The Zombie Enlightenment enslaves us to a new religion.
America’s tragic and needlessly incompetent public health response to COVID-19 was not an accident. It was the logical consequence of the prevailing American creed of the body. Over the course of the last year, America’s bureaucratic, academic, and media elites have taken advantage of the pandemic to turn that prevailing orthodoxy into a clerisy of public health and modern medicine. As governors, county judges, and newly minted bureaucratic kaisers around America closed down real churches for Sunday worship, they were hard at work building a new Church—the Church of Health.
Surviving the virus is this Church’s equivalent of salvation; saving “just one life” is its version of Christian charity and community; the daily and hourly COVID reports are its liturgy of the hours and the double mask its scapular. Social distance is its prayer without ceasing. Hand sanitizer is the Church’s holy water: who among us, for months, did not faithfully apply it before entering or exiting any building? The vaccine (at last!) is its only sacrament, the faithful reception of which is no excuse to return to our former way of life.
The religion of the Church of Health is not a new faith: it is simply a more radical form of an enlightenment and post-enlightenment teaching regarding the body and the care of the body. Centuries before mRNA vaccines and social distancing, in an age in which the use of leeches was the cutting edge of surgery and the “science” of humors was the best diagnostic medicine had to offer, Descartes, Bacon and the other founding fathers of modernity promised a new age of health through medicine and peace through the better satisfaction of man’s basic needs. Soon, they prophesied, disease would be abolished and life would be extended almost indefinitely. Disease challenges man’s body: “You will die. Even now, you are dying.” The Church of Health responds: “We can rebuild him: we have the technology.”
The Enlightenment’s obsession with preserving and extending life emerged in tandem with a robust political philosophy of individual freedom. This meant the preservation of life always had to be weighed against other rights, like property and freedom of speech, action, and thought. But as the substance of classical natural rights liberalism has withered away, the shell of individualism and its laser-sharp focus on preserving mere life have remained, like the carapace of a dead lobster, hollowing out and hardening with time.
The Church of Health theory of the human body may be expressed in four principles:
The body is nothing but matter.
The primary function of the body is merely to continue living.
All other supposed “ends” of the body are arbitrary inventions of the mind or arbitrary exertions of oppressive force upon the body.
All bodies are equally worthy insofar as they are alive.
These theoretical doctrines imply five practical principles about how to care for the body:
Preserve bodily life at any cost; sacrifice other functions of the body, mind, or soul.
To preserve bodily life most efficiently, focus only on the body’s survival.
The best way to preserve life is through technical interventions at the individual level, like policy prescriptions, medicine, and technology (“follow the science”).
Heighten the fear of death, which makes us more conscious of the radical equality we all have in our vulnerability.
Discourage communal bodily activity, honors for exceptional bodily activities, or anything else which would tend to emphasize inequality between bodies or present bodies as anything more than undifferentiated, purely material, subsistent, and equal.
The most disturbing thing about the Church of Health is that it clearly values its devotion to these theoretical and practical principles more highly than the common good. The Church is committed to upholding the survival of the radically equal body as the highest good, even if that means sacrificing every other good—and even if it means more individuals will die.
This teaching now issues from every government authority and is reinforced by every major cultural institution. We have seen the fruits of the Church’s teaching during the pandemic. America is ready for an alternative understanding of the body.
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