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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

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Saturday, November 08, 2003

when science becomes religion

Heaven on Earth -The Rise and Fall of Socialism

France was the capital of the Enlightenment, an eighteenth-century
intellectual movement spearheaded by writers who called themselves philosphes.
They had waged a campaign of relentless criticism of the church and revealed
religion, which their leader Voltaire called "The infamous thing." The crusade
was so effective that by 1778, when an eighty-three year old Voltaire returned
to Paris after decades away, he was received like a "victorious general," as
Peter Gray describes it. The Jesuit order had been suppressed, and various
indicators showed a decline in devotion among the public. The effects were most
profound in the ranks of the articulate and the highborn. "Frank atheism was
still comparatively rare, but among the enlightened scholars, writers, and
gentlemen who set the intellectual fashions of the later eighteenth century,
frank Christianity even rarer," writes historian E. J. Hobsbawm.

The decline of faith was fueled by a rise of science, but not all who lost
faith became scientific. "Fashionable women kept books on science on their
dressing tables, and, like Mme. de Pompadour, had their portraits painted with
squares and telescopes at their feet," say the Durants. Nonetheless, "a thousand
superstitions survived side by side with the rising Enlightenment."...

Like Voltaire, those who were neither Christians nor atheists usually were
deists. Deism affirmed the existence of God, or better, of some "supreme being,"
or "eternal cause," but denied the legitimacy of the church and and the
authority of Scripture. What separated deists from atheists was a need to
explain creation or a fear of the moral consequences of a godless world.

Deism enjoyed its apotheosis in the French Revolution with the replacement
of the Christian calendar with one in which the days, months and seasons were
renamed for plants and animals and types of weather. But this transformation
like other innovations such as changing the name of the Cathedral of Notre Dame
to the Temple of Reason, did not last long; for it served only to illustrate the
depth of the human impulse to religion. Diderot, whose Encyclopedie was the
flagship of the Enlightenment, confessed that he could not watch religious
processions "without tears coming to my eyes."

Most anthropologists agree that religion is a universal; they have yet to
discover a civilization of logical positivists...

Accordingly, the Enlightenment's discrediting of Christianity left Europe in the
early nineteenth century hungering for a new faith. Robert Owen's movement with
its church-like "halls of science" aimed to fill the need, but he was unable to
fashion a coherent doctrine. Had socialism remained eh work of such fanciful
souls as he, it would have been as marginal as humanism, pacifism, ethical
culturalism, vegetarianism and so many other goodhearted but feckless theories.

Engels and Marx, however, succeeded in recasting socialism into a compelling
religious faith, and their socialism absorbed or eclipsed all others...

Marxism made socialism a religion by reducing all history and all problems
to a single main drama. "Communism is the riddle of history solved," said Marx.
Solving the riddle meant not only comprehending the past but foreseeing the
future. It "transferred the centre of gravity of the argument for socialism from
its rationality or desirability to its historic inevitability," said Hobsbawm,
giving it "its most formidable intellectual weapon." In truth, the claim of
inevitability was not an intellectual weapon but a religious one. It had no
logical weight but great psychological power, paralleling Engels' boyhood faith
of Pietism, which embodied a doctrine of predestination.

Nor was this the only way that socialism echoed revelation. It linked
mankind's salvation to a downtrodden class, combining the Old Testament's notion
of a chosen people with the New Testament's prophecy that the meek shall inherit
the earth. Like the Bible, it's historical narrative was a tale of redemption
that divided time into three epochs: a distant past of primitive content, a
present of suffering and struggle, and a future of harmony and bliss. By
investing history with a purpose, socialism evoked passions that other political
philosophies could not stir. As the American socialist intellectual Irving Howe
put it,

Not many people became socialists because they were persuaded of the
correctness of Marxist economics or supposed the movement served their "class
interests." They became socialists because they were moved to fervor by the
call to brotherhood and sisterhood; because the world seemed aglow with the
vision of a time in which humanity might live in justice and peace.

Most socialists would deny that their creed is religious in character. Did
not Marx say that religion is an opiate? But many have given evidence of the
religious quality of their belief. Michael Harrington, a fallen-away product of
Jesuit education who became the preeminent American socialist of his generation,
once wrote: "I consider myself to be - in Max Weber's phrase - 'religiously
musical' even though I do not believe in God... I am... a 'religious nature
without religion.' a pious man of deep faith, but not in the supernatural." A
Harrington disciple, sociologist Norman Birnbaum, has been more blunt.
"Socialism in all its forms," he writes, "was itself a religion of redemption."
Harrington may not have made as clean a break with the supernatural as he
liked to believe. To be sure, Marxism contained no gods or angels, yet it had
its own mystical elements. It claimed that human behavior was determined by
abstract, exterior forces: people do what they do not for the reasons they
think, but because of the mode and the means of production and the class
structure. To compound the mystery, Marx and Engels did not believe that the
forces they described governed their own actions, but they did not explain why
they were exempt.

Nonetheless, Marxism's departure from empiricism was less glaring that that
of revealed religions and did not prove fatal to its claim of being scientific.
Marx and Engels were pioneers in applying the terminology of science to human
behavior. The term "science" had only come fully into vogue in the early
nineteenth century, replacing the older "natural philosophy," and it carried a
powerful cachet. Every day science was finding explanations for things that had
long seemed inexplicable, so Marxism's claim to have broken the code of history
did not seem implausible.

Before Marx, Robert Owen always characterized his activities as scientific
(as did Saint Simon, Fourier and the other utopian socialists), and the claim
was valid. Owen hit upon the idea of socialism and then set about to test it by
creating experimental communities. Such experimentation is the very essence of
the scientific method. Owen strayed from science only at he point that he chose
to ignore his results rather than reconsider his hypothesis. Engels and Marx
replaced experimental socialism with prophetic socialism, and claimed thereby to
have progressed from utopia to science.

Thus, part of the power of Marxism was its ability to feed religious hunger
while flattering the sense of being wiser than those who gave themselves over to
unearthly faiths. In addition, the structure of of rewards proffered by
socialism was so much more appealing than in the biblical religions. Foe one
thing, you did not have to die to enjoy them. Ernest Belford Bax, the most
voluble of the founders of British Marxism, wrote a book titled The Religion of
Socialism that that reprised the young Hesse:

Socialism... brings back religion from heaven to earth... It looks beyond the
present moment... not... to another world, but to another and a higher social
life in this world. It is in... this higher social life... whose ultimate
possibilities are beyond the power of language to express or thought to
conceive, that the socialist finds his ideal, his religion.

The same ecstatic tone reverberated in Trotsky's forecast that under
socialism the average person would exhibit the talents of a Beethoven or a
Goethe, and in Harrington's vision of "an utterly new society in which some of
the most fundamental limitations of human existence have been transcended...
[W]ork will no longer be necessary... The sentence decreed in the Garden of Eden
will have been served."

The biblical account of Adam and Eve's fall explained the hardships of life.
It also portrayed mankind's capacity for evil as well as good, suggesting that
we might ameliorate the hardship by cultivating our better natures. As
Harrington's bold promise suggests, socialism made things easier. Not only did
it vow to deliver the goods in this world rather than the next, but it asked
little in return. At the most, you had to support the revolution. At the least,
you had to do nothing, since the ineluctable historical forces would bring about
socialism anyway. In either case you did not have to worship or obey. You did
not have to make sacrifices or give charity. You did not have to confess or
repent or encounter that tragic sense of life that is the lot of those who
embrace a nonsecular religion. No doubt, many or most of those drawn to
socialism felt some sense of humane idealism, but its demands were deflected
onto society as a whole.

If this is what made the religion of socialism so attractive, it also
explains what made it so destructive. Religion is ubiquitous, reaching far back
into the human dawn: prehistoric cave drawings depict what appear to be mythical
figures. But early ideas about the cosmos reflected little that we would
recognize as moral content, as the bawdy shenanigans of the Greek deities
illustrate. The Bible changed this. And the advent of the Bible was only a part
of a global transformation that historian Herbert J. Muller places around the
sixth century B.C., with the rise of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism,
Confucianism and Taoism, as well as the culmination of he prophetic movement in
Judaism. These faiths, he says,

...all moved away from the immemorial tribal gods and nature gods, toward more
universal, spiritual conceptions of deity or the cosmic order. Their primary
concern was no longer the material success of the nation or the assurance of
good crops, but he spiritual welfare of man. They offered visions of some Good
beyond earthly life, rescuing man from his long obsession with food and
phallus. They proposed different ways of treating the powers above, but ways
alike more amenable to his ideal purposes. Their service of deity was far from
mere servility.

From then on, the world's major faiths connected some theory of the nature
of the world with a moral code. Two and a half millennia later, the religion of
socialism sundered that connection. What was different about it was not the
absence of God, since Buddhism and Confucianism also have no God, but rather the
absence of good and evil and right and wrong. This opened the doors to the
terrible deeds that were done in the name of socialism.

To be sure, terrible deeds have also been done in the name of the
traditional religions. One can cite the Crusades, the Inquisition, the World
Trade Center and more. The idea of ultimate salvation - religious or secular -
can be used to justify many things. Religious zealots have rationalized their
depredations by selective interpretations of holy texts, finding authority for
attacks against outsiders or coreligionists whom they deem wayward. But in doing
so they also ignore or suppress core elements of their creeds that address moral
commands to the believer himself, constraining his actions. Socialism, in
contrast, lacks any internal code of conduct to limit what its believers might
do. The socialist narrative turned history into a morality play without the
morality. No wonder, then, that its balance sheet looks so much worse. In about
three centuries the Crusades claimed two million lives; Pol Pot snuffed out
roughly the same number in a mere three years. Regimes calling themselves
socialist have murdered more than one hundred million people since 1917. The
toll of the crimes by observant Christians, Moslems, Jews, Buddhists or Hindus
pales in comparison.

By no means all socialists were killers or amoral. Many were sincere
humanitarians; mostly these were the adherents of democratic socialism. But
democratic socialism turned out to be a contradiction in terms, for where
socialists proceeded democratically, the found themselves on a trajectory that
took them further and further from socialism. Long before Lenin, socialist
thinkers had anticipated the problem. The imaginary utopias of Plato, Moore,
Campanella and Edward Bellamy, whose 1887 novel, Looking Backward, was the most
popular socialist book in American history, all relied on coercion, as did the
plans of The Conspiracy of Equals. Only once did democratic socialists manage to
create socialism. That was the kibbutz. And after they had experienced it, they
chose democratically to abolish it.

Joshua Muravchik(From the Epilogue, Heaven on Earth -The Rise and Fall of Socialism)

9:18:00 pm