Friday, August 21, 2015

On the Poverty of the Contemporary Atheist Movement

The years since the Islamist slaughter of September 11, 2001 have seen the rise of the “New Atheism,” which is a movement of atheists characterized by a bold and energetic critique of religious beliefs and practices combined with a strong political agenda of removing religious influences from public policy debates.

The New Atheism didn’t begin on 9/11, to be sure, but it captured the attention of many people as a result of that day.

The atheist movement of today is well characterized by Camille Paglia’s neologism of “snark atheism.” Although an atheist herself, Ms. Paglia is scandalized by the poverty of contemporary atheism as a social movement.

I share this attitude. Although no longer an atheist, I speak with authority. I earned my Ph.D. in Philosophy by defending atheism. In 1991, I formed the first atheist student organization at the University of Minnesota, which became, under my leadership, the largest group of its kind in the country. The group exists to this day.

What has become of the atheist movement? Passionately critical of the small-mindedness and pettiness of religious people, this form of populist atheism manifests these very vices in spades. There are many sophisticated atheists who do not engage in this anti-intellectualism, but they are not the problem. The problem is the degenerate and sanctimonious atheism that has gained wide purchase.

The populist atheist movement relies extensively on the Straw Man fallacy by misrepresenting religious beliefs in the most absurd ways, and then mocking these misrepresentations. Religious people do not generally believe in an old bearded man who lives in the sky. Christians do not believe that Jesus is a space-man. And on and on.

The movement also frequently replaces serious argument with intellectually irrelevant speculations about motives. For example, religion itself is derided and mocked because religious people supposedly believe in it out of fear or out of lust for power. There are two things wrong with this: First, even if it were true that people believe in something for ignoble reasons, the truth of the thing in question is unaffected; and, second, to ascribe these motivations to religious people as if all of them were motivated in such a way is simply inexcusably ignorant. I have met countless people in my life whose religious beliefs were sincerely motivated by perfectly noble instincts.

The movement hypocritically claims that religious people uniquely wish to impose their beliefs onto other people when, in fact, the populist atheists nearly always wish to impose their own beliefs onto religious people. For example, same-sex marriage is now forced upon many religious people. You may wonder what is wrong with that. Well, if the issue is ‘forcing one’s beliefs onto other people,’ then there is a clear hypocrisy here.

Which brings me to the next point: The reason that the new populist atheism is so aggressive is that it is nearly always mated to a strong left-wing ideological perspective. Because left-wing atheists wish to impose their political agenda onto other people, their hatred of religion is augmented by the fact that religious people are far more likely to resist their political agenda than non-religious people are.

I believe that the populist atheists are intellectually and spiritually impoverished. To a universal institution of human history they wave their hands in disgust. They mock the human need to find meaning in transcendence. They ridicule the human need for ritual that is directed at God, the Gods and Goddesses, and the ancestors as if it were just so much superstitious trash. The maturity that they bring to religious discussions is that of an adolescent. They have no real human understanding of why humans are religious and they don’t seem to care. Those who came from religion often did not experience healthy religion, which they therefore think cannot exist.

Trying to get these populist atheists to understand religion is like trying to get someone to understand classical music who has absolutely no ear for music. He will mock those who love classical music and show contempt for them, yet it is he who is deaf to it.

None of what I said proves that atheism is false. That was not my point and could not be my point. I have offered a critique of a movement that, for whatever good it has done, is pulling us away from makes us so distinctively human—the search for and love of the Transcendent.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Why Understanding Marxism-Leninism is Important

I have spent the past few years of my life studying the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, which was the official ideology of the Soviet Union.  Marxism-Leninism dominated the last century, during which a full third of the planet’s surface was Marxist-Leninist.

Over the break, I finally finished, after a year of study, the massive Grundlagen des Marxismus-Leninism: Lehrbuch.  This was an official, 850-page Soviet-approved German translation from the Russian.  It was used as a textbook for the purpose of instructing the citizens of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (the DDR, or East Germany) on how to be good Communists.

I have read many other books from the DDR, and in the summer of 2013 I traveled to the former DDR and spoke to a number of people who were raised in the Marxist-Leninist period.  I am working on a translation of J. M. Bochenski’s Marxismus-Leninismus: Wissenschaft oder Glaube, from which I also draw for this essay.
In this short essay, I will do four things:  First, I will give a sketch of Marxism-Leninism (hereafter ML); second, I will react to ML; third, I will relate ML to modern political Leftism; and fourth, I will talk about the persistence of the ideas of ML and how to inoculate oneself against them.
First, I will give a sketch of ML’s main ideas. 
ML is a comprehensive worldview that affirms a view of reality called Dialectical Materialism (hereafter DIAMAT).  The DIAMAT affirms, among many things, the following important ideas:  Matter is the ultimate foundation of all of reality.  The external world is objectively real and is the way that it is completely independently of human ideas about it. 
The universe is infinite in both space and time; as a result, it had no creation, it requires no creator, and there is no God.  The universe is forever in a process called the Dialectic, in which internal contradictions and tensions within states of affairs give rise to quantitative changes that add up until a there is a qualitative break—a “leap”—that results in a new and higher state of affairs.  These dialectical leaps produced life, consciousness, Man, and then society.  New leaps are sure to come in the future.  The universe progresses in a positive direction, giving birth to ever new and ever higher realities.
Man is a result of the Dialectic, but he possesses mind, which possesses qualities that are qualitatively unlike matter.  Nevertheless, matter produced mind, mind depends entirely on matter, and the mind simply mirrors modifications within matter.  As a result, there can be no afterlife.  And although mind exists, soul does not.  All of our thoughts are functions of matter acting in accordance with physical laws.  For those reading this with some philosophical knowledge, ML is rejecting any kind of reductionist or eliminative materialism, both of which it calls “vulgar materialism.”
Our perceptions of reality and morality are class-bound.  They mirror our class interests.  Worldviews that assist the progressive class of the proletariat (the industrial working class and wage laborers) are good.  Worldviews that assist the regressive class of the bourgeoisie (the class of those who own the means of production) are bad.  ML evaluates the merit of ethical theories similarly.  ML is the worldview that assists the proletariat the most and is therefore the best worldview available.  Other worldviews ought to be rejected.
Historical Materialism (the HISTOMAT) is the application of the DIAMAT to human history.  Its ‘static analysis’ (developed primarily by Engels) maintains that the ‘powers of production’ (tools, humans, and actions required for production) is the ultimate foundation for our social lives.  The powers of production create the ‘Basis,’ which is the ‘relations of production.’  These are the ways in which humans relate in the production process.  These, in turn, determine the legal and political ‘Superstructure’ of laws and institutions of a society.  Finally, the social forms of consciousness make up the remainder of the Superstructure of a society.  These would be things like religions, manners, mores, artistic tastes, and so on.
The ‘dynamic analysis’ claims that history is like an escalator, moving onward and upward, but not smoothly.  Changes in the powers of production are rapid, but corresponding changes in the relations of production cannot keep up with that pace.  This creates an inevitable tension in society, which results in dialectical leaps (in this case, social revolutions) that qualitatively alter the social structure.  These revolutions are always driven by the most progressive class in society, which in our times is the proletariat.
Human society has gone through a number of phases in accordance with the Dialectic:  Ancient Society (with no classes but much scarcity), Slave Society (slaveholders vs. slaves), Feudalism (lords vs. serfs), Capitalism (bourgeoisie vs. proletariat), and Socialism (a return to no classes but with no more scarcity).
ML offers a critique of Capitalism.  It is based on the following theories.
The Labor Theory of Value states that the value of any good is precisely determined by the total work that has been utilized to create it.  The Theory of Manpower Value states that labor is treated by Capitalism like any good and is determined by the value of those goods required to produce it (such as food, living expenses, etc.)  The Theory of Surplus Value states that human manpower uniquely produces more value than what it itself is worth.  The Theory of Profit states that the profit of the capitalists is stolen entirely from the laborers, since their labor is the only thing that can produce the surplus value that constitutes those profits.
The Theory of Concentration and Centralization states that capitalists gradually absorb smaller concerns and thereby generate ever more profit and power for themselves, leaving an ever-larger number of people as laborers or unemployed.  The Crisis Theory states that Capitalism experiences an economic crisis at approximately ten-year intervals.  The Theory of Misery states that Capitalism creates increasing rates of lay-offs so that there are more workers for fewer jobs, thereby decreasing wages and contributing to the ever-increasing misery of the working class.
Lenin created the Theory of Imperialism, according to which capitalists, in a desperate bid to maintain their profits in a context of poorer and fewer consumers, exert their power into foreign lands to exploit more markets.  By doing so, they bring the inhabitants of those lands into the misery of their own proletariat.  When these markets begin to dry up, capitalists manipulate international events to create wars in order that they can then expand profits through the production of military supplies.  Capitalists colonialize foreign lands to prop up their failing system.  If capitalism is not destroyed, it will ultimately result in an unthinkable level of warfare that threatens our very existence.
ML has a theory of the progression to Communism.  It consists of four periods:
The first is the Way to Socialism, or the War Period.  During this period, there is a Dictatorship of Proletariat during which the party of the workers must exert total control over all exploitative and oppressive capitalist elements in the society.  The second is Socialism (the first Transitional Period).  During this period the capitalist classes disappear.  Only one empowered party is necessary—the Communist Party.  Steps are taken to collectivize major industries.  The third is the Way to Communism (the next Transitional Period).  Here, even the differences between the farmers and the industrial workers begin to disappear.  The State hands many responsibilities over to local governing groups, since the capitalists have been resolutely defeated by this time.  The fourth is Communism (the Final Period).  The entire world has been freed from capitalism and the socialist economies are producing massively.  A new Communist Man emerges, free from greed and selfishness.  He works only to work, and he works only two or three hours per day.  The rest of the time is spent moving to ever higher levels of consciousness and development.  He lives up to 200 years old.  Beyond this, the possibilities cannot be conceived, but will surely be great.
Here I offer a few of my own reactions to the ideology.
In metaphysics (incidentally, the Marxist-Leninists strenuously denied that they were doing metaphysics, and dismissed all alternative worldviews as mere exercises in metaphysics), I disagree with much of the DIAMAT.
One thing with which I disagree is the idea that the universe is infinite in time and in space.  Firstly, I find it inconceivable that there has been an actual infinite number of events in the history of the universe, since I think that it leads to deeply troublesome paradoxes.  Even if I were wrong, however, the DIAMAT is in tension with itself anyway.  If the universe is simultaneously infinitely old and nevertheless undergoes an ever-progressive Dialectic, then why has the universe not yet reached some kind of a dialectical perfection by now?  After all, it has already existed for an infinite amount of time, encompassing an infinite number of events.  By extension, why Communism now rather than some other time?  Shouldn’t we have reached it already long, long, long ago?
ML tends to base its atheism almost entirely on the idea that the universe is infinite in time; however, if the universe had a beginning, that argument would suffer.  As a result, the authors of my textbook argue against the relevance of the red-shift for the age of the universe.  This is evidence to me that their view of the infinitude of the universe actually comes from their prior commitment to atheism, rather than the other way around.
An infinitely old universe is, to my mind, in no less need of an explanation than a finitely old universe.  For the finitely old universe, the question is, “What is the explanation for the beginning of the universe?”  For the infinitely old universe, the question is, “What is the explanation for why there is and always has been a universe at all?”  Making the universe infinitely old does not obviate the need for an explanation.  This is precisely why Hindus believe simultaneously that the universe is infinitely old and that there has to be a God to explain it.
The DIAMAT is not a true materialism, despite the Marxist-Leninist insistence that it is.  By affirming the existence of a non-reducible mind, they are actually articulating a form of dualism called “epiphenomenalism.”  This admission of mind into their system makes their materialism so attenuated as to scarcely qualify as a genuine form of it.  I agree with them that there is a non-reducible mind, but I believe that it possesses a kind of freedom (called “libertarian” freedom) that allows it to transcend the physical laws that govern the brain.  For reasons like this I cannot be a dialectical materialist.
The DIAMAT is a form of scientism, which is the belief that if empirical science cannot verify the existence of something, then that something does not exist.  The authors of the Grundlagen write that the “divine principle” is a “betrayal of science” (88).  This belief is totally mainstream today, but I believe that it is utterly false.  I would offer the existence of propositions and moral truths as two examples of very real things that cannot be accessed empirically.
Regarding the other aspects of ML, such as the HISTOMAT and the critique of Capitalism, I must say that these things have been done well by others.  But we must nevertheless make decisions about things, and I would concur with the general view offered by the Polish philosopher J. M. Bochenski.  To his mind, ML offers many interesting and insightful ideas by which we can further our knowledge of how the human works; nevertheless, ML greatly exaggerates its insights and simultaneously demotes the insights of other theories so completely that a highly distorted image of humans and human society is developed.  This distorted image leads to distorted thinking that proved to be uniquely dangerous to human life and welfare.  Additionally, the predictions about crises and increasing misery were completely disconfirmed by historical developments, providing powerful evidence that there is significant falsehood in its foundational ideas.
The third thing I want to do is to relate some of these ideas to modern politics. 
I am convinced that ML is alive and well in spite of the death of the Soviet Union.  It has assumed new forms, discarded some ideas, taken some new ones on, but its spirit is healthy.  Its spirit is essentially a collectivist one that does the following:  It affirms that Man is infinitely malleable rather than limited by his nature, it denigrates individualism for the sake of collectivism, it de-emphasizes personal responsibility by making our behavior depend on things outside of our control, it relatives truth and morality by making them functions of group membership, it corrodes liberty for the sake of equality of results, it advocates the silencing of political opponents, and it is virulently anti-American (and anti-Israel, for that matter).
Many characteristics of ML are present in vibrant abundance among a large number of political movements, particularly its hatred of capitalism and its emphasis on ‘imperialism.’  These political movements include the environmentalist movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the sustainability movement, the social justice movement, the social equity movement, the discipline of Sociology, nearly any academic discipline with the word “Studies” in it, and so on and on.  ‘Political Correctness’ is a phrase that we rightfully use disparagingly to refer to any number of aggressively Leftist movements and tendencies that threaten the value of liberty.
There are some interesting differences between modern Leftism and ML.  For one, ML categorically affirms the existence of an objective reality outside of our consciousness, which is the way it is no matter what we think about it.  The modern age is characterized by more of a kind of postmodernism, in which there is no ultimate reality behind the appearances—all we have are ‘narratives.’  Also, ML is not at all green.  Throughout the Grundlagen, the authors boast of the great and inexhaustible reserves of the Soviet Union—the coal, the oil, and so on.  They are particularly excited about the possibilities to be unlocked by nuclear energy.  They are excited about the genetic modification of foodstuffs as a great boon to human flourishing.  And they passionately affirm that Man is the highest type of being, and that he is to be distinguished qualitatively from the animals.  Man is not merely a ‘higher animal’; rather, he is beyond the animal.  Additionally, they mock the idea that there is an over-population crisis.  For them, this hysteria is evidence of a lack of faith in humanity.  I agree with the Marxist-Leninists about all of these things in opposition to today’s Leftism.  In a most interesting twist, all of these things that I have listed here characterize the views of the modern-day conservative.  The authors of the Grundlagen roll in their graves.
Finally, I wish to address the issue of why it is that these collectivist ideas are so persistent and how we can protect ourselves from them.
ML, and the worldviews that it has spawned and influenced, give us the following things:  a comprehensive picture of the world that explains why we are what we are, an ideal toward which we can strive, a sense of purpose that gives us the motivation to deal with all of life’s hardships, a moral superiority over other people, a sense of certainty that frees us from skepticism, a sense of meaning that saves us from the void of meaninglessness, the moral authority to exert control over the behavior of others, a practical road map of specific policies with which we can occupy our intellects, the fellowship of millions of other people in a committed community, and a sturdy place to rest when we weary. 
Most of these factors are perfectly legitimate and important.  We do need purpose, meaning, goals, projects, and knowledge.  The older we get, the more important it is that we direct these needs toward something that is transcendent.  ML offers this transcendental something—the emancipation and liberation of humanity itself.  But we have learned that when we direct our passions into the wrong direction, the consequences are not trivial.
The desire to escape personal moral responsibility is, I believe, at the heart of collectivism and postmodernism alike.  Collectivists place moral responsibility at the level of the group and talk about ‘collective responsibility.’  Postmodernists refuse to acknowledge that there is any such thing as a robust moral responsibility at all and retreat to relativism, nihilism, and obscurantist mysticism. 
I refuse to adopt any worldview that fails to hold us morally accountable.  I have come to the decision to affirm the existence of a Supreme Being who is the ultimate foundation of our existence and that of the universe.  He created the universe for a reason, or perhaps for many reasons, and He infused the creation with a moral dimension that is universal and applies to all of us as individuals regardless of our race, class, or gender.  We will not be judged by the actions of our group membership; rather, we will be judged as individuals for our behavior throughout our lives.  This judgment will occur after our physical deaths.
You may well reject my path, but what is most important is that you do not abandon these four beliefs:  There is objective truth, there is an objective morality to which you are bound, human freedom is real, and we must all be held personally morally accountable for our actions.  These four beliefs will inoculate anyone against the twin poisons of collectivism and postmodernism.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Leftist Censorship and the Abortion Debate

This disturbing incident, in which radical leftist students effectively censored a debate on abortion at Oxford, illustrates the anti-intellectualism at the heart of left-wing campus activism.  This article is fantastic—I recommend reading it in its entirety.

The two most anti-intellectual tendencies in the abortion debate are as follows:  First, to dismiss someone’s position (nearly always a pro-lifer’s), because he is male; and second, to dismiss someone’s position (always a pro-lifer’s) because he or she is religiously motivated.

To the first tendency:  To dismiss an argument or position on the basis of the gender of the person expressing it is to commit a logical fallacy known as the ‘ad hominem’ fallacy, which occurs whenever a position or argument is rejected on the basis of the person who states it rather than on the merits of the position or argument itself.  To reject a male pro-lifer’s position on abortion on the basis of his gender is pure sexism and is completely anti-intellectual.

Also, there are many female pro-lifers; in fact, I am convinced that females are pro-life more often than males are.  Their position cannot be dismissed on the basis of their possession of a penis and testicles.

Additionally, I rarely see a pro-choice male’s position dismissed because of his gender.

Arguments and positions have their merits or demerits independently of the genitalia of their representatives.  These budding intellectual college students ought to know better.

To the second tendency:  To dismiss the pro-life position on the basis of the religious motivation of the person holding it is also anti-intellectual and, frankly, bigoted.  This is because there are, in fact, arguments for the pro-life position that make no reference whatsoever to either God, the Bible, or Jesus.  In my ethics class, I teach John Noonan’s and Don Marquis’ pro-life arguments, both of which could be theoretically accepted by an atheist.

Also, I rarely see a religious pro-choicer’s opinion summarily dismissed because it may have a religious motivation.

To dismiss any position on the basis of what one takes to be an ignoble motivation for holding the position is to commit a fallacy known as the ‘genetic fallacy.’  A person’s motivations for holding a position are not relevant to the truth of that position. 

Arguments and positions have their merits or demerits independently of the motivations of their representatives.  These budding intellectual college students ought to know better.

The educational systems are devolving into an anti-intellectual parody of political correctness.  What happened at Oxford should be horrifying to both any pro-lifers and pro-choicers who value liberty and freedom.