imperfect indicator of secularity.

    Good to see you back posting. This is my first reply to a blog I think. Given the Great Rifts and Tone Wars have created a desert yours is an oasis for a thirsty traveler.

  3. I think it’s just an ingroup / outgroup thing. Religion may have fallen away as a post-hoc justification, the instinct that drives the condemnation is still there.

    This has an interesting effect here in Western Europe. People who have stronger tendencies to think in in and out groups are politically conservative. So, normally they would be anti-homosexual rights. But an essential difference between the ultimate outgroup, immigrants, and the Western secular ingroup lies in the acceptance of homosexuality. So racist parties here often play the card that they want to protect our hard won gay rights from the influence of muslims fundamentalists. Whenever left-wing parties try to seize upon this, by trying to get support for measures to improve gay rights at home or abroad, the right-wing extremists suddenly do not support gay rights anymore.

  4. Good to hear your voice again. Re Gillard, I had read this was purely political eg

    http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2013/08/12/gillard-considered-reversing-gay-marriage-policy

    It is interesting that 41% of Labor MHRs voted against SSM, as did
    41% of older Australians opposed on the ABC Vote Compass polling. Obviously religiosity is a factor, and non-mainstream christians are more anti-SSM.

    There is one paper specifically looking at the PWE in Australia by religious affiliation [Ray 1982] – that author could not differentiate Catholics from Protestants, while “unbelievers were
    those with especially high achievement motivation”.

  5. “Calvinism has been identified as the moral foundation of industrial society”

    Its also associated with the establishment of networks that may be vital in early modern migration. Relationships between Ulster/ Scotland/ North America for example. I am unfamiliar with the history here for Australia. Would be interesting to know more.

  6. At least in America, the right approaches the issue of economic and social inequality in a rather theological way. Conservative pols are willing to talk about measures that might increase economic mobility, but they have little interest in bettering the condition of those left behind. The suffering of the preterite (to use an old Puritan word) is an integral part of the moral world order. No Hell, no Heaven, apparently. It doesn’t reflect badly on God or the American way even if the losers were predestined to their plight by history in ways that are perfectly obvious. Calvin wrote some place that the sun is not at fault for the stench of a corpse. It doesn’t reflect badly on the good people if minimum wage workers don’t have enough to live on decently and that’s true even if it is literally impossible that they all become success stories, rise from the depths to own 167 pizza restaurants, etc.

    What bothers me is that this sort of thinking is not limited to conservatives.

  7. “What bothers me is that this sort of thinking is not limited to conservatives.”

    In the cold light of day its interesting as it suggests that the actor dwelling within the mask of such cosmological dramas is a product of specific social conditions and motivated by social strategy rather than myth when it comes to weaving such webs.

  8. I’m not so sure that ‘Calvinism’ adds more to the argument than it subtracts. Yes, you can make a good case for it, but I’d argue that there is a more fundamental concept in play rather than ‘religion’ or religious attitudes.

    Perhaps when we see people doing ‘bad’ things (in our eyes) we make the subconscious abduction that because they do bad things they must have been bad agents, therefore they are bad people. When we do bad things ourselves there are *always* extenuating reasons or other people to blame. I expect this is human nature – and also what religions and ‘secular Calvinism’ exploit.

    Religions might well have formalised what is acceptable behaviours, but the response to ‘bad’ or ‘disgusting’ or ‘non-group supporting’ behaviour is a human predisposition.

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