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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Atheism and communism

The connection between atheism and communism in the public imagination, at least in the US, would be boring if it were not so common, and hence something that needs to be dealt with. At least some of the hostility towards atheists is based on hostility to communism (or to its specific Marxist-Leninist version, or to its manifestation under Stalin, or to the totalitarianism and militarism of the late, unlamented Soviet Union).

It's not only in the US that this connection gets made, and in all honesty we should acknowledge that some (perhaps many) people did adopt a commitment to communist politics and an atheistic view of the world all as part of a package deal. Alister McGrath seems to have been one of those people in his younger days, as he discusses in The Twilight of Atheism. He says (p. 176), "The principal cause of my atheism, was Marxism, a movement that I believed held the key to the future." On the following page he adds: "Let me stress this point: the appeal of atheism for me lay in its proposal to eradicate religion."

More generally, McGrath seems to think that to be a true atheist you have to swallow an entire atheistic worldview, including some sort of political anti-theism.

So, I don't doubt that there are people who once were, and others who still are, like that. But McGrath needs to understand that his experience is not typical or generalisable. The existence of people like the younger McGrath is a long way from establishing the myth that "Atheists are communists." Many of us have no great love for communism or any other comprehensive political ideology. As far as I'm concerned, once I freed myself from Christianity, after a considerable struggle that I talk about in 50 Voices of Disbelief, there was no damn way I was going to take up another religion (one of the versions of Marxism or communism on offer) in its place.

I grant that Marxist-Leninist communism might not technically be a religion in the sense of positing a supernatural or otherworldly order (whatever those words actually mean when you analyse them). But it apes Christianity in offering a totalising view of reality, holy books (The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital), prophetic leaders, deep psychological transformations of its so-called "true believers", extensive canons of conduct that people are expected to follow, and an apocalyptic vision of history. Indeed, it effectively portrays History as its God - participation in the movement involves having History on your side with the prophecy of a kind of earthly paradise at the end in the form of the communist state (which follows the earlier stage of a dictatorship of the proletariat). Having History on your side can legitimise atrocities much as can having God on your side.

While this may not technically be a religion, it apes religion so closely and comprehensively that it looks very much the same and plays much the same personal and social role. It is just as dangerous as any supernaturalist religion, and merits just as much criticism.

Many of us are atheists for reasons that are remote from any of this. And far from wanting to eradicate religion some of us were not especially inclined to speak up in public about these issues until relatively recently. Not that many years ago, I was writing media tie-in novels and doing most of my "serious" thinking and writing in the field of philosophical bioethics. I was actually pretty happy with that combination (though I freely admit that I've always maintained some interest in philosophy of religion).

In 50 Voices of Disbelief, several of us talk about our reasons for speaking up about religion at this point in history. In some cases, including mine, those reasons are, indeed, broadly political. But even when they are political, they need have nothing to do with another totalizing system such as some version or other of Marxist-Leninist communism.


J.J. Emerson said...

Communism, for example, has very much in common with religion. It has dogma, relies on faith, and is authoritarian. I think that the very same things that atheists and skeptics object to with regard to religion are the very same ones that they object with regard to communism. I think it is disingenuous in the largest degree when the superficial similarity between Gnus and Communists (they don't accept gods) is used to bludgeon the Gnus. And people like McGrath should know this. If one can't replace "new atheists" with "religious skepticism" and have the criticism of gnus remain valid, then something is wrong.

bad Jim said...

I suspect that this may be one of the reasons so many of us used to call ourselves agnostics, not from fear of being accused of communism but from rejection of ideological certainty.

Of course it didn't help that religious types and most dictionaries also defined atheists in terms of belief, instead of disbelief.

Svlad Cjelli said...

There's actually a fair bit of "spooky" historicism, history as an agent, mixed in with some traditional flavours of communism, from what I can tell. The godly "portrayal" of History should not be taken as always superficial, or allegorical.

DEEN said...

Indeed, most atheists appear to be liberals of some sort, and seem quite wary of any authoritarian system.

Sadly, the right wing (especially in the US) doesn't seem to be able to differentiate between liberalism, socialism, Marxism and Leninism/Stalinism at all anymore. I guess to many of them, all those liberal atheists still are communists.

Russell Blackford said...

@ bad Jim ... it's certainly one of the reasons why Michael Shermer is not entirely happy with the word "atheist".

Eamon Knight said...

Some good fraction of the atheists in my local circle (though not me) are downright libertarian, which demonstrates the absurdity of the equation of atheism and communism. There seem to be people (and McGrath sounds like one of them) who reel from one answers-all-questions system of thought to another, never stopping to ask "Yes, but how do I know any of this is true?". That -- by his own confession -- he embraced atheism because of dislike of religion is damning. I "embraced" (actually more like: hesitantly acquiesced to the inevitable) atheism because the evidence compelled me to.

Marshall said...

The US paranoia about Communism was so 1960. We haven't had a president who we worried might be a Commie since FDR. The common position is that Reagan won the Cold War, stare decisis, nothing to see here. These days our worry is that Obama might be a secret Muslim. Religious terrorists are the threat to our way of life, not mega-state global dominators. Chinese hegemony could be the next big thing, but we don't think of them so much as Communists as Robber Barons. Out here in the Coastlands, I think the biggest problem people have with Atheism is if they think about it at all, they don't think it's coherent... "whatever could be meant by 'the absence of belief'???"

I tend to agree with your remarks about Communism-as-Religion, and I think they illustrate why "Religion" isn't exactly the category you (we) want to oppose. I don't think "a totalizing view of reality" is quite right either; after all, Scientific Rationalism is one such - and doesn't Rationalism claim that history is on its side?

Sean (quantheory) said...

It seems to me that this is just one more example of apologists' double-standard. No one would expect that a criticism of, say, Constantine, would apply to all religions. Yet we are expected to think that criticisms of Stalin apply to all atheist schools of thought.

To me, the most bizarre thing about this is that one of the most well-read atheists (especially in the U.S., which is probably the most fearful of communism) is Ayn Rand. While Objectivism isn't the most shining example of modern atheist thought, I'm constantly amazed that people don't realize what an obvious counterexample it is to this atheism=communism thesis.

Alex SL said...

Well, if you define communism in a way that makes it similar to religion, then your conclusion that it is similar to religion is of course warranted. But is communism really what you describe it to be? At a minimum, it should be realized that the word is at least as foggy and context dependent as the words "liberal" and "conservative". (I would certainly be called liberal if I were in the USA, but in Europe I would take great exception to that description because it generally refers to what the Americans call libertarian).

So. Communism as a form of government? As a form of organizing the economy? As an ideology or school of thought? And then, the thought of somebody like Marx, who while getting at least as many things wrong as, say, Margulis or Newton, indubitably also produced many important insights, like, say, Margulis or Newton; or the thought of a rank and file member of the Bolsheviks who went through a train in 1917 and shot everybody without calluses on their hands because they were "enemies of the people"? Of European democratic communists of the 70ies or of Maoist rebels in contemporary India? They all quasi-religious, and apocalyptic?

As far as being opposed to ideology, you may gain something from reading this reasonable post by Paul Krugman. There is only one set of facts, and we would do well to use reason to infer it. But even once you have all facts on the table, one person may think that everybody should basically have the same standard of living, and another may consider it desirable that the unsuccessful suffer for their failure, perhaps only to spur us to success. Poof, you have two ideologies. Everybody who thinks they do not have one deludes themselves, but it is no shame either.

Jesse Parrish said...

I consider myself to be a socialist, if of a rather idiosyncratic sort. (I guess we all are.) But my socialism developed after my atheism and for mostly different reasons.

A few years ago, I would probably have called myself an apathetic libertarian. There isn't a lot of political variety where I am from - I was never introduced to anything beyond Ann Coulter at home or Freakonimics at school - so this was about as intellectually appealing as political positions got. But for reasons I cannot quite remember, I decided to start taking politics seriously. And what a time to start! My `right libertarian' disposition did not last long.

But atheism was relevant to my political development in some ways. Obviously, it affected my ability to take religious conservatives seriously. It lead me to socialist writings by tangents, through Bertrand Russell and others. Reading Hitchens also interested me in the history of the Left. And already being a staunch secularist, I was genuinely interested in the relevance of atheism to authoritarian communist states.

Jesse Parrish said...

Alex SL: "Well, if you define communism in a way that makes it similar to religion, then your conclusion that it is similar to religion is of course warranted. But is communism really what you describe it to be? At a minimum, it should be realized that the word is at least as foggy and context dependent as the words "liberal" and "conservative". (I would certainly be called liberal if I were in the USA, but in Europe I would take great exception to that description because it generally refers to what the Americans call libertarian)."

Fair point, but I think it appropriate in this context to use `communist' to describe the regimes which identified as such. To mention Russell again, I remember a footnote in his History of Western Philosophy, in which he notes that the common Russian worshiped Stalin, not dialectical materialism. In Encounters with Lenin, a memoir by a pre-1917 Bolshevik, the utopian themes of the hopeful revolutionaries are discussed, as well as in The First Bolshevik, a biography of a Russian predecessor of Bolshevism, Tkachev. Gorky and other uncritical, sympathetic tourists of the Bolshevik regime told communists everywhere of a near-paradise. (Stalin only claimed to have `built socialism' in ~1947, later premiers only claimed to be `building communism'. There were a lot of jokes about Brezhnev's "communism in 20 years!".) Along with the utopian elements, Lenin was kept in a mausoleum. Stalin - quite consciously, I think - replaced Russian Orthodox imagery with similar images of himself. (The Time of Stalin, an internal account of the Stalin years by Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, catalogues this process, in addition to Stalin's opportunistic employment of the Russian Church - along with other masses of political prisoners - by releasing gulag prisoners during WWII.) And as for the intellectual sphere, Orwell described political Catholicism as the predecessor of communism - see Notes on Nationalism. And that's just a fraction of the parallels of traditional religion and political communism. The Maoists, Khmer Rouge, Kim Dynasty, and others afford similar examples. But what do we expect whenever arguments are to be resolved by a quote from Lenin or Marx and not by inquiry?

Alex SL: "As far as being opposed to ideology..."

Another fair point, but the difference is between a comprehensive ideology - particularly a doctrinal one - and a piece-meal or `boundary' ideology. If I read Russell correctly, he only rejects the former. A non-comprehensive ideology is something like requiring one's political positions to be consistent with basic principles, e.g. liberty and equality. These principles admit a wide variety of acceptable societies and cultures.

But whenever society is directed in accordance with a more comprehensive ideology, e.g. Salafism, Calvinism, and Bolshevism, then things are different. Especially since strict, comprehensive ideologies are non-pluralistic by definition, authoritarianism seems inevitable.

Jesse Parrish said...

Sorry, *Krushchev's* `communism in 20 years'. And similar slogans were common.

Alex SL said...

See Jesse, we are on the same page here; rational inquiry instead of blind adherence to dogma.

I just react annoyed at what seems to be the repetition of certain canards. It is so easy to be anticommunist, essentially everybody agrees that they are the bad guys. But that should not absolve one from having a differentiated perception of reality. There are people out there (not including myself, though) who call themselves communists because they are rationalists who think that everybody should have the same standard of living, and that our profit-oriented market economy is inherently catastrophic and destroys the planet. They do not generally pray to an icon of Stalin every evening.

It is so easy to claim that you have no ideology, and are against ideologies, the word sounds so bad, doesn't it? But that is just fooling yourself (or trying to fool others). On one end of the spectrum there are postmodernists who think that everything is ideology, even physics, and on the other end there are people who think that if we just use our reason well enough and explore all the facts we must all rationally agree on a certain economic model (which strangely always turns out to be some variant of private-ownership capitalism). Well, no. Some Bolivian miner may actually rationally prefer socialism to a dynamic, generally more prosperous society in which he, personally, would be poorer.

Anonymous said...

As a socialist living in the UK, my principal motivation and inspiration for my political outlook is quite simply based on the same criterion as that which I use in being an atheist: the available evidence.

For me, socialism as a process exists only because historical events and social reality (as far as we can perceive it) demonstrates in evidential sequences that our social consciousness is formed through material relations - that we live ina struggle of cause and effect that can be proved demonstrably to favour a small elitist minority over and increasingly alienated and subservient majority, and that this alienation will inevitably lead to further developments in which the inequity of the rich-poor divide will be turned on its head - a revolutionary transitional process.

I base that view on the evidence of pre-existing and existing societal developments that are observable worldwide. In just the same way, I base my atheism on the evidential observation that there is no particular telos in which a need for an active, intervening and creating God depends.

Evidence tells me that there is no need for such an idea to explain what can be explained more readily through material evidence.