In Velvet Glove Iron Fist Chris Snowdon traces the history of the Victorian temperance movement, the American Prohibition and, towards the end of the book, the emergence of a neo-puritanism firmly rooted in government. On his blog of the same name, and throughout other media, there is newer discussion of these phenomena. This partly inspired a concept I labelled “Secular Methodism”, leading to a jokey exploration of the theme in an earlier piece for the September 2013 edition of The Pink Humanist.
In that article I took aim at a middle-of-the- road humanism, essentially decent but “small c conservative” and unwilling to make waves. I was also trying to explore a phenomenon that people coming to humanism seem unwilling to admit, that remnants of attitudes instilled by early religious upbringing stay with them. From a spell living in Belfast during the Troubles (when such skills were lifesavers) I can certainly spot Catholic, Presbyterian or non-conformist descent in humanists within seconds. The article was never meant as a full-blooded assault on a mind set I find infuriating, though hardly life-threatening. As a bone-idle hedonist I was content for it to be an in joke among a friendly sub set of what is fast becoming quite a pompous belief system.
But, by coincidence, I was starting to wonder if there is more to it when Diesel Balaam, a regular contributor to TPH, started using the term on the Gaytheist forum. Frankly, his short and succinct definition even clears up some of my own confusions about what Secular Methodism might be!
Diesel’s particular concern is the way humanists seem to fiddle around while Islam burns . . . well, if not Rome itself at least the foundations of what most of us consider civilisation. I absolutely share that concern, but also want to pose my own new question, which is: “Could the concept of Secular Methodism help to explain 21st century neo-puritanism itself?”
Or am I the only one struck by the quasi-religious zeal of governmental health reformers? It worries me when a small fact set with limited practical application starts dominating arguments for social reform with little factual basis and dire consequences for an equal, free world.
Once, your doctor amicably said “Your choice, but maybe you should go easy on the drink/fags/fatty foods”. Now, public health professionals and a growing class of quasi-academic “experts” preach a swivel-eyed health evangelism which seems to want to save our very souls, rather than just our livers.
I know not if these pulpit-pounders are driven by actual religious belief, and am reluctant to ask. I do note that the major churches (having effectively lost the battle for religious morality and fast losing paying punters to keep their infrastructure in place) do seem to be turning to other battles and other income sources. For example, as central and local government privatise what used to be essential services, religious charities dominate the Third Sector, which fills the cracks.
But something sparks this neo-puritanism, and, returning to Snowdon’s analysis of the first wave, a century ago, there is an immediate similarity. Then, as now, there is an implicit sense among the reformers that this crusade is far too important to waste time examining facts, or to wait for a popular seal of approval. Statistics can be safely limited to those that are useful, while others that are not can be ignored, and neither government nor its sock puppets are about to explain or reveal them to ordinary folk who might want to take an informed choice.
With the demise of both traditional Christianity and the traditional Left in the UK, could those who favour doctrinaire “big answers” (and might formerly have found a home in either of those movements) have found a new one?
Anyone with a basic understanding of labour history in the UK, for example, knows that the Labour Party simply could not have flourished were it not for the parallel development of British non-conformism. Certainly my grandparents’ belief in the Labour Party was as solid as their Salvationism. Both were driven by the awful physical conditions in which they grew up, both were emotionally rather than purely intellectually based, but both led to the Welfare State. Such people were typical of their time and class – thoroughly decent, and examples of the positive aspects of belief in greater communal goals rather than raw individualism.
But 21st century neo-puritanism is not like that. If we were to believe those who peddle it via either the Christian Post or the Morning Star, these days nailing either your religious or socialist beliefs to the wall could render you unemployable.
The apparent cause is a rise in cynicism that belittles belief of any kind (though while sniggering at that idea it’s also time to get very cynical about a cynicism that is itself afraid to explore any view outside a narrow, approved mainstream).
If I had to find a bridging phenomenon, I would suggest the development of an urban local-authority-based career Leftism in the 1980s. Built on an apparent defence of older Labour values against Thatcherism, what this offered for the first time was the possibility of a career in virtual political opposition with a good salary and an index-linked pension.
The irony is that while some good and useful work was done – and eventually stopped by Tory HQ – over time the “opposition” became the mainstream practice and, whatever the political party nominally in power, professing blind belief and toeing the sponsor’s line is the guarantee of longer-term contracts.
Finally, it is Marketing 101 – identify what the punter wants, offer an apparent way to deliver it and collect the fee. But in the public sector, the catch is that punter is a government department run by career politicians and civil servants and not the general public, whose only role is to pick up the bill.
A self-perpetuating elite passing moral judgement without reason or proof, which may not be questioned for fear of being branded a sinner? Isn’t this how the religious industry works?