Friday, April 20, 2007

Skepticism, naturalism, materialism: they're talking about me

The Center for Naturalism's Currents in Naturalism March-April 2007 listed my blog entry on naturalism vs. materialism on my Freethought Forum blog as a good source on the subject.

Picking up on this, The Mindful Hack then quoted me, twisting my criticism of the skeptical movement to justify psi phenomena as a legitimate field of inquiry:

Thinkquote of the day: Skeptical of "skepticism".

This was in turn picked up by The ID Report.

There's no way of controlling how other people are going to use information. Hopefully someone will learn something from the material I put out.

See also my initial commentary on

God, the Failed Hypothesis

Stenger, Victor J. God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Written 16 Mar 2007:

I gave Victor J. Stenger's book God: The Failed Hypothesis a quick read yesterday. It is far superior to Dawkins's latest book and I'm hoping it will ride the wave of the alleged "new atheism" to gain a wider readership than such books would likely have garnered in the past. I have some philosophical nits to pick with the book, but it is an excellent springboard, or baseline, to work from, and then work out some of the more esoteric philosophical issues as a follow-up.

The book focuses on scientific arguments pertaining to all aspects of the God hypothesis, and while not attempting to "prove" a case for atheism, it trashes the basis for any belief in a god exhibiting the standard divine attributes. Thus, while some God could conceivably survive such a treatment, its alleged properties would be constrained. For Stenger, what would be left would be nothing more than a weak deism with no real explanatory consequences.

Fortunately, Stenger does understand the difference between science and philosophy for the most part, and he supplements his science-based approach with some strictly philosophical considerations as to the coherence of certain god concepts on purely conceptual (rather than empirical, i.e. scientific) grounds. This is an improvement over Dawkins.

The most important thing to understand here is the demolishing of a scientific, empirical basis for belief in gods, paranormal phenomena, and nonmaterial self-subsistent entities. Or to put it any other way, God as an explanatory device for scientifically investigated phenomena. The other philosophical arguments are icing on the cake, and they take us a good part of the way to demolishing a rational case for any kind of God 99% of humanity including intellectuals would lay claim to. As I say, there are more refined philosophical issues remaining to be treated, but this is a good basis to work from for general public purposes.

Stenger references two books unfamiliar to me which seem to be central to addressing these purely philosophical issues: The Non-Existence of God, ed. Nicholas Everitt; The Impossibility of God, ed. Michael Martin & Ricki Monnier. I think such approaches are indispensable, as the basic conceptual problems with the god concept are as central as those involving empirical proof of such an entity.

I made pages and pages of notes and outlined a detailed review which I should publish online or perhaps better yet in print. In it I would also address what I consider to be the unfinished business of this genre.

Postscript, 26 March 2007:

There are two ways to conceive of the existence of god: (1) as an empirical entity like any other, (2) as a concept, bearing various definitions and attributes. The "proofs" of the impossibility of God do not pertain to (1), as such proofs are impossible. Rather, the philosophical proofs of God's non-existence would be based on the incoherence, self-contradiction, vacuousness, etc. of the concept. I presume such proofs would have to do with the alleged attributes of God's perfection.

The Dawkins approach, I would say, is rather simple-minded, but since it is addressed to a nation of simpletons who don't understand the nature of scientific explanation, I guess I shouldn't complain. In my view, though, (2) is as important, fundamentally even more important than (1).

The existence of a god as an empirical entity is the anthropological god, of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Muhammed, yo mama. But the other god is the god of the philosophers, an abstract concept, the god the theologians attempt to hang on to, craftily shifting back and forth from the anthropological to the metaphysical god.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Socialism & Humanism: Novack & Mattick

Written 11 April 2007 (now edited):

Someone recommended these texts as introductions to the relationship between Humanism and Socialism:

Paul Mattick, "Humanism and Socialism" (1965)

George Novack (William F. Warde, pseud.), "Socialism and Humanism" (1959)

As a rule American freethinkers, atheists, and secular humanists have no relevant background to evaluate these sources. Not being a proselytizer, I'm not out to convert people. Then again, I'm all for united fronts. My response below illustrates my caveats regarding the relation between abstract philosophical perspectives and social theory.

(1) I read Novack extensively many years ago, but I don't remember everything. I am less familiar with Mattick, though I do know in general what he wrote about. Are you interested in their thoughts on humanism, or in their specific theoretical analysis of socioeconomic systems? What do you seek to learn from them?

As for the connection of socialism with humanism, the issue immediately becomes more general and philosophical, which is fine, but then the specificity of history and politics and economics and sociology can get lost, if the discussion gets limited to very general principles.

Except for certain French intellectuals since the '60s (and their groupies), pretty much everyone in the socialist camp has seen socialism as inherently humanist, however we might view them.

But aside from that, there are so many different standpoints grouped under this general political rubric, I would not consider any text authoritative. I would need something more to go on about what a person wants to know before I would make recommendations for a particular reading trajectory.

(2) My reactions re Novack:

Generally, without a background re some author in question, it can be difficult to evaluate his or her statements, as there are unstated assumptions behind some of them.

Novack was an orthodox Trotskyist, a reasonably intelligent man who played an interesting historical role, most notably in organizing a counter-trial with John Dewey to oppose Stalin's frame-up of Trotsky.

With respect to this essay, I'll focus only on my quibbles.

(a) Novack states categorically that while Marxism and Humanism overlap, they are two different categories. But this is a bad move to make, for there is a misleading tacit assumption. He is equating "humanism" as a general concept with the de facto American humanist movement, as one can see viz. his remarks about Corliss Lamont. But this or that American humanist or group of them is one thing; "humanism" as a historical movement is broader, and "humanism" as an abstract concept, is not inherently synonymous with either of the two, certainly not with the former.

Novack is correct in his criticisms of prevailing tendencies among humanists in our neck of the woods, who are scientific materialists with respect to nature but fall down in their analysis of society. Many are social reformers as well, says Novack, but fail to go all the way.

But what is "all the way", exactly? I will defer this question for the moment.

(b) Socialist humanism: E.P. Thompson published his epochal The Making of the English Working Class in 1963. Novack's essay came out in 1959. At that time, Thompson's major work was a huge bio of William Morris. So yeah, Thompson had romantic tendencies, which also helped him break from the Communist Party of Britain, which like all such parties, made their intellectuals miserable.

And Irving Howe had his origins in the Trotskyist movement, though he became softer in the 1950s.

Now note that Novack is a defender of scientific socialism, and he is addressing the generation that has just discovered the "young Marx" as an alternative to Stalinism. Novack, whose original audience consisted of Trotskyist hacks, is out to warn his comrades of competing ideological tendencies, and is thus wary of the "reversion" to the young, humanistic Marx, shorn of political economy and scientific socialism.

However, Novack's admonitions show him in his role as a hack, defending one doctrine against another. While he is not exactly wrong, he is not completely on the right track either. This is because, on the philosophical plane, he has not calibrated the relationship between different levels of abstraction. Humanism is more philosophically abstract than a proper social theory--"scientific socialism" or any other--humanism is a philosophy of a very general nature, not specifically tied to a given sociology, politics, or even ontology and epistemology, even if it has a social history that can be traced and analyzed. That is, humanism consists of general tenets which overlap a number of different philosophical and political and social positions.

Novack collapses the general orientation of humanism as a concept into the specifics of its ideological trajectory and intellectual representatives, drawing the conclusion that those (in the Marxist camp, especially) who set their tents up under "Humanism" are decent progressives but deficient from the standpoint of Marxism, which for Novack means scientific socialism, where they should be setting up their tents.

But I would not make such an argument, first of all because my recommendations for people would have something to do with the actual claims they are making and their purposes for making them, and with respect to my purposes in interacting with them. But my purposes in interacting with people are not driven in all circumstances by schnorring for a particular political or theoretical position.

When you make reading recommendations, you have to take into account the presuppositions of the author and of the audience, and it is unwise to sic Novack on people without explaining where he is coming from first. I don't think Novack is the ideal introduction for people, because there is a lot assumed that should not be assumed in an introductory presentation.

(3) There is a Mattick Sr. and a Mattick Jr. and I am not clear whether their positions differ. But I'll go out on a limb. Mattick (I'll assume both for now) is not only anti-Stalinist, but also not a Trotskyist. His position is more radically different and he probably fits in closer to council communism and the state capitalism position, for those who know what these terms mean.

Mattick paints the ideological history of capitalism and its relation to humanism with a broad brush, and probably not for an entirely uninitiated audience.

Mattick then proceeds to the young, humanist Marx and then stresses his shift. For those who don't know, this means the shift from Marx in 1844 to Marx in 1845-6, as expressed in The German Ideology. And so we come to the end of Part II of Mattick's essay.

Now I don't disagree with his sketch, except for one subtle point, which may be difficult to explain in this brief post. When Mattick contrasts Marx's shift from a general position on human nature to a view on social humanity from the perspective of class society and class struggle, he is correct, sort of, but there's a very dangerous lacuna, a hole which countless people have fallen into. There's a shift in the level of abstraction. The old abstract humanism becomes invalidated, but I emphasize that this is so from the vantage point of a level of abstraction which functions at a level of explanation.

That is to say, I don't see abstract philosophical statements as worthy of being discarded once they are discredited as foundational explanatory positions. Philosophical general statements are still legitimate as long as they don't pretend to be social explanations. That's all I can say in the course of one post.

Mattick's take on "socialist humanism" is a cut above Novack's, because Mattick does not share the assumptions of orthodox Trotskyism which sees Stalinist states as degenerated workers' states.

However, Mattick fails to deliver the punchline on socialist humanism. I'm assuming he must think it a reaction which is limited, but from a theoretical and political base different from that of Novack.

But, in my view, like Novack, Mattick sees "humanism" as an inadequate position, because it only deals with alienation in general, not in its theoretically adequate social specificity.

While I don't exactly disagree, I don't exactly agree either. Why not? Because I conceive the relation between general philosophical statements and theoretical adequacy different from both gentlemen, because I recognize different levels of abstraction which can both work when not confused with one another.

What does this mean on a more down-to-earth level? It means the far left gives me a royal pain up my ass, whether it be Trotskyism, council communism, . . . or anarchism. Politically, I despise all these people (except Chomsky), while I can engage them on a more general critical level (though 99.9& of anarchists are idiots, and the other 0.1 % are analytically limited, and that includes Chomsky.)

I'm warning that texts such as these by Novack and Mattick should not be inflicted on an unsuspecting public without thinking through what one hopes to accomplish in doing so. Too much is being assumed.

I don't like the far left because its politics are childish. There is a lack of mediation between their abstract positions and real world interventions. Which means, in the context of the secular humanist movement under discussion, that there is a lack of mediation between general positions on Marxism and on its relationship to humanism, and on the relationship of both to practical political action.

(4) As a counterweight to Novack and Mattick, I heartily recommend two books I have just read, both by Stephen Eric Bronner:

(1) Reclaiming the Enlightenment,
(2) Ideas in Action.

Both deal with ideological and political history. The first leans more towards the general ideas of interest to us, because of the inherent interconnection between the Enlightenment and humanism. The second delves more into political philosophies and their practical histories.

Now as a nitpicker I have some philosophical subtle criticisms of Bronner, but in the less esoteric realm I broadly agree. The punchline is that Bronner has an animus against far left romanticism, and he reminds me why I can't stand these people, even though I have just as little patience with conventional liberals and thoughtless realpolitik.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto

Book review written 20 March, 6 April, 7 April 2007. Originally written in 4 installments on my Freethought Forum blog. Comments attached to these installments are mostly off-track. Of my responses, the most directly relevant are appended below.

Onfray, Michel. Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; translated from the French by Jeremy Leggatt. New York: Arcade Pub., distributed by Hackette Book Group, 2007.


Is there anything new to be said in favor of atheism, some argument that hasn’t been presented thousands of times before? There is probably little new to say, but aside from the perennial need to break through the defense mechanisms of an intractably irrational humanity, there is always a social subtext underlying the recurrent rounds of atheist assertion. In the USA and across the English-speaking world, we have a pretty good feel for what that is now. But when literature is translated from one language to another, can we be sure we know what is behind the ostensible argument of the text? While it is good to see Michel Onfray’s work now rendered into English, its underlying motive has not been translated, and so we must do some sleuthing to suss out its tacit presuppositions and motives.

It is almost impossible to be a French intellectual without having some highly valued cultural capital behind you. An argument is not just an argument; it enters intellectual space competing for attention not only in ways familiar to us, based primarily on good P.R., but competing for social status based on traditional European intellectual hierarchies. Onfray’s book is prefaced by a quote from Nietzsche, which, we can guess, is not only a quote from Nietzsche, but an announcement to his French audience that Onfray is playing with the big boys. Nietzsche, god of the postmodernists, has been a dominant figure in au courant French philosophy at least since the beginning of the ‘60s.

In his preface Onfray evocatively recounts his encounter with a devout Muslim in the Mauritainian desert. Onfray notes the capacity of this pious and good man to deny the evils of his religion and to see only what he wants to see in a belief system he is in fact much better than. This sets the stage for the book. In the introduction Onfray states his compassion for the victims of religion, reflecting the eternal human inability to face reality. He refuses to feel superior in any way to deluded believers, reserving his contempt for priestcraft, i.e. for the exploiters of the devout. Onfray is more pro-Enlightenment than the original Enlighteners. The mainstream of French deism opposed its more radical wing. In Germany Kant wimped out when it came to religion and morality.

Onfray decides to exploit the term ATHEOLOGY, coined by Georges Bataille in 1950 in a communication to Raymond Queneau. This might not mean a great deal to the uninitiated American reader, but this is a serious marshaling of cultural capital, as Bataille of the famous College of Sociology in the 1930s is a great hero of the postmodernist crowd, and Queneau is known as an associate of the surrealists and a co-founder of Oulipo. Onfray forgets to mention, though, the crypto-fascist undertones of Bataille’s obsession with primitive rituals and secret societies.

Chapter 1 begins with the claim that the death of God has been greatly exaggerated. Even the term “atheism,” a negative term, reveals how its history has been skimped on. Onfray delves into the etymology (15). The recorded history of “atheism” is largely a history of libellous theist propaganda. This has affected the history of philosophy as a whole, as anti-Christian philosophers have been eclipsed. Many celebrated heretics were not in fact atheists though condemned as such. Spinoza, for example, though excommunicated was no atheist and never declared himself such.

Chapter 2 begins with the question, who was the first outspoken atheist? Cristóvão Ferreira, A Jesuit who renounced Christianity (The Deception Revealed, 1636) was a great forerunner. But the honors go to Jean Meslier (1729), a primary object of Onfray’s scholarship. Other French Enlighteners are mentioned, but the atheist heritage of even the famous names is slighted in the history of philosophy: La Mettrie, Nicolas Deschamps, Baron d’Holbach, Helvetius, Sylvain Marechal, and the Ideologues.

The next major leap is instituted by Ludwig Feuerbach, who has also been largely forgotten, except as a precursor to Marx. Feuerbach was exploited by Louis Althusser who used him to bolster his thesis for Marx’s “epistemological break.”

The final milestone is . . . voila: Friedrich Nietzsche.

Onfray claims that religion has now been smuggled back into [French] intellectual/public life, but we are experiencing the birth pangs of a post-Christian era.

The third chapter sets up Onfray’s agenda. We have not advanced beyond the stage outlined by Nietzsche. We don’t live in a non-religious age, but we do live in an age of nihilism, announced by 19th-century writers, including Dostoevsky. Regardless of the loss of traditional religions, people still believe in the need for “something” more. This is what Onfray attacks: “Atheism implies the banishing of transcendence. With no exceptions.” (46)

Citing Foucault’s notion of invisible epistemology, Onfray asserts that the West is still dominated by Christian discourse. (47) French jurisprudence, for instance, is ostensibly secular, but implicitly it is still Catholic. (49) The same obsolete notion of free will and the moralistic torture of humanity prevail.

Religious institutions encourage memory and rote behavior but not learning or critical reflection. (52) Las Casas defended Indians but not their books against obliteration, nor did he defend Africans as fully human in his lifetime. (54) Religionists have a selective memory.

At most we have a tradition of clerical freethinking. We need what Deleuze calls “quiet atheism”. We must confront the final obstacle, “atheist Christianity,” which retains Christian morality. We need a really “atheistic atheism”, that is post-Christian and post-nihilist, beyond both nonbelieving churchiness and anticlericalism. (57) The English philosophers Bentham and Mill should be revisited. (58)

This book aims at the deconstruction of (1) the three main monotheisms, (2) Christianity, (3) theocracy. Despite the conflicts among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, they share fundamentals—priestcraft and a hatred of intelligence and life. (59) Paul, the founder of Christianity, was a masochist sadistically inflicting his belief system upon the world. (60)

Such is the book’s agenda. Note also the mustering of the darlings of the postmodern dispensation, Foucault and Deleuze. Clearly, this approach has a meaning in the original French context which is not fully transparent to the average American and other anglophone reader. If what Onfray says about the slights in the history of philosophy and the prevalence of Catholic morality in his neck of the woods holds water, it is certainly worth analyzing and addressing. Still, his agenda, to this American reader, seems very French in another way—pretentious, overblown, and at the end of the day, trite. The French radical intellectual’s preoccupation with grand metaphysical antimetaphysical interventions may be an effective way of muscling into the intense competitiveness in the domain of French cultural capital, but really, is there a whole lot to these portentous generalizations? The Atheist Manifesto is not just an atheist manifesto, as it would be for us in the English-speaking world; it is an intervention in French intellectual life by a pretender to the throne, yet it seems to me to be saying something rather old and unimportant and ultimately no more sophisticated than Dawkins’s banalities. As for the truly affirmative, post-Christian, post-nihilist age, this pretense of standing on Nietzsche’s shoulders to declare a brand new epoch just does not impress me at all.


In the first part of my review I suggested that Onfray was exhibiting the pretentious puffery characteristic of French philosophy. But anything objectionable of that sort was over with by the end of the first part of the book, i.e. the first sixty pages. While the balance of the book does not say anything strikingly new or different from the usual anti-religious fare—what does?—it is nonetheless a searing indictment of just about everything that is wrong with the three major monotheistic religions.

A survey of this sort should not have stopped with the evil that came out of the Middle East nor with monotheism. Certainly there is no more despicable religious system than Hinduism, which embodies every bit of superstitious belief, ritual, taboo, violence, viciousness, exploitation, and racism of any creed known to man. Except for its penetration into New Age thought, which has an historical connection with fascism, Hinduism presents no palpable menace outside of South Asia, so perhaps it is no surprise that Onfray by and large limits himself to the three monotheisms that have the greatest impact on the world political stage. Still, it is potentially dangerous to limit one’s scope to the three monotheisms without at least a caveat. Occasionally Onfray deals with the more general background of religion and superstition, but it is left to us to fill in the blanks as to how and why religion and magical thinking have evolved as they have.

In part two, on monotheisms, Onfray does in fact begin with generalities.

I. The Tyranny of Afterlives

The preoccupation with the afterlife is a way of cheating death, paradoxically accelerating death by incorporating it into life. Religion is a manifestation of a death wish. Monotheism incorporates a hatred of freedom, reason, intelligence, desire, sexuality, and women. It extols obedience and submission. (67) The tree of knowledge is forbidden, i.e. to gaze upon the naked truth (pun intended). There are taboos and an obsession with purity. But does purification of the body entail respect for the body? No, for purification rituals are not about hygiene. (75)

II. Bonfires of the Intelligence

The religions—here Christianity and Islam are mentioned—resorted to book-burning in order to establish the authority of the Book. They exhibited an implacable enmity towards science except for its religious appropriations. (81) Sacred texts monopolize and lay an exclusive claim to knowledge.

The Church has compaigned against all materialist philosophy from Democritus on. (83ff) Why is the Church so opposed to any hint of materialism? One reason is the need for transubtantiation. (86ff) The Church persecuted the philosophy of atomism and combatted the claims of all major scientific advances up through the discovery of DNA. (88–89)

III. Seeking the Opposite of the Real

Religion populates the cosmos with angels, but it is the fallen angels who are the harbingers of freedom. (98) “Paradise” is an anti-world, a clarion call for battle. Religion is the guardian of procreation, replete with misogyny, homophobia, anti-abortionism.

The story of Origen exemplifies the religious celebration of castration. Sexual regulations simulate this state. The countless circumcision rituals, scarification practices, foot-binding, neck-elongation—all forms of ritual initiation, body deformation, mutilation, and real castration—are manifestations of this impulse. Onfray concludes: “God loves the maimed.” (109)

This concluding section, as well as the opening statements of Part II, are the places where Onfray generalizes beyond the three monotheistic religions under examination. Clearly these practices reach back to the origins of humanity, and require more than these general psychological explanations, though they are a start and do indeed enumerate some of the essential issues behind the fear and violence of myth and ritual. None of this is unique to monotheism, but so far, Onfray is doing pretty well. It’s a shame he doesn’t mention Wilhelm Reich, who came to some pretty drastic general conclusions himself about the primal fear that engendered magical thinking, as he himself teetered on the edge of sanity and slipped over.

“Fascism has awakened a sleeping world to the realities of the irrational, mystical character structure of the people of the world.”
—Wilhelm Reich


Part III is devoted to Christianity.

I. The Construction of Jesus

The historical existence of Jesus has not been established. The history of Christianity is replete with forgery, destruction of libraries, book burning, interventions by scribes, persecutions. As Christianity’s history is a forgery, the historical record cannot be trusted. (117)

Jesus is a result of the hysteria induced by the Roman Empire. (119)

Onfray ventures into textual analysis, finds in the Christian scriptures borrowed themes and similar rhetorical strategies to prior works in the Mediterranean region. (120ff) “The miraculous turns its back on history.” (124) The Gospel genre is performative. (125) Historical truth does not matter; myth-making is self-deception. Even a redaction of the myth over centuries could not remove its contradictions and improbabilities. (126) “Jesus was thus a concept.” (129)

II. The Pauline Contamination

Paul was “a hysterical, fundamentalist Jew,”his character pathological, his ideology imbued with brutality, sadomasochism, and sexual morbidity. (131ff) He manifests the joy of submission, the adoration of suffering and misery (137), the hatred of learning and intelligence (138–139).

III. The Totalitarian Christian State

Constantine was a hysterical monster. He turned on the very magic, superstition, and paganism in which he was schooled, building a Christian empire, the first totalitarian state (145). He provided the model for all totalitarian regimes, which trod the path from victims to victimizers. (146ff) The tactics: torture, murder, destruction of libraries and cultural artifacts, propaganda, absolutism; monopolization of violence, communications, organization, private life.

Part IV is titled “Theocracy.”

I. Selective exploitation of texts

Onfray explicates the difficulty of establishing the origins of sacred texts, which were subject to clerical monitoring and control and limited availability outside the clergy. The canons of the three religions were established over centuries. Collectively, their time span adds up to 2700 years. The sum total is an incoherent hodgepodge full of contradicitons which enable cherry-picking of texts to prove anything at all.

The religious traditions are predicated on double standards. The Ten Commandments? “Thou shalt not kill” really means “thou shalt not kill other Jews.” The Gospels are both pacifist and warlike. (164–166) Hitler loved the story of Jesus chasing out the moneylenders. (166) There was a symbiosis between Hitler and Islam. (167ff) The Koran is riddled with contradiction on every page. (168–172) Is there a feminist Koran? A peaceable Koran? How can opposites be rationalized? (173)

II. In the Service of the Death Fixation

Historically, cherry-picking justified the worst, not the best options within these traditions. Monotheism is fixated on death. (176)

Judaism invented monotheism and holy war—the whole mess. (178) Priestcraft existed before, but it was adapted to new ends. Moses was an empire-builder who wrote a prescription for butchery.

Christianity from Paul on sanctioned temporal power as divine—”render under Caesar.” Anti-Semitism was sanctioned in the New Testament. The Vatican colloraborated with all anti-Semitism from the beginning up to and including Nazism. (182ff) The Vatican was linked with Hitler from first to last. Both targeted the same enemies: Jews and communists. (184ff) Was Hitler a pagan? An atheist? He loved the Vatican. (187) There are numerous points of similarity between Catholicism and Nazism. They are not fortuitous but a product of the whole history of Christianity. (188–189)

The Vatican sanctioned the atom bomb. (191)

Love of neighbor? Slavery was sanctioned from the Old Testament to the Middle Passage, and Islam practiced it too.

Zionism is not expansionist or internationalist. It seeks dominion over one territory alone. (195, but note criticisms elsewhere)

The Catholic Church invented ethnocide. (195) The Church Christianity has embraced mass extermination from the beginning to Rwanda. (196–197).

Onfray summarizes the death instinct of the three monotheisms. (197–198)

Before moving on to the final chapter, I want to note that this is all good stuff, but certain generalizations are not well supported. First, Onfray specifically targets monotheism but not priestcraft or class-based religion in general. He erroneously assumes that the Hebrews invented monotheism and that it is qualitatively different from what preceded. But if Judaism was truly an ideological innovation in empire-building, its novelty and relationship to other religious ideologies needs to be precisely delineated. As usual, Onfray leaves out of account the religions of South and East Asia, including the unspeakable barbarism of Hinduism. Outside of the scope of this book, but which we should also keep in mind, is a sociological, historical account of the development of religion which would supply a level of explanation that psychology-based generalizations cannot.


Chapter III of Part IV is its final chapter and the final chapter of the book. It is titled “Toward a Post-Christian Secular Order,” but, oddly, it is mostly about Islam.

Onfray traces Islamic blood-lust back to its very beginning. Islam is inherently hierarchical, discriminatory, and exclusionary, monstrous and retrograde. It is incompatible with the Enlightenment. (Later he says that Islam is structurally archaic; it is not liberalizing and cannot accommodate the Enlightenment: 209ff.) It is the patriarchy of herdsmen defying time. (202) Its discrimatory nature is codified in the concept of dhimma, a notion that institutionalizes the “yellow star” that the Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis. (203–204) Islamic society is a closed society opposed to democracy. (204ff)

Onfray also delves into its contemporary fascist incarnation, particularly the hijacking of the Iranian revoluton of 1978 by fundamentalism. (206ff) Foucault, who was pro-Khomeini, was inexcusably ignorant about the true nature of this counter-revolution in the revolution. (207) (Note: Foucault is again mentioned on p. 214.) I will return to this point later.

Onfray summarizes the “mystical logic” of the fusion of fascism, populism, and Islam. (211ff)

The 21st century is shaping up as a monotheist holy war between the Judaeo-Christian USA and Islam. Must we choose between them? (214)

Onfray opposes “religious secularism.” Freethinkers are still too holy. Even their vitriol is reminiscent of their enemies. (215ff) In effect we see a secularization of Judaeo-Christian morality.

Moral handbooks in republican schools preach the excellence of the family, the virtue of work, the need to respect one’s parents and honor the old, the rightness of nationalism, patriotic obligations, mistrust of the body and passions, the beauty of manual labor, submission to political authority, duty to the poor. (216–217)

This obviously addresses French conditions, and I lack the background to evaluate these assertions. If they are correct, the middle class respectability that tends to accompany secular humanism is much worse in France than it is in the USA.

Another curious assertion:

While the epistemology remains Judaeo-Christian, secularism acts as if religion no longer impregnates and imbues consciences, bodies, and souls. (217)

My guess is that French secularism is quite different from what it is in the USA, and official society there simply sweeps the real psycho-cultural life of society under the rug.

Finally, Onfray broaches his perspective on a post-Christian secularism. (218–219) The notion of the equality of belief systems is wrong. There is a war on between Enlightenment and magic, between philosophy and priestcraft, between this-worldliness and otherworldliness. And the final words of the book:

They know that there is only one world, and that promotion of an afterlife deprives us of the enjoyment and benefit of the only one there is. A genuine deadly sin. (219)

Now let us recall that the book is refreshingly free of French philosophical cant once the first part of the book is past. In this final chapter we find that Foucault’s misguided embrace of Islamic fundamentalism is a matter of some importance to Onfray, but curiously, he fails to account for Foucault’s lapse. Is it so mysterious, though, why the illiberal anti-humanism, the reactionary vitalist Nietzscheanism of French radical chic, the intellectual slumming and rhapsodizing over the body from the privileged sanctuaries of the academic elite, should finally stumble back to its natural home, fascism? In any case, Onfray’s silence on this matter is baffling, given the trouble he took to criticize Foucault at all. Then again, I may be baffled only because there is a French subtext to this intervention that eludes me.

To sum up, the book is very good for what it does. A few books attacking religion from various angles may add up to a formidable array. This is quite a different angle of attack from Stenger, who attacks theism and religion from the standpoint of science. Onfray condenses the miserable historical record of pathology of the three Abrahamic religions. His lacunae, as I have mentioned before, are that his account is abstractly psychological and that it unnaturally isolates monotheism as the culprit from other magical and religious belief systems without even providing a sociohistorical account of monotheism. Perhaps there is a deeper reason for these omissions than simply the need for focus. One would have to consult Onfray’s other works in French to make this determination. Now that Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, limited as they are, have opened the doors to the best seller lists and the op-ed columns and the electronic media, perhaps more substantial fare can squeeze its way in as well. But the severe ideological limitations on public discourse in America, especially under conditions of political repression and media manipulation, may preclude more radical interventions on the religious question from getting through. This book, however, is a useful weapon in the arsenal.


  • Michel Onfray—Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  • Introductory Note to Onfray by Doug Ireland
  • Jean Meslier and “The Gentle Inclination of Nature” by Michel Onfray
  • Michel Onfray, philosophe, écrivain, université populaire (in French)
  • Jean Meslier—Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  • Superstition In All Ages (1732) by Jean Meslier
  • Meslier, a play by David Hall
  • The Late Vitalism of Wilhelm Reich: Commentary
  • Monday, April 16, 2007

    Naturalism & Materialism

    See also my original post with extensive commentary on Freethought Forum, 16 February 2007.

    The terminology of philosophy is fraught with ambiguities, multiple meanings, and meaning conflicts. The battles fought over and within philosophical terminology incorporate the battles of history and ideology. Naturalism is one of these terms. For our purposes, we can go with the relevant Wikipedia encyclopedia entries:

    Naturalism (philosophy)

    Metaphysical naturalism

    The former article is about methodological naturalism, that is, the methodological nature of the sciences. This figures into legal and other battles over the teaching of evolution. The latter is a stronger claim, such as one will find in the work of Richard Dawkins. Atheists and many secular humanists adhere to both. The scientific establishment of necessity embraces the first and shies away from the second.

    Naturalism, however, is not by itself crystal clear as a designator of philosophical positions. It covers a multitude of philosophical positions, which themselves may compete or overlap: pragmatism, positivism, materialism, scientific realism . . .

    One way of approaching the issue here is to delve into the usage of another philosophical term, materialism, as this constitutes a prime example of the politics of ideas. Materialism is customarily employed in a very restrictive way in Anglo-American philosophy, to refer to the mind-body problem alone. Note the narrow definition that introduces the Wikipedia entry on materialism. Physicalism seems to have been a prevailing view among the logical positivists. (I think of Otto Neurath’s questionable essay on physicalism and sociology.) The history of materialism, is, oddly, not so easy to reconstruct, perhaps because of the prejudices against it. In the 19th century F. A. Lange attempted to write a history of materialism in order to oppose it. The very word seems to have become taboo even among those whose position is basically that. Partly, this may be because the Marxists seemed to be the only ones to have kept materialism going, although I think the taboo, which goes back thousands of years, is probably not reducible to a more recent association of political radicalism. In the USA, “naturalism” was much more acceptable, but there are a number of vagaries at work, as a number of underlying positions may employ this terminology, as is also the case with “realism”. Just to take one example, Marvin Farber used the term “naturalism”, but finally copped to “materialism”, admitting that philosophers were too scared to use the word. Perhaps the FBI’s interest in this matter, with or without overt political connections, helps to explain why. However, it would seem that much of the scientific realism that arose in dissatisfaction with positivism (Mario Bunge apparently fits into this category) is basically materialist.

    David H. Price, using FBI files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, in detailing the decades-long investigation of the Marxist philosophical journal Science & Society from the 1940s to the 1960s, concluded that the FBI apparently viewed Marxist theorizing as almost as dangerous to national security as outright Marxist activism.

    But during the postwar 1940s and throughout the 1950s the FBI viewed most philosophical links to Marxism as threats to their vision of “Americanism.” During the early Cold War most forms of materialist analysis were seen by the FBI as threats to national security . . . Thus the FBI reacted with strong concern upon reading the essays of Bernhard Stern, Elmer Barnes and others affiliated with the early years of Science & Society in the book Philosophy for the Future (Sellars, et al., 1949):
    They are day in and day out influencing the minds of countless youths. Their influence goes beyond the classroom. They are also writers issuing books and articles designed to influence educated and articulate adults in positions of importance. There can be little doubt that these materialists are subtly preparing the minds of at least a percentage of those reached by them for the acceptance of communism. Further, they are preparing a greater percentage of educated minds to be sympathetic or soft on communism. . . . It is not unlikely that the majority of the educated enemies of the Bureau who are regularly attacking or opposing us in one form or another are philosophic materialists. And, they are not decreasing in numbers. Philosophy for the Future is our problem of the future. (WFO 100-FBI Office Memorandum, 7/28/57).
    “Materialism” aside, it is also important to note that the pragmatic naturalist Sidney Hook, a hero to some in the secular humanist movement, was a major culprit in the McCarthyite persecution of American philosophers, which among other effects may have changed the course of American philosophy.

    Roy Wood Sellars, a co-editor of the 1949 anthology Philosophy for the Future (and, not incidentally, author of the first Humanist Manifesto), in his 1927 essay “Why Naturalism and Not Materialism” drew a functional distinction between materialism and naturalism.

    Materialism is distinctly an ontological theory, a theory of the stuff of reality. Its polar opposite is usually taken to be mentalism of some kind. Naturalism, on the other hand, is a cosmological position; its opposite is supernaturalism in the larger meaning of that term. I mean that naturalism takes nature in a definite way as identical with reality, as self-sufficient and as the whole of reality. And by nature is meant the space-time-causal system which is studied by science and in which our lives are passed. The whole nature of nature may not be exhaustively known, but its location and general characteristics come under the above categories.

    Another weakness of materialism was its whole-hearted identification of itself with the principles of elementary mechanics. It was naively scientific. We may call this species of materialism reductive materialism. . . . By its very principle evolutionary materialism is opposed to reductive materialism. It is not finalistic, or teleological, in the old sense . . . but it does not hold that relations in nature are external and that things are machines of atomic complexity. Organization and wholes are genuinely significant.
    These passages are singled out by Jaegwon Kim, who states, as Sellars himself complained, that Sellars has been unjustly neglected. (Some of my sources suggest that W.V.O. Quine is the major American point of reference for naturalism.) Sellars was a central participant in American philosophical trends in the early part of the 20th century. His essays and autobiographical material compare the competing positions of the time.

    Apparently Sellars changed his mind about materialism, for by 1944 he poses the question “Is Naturalism Enough?” and finds that it is not, contrasting materialism to the vagaries of the then current pragmatism, which under Dewey and Hook also claimed the mantle of naturalism.

    In atheist, freethought, and secular humanist circles in the United States, whenever a fundamental ontological position is stated at all, it is usually naturalism and not materialism. I would imagine another popular term is scientific realism, which implies a naturalist or materialist position. Atheists (freethinkers, etc.) no more hold to a single philosophical position than do philosophers, and even with respect to “atheism” hold to a variety of positions, reflected to a certain extent in their own variants of preferred terms, not to mention the less committed position of agnosticism. They also vary among themselves as to their level of tolerance of beliefs on various relevant issues. (Interestingly, the questionnaire used to create personal profiles on the Secularity web site queries perspective members in some detail beliefs regarding deities, supernatural entities, the paranormal, and spirituality.) Then there is the question of common goals. After all, agitation for church-state (religion-government) separation encompasses a much broader spectrum of people than those to be found within the atheist/freethought orbit. Within the freethought orbit, while some individuals and groups have been extremely militant about unambiguous definitions, others are much more tolerant of diverse positions as long as they roughly fall within the “family”. Arguments over philosophical coherence and consistency have their place, depending on the nature and purpose of a given discussion.

    American Atheists, in its membership application, grounds atheism in materialism:

    Materialism declares that the cosmos is devoid of immanent conscious purpose; that it is governed by its own inherent, immutable, and impersonal laws; that there is no supernatural interference in human life; that humankind—finding their resources within themselves—can and must create their own destiny.
    I noticed this two decades ago and was impressed by this explicit philosophical declaration. There are not only various designations for nonbelievers—atheist, freethinker, rationalist, agnostic, secular humanist, etc.—there are also various designations for philosophical positions—materialism, naturalism, etc. . . . and skepticism.

    I have a fundamental problem with adoption of the term skepticism. As represented in magazines like Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, the term is applied to paranormal and other claims deemed disreputable by these proponents of reputable science. I object to the term because some of the individuals involved themselves and their knowledge claims merit skeptical scrutiny, but more generally because “skepticism” is also a philosophical position which I would not want to adopt or see confused with the specific meaning adopted by the “skeptical” movement, which has ties to secular humanist and atheist circles.

    Otherwise, my own philosophical position and terminological preferences aside, I maintain that for our purposes, the functional distinction that matters is naturalism vs. supernaturalism, one which works very well and now has precedent in court cases involving the teaching of evolution, and so I conclude that naturalism suits our purpose. I will continue to use naturalism as a reference point as I pursue questions of skepticism, scientism, and scientific method.


    American Atheists membership application.

    Augustine, Keith. A Defense of Naturalism. 2001.

    Bhaskar, Roy. The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1979.

    Chrucky, Andrew. Bibliography of Roy Wood Sellars. 1997.

    Dankov, Evlogi. “Doubt and Atheism,” translated by Olga Cankova (1990) & Ralph Dumain (2000).

    Dumain, Ralph. American Philosophy Study Guide (online).

    Dumain, Ralph. Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography. 2004- .

    Farber, Marvin. Naturalism and Subjectivism (Springfield, IL: C. C. Thomas, 1959), Chapter 1, esp. pp. 3–5.

    Farber, Marvin. The Search for an Alternative: Philosophical Perspectives of Subjectivism and Marxism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984), Chapter 9, From the Perspective of Materialism, pp. 216–238.

    Forrest, Barbara. “Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism: Clarifying the Connection,” Philo, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Fall-Winter 2000), pp. 7–29.

    Fritzman, J.M. “Almeder’s Implicit Scientism,” Philosophia, vol. 33, nos. 1–4, December 2005, pp. 275–296.

    Kim, Jaegwon. “The American Origins of Philosophical Naturalism,” in: Philosophy in America at the Turn of the Century (APA Centennial Supplement, Journal of Philosophical Research) (Charlottesville, VA: Philosophy Documentation Center, 2003), pp. 83–98.

    Manicas, Peter T. “Naturalism and Subjectivism: Philosophy for the Future?”. 2000.

    McCumber, John. The Honor Roll: American Philosophers Professionally Injured During the McCarthy Era.

    Naturalism.Org, Center for Naturalism web site.

    Neurath, Otto. “Sociology and Physicalism” [orig. 1931/2], translated by Morton Magnus & Ralph Raico, in: Logical Positivism, A.J. Ayer, ed. (New York: Free Press, 1959), pp. 282–317.

    Nielsen, Kai. “Agnosticism,” in: Dictionary of the History of Ideas (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), Vol. 1, pp. 17–27.

    Parsons, Keith M. “Defending Naturalism,” Philo, vol. 3, no. 2, Fall-Winter 2000.

    Philo, philosophy journal devoted to naturalism.

    Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism, edited by Roy Wood Sellars, V.J. McGill, Marvin Farber. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949.

    Popkin, Richard. The History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2003.

    Price, David H. “The FBI and Science & Society,” Science & Society, Winter 2004–2005.

    Reisch, George. How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, April 2005.

    Secularity (web site).

    Sellars, Roy Wood. “Humanist Manifesto” (Drafter and co-signer), The New Humanist, vol. 6, No. 3 (May-June, 1933), pp. 58–61.

    _______________. “Is Naturalism Enough?”, in Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays, compiled and edited by W. Preston Warren (St. Louis, MO: W. H. Green, 1970), pp. 140–150. Original publication: R. W. Sellars, Journal of Philosophy, XLI (1944), pp. 533‑544.

    _______________. “The New Materialism,” in A History of Philosophical Systems, edited by Vergilius Ferm (Paterson, NJ: Littlefield, Adamas & Co., 1965 [orig. 1950]), Chapter 33, pp. 418–428.

    _______________. Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays, compiled and edited by W. Preston Warren. St. Louis, MO: W. H. Green, 1970. See Foreword, v-ix.

    _______________. Reflections on American Philosophy From Within. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969.

    _______________. “Why Naturalism and Not Materialism,” Philosophical Review (36) (1927), pp. 216–225. Reprinted in Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays, ed. W. Preston Warren (St. Louis, MO: W. H. Green, 1970).]

    Warren, W. Preston. Roy Wood Sellars: Philosopher of Religious Humanism (1883–1973). 1975. With links to other materials.

    Wikipedia. See Agnosticism, Friedrich Albert Lange, Geschichte des Materialismus, Logical positivism, Mario Bunge, Materialism, Metaphysical naturalism, Naturalism (philosophy), Physicalism, Sidney Hook, Skeptic (magazine), Skeptical Inquirer, Skepticism, Willard Van Orman Quine.

    Galileo’s Birthday

    Written 15 February 2007:

    That’s today, the birthday of the founder of modern science, Galileo Galilei (February 15, 1564—January 8, 1642).

    As a child, many many decades ago, I subscribed to an innocuous kid’s magazine called Highlights for Children. All I really cared about in those years was science and science fiction, and spent whatever money came my way by way of gifts on science books for children. Well, some issue of this magazine had an article on Galileo, also mentioning his birthday. I never really wanted to celebrate any holiday I didn’t invent myself, and I decided at that very young age that I would make Galileo’s birthday my very own holiday. What could be more important, after all, than celebrating science, the founder of modern science, and a martyr of science as well? I had no explicit position on religion back then that I can recall, but the scientific world view (spiced up by science fiction) was my own, so instinctively my priorities were set. It just doesn’t make sense to have all these religious holidays but none for the scientific revolution, which has done so much more for the human race. And I have never forgotten Galileo’s birthday since.

    When not worried over my personal safety and the social chaos of the late ‘60s, I was bored to tears in high school a good percentage of the time. One of my many eccentric indulgences to fill the void was to teach myself Esperanto, the language created by L. L. Zamenhof, who was also pretty much a secular humanist though not an outright atheist and who also invented his own universal religion, akin in many ways to Ethical Culture, which he dubbed “Homaranismo” (literally, “being-a-member-of-the-human-race-ism”, a generalization of a rationalized stripped-down Judaism he called Hillelismo named after Rabbi Hillel). Eventually I acquired and began to read literature in Esperanto (yes, there is such a thing, original as well as translated), and I was captivated by a short story written by an author noted for his work in Hungarian as well as in Esperanto, Sandor Szathmari. The story “Vincenzo” is about the lifelong relationship between Galileo (portrayed as an idealist) and his fictional brother Vincenzo, who is a pragmatic cynic and eventually a cleric. With my instinctive passion for freedom and hatred of authoritarian repression, I always loved anticlerical, especially anti-Catholic, literary efforts, another favorite being Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. So finally for a class project I translated this story into English. Thirty years later I put it on the web:

    Vincent” by Sandor Szathmari

    It won’t go down in the annals of literature as a specimen of brilliant translation, but hey, I did what I could at the time.

    Globalization of obscurantism

    See also my original post with comments at Freethought Forum.

    Written 15 January 2007:

    “The trouble with most folks ain’t so much their ignorance as knowing so many things that ain’t so.”
    Josh Billings

    “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
    —Meslier, Voltaire, Diderot?

    What a world of contradictions. A world of many dead ends. Today I celebrate with anger the birthday of revolutionary Baptist minister Martin Luther King, Jr., mourn the death of jazz musician Alice Coltrane (a convert to Hinduism), and commemorate the birthday of a pioneer of freethought and the Enlightenment:

    Jean Meslier (January 1664—1733): Priest, Materialist, Atheist

    Here in the USA of course we are preoccupied with the threats of the Christian Right and fundamentalist Islam. More generally, we are known to complain about the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—and more generally still about theism. But that’s only the half of it. The rest of the world is as bankrupt as the half we know.

    Some of us also have an interest in Eastern religions and mysticisms and are concerned with their validity or invalidity. Then of course there are African belief systems which outside of their areas of origin only have a significant impact on segments of the black diaspora.

    It’s a world of ignorance, superstition, and savagery.

    But it’s also important to note that there is a whole history of collusion of western and non-western obscurantism that began with the European penetration of China and India in the 17th century, i.e. linkages to the most reactionary inidigenous ideologies—Confucianism and Hinduism. Such collusion persists in altered forms in the present day, with Western postmodernism fueling Hindu and Confucian revivals, for example. Globalization, instead of harkening a new Enlightenment, is bringing us to the verge of a new Dark Age. The main culprits are the neoliberal economic order, neo-imperialism, and neo-fascist religious revivalism, but this barbarism carries on its work in the realms of theology and philosophy as well.

    Here are a few links to show you what I mean.

    First, you can keep up with other relevant writings of mine on my own blog:

    Studies in a Dying Culture

    The permalinks for recent entries are:

    Reactionary Chinese & other wisdom in comparative perspective

    The Legitimacy of Chinese Philosophy (1)

    The Legitimacy of Chinese Philosophy (2)

    On another front, see a blog entry from December:

    The Dead End of African Philosophy: Which Way Out?

    On still another, see: Swami Agehananda Bharati (1923–1991)

    In December I published a review in the Indian press:
    Secularism, science and the Right”[Review of Meera Nanda, The Wrongs of the Religious Right: Reflections on Science, Secularism and Hindutva], Frontline, Volume 23, Issue 24, Dec. 02–15, 2006.

    See also: Meera Nanda Online

    “Fascism has awakened a sleeping world to the realities of the irrational, mystical character structure of the people of the world.”—Wilhelm Reich

    Freedom from Religion: An Interview with Alexander Saxton

    Written 5 January 2007:

    Freedom from Religion: An Interview with Alexander Saxton by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, MR Zine, 9 Nov 06

    This interview is overall quite good, and provides a welcome alternative to the asociological, ahistorical liberal crap that dominates the anti-religion best seller list now—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and above all, Sam Harris. If only Saxton could get their kind of publicity with his new book Religion and the Human Prospect.

    I must call attention to my one quibble, with Saxton’s conception of ideology.
    Mannheim expressed precisely this view in the title of his famous book, Ideology and Utopia. Ideology, for Mannheim, was the manipulation of ideas, including religious ideas, by which exploiters maintained their dominance. Utopia, in Mannheim’s terms, was the yearning of the oppressed to overthrow or transcend their oppressors. Marx and Engels, focusing on class as the dynamic of historical change, argued that clerical hierarchies —priesthoods —because religion gives them access to social power and wealth, tend to align ideologically with the ruling class.
    To identify Mannheim’s view with Marx’ and Engels’ is all wrong. Ideology is not just the manipulation of ideas to maintain class dominance, though that is part of it. Ideology is the necessary mystification of the nature of the world and social structure on the part of dominated, dominators, and the intellectual mediators of society (whatever their conscious loyalties), defined originally by Marx as “inverted” consciousness.
    Marxists identified religion as ruling-class ideology.
    Saxton should be careful with his language. What is implied here? “Identified” suggests identity or equivalence, though it could merely mean attribution in a functional sense. “Identified” does not necessarily mean “defined”. And I think this is not necessarily true that Marxists have always thought this way, whatever Saxton’s statement means. Of course, in popular agitation, religion can be easily attacked as a device to pull the wool over people’s eyes, as institutionally, it is so demonstrably harmful, and cognitively, an obstacle to a scientific analysis of society and the world. But it is not at all self-evident that Marxists, however anti-religious, simply equated religion with priestcraft.
    But anti-clericalism falls short of examining belief itself. Even Marx’s celebrated description of religion as “the opium of the people” remains relatively useless for explanatory purposes. Ruling classes of course use religion to their own advantage but where does the religion come from? Did they invent it? How? When? Marxists say (and this certainly is accurate) that religion generates priesthoods which, because they wield great social power, tend to merge into the ruling class and bestow tokens of divine approval on ruling-class strategies. Whence comes the social power of religious hierarchies?
    This is all true as far as it goes, but it may create a distorted impression. “Opium of the people” in actuality is the least revealing and productive, though most provocative, phrase in the passage in which Marx states it. Marx did not in fact define religion thus, though he did sum religion up as a popular epistemology, ending with this functional attribution.
    Yes, it is important to know that religion often performs the star role in ruling-class ideology. Yet, to understand anything about religion itself as a historical phenomenon, one needs to dig deeper psychologically, and further back in evolutionary time. This poses a conceptual problem, especially for Marxist-oriented historians and anthropologists. To identify religion with ideology shuts off access to this sort of deeper research. Why? Because the concept of ideology is linked to that of class —it forms part of the apparatus of class conflict —and class is generally thought to have entered history at the same time as division of labor. But the division of labor could only have occurred after thousands of years of cultural evolution, somewhere near the end of the hunter/gatherer stage. By this reckoning, human societies would have had to wait a long, long time before ruling-class ideology finally introduced them to religion.
    This is all dandy except that Saxton introduces a false premise: that ideology is completely encapsulated in the notion of class distinction and hence domination. I don’t have the textual evidence handy, but I don’t think even Marx and Engels limited themselves in this way, but even if they did, it’s just plain wrong. ‘Ideology’ with or without religion couldn’t make any sense if it arises only out of class domination, which didn’t just pop out by magic, either, if you’ll excuse the expression.

    Therefore, an analysis of where Marxists have gone wrong, if they have, should not be distracted in this fashion. From what I have seen, the mainstream atheist propaganda of liberal democracies tends to be rather simple-minded, whereas at least Marxist perspectives analyze how ideological phenomena operate both conceptually and institutionally. I don’t know where Saxton got his information, but it is just not so that Marxists simply operate with a dichotomy of religion as either bad (deception) or good (popular movements, liberation theology). At their worst they tend to do whatever it takes to pander, or in the case of Stalinist regimes, to legitimate their own rule. Liberation theology is the worst form of pandering, dishonest in the extreme, and in Latin America, the product of an historically specific pathology. This kind of thinking betrays an excessively instrumentalist approach to ideas: whose ass to I have to kiss in order to get people’s attention, or how do I have to manipulate them to get them to kiss mine?

    Oddly, Saxton talks here like a mainstream liberal, though he is obviously much smarter.

    Sunday, April 15, 2007

    Sam Harris: “Head-in-the-Sand Liberals”

    See also my original post plus responses on Freethought Forum.

    Written 5 January 2007:

    Sam Harris’ book The End of Faith was awful, but this article clinches the danger of his political ignorance. The full text is no longer available free to the general public. The original title I had is:

    Head-in-the-Sand Liberals
    Western civilization really is at risk from Muslim extremists.
    Sam Harris


    ... But my correspondence with liberals has convinced me that liberalism has grown dangerously out of touch with the realities of our world — specifically with what devout Muslims actually believe about the West, about paradise and about the ultimate ascendance of their faith.

    On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right.

    This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that “liberals are soft on terrorism.” It is, and they are.

    This is what I find now:

    It’s real, it’s scary, it’s a cult of death
    Liberals are soft on terrorism —and dangerously out of touch with the reality of global Muslim extremism.
    Los Angeles Times [HOME EDITION], Sept. 18, 2006, p. B.11.

    While you need to consult Harris’s article for reference, here is my criticism, written 18 September 2006.

    (1) What is the social composition and ideological affiliation of the people polled who believe that the Bush administration itself blew up the Towers? Are more than a third of Americans on the liberal fringe?

    (2) Where is the boundary between “liberals” and the “Left”?

    (3) Since when do liberals hold this position?—:

    Western power is utterly malevolent, while the powerless people of the Earth can be counted on to embrace reason and tolerance, if only given sufficient economic opportunities.
    (4) What is the basis of this fantasy:

    In their analyses of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy, liberals can be relied on to overlook the most basic moral distinctions. For instance, they ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so. Muslims routinely use human shields, and this accounts for much of the collateral damage we and the Israelis cause.
    Given these distinctions, there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah. And yet liberals in the United States and Europe often speak as though the truth were otherwise.

    (5) The article abounds with vague generalizations of craven liberals and crazed Muslims, but the harsh reality which the mealy-mouthed weak-kneed liberals can’t face up to doesn’t get much treatment from Harris—instead only disconnected sound bites about the Muslim menace.

    (6) The upshot is that the liberals make excuses for the Muslims, exculpating them as putative victims of the West. But even if this were uniformly true, where is the basis for analyzing what’s really going on in the Muslim world? None except that they are irrational fanatics possessed by a crazed religion out to destroy civilization.

    Harris has succumbed to the hysterical, shallow, sound-bite culture in which appeals to fear and generalized ideological phenomena substitute for substantive social analysis.

    And in this, Harris is only a typical liberal, nothing more.

    Addendum: Sam Harris the liberal [written 19 September 2006]

    . . . When I think of liberals, I think of them napalming Vietnamese peasants.

    I asked what is the borderline between liberals and the left, because (1) this tendency to exculpate Islamic extremists is more likely to be found on the left, though there too there is a wide difference of opinion and analysis, (2) Harris’ hysterical propaganda piece reminded me how Christopher Hitchens lost his mind after 9–11 and turned on the left, making similar blanket accusations. Harris is much less sophisticated than Hitchens. Harris refers to his “fellow liberals”, and indeed, he is very much like them, always looking for an ass to kiss.

    If you re-read Harris’ piece, you’ll see it’s pure propaganda, he’s saying nothing specific at all, there’s no real social analysis, just an accusation that liberals are spineless and that only the right wing knows how to get tough with Muslim fanatics, whose entire basis of political existence is a death wish. Stupid and dangerous.

    Let’s look at his social/political “analysis”:

    A cult of death is forming in the Muslim world — for reasons that are perfectly explicable in terms of the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. The truth is that we are not fighting a “war on terror.” We are fighting a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise.

    This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims. But we are absolutely at war with those who believe that death in defense of the faith is the highest possible good, that cartoonists should be killed for caricaturing the prophet and that any Muslim who loses his faith should be butchered for apostasy.

    Unfortunately, such religious extremism is not as fringe a phenomenon as we might hope. Numerous studies have found that the most radicalized Muslims tend to have better-than-average educations and economic opportunities.

    Given the degree to which religious ideas are still sheltered from criticism in every society, it is actually possible for a person to have the economic and intellectual resources to build a nuclear bomb — and to believe that he will get 72 virgins in paradise. And yet, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, liberals continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.

    The third paragraph is the only one with real information, albeit a generalization, but let’s accept it as true, and in any case, it reveals the ideological position of the 9–11 conspirators and others like them. But is this who you think you’re seeing every time you see an angry mob on the TV screen or read about a suicide bomber in the Middle East? This lack of differentiation is as true of Harris as it is of people on the left who ignore it. But even making this discrimination, we are ill-disposed to diagnose the source of this ideological motivation other than the superstitious belief in virgins and paradise. This hardly gives an adequate personality profile of Muslim fascists—I have no problem with calling them fascists. And it fails to give a social profile of the other retrograde manifestations of Islam throughout the world.

    Let’s discuss the incident of the cartoon of Muhammed that aroused such a violent reaction. Is it true that this is just a free speech issue as portrayed throughout the western media, and that those who were incensed by the cartoon were just unreasonable fanatics? If this were a replay of the Salman Rushdie affair, I could see it. But the cartoon was a deliberate right-wing act of provocation, and whatever negative things can be said about Muhammed, portraying him as a contemporary bomb-throwing terrorist is a slander directed at the entire Muslim population. Suppose this newspaper had published a caricature of Moses with a huge hook nose and a bag of gold behind his back? What conclusion would you draw from that?

    Now the violence of the reaction is another matter. Even so, we see little of the mechanisms by which these angry demonstrations and violent reactions are orchestrated, in other words, how the news is filtered to the various angry mobs who react to it.

    The current flap over the pronouncement of the Nazi Pope is much more disturbing, actually. My reaction to Cardinal Ratsass would be: look who’s calling the kettle black. But what the news media is reporting is much more serious than the reaction to the cartoon: churches were burned and Christians were murdered—not officials of the Catholic Church, not priests or bishops, but, as far as we know, innocent scapegoats of a different religious persuasion. This is much much more ominous, and it shows that people are stupid everywhere; they’d rather turn on the nearest scapegoat than formulate a calculated response to what they perceive as an insult. But again, when I saw the reports on TV, I asked myself, how did the angry mobs who retaliated violently against the Pope’s statement get the news, in what context, framed and spinned in what fashion, and why were they primed to attack the targets they did? It’s not a question of making excuses for them, it’s a matter of understanding their social perspective and how they’ve been conditioned to interpret and react to current events. I don’t think attributing their behavior to their superstitious belief in virgins in paradise explains a damn thing, any more than I think our rednecks here are fundamentally motivated by faith in the Rapture.

    As for his distinctions between Muslims vs. Israelis and Americans, Harris is living in a fantasy world. I doubt there are tens of millions of Muslims who are scarier than Dick Cheney, though I don’t doubt that there are a substantial number of such people, let’s say about the same proportion of them as we have here. Harris reveals himself in the end to be a typical liberal, as divorced from reality and spineless as the rest, primed to cave in to the first strongman who promises to protect him from the Muslim hordes.

    Saturday, April 14, 2007

    Red state of mind?

    Written 5 January 2007:

    “Condescension, and thinking oneself no better, are the same. To adapt to the weakness of the oppressed is to affirm in it the pre-condition of power, and to develop in oneself the coarseness, insensibility and violence needed to exert domination.”

    —Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia
    In re:
    Press, Eyal. “In God’s Country,” The Nation, November 20, 2006.

    The author reviews a spate of recent books on the political dominance of the religious Right and the atheist and secularist counterattack, including Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, seeking to dispel popular misconceptions. Evangelical Christianity is to be found among the lower classes everywhere, not just in the ‘red states’. Furthermore, the moral issues that concern these voters most are class issues (and even environmental issues), not predominantly the wedge issues that preoccupy its well-organized right wing. Also, there is a history of religious militancy in the service of radical causes from Abolitionism to the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s. Religion had never declined as some people thought in the 1960s, and so the current state of affairs is not a break with the past. Nor is there any inherent reason that fundamentalism need ally with right wing politics. Black Americans are as religiously conservative as their white counterparts, yet even with some conservative attitudes, their support for the Democratic Party is solid. Even white supporters of the Republican Party oppose many of its actions.

    The conservative views of this religious constituency are not to be discounted, but one should take pause before dismissing this mass of religious believers outright, as does Sam Harris in his latest book. If believers are ‘deranged’, does this mean the civil rights activists of the ‘50s and ‘60s were deranged as well? How about religionists now engaged in social service? As you might expect, the reviewer trots out the misdeeds of secular tyrants to demonstrate the folly of one-sidedness. The conclusion:

    It does mean the secular left should think twice before seeing religious people as their foes, not least since such an attitude risks alienating many potential allies and confining ourselves to a small sect of like-minded believers. This, after all, is what fundamentalism is about.
    While all these adduced facts are helpful, and perhaps also the admonition against lumping the entire religious public together in an oversimplified manner, the conclusion is unsatisfactory and not a little annoying. The problem with liberals and the left is not their arrogance toward religion, which, after all, few of them will state openly. The problem is taking a strictly instrumentally political view towards the pros and cons of religion: good when it’s on our side, bad when it’s on the other side. While one cannot choose one’s allies according to one’s liking, there are some deeper issues at stake in understanding the role of religion in a modern, scientific age. The role of religion is a marker of the quality of life, and however the religious positively relate to progressive politics, religious superstition is a marker of ignorance, alienation, and authoritarianism.

    The problem of holding people from lower social classes at arm’s length is Janus-faced. By treating the “masses” as an anonymous collectivity, one condemns the non-conformists and dissidents among them to continued invisibility. So it never occurs to the guilt-ridden liberal or radical to think of the individuals suffering under the conformity and cruelty of the communities in which they are trapped. This is as bad as thinking oneself too good for the unwashed masses. Either way, it’s all about the capitulation to naked power.

    The author fails to delve deeply enough into the dilemma we now face. He and others are on the right track in analyzing how the ‘red/blue’-state divide came to be. However, the destruction of liberalism, the isolation of its upper middle class adherents, and the descent of the nation into unbridled irrationalism, comprise an historical phenomenon that requires a deeper focus.

    The USA in particular has always manifested an acute contradiction between its coexisting ultramodern and primitivist aspects, which stem from the conditions of the colonization of the American continent. We know what contradictions led up to the nation’s paramount crisis, the Civil War, which is still being fought. But, to adjust the focus for a moment, consider the contradictions that obtained at the moment Franklin Roosevelt took office: imagine the contrast between the skyscrapers of New York and the regions of the rural South that had never known electricity. Setting aside consideration of the unstable coalition that formed the backbone of the New Deal, consider the New Deal as an alliance of the New Class with the laboring masses. While the latter may have been dodgy in their commitment to a rational view of the world, and in some instances even to a secular society, it was a social order that made sense to them and worked to their advantage. In spite of the setbacks of McCarthyism, the liberal intellectual elite was in a position to maintain the fiction of the “American creed” and the consensus view of American politics. While some recognized the fragility of this alleged consensus, the illusion of stability of the Cold War liberal order maintained some credibility until it came apart in the late ‘60s.

    One must understand how the Right exploited the weakening of the same liberal state the left opposed. The New Left rebelled against alienation, bureaucratic elitism, and the impersonal secular order and did not limit itself to traditional bread-and-butter issues or even equality under the law for disadvantaged groups. The political crisis of the late ‘60s, combined with the economic crisis commencing in the ‘70s and the cynicism that took over with Watergate and then stagflation, accompanied by a seismic shift in cultural norms which was the one victory the countercultures were able to sustain, weakened the entire fabric of social legitimation.

    The Right absorbed the lessons of recent events and seized upon this key moment of weakness. They too re-discovered their “roots”; they too, learned that “the personal is political.” Cultural liberalism and aspiring minorities maintained a stronghold in the Democratic Party, while the Democratic Party let its white working class base twist in the wind, this after having alienated the white South in the ‘60s. This is an abridged version of my rap—”It’s the ‘70s, stupid!”—but it basically sets the stage for everything that has happened since.

    Others have analyzed these developments in one way or another, but I want to inject an additional element: the reversion to irrationalism. Aside from the long-standing irrationalism of the fundamentalists, there are two other social components to consider. The ideological components of the radical political movements and countercultures (which overlapped but did not completely coincide) were all over the place. There were occult and New Age beliefs and practices permeating the ‘counterculture’ (a term which should be pluralized, since all were not white people wearing peace signs and headbands), though these influences were not all-encompassing or all-pervasive. The political movements require additional considerations. Neither they nor their participants were monolithic, but there were irrationalist tendencies in black power, feminist, and New Left circles. These were the ancestors of the postmodernism that surfaced publicly in the ‘80s once the yuppification of the new social movements in the academy was complete.

    However, before assessing blame, there is one crucial component to consider: the decline of mainstream liberalism in the ‘70s. This was the major component in the decline of rationalism within the liberal intelligentsia. Its positivism, technocratic optimism, and universalist pretensions were shaken by the new pluralism and the malaise of the late ‘70s. The mainstream of the humanistic and soft social science wing of the intelligentsia began to succumb to irrationalism, as the yuppified elements of the new social movements melded into the mainstream. Before that, the irrationalist tendencies of the countercultures and political movements, however deleterious some of their immediate manifestations and potential long-range effects were, seemed rather self-contained and thus a relatively minor menace. But with the collapse of liberalism, bourgeois rationalism within the ranks of the liberals collapsed, and from this the right, not the left, profited. The impersonal liberal state was seized upon by the New Right, as they too discovered the power of the cultural movement and the implications of the notion that “the personal is political.” Their hatred of the impersonal, unresponsive liberal state morphed into an opportunity to seize political power. The logical end of the breakdown of the rational bourgeois order is precisely the theocratic fascism that threatens us now.

    New class liberals, isolated from the working class base of the New Deal/Great Society coalition, could do nothing but exploit the new cultural order. The “liberal media” became “liberal” only in the cultural sense, as the marketplace must maintain friendliness to the range of its consumer base, even while politically the media became more conservative. Hence the culture industry, while giving some sops to the hateful redneck Right, in the form of talk shows of the likes of Morton Downey Jr. and Rush Limbaugh, gradually institutionalized the culture of cynicism and decadence, which on mainstream television only ran full riot in the ‘90s.

    This brings us to the author’s final recommendation. If the liberal-left is going to show more respect for the working class, what is it to do? It is entrapped in a closed-feedback media loop that cannot be broken. Simply consider the nature of hip media satire. The fact is that Al Franken, Jon Stewart, Colbert and the rest constitute a segment of the culture industry produced by and for the hip, cynical upper middle class, and in the final analysis, they are all useless for a radical social critique. These are the same sort of people who gobble up the cynical and sadistic albeit sometimes hilarious degeneracy of South Park and Family Guy.

    If bread-and-butter New Dealism is not on the table, or is insufficient as a basis of appeal, what could a cultural politics that would respect the working class possibly look like and could it gain either financial backers, media greenlights, or a consumer base? Must the backwardness and ignorance of working class populations be piously pandered to? On the other hand, is there an alternative to Blue Collar TV? The Nation, after all, is an organ of the upper middle class liberal-left. If these people are feeling guilty about their class privilege and political impotence, should they then genuflect to Dumbfuckistan? Granted that the “liberal”cultural industry cannot bridge the red state/blue state divide—and I’ll add that no matter how assiduously they hype the flavor of the month, Barack Obama spouting his platitudinous bullshit can’t do it either—is there an escape from this vicious circle? I don’t see a way out, but I’ll be damned if pandering to ignorance is the answer.

    Michael Shermer, Ayn Rand & other dreck

    See also my original post with feedback on Freethought Forum.

    Written 2 January 2007:

    Magazines such as The Skeptic do not as a rule interest me, and I never heard of Michael Shermer until I tuned into one of the most horrid programs I ever watched on PBS:

    The Question of God

    I was so furious after seeing this pretentious, vacuous waste of airtime I wrote a really nasty note, on 16 September 2004:

    This has got to be the dumbest piece of sh*t PBS has ever broadcast, after Suze Orman, Wayne Dyer, and Gary Null. . . . With one or two exceptions, the talking heads were just appalling, absolutely beneath contempt. Anyway, I’m writing up a denunciation of this show to send to PBS. I’ve already posted a few remarks to the discussion board. The preponderance of comments seem to come from idiots, but there are several voices of protest against the abominable premiss and execrable logic underlying this program. This is just the sort of second-rate middlebrow dreck designed to appeal to the upper middle class dweebs who donate money to public television and think they’re sophisticated for watching this sh*t instead of Springer.
    I continued the following day:

    . . . this documentary on Freud & Lewis with the exception of the two secular humanists had the most idiotic panel of talking heads I have ever seen. It’s worse than watching Dennis Wholey. The total lack of logical thinking, the lack of recognized experts in important fields such as comparative mythology, etc., the total arbitrariness in the selection of people and the tenor of conversation—this is a new low. It’s like watching Bill Clinton or Tony Blair engage in discourse—indecent total bullsh*t without content or substance.
    It seems I never got around to writing the detailed analysis I planned. While apparently I didn’t think Shermer was the worst of the lot, I didn’t think there was a whole lot to him, either.

    The Science of Good and Evil

    The next time I wrote about Shermer was on 13 February 2006:

    Here’s an example of my dislike of sociobiological “explanations” of human belief systems, esp. those using this crackpot notion of “memes” [Dawkins]:

    The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule by Michael Shermer

    While biological evolution undoubtedly explains the formation of human groups who can survive in nature, aside from basic propensities to survive in social groups, natural selection cum genetics and neuroscience in the present state of biological knowledge cannot explain the “survival” of belief systems—i.e. culturally transmitted ideas and practices—esp. via natural selection of individual genetic traits.

    My problem with sociobiological explanations is that not only are the genetics of belief systems unknown to physical science, but that their proponents lack a grounding in history, anthropology, and sociology, and are rather naive in their speculations on the regulation of social behavior.

    One may applaud secular humanists such as Dennett, Shermer, and Dawkins for certain aspects of their public interventions, but the replacement of religion with tough-guy (or make-nice) pseudo-science only compounds the problem. These people are all sociologically naive, and can’t even understand the anti-scientific reaction and the policies of the ruling elite since the 1960s that have driven millions to illiteracy and superstition.

    The Ayn Rand Cult: Reason as Unreason

    Most recently, on 23 December, I ran into this little ‘gem’:


    And this is what I had to say about it:

    This article by a prominent figure in skeptic and secular humanist circles pinpoints certain aspects of the Rand cult’s irrationality while neglecting to specify on a deeper level what makes it ideological (i.e., operating in a fashion of which its practitioners are unconscious), and revealing himself to be the same shallow intellectual type that characterizes much of the secular humanist and atheist movement in the anglophone world.

    Even worse, Shermer embraces a good deal of Rand’s philosophy, most obviously the celebration of free market capitalism.

    I never thought Shermer was very bright after seeing him on PBS, but this shows him to be worse.

    And this is the best the ‘skeptic’ is capable of producing. I never had much use for ‘skeptics’, as they never had much to say about so many things that really mattered, and this piece shows just useless they are. There is a terrible intellectual vacuum in this milieu and the suggestion that these people are the best representatives of reason that we have makes me want to vomit.

    Here is one rather revealing book on Rand and her cult following:

    The Ayn Rand Cult by Jeff Walker (Open Court Publishing Company, 1998)

    On 22 July 2004 I wrote:

    The author of this book makes a penetrating observation. He says Rand was at war with reality her whole life. I think this is quite perceptive. The price of maintaining this foolish consistency is to edit out a good portion of reality and history. The incoherence is not [in] the internal logical consistency of the system, but [in] the mismatch between the ideology and reality, and [in] the contradiction between the avowed rationality of its proponents and the manifest irrationality of their motivations.

    Like religious proselytizers, our [local] Rand groupie felt the need to accost every attendee of [our local philosophy group] and grill him or her seeking out contradictions. I’ve seen this individual in social situations, and he is only capable of treating other human beings as objects or lab rats. This is not rational behavior; it is mental illness.

    If Rand is despised by the academic community, and I don’t know whether that’s so, it is probably because her arrogance exceeds what they are used to, and the inflated claims of her status contrasts with her actual grasp of the ideas with which she is in competition. As a philosopher, her cult pretty much edits out most of philosophy. I don’t necessarily believe that the bulk of philosophical tradition mandates respect, but critique demands an understanding of how concepts are put together, even an understanding of the contradictions in philosophical systems which may be a product of the state of society and knowledge at a given time and their evolution through history. But real society and real history do not exist for Ayn Rand. She deduces reality from first principles but can only do so by denying or distorting most of it. This I think is why her followers are such simpletons as well as diseased personalities.

    I run into these libertarian types at atheist gatherings. I have no interest in arguing with them; I simply recuse myself from whatever conversation I’m a party to. The last time I inadvertently got sucked into a discussion on this topic, while sitting next to a Randroid woman known for hawking her book at WASH [Washington Area Secular Humanists] meetings, I wanted to know only one thing I didn’t already know about Ayn Rand: what was her position on oral sex? I got a laugh, but not an answer.