Saturday, May 31, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 10

Religion and freedom. Peikoff, in his essay “Religion Versus America,” argues that religion is logically incompatible with freedom and individual rights.

The principle of individual rights does not derive from or depend on the idea of God as man's creator. It derives from the very nature of man, whatever his source or origin; it derives from the requirements of man's mind and his survival. In fact, as I have argued, the concept of rights is ultimately incompatible with the idea of the supernatural. This is true not only logically, but also historically.

Apologists of Christianity make the opposite claim: rights come from God, they argue, just as the Declaration of Independence asserts. Freedom rests on a religious base.

Who is right on this issue, Peikoff and Objectivism or the apologists of Christianity? The answer is: neither side is right. Both make the erroneous assumption that rights derive from a doctrinal or logical base. There is no convincing evidence that this is true.

Rights are far more the product of the give and take between various political factions than they are of any specific doctrine of rights. Most people have only vague notions of rights. Since the majority people are not logically consistent in their beliefs, issues about where specific claims about rights originate and whether they are based on sound logical foundations is utterly vain. The overly-intellectualized views of Rand and her orthodox apologists leads to vague and impossible dreams about the causal determinants of the social order, as if metaphysical, logical, rhetorical, and other philosophical concepts are supposed to manifest themselves on the strength of their own logic!

Perhaps it would be better to rephrase the issue and ask whether religion is compatible with freedom? which is the real question at stake. Here only history can be our guide; and what we find when we examine the historical record is that freedom doesn’t appear to flourish in societies that are either excessively religious or excessively secular; that freedom seems to work best when there exists a healthy balance between the secular and the profane.

In the last three centuries, the two countries in which freedom has most flourished are England and the United States. Yet in the Western world, these are the nations that came closest to maintaining a healthy balance between the religious and the secular (although since World War 2, England has lost its religiosity, along with its empire). On the European continent, secular opinion became rabidly anti-clerical, eventually leading to widespread secularism in the 20th century. On the surface, this may not seem so bad. For the most part, life is good in Western Europe. Most people enjoy an unprecedented combination of personal freedom and economic security. Secularism never had it so good. But this secularism contains several fatal flaws. In the first place, it could never have existed without the protection of the United States. And secondly, even with America’s protection, it is doomed to be overrun by the demographics of an Islamic tide.

The failure of secularism is that it depends on two things that, in the long-run, are at odds: military security and a high standard of living. Any nation that lives well for several generations becomes soft. Its citizens give way to hedonistic mores and excesses of welfare economics. Religion, as a conservative force in society, can serve as a partial brake against this sort of hedonistic disintegration. Religion tends to support traditional ethical norms that go against the grain of hedonistic mores. Religion also imposes forms of discipline on its adherents which reinforce those traditional, anti-hedonistic moral ideals. It is no coincidence that the United States, the most religious in the West, remains the primary defender of freedom in the world today; nor is it a coincidence that the those Americans that are most supportive of the military and the use of force to defend freedom also tend to be religious, whereas those Americans that tend to oppose the military and the use of force tend to be secular.

Of course, the opposite extreme also poses a danger, when nations become too religious. But that is so obvious that it doesn’t require further comment.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 9

Aquinas and Rand. Peikoff, in his essay “Religion Versus America,” credits Thomas Aquinas, the great philosopher of Catholicism, for leading Europe out of the Middle Ages.
What--or who--ended the Middle Ages? My answer is: Thomas Aquinas, who introduced Aristotle, and thereby reason, into medieval culture. In the thirteenth century, for the first time in a millennium, Aquinas reasserted in the West the basic pagan approach. What--or who--ended the Middle Ages? My answer is: Thomas Aquinas, who introduced Aristotle, and thereby reason, into medieval culture. In the thirteenth century, for the first time in a millennium, Aquinas reasserted in the West the basic pagan approach. Reason, he said in opposition to Augustine, does not rest on faith; it is a self-contained, natural faculty, which works on sense experience. Its essential task is not to clarify revelation, but rather, as Aristotle had said, to gain knowledge of this world.

Rand’s admiration for the greatest philosopher of Catholic Christianity may seem odd at first glance. The saintly Aquinas, known for being “frequently abstracted and in ecstasy," devoted his life to rationalizing faith. What could Rand have possibly seen in Aquinas?

There are a number of reasons why Rand had to regard this intensely religious thinker as one of the few philosophers to have a positive impact on history. The Objectivist philosophy of history needed to explain how the Middle Ages ended. What accounts for the progress of European Civilization beginning with the Renaissance? Since Objectivism believes that only philosophy can determine history, there had to be a philosophical cause. The problem is, all the philosophers of the Middle Ages were Christians. Luckily Rand never paid much attention to details: only broad abstractions interested her. So using the cover of vague abstractions, she was able to declare Aquinas a champion of Aristotle, because Aquinas is broadly linked to the Stagyrite. “The prelude to the Renaissance was the return of Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas,” she wrote. [FTNI, 21] Problem solved: henceforth no need for any true believing Objectivist to go into the matter in any more detail.

But it is precisely in the details that the Objectivist view can be seen for what it is: namely, as bad all the way through—bad as philosophy, as biography, as history. If we were to take Peikoff’s account seriously, we would have to believe that human beings are too stupid to figure out how to make any progress in this world until some philosopher comes along and tells them that they can use “reason” to gain knowledge of this world. This view leads to some immense absurdities, including, most infamously, Rand’s preposterous panegyric of Aristotle:
If we consider the fact that to this day everything that makes us civilized beings, every rational value that we possess—including the birth of science, the creation of the United States, even the structure of our language—is the result of Aristotle’s influence, of the degree to which, explicitly or implicitly, men accept his epistemological principles, we would have to say: never have so many owed so much to one man. [FTNI, 20]

One has to be appalling ignorant of history (and linguistics and science) to give any credence to these this baseless patter. If Aristotle is responsible for “everything that makes us civilized,” does this mean that everyone who lived before Aristotle was uncivilized? If so, that would pretty much place Periclean Athens beyond the civilized pale. It is strange that Aristotle’s philosophy should have preceded “everything that makes us civilized beings.” Of this notion Rand gives us not a shred of evidence. Yet this is no coincidence, because no shreds of evidence exist. Rand is simply making things up in order to justify her belief that philosophy determines the course of history.

Implicit in Rand’s contention about Aristotle’s influence is the idea that thinking is something that has to be invented. Before Aristotle, no rational values were possible because people did not know how to think rationally. They needed Aristotle’s logic for that. Logic, then, is critical to human thought. People aren’t really civilized without it.

There are no compelling reasons to believe that Rand is right on this point. Logic may be critical in mathematics and in specialized scientific work; but in everyday life, its uses are limited. Human beings can get along without it, using, instead (as they always have) trial and error experimentation mixed with loose analogical reasoning and other informal (and often logically invalid) inferences. Aristotle’s contribution to human civilization, though significant, is not anywhere as momentous as Rand makes it out to be.

Aristotle’s formulation of logic, though important, is somewhat vitiated by a critical error he (or his followers) made in relation to it. Aristotle decided that logic was the model of how people should think. As late as the 19th century, J. S. Mill could declare that nearly all of our knowledge of science and human conduct “is amenable to the authority of logic.” Since Mill’s view, more or less accepted by Rand, is not true, any attempt to put it in practice will inevitably have unintended results. When people consciously try to follow the classical reason of Aristotle and his followers, instead of reaching truth, they merely wind up coming up with reasons for what they wanted to believe all along. In other words, Aristotelian reason, in practical terms, is little more than rationalization.

With this in mind, we can understand why Aquinas, the great rationalizer of medieval Christianity, was drawn to Aristotelian reason. Rationalization is what "reason" is all about. If you want to give a pseudo-scientific varnish to your pet ideas, you dip into the toolbox of reason and you can rationalize to your heart's content. If, on the other hand, you want to learn facts about the real world, you have to adopt a much more critical approach involving an exhaustive examination of the relevant evidence, experimentation, and criticism through peer review. The scientific method is not the equivalent of Aristotle’s “reason”; it is, in many respects, a rejection of such vapid scholasticism.

If we consult the facts, rather than merely our “reason,” what, then, do we discover about the ending of the Middle Ages? Well, it certainly wasn’t ended by Aquinas: that much is clear. Outside of the fairly closed world of scholars, no one knew anything about Aquinas. Keep in mind: Aquinas lived before the age of the printing press, when books were scarce and few could read. The ending of the Middle Ages, far from having obscure intellectual causes, came about initially through the diminishment of feudal anarchy. The ninth and tenth centuries had been eras of extreme social disorganization—mostly brought about, not by the influence of Augustine or the Catholic Church, but by the terribly excursions of fierce barbarians from the north and east.
Europe [in the tenth century] ceased to be overrun by ruthless hordes [testified historian Henri Pirenne]. She recovered confidence in the future, and, with that confidence, courage and ambition. The date of the renewal of a cooperative activity on the part of the people might well be ascribed to the tenth century. At that date, likewise, social authorities began once more to acquit themselves in the role which it was their place to play… The prime need of that era, hardly rising above anarchy, was the need of peace, the most fundamental and most essential of all needs of society.

The first Truce of God was proclaimed in 989. Private wars, the greatest of the plagues that harassed those troubled times, were energetically combated by the territorial counts in France and by the prelates of the imperial Church in Germany….

[The eleventh century] is characterized, in contrast with the preceding one, by a recrudescence of activity so marked that it could pass for the vigorous and joyful awakening of a society long oppressed by a nightmare of anguish. In every demesne was to be seen the same burst of energy and, for that matter, optimism. The Church, revivified by the Clunisian reform, undertook to purify herself of the abuses which had crept into her discipline and to shake off the bondage in which the emperors held her.

It was the development of capitalistic, market-based institutions that, ultimately, ended the Middle Ages. In the eleventh century, the birth rate went up appreciably, providing Western Europe with plenty of cheap labor. With the greater social stability brought about by the pacification (via conversion to Christianity) of the barbarian invaders, enterprising men could now begin the slow process of developing a mercantile system. By the beginning of the twelfth century, the growing prosperity of merchant colonies enabled them to build ramparts of stone, flanked by towers, adding greater protection against attack. Cities capable of defense were critical to Europe’s growing merchant class, since the rights of trade must everywhere be defended with force. Medieval cities provided the seed bed for the birth and growth of modern capitalism.

The early developments of medieval trade and the resurgence of Western Europe occurred well before the birth of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Indeed, Aquinas came along at the high tide of the Middle Age renaissance. Societal decadence, culminating in the black plague of the fourteenth century, when a third of Europe’s population perished within a few years time, coincided with the life of Aquinas. The Renaissance of the 15th century was merely the third in a series of upswings that Western Europe experienced after the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire (the others being the Carolingian Renaissance of the eighth century and Renaissance of the Middle Ages). The first two post-Empire renaissances had nothing to do with Thomas Aquinas, since they occurred before he was born. Nor was Aquinas the “bridge” to the final renaissance. Indeed, this last renaissance, which ushers in the modern world, involved elements that sharply conflicted with Aquinas, such as a renewed interest in Plato and the emergence non-Aristotelian empirical and mechanistic epistemological paradigms in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Christian church played a much larger role in the development of Western Civilization than Aquinas or his scholastic philosophy ever did. Critical to the revival of the West was the conversion of the fierce Scandinavian and Slavic barbarians to Christianity. No civilization was possible until this happened. Also critical was the church’s role as a unifying force. Governments in the Middle Ages were weak. Internecine warfare was tearing society apart. What was needed was a unifying force to keep infighting to a minimum. The church, by making use of crusades against Islam, managed to direct the energies of the warlike barons that ruled Europe against foreign targets, instead of against each other (and against the emerging merchant cities).

Whatever role ideas played in the course of European history, their affect is always greatly influenced by the development of institutions that are not the product of human design. Capitalism is not caused by the application of philosophical, political, or economic ideas. The Middle Ages were not economically or politically sophisticated enough to understand the workings of a complex free market, or to develop them a theory that would allow them to create a capitalist system. Such an understanding would only begin to develop in the 18th century. As a matter of fact, the nascent capitalism of the Middle Ages had to develop in the teeth of several ideas that went against its fundamental grain, such as notions concerning rank and birth, the honor codes of the feudal barons, and deep-rooted prejudices against usury (prejudices, I might add, shared by Aquinas and his philosophical idol, Aristotle).

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 8

Did Christianity cause the Dark Ages? Peikoff, in his essay “Religion Versus America,” more or less claims that Christianity was responsible for the Dark Ages.
What were the practical results of the medieval approach [i.e., of Christianity]? The Dark Ages were dark on principle. Augustine fought against secular philosophy, science, art; he regarded all of it as an abomination to be swept aside; he cursed science in particular as "the lust of the eyes." … [T]he medievals took religion seriously. They proceeded to create a society that was anti-materialistic and anti-intellectual.... The economic and social results of this kind of value code were inevitable; mass stagnation and abject poverty, ignorance and mass illiteracy, waves of insanity that swept whole towns, a life expectancy in the teens. "Woe unto ye who laugh now," the Sermon on the Mount had said. Well, they were pretty safe on this count. They had precious little to laugh about.

You have to be very ignorant not merely of human nature and sociology, but of history to buy into this explanation of the Dark Ages. Peikoff is basically asserting that the medieval Europe was little more than the practical application of Christian doctrine. The Christians, he claims, “proceeded to create a society that was anti-materialistic and anti-intellectual.” The Dark Ages, then, were an intentional creation: they were the product of the application of a system of ideas (that is, of Christian ideas) to society.

This view of the Dark Ages is hopelessly naive. The political and economic systems prevailing after the collapse of the Western half of the Roman Empire were not the consequences of anyone’s intention, as implied in Peikoff’s statement. They were brought about by causes that had nothing to do with Christian doctrine.

Rome had initially been a conquering peasant state. But after Hannibal decimated the Roman peasantry during the Second Punic War, slave labour became central to the economy of Rome and its expanding territories. But it was a particularly pernicious form of slavery that prevailed in the ancient world. Roman slaves live in collectivist barracks. They had no property, nor did they have families. Consequently, they failed to reproduce themselves. As sociologist Max Weber explained: “The ancient plantation consumed slaves the way a modern blast furnace consumes coal.”

When the Roman Empire ceased to expand in the second century, the supply of fresh slaves, so necessary to replenish the collectivized slave system of the plantations, ceased. This led to an acute shortage of slave labor and the eventual decline of the slave system. Now Rome did not have a terribly flexible or strong market economy. The decline of the slave system led to a corresponding economic decline. Interlocal commerce gradually disappeared; trade “relapsed to the level of peddling left to foreigners.” As a consequence of this, Rome could no longer raise taxes to pay for its mercenary armies. Barbarians from the north over-ran the Empire and assumed political supremacy of a completely demoralized civilization. The Muslims seized control of the Mediterranean, shutting off Western Europe from rest of the civilized world. Thus began the Dark Ages. But Christian doctrine had nothing to do with any of these developments. Rome’s collectivized slave system was the primary cause of the Empire’s fall. When the Empire ceased expanding and no more slaves were captured in war, the Empire went into decline. This decline greatly demoralized society. Intellectual life became vapid and inefficacious. The schools of Athens were hopelessly corrupt by the third century. Their teaching was confined mostly to rhetoric and neo-Platonism. Competition among various Athenian schools for students often lead to brawls and even murder.

Facing the huge challenges of waning economy and a demoralized populace, the Emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the official religion of the Empire. He did so entirely for political reasons, as a desperate means to consolidate his power and save the Empire. He probably made the right choice. The Christian church was better organized, its members more disciplined, than any of the rival religions. Thes Christian church would help preserve some of the forms of the Roman Empire well into the Dark Ages, so that the re-civilization of Western Europe could begin as early as the Carolingian renaissance.

The Dark Ages were dark because of the complete absence of commercialized trade in Western Europe. Without commerce there can be no cities and without cities there can be no civilization. To again quote Max Weber: “It was only when the mediaeval city developed out of free division of labour and commercial exchange, when the transition to a natural economy made possible the development of burgher freedoms, and when the bonds imposed by outer and inner feudal authorities were cast off, that … the cultural heritage of Antiquity revived in the light of modern bourgeois civilization.”

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 7

Ideas and doctrine as scapegoat. To what extent are ideas, doctrines, beliefs responsible for conduct? To what extent is any doctrine responsible for crimes committed in its name, or with the help of its influence? To what extent is Christianity, for example, responsible for the medieval Inquisition?

Zealous partisans of the anti-Christian (or anti-Catholic) point of view would be quick to assert that Christianity is responsible for Inquisition; that the Inquisition is merely the logical application of Christian doctrine (or of “faith” in general) to society. As Leonard Peikoff puts it: “There can be no philosophic breach between thought and action. The consequence of the epistemology of religion is the politics of tyranny.”

Yet if you can blame the bad stuff done in the name of Christianity on Christianity, can’t you also blame the bad stuff done in the name of Objectivism on Ayn Rand? If there can be no philosophical breach between thought and action, what are we to make of someone like psychologist Lonnie Leonard, who, in the name of Objectivism, manipulated his female patients into granting him sexual favors? If Christianity is responsible for the Inquisition, why isn’t Objectivism responsible for Lonnie Leonard?

If it is said that Objectivism cannot be responsible for Lonnie Leonard because Leonard’s conduct goes directly against Objectivist doctrine, well the same thing can be said of Christianity. Where in the New Testament does is say one should torture and murder people over trivial points of doctrine? If it is said that Leonard merely used Objectivism as pretext for carrying out his nefarious deeds, that his motives had nothing to do with Rand’s ideas, well the same thing can be said of the Inquisition. Christianity was merely a pretext which allowed powerful church authorities to murder their enemies and pilfer the property of so-called “heretics.” Just as Objectivism had nothing really to do with Lonnie Leonard’s misconduct, so Christianity had nothing to do with the Inquisition.

Even this, however, doesn’t seem quite right. Surely Christianity had something to do with the Inquisition. True enough. But the linkage is very complicated. These complexities are ignored by people with axes to grind, who obscure the real issues involved by not being sufficiently detailed and masking their bigotry with broad-level abstractions. The term Christianity is far too vague to be used as a cause of anything, since there are many different forms of Christianity and many doctrines within each form. We need to isolate which doctrine (or doctrines) may have contributed to the Inquisition, and which forms of Christianity adhere to those doctrines.

The great historian of the Inquisition Henry Charles Lea placed the blame for the disaster on false ideals mixed with human nature. The conditions for the Inquisition, he wrote,
was the outcome of the theocracy whose foundation had been laid by Hildebrand in the belief that it would realize the reign of Christ on earth. Power such as was claimed and exercised by the Church could only be wielded by superhuman wisdom. Human nature was too imperfect not to convert it into the gratification of worldly passions and ambition, and its inevitable result was to plunge society deeper and deeper into corruption. Thus the divine law on which the Church professed to be founded was superseded by human law administered by those who profited by its abuse.

In other words, authorities in the Catholic Church were pursuing an imaginary end. While the pursuit of imaginary ends does not always lead to disaster (see my post on myths), this does not mean that the pursuit of every imaginary end will lead to a good result. Some will, some won’t. What are the worst sort of imaginary ends? Generally speaking, imaginary ends that are based on false views of human nature are particularly dangerous when zealously pursued. The imaginary ends pursued by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages helped bring about the Inquisition by entrusting too much power to individual men on the grounds that the power would be used well because they were “men of God.” A very unwise thing to have done.

We can apply some of the same logic to the Lonnie Leonard fiasco. Objectivism also pursues an imaginary goal: namely, Rand’s ideal man, the man of “self-made soul” who “has no inner conflicts, his mind and his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect harmony.” Now this is all nonsense. Men don’t have self-made souls, nor are they without inner conflicts. This view is a “myth” (using the term as defined here.) Now the question is: does this myth, when “followed,” lead to good or bad results? Well, that depends on the individuals involved. Some individuals may use myth of the ideal man to help motivate themselves to use more self-initiative, and if this leads them in a positive direction, then the Randian myth, in this respect, has operated for the better. But there are other individuals who either lack self-initiative or cannot exercise such initiative without leading themselves into trouble. It is precisely these kinds of individuals who are prone to the manipulations of charlatans like Lonnie Leonard. Leonard presented himself as an ideal man who could help others become the embodiment of Rand’s ideas. Leonard’ attracted just those individuals in the Objectivist movement who weren’t getting positive results from following Rand’s ideas and therefore concluded that they needed psychological help. Since these individuals wanted to believe in Rand’s ideals about self-made souls and perfect emotional integration, they were susceptible to believing that Leonard was, in fact, a Randian ideal man. Hence when Ellen Plasil exposed Leonard as a fraud, the natural reaction was to blame, not Leonard, but Plasil. “I received innumerable phone calls, from men and women alike,” Plasil later recalled, “who condemned me for terminating my own therapy and for the reason they had learned was behind my doing so. In one call, I was accused of ‘destroying the closest thing Man has ever had to a god.’ In another, I was threatened with retaliation for causing the closing of Dr. Leonard’s practice.” (Therapist, 158)

Now while Rand is obviously not responsible for Leonard’s gross immoralities, does her philosophy perhaps bear some responsibility for the behavior of Leonard’s apologists? After all, their behavior was inspired by her ideas? If it is argued that Rand cannot possibly be responsible for this behavior, because she would have deplored it, the same argument could be used to defend Christianity against the behavior of medieval inquisitors. It is very difficult to determine the degree to which a specific doctrine is to blame for the conduct of those inspired by it, particularly when the doctrines involved contain imaginary goals based on a false views of human nature.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 6

Religion as a source of comfort. The Australian philosopher David Stove, despite regarding religion as little more than a psychological “deprivation-effect,” nevertheless provides an interesting take on the subject of religion as comfort. Whatever negative feelings Stove experienced toward religion, his hostility to anti-religious secularism was even more intense, as we find in the following passages:
It does not come naturally to us now, [Stove writes] to think of religion as a source of misery: we are far too familiar with the immense amount of misery that has resulted from the absence of religion. We therefore think of religion rather as a source of happiness, or at least comfort. And so it is, to many of the countless victims of twentieth-century atheist-terrorist governments, and to a few people in the derelict post-religious societies of the West. But those governments, and those societies, are themselves among the products of the Enlightenment’s assault on religion. In 1770, when that assault was reaching its height, religion presented a very different face from the one it does now.

Religion could then be blamed for bloody wars; massacres, expulsions, and persecutions of heretics; the craze for murdering witches; innumerable exactions for priests; the suppression of thought and even of natural curiosity; the forced sexual abstinence of thousands of men and women; flagellations and countless other “mortifications of the flesh”; the terror of punishments prolonged eternally after death. Such things as these formed, of course, the commonplaces of Enlightened denunciation; but it cannot possibly be denied that all these aspects of religion were fertile sources of misery. It was all true, too true.

At the same time, it is equally undeniable that a list like the one I have just given makes a startlingly trivial comparison with the misery which anti-religious zeal has produced in [the twentieth century]. Indeed, it is hardly even a comparison: “not game but shame” (as they say). How many Spanish Inquisitions equal one KGB? How many St. Bartholomew’s Day massacres, plus expulsions of the Huguenots, would it take to equal the misery caused by Lenin plus Mao?…

The Enlightenment’s tale of the misery caused by religion is not only trivial in retrospect: it was always absurdly exaggerated even at the time. Take, for example, the belief in eternal torments after death. Of course it ought to have been a source of enormous suffering, and in some cases it undoubtedly was. But the fear of hell was never as vivid or constant or widespread as, according to the religious theory, it should have been: a fact which we know partly from the incessant complaints of the priests to that very effect. Stupidity, the occupations of common life, and the natural belief that hell is intended only for other people, were always enough to prevent most Christians from being made as unhappy by their belief in hell as they should have been…. The fact is the Enlightened took religious beliefs far too literally and logically: a piece of folly which religious people, for their part, were hardly ever guilty of.

Does Stove overstate his case? Perhaps. But even when we have made the necessary adjustments, his thesis remains eminently plausible. Yet Stove has one last observation that seals the deal. The Enlightenment, Stove avers, had nothing to say about the suffering caused by “the actual process of losing religious beliefs.”
Parting with religion is not always, indeed, an altogether painful process. But there is always pain in it, and in most cases the pain greatly predominates over every other feeling. It was a question often pressed upon the Enlightened, therefore, how they reconciled their professed concern for human happiness, with their willful assault on the principal comfort of human life… It is [a question] not easily answered… Accordingly, the Enlightened never did answer this question….

Hume, for example, ignored the following response by James Beattie to his [i.e., Hume’s] attacks on religion. People like Hume, Beattie wrote, should remember that “in the solitary scenes of life, there is many an honest and tender heart pining with incurable anguish, pierced with the sharpest sting of disappointment, bereft of friends, chilled with poverty, racked with disease, scourged by the oppressor; whom nothing but trust in Providence, and the hope of future retribution, could preserve from the agonies of despair. And do they [the Enlightened], with sacrilegious hands, attempt to violate this last refuge of the miserable, and to rob them of the only comfort that has survived the ravages of misfortune, malice, and tyranny!”

Even when every deduction has been made for the over-eloquence of this passage, I do not see, much as I admire and love Hume, what satisfactory reply he could have made to it…. Hume, though he was infuriated by the great popularity of Beattie’s book, never did reply. [Against the Idols of the Age, 84-88]

Does religion, then, on balance, cause more happiness than misery? That is, indeed, what the evidence suggests. Consider the following facts:
  • A large-scale 1972 study found that persons who did not attend church were four times as likely to commit suicide

  • Numerous studies have found an inverse correlation between religious commitment as abuse of drugs. One study of nearly 14,000 youths concluded that religion was the single best predictor of substance abuse patterns.

  • Several studies have found that high levels of religious commitment correlate with lower levels of depression, lower levels of stress, and greater ability to cope with stress.

  • Strong religious believers consistently report greater overall happiness and satisfaction with life. In one Gallup survey, respondents who agreed that their religious faith was “the most important influence” in their lives, were twice as likely as those with minimal spiritual commitment to describe themselves as “very happy.” [Patrick Glynne, God: The Evidence, 62-65]

Of course, the thesis that religion serves as a comfort to people is only a generalization: it does not apply to everyone. There are people whose misery is increased by religious commitment, and who should therefore avoid religion like the plague. But there are many more people who are comforted by religion, and who would be less happy (or more miserable) were they to lose their faith.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 5

Force and Faith. As is well known among her admirers, Rand saw s linkage between force and faith. “These,” she insisted, “are corollaries: every period of history dominated by mysticism, was a period of statism, of dictatorship, of tyranny.” This view is a bit exaggerated: in the real world, the relationship between faith and force is not so simple. We can, however, give her credit for noticing the relationship between faith and force. These two elements often (though not always) go together. Their conjunction raises a number of difficult problems that Rand and her orthodox followers sedulously ignore.

All governments, whether good or bad, whether just or tyrannical, maintain their status through a mixture of consensus and force. No government can maintain itself by resorting to only one of these elements. A government of a free country needs to protect its citizens against foreign and domestic enemies, which can only be done through force. A tyrannical government, on the other hand, must at least establish a consensus among those responsible for enforcing its despotism.

The necessity of resorting to force is not a problem to a tyrannical government, since it thrives on force. But it is a problem for a free country, because force and freedom are somewhat antithetical. They are antithetical not merely for the obvious Objectivist reasons; but also, and more tragically, for reasons stemming from various short-comings in human nature.

Machiavelli famously wrote that a leader “should imitate the fox and the lion, because a lion cannot defend himself from snares and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. Therefore, it is important to be a fox in order to understand the snares and a lion in order to terrify the wolves.” The lion is envisaged as the man of force and courage; the fox as the man of intelligence and chicanery. When one examines these two archetypes and their role in politics and history, one comes upon several disturbing discoveries. Consider Pareto’s take on the subject:

Suppose a certain country has a governing class, A, that assimilates the best elements, as regards intelligence, in the whole population. In that case the subject class, B, is largely stripped of such elements and can have little or no hope of ever overcoming the class A so long as it is a battle of wits. If intelligence were to be combined with force, the dominion of the A’s would be perpetual…”

In other words, if the A’s combined both intelligence and force, they would conform to Machiavelli’s ideal of imitating both the lion and the fox. But there is a problem with this strategy, as illuminated by Pareto:
But such a happy combination occurs only for a few individuals. In the majority of cases people who rely on their wits are or become less fitted to use violence, and vice versa. So concentration in class A of the individuals most adept at chicanery leads to a concentration in class B of the individuals most adept at violence; and if that process is long continued, the equilibrium [of society] tends to be come unstable, because the A’s are long in cunning but short in the courage to use force and in the force itself; whereas the B’s have the force and the courage to use it, but are short in the skill required for exploiting those advantages. But if they chance to find leaders who have the skill—and history shows that such leadership is usually supplied by dissatisfied A’s—they have all they need for driving the A’s from power. Of just that development history affords countless examples from remotest times all the way down to the present.

Pareto, in setting up his example, makes no moral judgments as to the worth or utility of ruling class A and subject class B. But what if the A’s are the supporters of freedom and the rule of law while the B’s are men of force and faith? In that case, we are in heap of trouble.

Unfortunately, this situation is not uncommon in modern history. Free institutions favor people with intelligence. Force, as Rand herself admits, is a “corollary” of faith; that is, men that are well fitted to violence tend to be drawn to faith. Hence, we find ourselves confronted with a dilemma. Governments that support the institutions of law favorable to free markets and “individual rights” tend to be governments dominated people who rely on their wits but are less adept at using force. Yet these very governments require force to protect the markets and the rights that they espouse. Where is this force to come from?

The only way out of this dilemma is for those who favor an open society with free markets to make a political alliance with those men of force and faith who come closest to sharing their values. Rand is wrong in assuming that all men of faith support dictatorship and tyranny. As is well known, early capitalism was dominated by devout Protestants, often of a strong Calvinist bent. One of the earliest defenders of free speech, John Milton, was a puritan. Cromwell’s puritanical protectorship, although hardly constituting an ideal of freedom and individual rights, nevertheless represented an improvement over what had preceded it, and helped pave the way for the Glorious Revolution in 1688. John Locke, the intellectual defender of this revolution, was a devout Christian. Christians played an essential role in the development of English Liberty and early capitalism.

The defenders of freedom therefore must form an alliance with those men of faith who are sympathetic to free markets and the open society. This is precisely what modern conservatism, in England and America, has attempted in the last half century. The modern conservative movement is an alliance between economic conservatives, nationalist “foreign policy” conservatives, and religious conservatives. As with any alliance, it is hardly perfect; but then perfection is the cynic’s standard. In the real world, as opposed to the fantasy world of ideologues, no battle can be won, no institution can be salvaged, no nation can remain free unless we are willing to ally ourselves with people we don’t entirely agree with. Through compromise one reaches a position that is better than would have prevailed otherwise.

As I have noted on a number of occasions on this blog, life involves tradeoffs. It is easy for us to imagine a world where no one believes in religion and most people are “rational” That is not the world we live in. We must take people as they are and try to make the best of it. Any other course is to lapse into utopianism and wishful thinking.