TIA Tuesday: A maze of twisty passages, all alikeOctober 14, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Vox Day has a very important question to ask us all.
Why should a belief in the non-existence of God cause one individual to kill another, much less make it possible to predict that it will cause political leaders to liquidate large numbers of their own citizenry? How was it that Bertrand Russell was able to foresee the inevitable bloodshed to come in 1920, two years before Stalin became General Secretary and four years before he consolidated his power by banishing Trotsky? And even more importantly, why did the atheist Russell believe that the civilized world not only would, but should, risk a descent into barbarism by following the awful Soviet example?
Gosh, it seems like it was just a few pages ago that Vox was assuring us that government was the source of all that is evil in the world, and now here he is blaming blaming atheism again. And not just a lack of belief in God (or Santa), but a positive, declaratory assurance that God does not exist, is what Vox appeals to as being an active motivation for mass murderous behavior. Given the number of gods which even Christians believe do not exist, the potential for mass destruction must be truly terrifying!
But I digress. Let’s hear what Vox’s answer to the question is.
The answer is that without a belief in that which transcends the natural, Man’s ambition is limited to the material. These ambitions take many different forms, but intellectuals seem particularly drawn towards the idea of modifying human society according to their personal preferences. It may only be a coincidence, but it is interesting to note that many totalitarian rulers were not merely intelligent individuals, but intellectuals and the authors of what at times are still surprisingly insightful books.
Wait, what? He starts off as though he’s going to blame the material world (aka God’s Creation) for lacking the attributes which would inspire reasonable men to good behavior, but then he swerves into the peculiar insinuation that smart people want to hurt you just because being smart makes them want bad things. And his “evidence” is that Stalin and Lenin and Hitler, along with other smart people, declared that they had a desire to make the world into a better place.
The logic gets even more twisted. After beginning by asserting that these evil materialistic intellectuals are harmful because they are too focused on the material world, and not focused enough on the immaterial, supernatural things, Vox abruptly flip-flops and declares that the trouble with intellectuals is that they are too focused on the abstract, immaterial theories, and don’t pay enough attention to the material realities.
In his book Intellectuals, the British historian Paul Johnson observes that intellectuals tend to focus on the abstract rather than tangible reality. While this is a useful and positive attribute when one is developing an entirely abstract concept such as string theory, constructing evolutionary stable strategies or creating a virtual world out of mathematics, art, and C compilers, it is rather less harmless when the abstract vision intersects with the harsh reality of human behavior. Human behavior seldom makes sense.
Much as I hate to contradict someone who has so much obvious expertise in not making sense, I have to say that Vox is greatly exaggerating the problem here. Human behavior may not make much sense to someone who fails to perceive and understand all the factors involved, but neither is it the irrational and unpredictable mish-mash that Vox portrays. He has to make it look like it is completely out of control, however, so that he can make his next point.
Christianity teaches that this is because man is hopelessly prone to evil, and that war and poverty will always be his curse due to his fallen nature. The Christian cannot hope to end these things, so he is content to work to ameliorate them where and when he can, according to the Biblical commands.
So just to recap, Vox is claiming that you can predict that belief in God’s non-existence will lead to mass murder because if you don’t believe in that which transcends the material, you’ll be so focused on physical realities, while simultaneously ignoring those same realities in order to focus on the abstract, that you’ll fail to grasp the transcendent reality in which all men are hopelessly prone to evil and unable to improve their own situation. Mmmm.
In contrast to this fatalistic and hopeless scenario, Vox gasps in horror at the atheistic notion that some people think it might be possible for us to make things better.
The atheist knows no such limits. Where the theist sees the inherent restrictions of human nature as created by God, the atheist sees nothing but the potential for human progress. What this progress is ultimately directed towards depends entirely on the particular vision; the ambitions of Pol Pot were certainly different than those of Lenin, Russell, or Harris, but regardless of what the final end is, the means and the stages through which the atheist visionary progresses will tend to be very similar, if not entirely the same.
Anyone who believes in the potential for human progress is obviously godless and evil, since he has rejected the inherent restrictions on human nature as created by God. If God had wanted us to improve, He would have made us better, gosh darn it! But He created us to be evil, and poverty-stricken, and constantly at war and killing one another. In fact, even though he started out by making the claim that belief in God’s non-existence is what causes massive loss of human life, the real cause (if what Vox says about human nature is true) is that we can’t help it. God made us to be evil, and there’s nothing we can do to make ourselves any better, and all Vox is doing by blaming atheists is trying to distract attention from God’s causative role in making us the way we are.
Vox follows up this bizarre claim with a 6-step plan, based on what he perceives as a pattern in various ideologically-motivated atrocities, for turning an attempt to better the human condition into a human rights disaster in which millions suffer and die needlessly. But more importantly, he makes the accusation that this pattern must be followed by atheists, because of their atheism.
The particular deadliness of Communism is not due to any peculiar aspect unique to Marxism, but because it requires retrofitting humanity to suit its atheist, utopian vision. Any creed or ideology that similarly violates the long-established patterns of human behavior in the name of progress will bear a high probability of leading to the same bitter harvest. Due to their ability to think in the abstract, their rejection of religious and societal traditions and their total focus on the material, atheists are uniquely susceptible to embracing utopian visions that conflict with these historical patterns.
What Vox manages to overlook is the fact that all his argument actually accomplishes is to make an accusation against atheism, without showing any actual reason why lack of belief in God ought to be to blame for mass murder.
Take his first claim, “that without a belief in that which transcends the natural, Man’s ambition is limited to the material.” There are two errors in this statement. One is that belief in God’s non-existence is necessarily a belief in the non-existence anything which transcends the material. Vox assumes that anyone who fails to believe in God also denies the existence of the supernatural and/or metaphysical, but in fact there are many people who believe in various transcendent/metaphysical “truths” that don’t happen to include any particular gods.
The second error is that Vox assumes, with no basis, that there’s something wrong or harmful with limiting one’s ambitions to the material. The material world is all we have to observe and to learn from; all of our experiences of pleasure, satisfaction, anticipation, reward, and so on, are experiences that we have had in and through the material world. The best things we can imagine, the qualities and virtues we treasure most highly, are all things that we have conceived of and learned the value of in the context of material reality. Vox himself accuses atheists of going astray, not because they’ve paid too much attention to the objective realities of life in the material world, but because they’ve allegedly spent too much time pursuing insubstantials that don’t correspond to material reality. If that’s the problem then the cure is to be more careful to limit our ambitions to the material.
More problems in Vox’s analysis: he tries to link lack of belief in God with a belief in the utopian perfection of man, on the grounds that atheists do not accept the Christian doctrine of human sin. This is a question, not of God’s existence, but of Man’s nature, about which even different religions have different ideas. One does not need to believe in the existence of any deity or deities to know, just from observation alone, that man is not perfect. And even Christians, according to Vox, “work to ameliorate [evils] where and when [they] can,” despite their belief in the futility of their efforts.
Vox fails to explain why atheist attempts to make things better must necessarily follow his 6-point disaster plan, while similar Christian efforts would not. (Probably for good reason: Christian utopias have had similar failings and would seriously undermine his argument.) One cannot help but note, in passing, how much hopelessness and despair there is in Vox’s fatalistic view of man, and contrast that with the common Christian claim that their faith gives them a sense of hope and purpose that atheists allegedly lack! Yet if you want a reason to hope that things can be better in our lifetimes, you’re necessarily more likely to find it among unbelievers than among those who, for theological reasons, use words like “futile” and “hopeless” to refer to human progress.
The very last sentence of the chapter, though, sums up what may be Vox’s most insightful and revealing comment in the whole book.
Man requires God, whether He exists or not, because in His absence Man becomes a devil.
It’s not that the Christian God actually exists outside of human imagination. The reason for believing in Jesus is because you’re afraid of what might happen if you don’t. People are scary. People hurt you. If a little superstition can make you feel safe enough to remain a member of human society, what difference does it make whether or not your superstition is actually true?
This ultimately is why people like Vox write books like TIA. No amount of rational argument, no well-ordered list of verifiable facts, can make the fear go away, because the fact is that people are scary and do hurt each other. So long as that fear exists—and it will always exist because the danger is real—people will believe.