I’ve been thinking about the man in the strange buffalo costume who stormed the Capitol last week. As I understand it, the man is called the “QAnon Shaman.”
The strange blend of adulterated Paganism, Christianity and nationalism we have seen in the Trump era also occurred in Nazi Germany. Hitler hated the forms of Judaism and Christianity that insisted on economic justice and human rights, but he would often praise the apolitical form of religion that served as liturgical toady to state power.
The religion of the Nazis consisted of a very motley crew of “Christians” who were willing to hate in service to the state, “Pagans” who would betray nature in service to the state, and “Atheists” who would affirm the superstitious cosmology of the Nazis in service to the state.
How did this meltdown happen? Germany was perhaps the most sophisticated culture of all time, but I wonder if their high culture and philosophy really addressed the deep and often irrational needs of real people. Whereas many of the most brilliant philosophers in Germany completely refuted the metaphysical claims of German religion, perhaps they unwittingly took away a crutch from some people leaving nothing upon which those people felt they could stand.
It is a noble aspiration to be rational and scientific, but when we say people should be COMPLETELY rational, many face a crisis of identity. How can a mammal be completely rational? At our best we can be wonderful logical, but rationality is an aspiration, not a foundation. When the religious and secular elites of the culture discounted this fact, Hitler was all too eager to take advantage of the vacuum of meaning.
I wonder if much of the strange intolerance in our time is not a crisis of identity. I wonder if some of the dread of foreigners, of myth melting science and even of wearing COVID masks that cover their faces is coming from a people who have lost the sense of who they are. I suspect many feel as if they are thrashing and drowning in the commons.
Nature religions are very good at helping people find their identity in nature and the cosmos. Puberty rights may seem silly, but without some kind of coming of age ritual. many young people may not ever come to feel they have arrived as adults. Some young people may mistake tattoos, or smoking, or getting pregnant as a way to affirm they have arrived into adulthood. But some people may join a group like Q-Anon that gives them an identity and a powerful (though vicious) narrative of meaning.
Perhaps the reason people are clutching flags and ridiculous conspiracy theories is in an attempt to hold up the shards of a broken mirror that once told them who they were.
When the religions of a culture do not answer the question, “Who am I in the cosmos,” and when many secular thinkers dismiss the question as superstition, we should not be surprised when someone like Donald Trump or a “QAnon Shaman” answers the question for them.