Liberal Religion and False Consciousness

Unitarian Universalism, in general, has turned from defending "individualism" to critiquing it.   It is a shift in our theological anthropology -- our theory of the human being -- breaking from the myth that isolated individuals at some point in pre-history voluntarily created communities.  No, people were always in communities (packs, herds, clans and tribes), even back into pre-human history.  Isolated individuals -- people who live alone -- is a recent phenomenon, and their existence depends on well developed community structure to support them.  One couldn't live alone without a grocery store around the corner, and a broadband internet connection.

Many a UU minister these days is preaching against the mythology of individualism.  To which I say: quit beating that horse and bury it.  

Once UUism started talking about the "beloved community" as the goal of the religious life, it should have recognized that the opposite of the "beloved community" is not the selfish individual, but the "demonic or oppressive community."

The oppressive community is a structure of domination and subordination, oppressors and oppressed, exploiters and exploited.  It is maintained by false consciousness.

False consciousness and "internalized oppression" are similar concepts, but I think that "internalized oppression" seems to be more about how people think about themselves, while false consciousness is more about how people define the communities in which they are embedded.

False consciousness is an urgent problem right now.  The belief of the Tea Party is that they are
attributed to Reuters
"losing America."  They have a vision of an "America" which is exclusionary, nostalgic, and mythic.  One quite small feature of their mythic American community is that it honors the individual, but it cannot be reduced to that thought.  That "America" to which the populist Right is loyal to is also white, Christian, small-town and male-dominated.  The populist right is weepy over the loss of this community, and panic-stricken, and furious.  But that "America" never existed.  And for most of the ordinary people loyal to the populist right, the "good old days" were actually times when people like them were consigned to a life of back-breaking work, domestic drudgery, non-existent health security and an old age of poverty.  The remembered love and comfort of their family was in spite of the social system, not because of it.

Imagining yourself as being embedded in, and nurtured by, a community that does not really exist is false consciousness.  Defining your security and well-being as flowing from that community is false consciousness.

False consciousness is a spiritual problem, especially if we define our ultimacy in terms of a particular kind of community.  It is equivalent to idolatry (the worship of a false God) to imagine oneself as being a member of a community that either does not exist, or that you misinterpret.  And if the theological definition of "sin" is separation from God, then the equivalent concept is separating yourself from the real community to live in one of fantasy.

False consciousness is a spiritual problem for contemporary religious liberals.  It shows up as our mythology of being the modern embodiment of the Boston brahmin intellectual elite.  It shows up as our belief that the Unitarian Universalist congregation is a permanent alternative community.  It shows up in our presumptions of stability into the future.  We share the persistent false consciousness of most of the middle class -- that belief that the real economic decision makers are committed to our well-being and security.  It shows up in the belief that there are "others" whom we should help by "reaching out" to them.

Rather than preaching against individualism, ministers of liberal religion might want to question how and why we belong to the communities we think we do.


  1. Reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's "grandfallon"--what you get when you take the skin off of a toy balloon.

  2. False community reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's "grandfallon"--what you get when you take off the skin of a toy balloon.

  3. Clyde Grubbs12:55 PM

    orYou are right on:

    "internalized oppression" seems to be more about how people think about themselves, while false consciousness is more about how people define the communities in which they are embedded."

    But internalized oppressions may include behaviors. We think of American Indian alcoholism as an example of internalized oppression. False consciousness would be thinking that the BIA is taking good care of us because we have a friend in the White House.

    For the working class back in the day organizers talked about how working people blamed themselves for not finishing school or not getting out there and getting a good apprenticeship when the social situation was non supportive. Blaming oneself was internalizing the narrative of demonic community that said "it is up to you." But the idea is easily translated into liberal speak, blaming yourself is problematic because of "individualism."


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