Saturday, August 22, 2009

Political religions

A few posts ago I mentioned the danger of an over-reliance on pure rationalism, the new godhead of science, that infallible force that binds us all, and mentioned Richard Dawkins, with his almost zealotry in pursuit of the superstitious with their religions. I believe this is a danger, for all that I agree with Dawkins almost entirely. Here is Eric Voegelin, writing in Vienna in 1938:

It is always dreadful to hear that National Socialism is a regression to barbarism, to the Dark Ages, to the times before the more recent advances towards humanism, without the speaker’s sensing that the secularisation of life, which the concept of humanism brought with it, is precisely the soil in which anti-Christian religious movements such as National Socialism could grow. The religious question is taboo for these secularizing minds. And to pose it seriously and radically seems suspect to them – perhaps even a barbarism and return to the Dark Ages.


That’s a fascinating quote because, although my immediate instinct is to disagree with it, it’s hard, in the light of what occurred in Europe within months of Voegelin writing that, to argue against it. Rationalists who cannot countenance any semblance of the spiritual or supernatural would do well to consider this point. The fact that Dawkins or I, for example, do not believe in trans-mundane powers is to some extent irrelevant, because there is something hardwired into the human brain which appears to require them. And, if God is killed, human beings will replace him with something else. In 1930s Germany it was a new political religion called National Socialism.

9 comments:

Donigan said...

No, let's rather rely on pure rationalism. Once one opens the door (not to perception, but) to abject superstition, all the nasty little gremlins are set loose to wreak havoc throughout human (and other) kind.

I cannot see how any rational analysis could link something like National Socialism, which is a silly sort of name for the Nazi program, on rationalism, which is essentially to blame it on too much clear thinking. (Most German Nazis were notoriously religious.)

I have considered and rejected the point, and could not possibly countenance any semblance of the spiritual or supernatural.

The notion of god, or gods, is hardly anything more than the infinite and universal projection of a parent -- which is why this idea is almost always referred to as father. It is the sad extension of human immaturity and intellectual desperation.

I disagree vehemently that ridding the human mind of the need for a "heavenly father" would result in, for Chrissakes!, Nazis!

On the other hand, what remaining mired in superstitious utter nonsense does accomplish is the continuing abysmal and completely irrational subjugation of women, mass murder of the "blasphemers." flagrant abuse of any hope for human equality ... this would be a very long list, stretching to pages. I don't have that kind of time or energy.

How long a list could one make, legitimately, of the horrors perpetrated as a result of rational thinking? An honest list would contain no entries.

Tom Conoboy said...

I actually agree with you, Donigan. That was why I posted this, because it does represent a difference from my normal thinking. I'm vey much a rationalist myself, but some of what Voegelin was saying made me think.

I don't think he was linking National Socialism with rationalism. On the contrary, as you say, Germans were largely religious, and Nazism tapped into the volkish tradition, building around it a spurious mythology of Aryanism. At that particular time - economic strife, lingering humiliation and resentment over the First War and their treatment - and in that particular place - where the volkish tradition was still very strong - the Nazis peddled a nasty line of Aryan superiority which chimed with the public mood.

The introduction to Voegelin's book suggests the following explanation:

Ideologies now appear as spiritual diseases whose origins lay in the late Middle Ages, when sectarian religious movements grew too powerful to be publicly suppressed as heresies. With the decapitation of God during the Enlightenment and his proclaimed murder during the nineteenth century, ersatz and immanent “political religions” were invented to express the deformed emotions and sentiments that once were expressed through Christian worship. In place of divine transfiguration through grace in death, humans sought to transfigure themselves into perfect men or supermen.

I can see some logic in this. Richard Dawkins himself suggests there is something within the human make-up that makes us naturally suggestible to religious belief. He talks of evolutionary psychology, which considers that religion may be a mis-firing by-product of the data-processing needs of the human brain. It depends on how the individual views the world. People like us are monists - we tend to believe only in matter, a rationalist view. Religious people are dualists, and see a distinction between matter and mind, and in so doing come to accept the supernatural as entirely feasible. Dawkins suggests that, for some reason, mankind is naturally dualist, and therefore, in general, we tend to look for a supernatural order. I think this is what Voegelin is getting at when he talks of political religions, something to take the place of the dualist supernature in our lives.

Donigan said...

Among the mysteries of life are:

-- why is all architecture produced by communist governments so ugly?

-- why do so many people embrace with gusto habits that they know are essentially suicidal?

-- why is ignorance glorified?

-- and my personal favorite, why are so many people dependent on superstitious and irrational explanations for the nature of things?

If religious superstitions are somehow mandated within the human genome, and the vast majority of human beings carry this gene, that must make us genetically defective, those few of us who believe that reason ought to trump superstition every time.

The most frightening prospect I can imagine is that the human mind, in most cases, is simply not structured to think reasonably and rationally about "the mysteries of life," and the horrors perpetrated in the name of this or that religion and this or that god will haunt humanity for as long as it lasts.

The wildly Catholic Spanish existentialist of the mid-20th century wrote in his book, "The Tragic Sense of Life," something like this (which I paraphrase, not having the book before me): Faith builds the house of life, then the icy blasts of reason batter it down.

Tom Conoboy said...

If religious superstitions are somehow mandated within the human genome, and the vast majority of human beings carry this gene, that must make us genetically defective, those few of us who believe that reason ought to trump superstition every time.
Or perhaps our genes will eventually prevail. Evolution takes time...

The most frightening prospect I can imagine is that the human mind, in most cases, is simply not structured to think reasonably and rationally about "the mysteries of life," and the horrors perpetrated in the name of this or that religion and this or that god will haunt humanity for as long as it lasts.
As above, evolution may eventually weed it out. But there does seem something quite persuasive about our need for and use of myth. Virtually every human society seems to have some version of creation myth. Although interestingly, some, like the Australian aborigines, do not have a corresponding apocalypse myth. That particular nasty little item is mostly Jewish and Christian.

The wildly Catholic Spanish existentialist of the mid-20th century wrote in his book, "The Tragic Sense of Life," something like this (which I paraphrase, not having the book before me): Faith builds the house of life, then the icy blasts of reason batter it down.
A quick Google suggests Miguel de Unamuno. Is that the one you mean? Looks like an interesting chap. I like the quote. A favourite of mine, in this context, is Nietzsche, from Zarathustra:
‘Let will to truth mean this to you: that everything be changed into the humanly conceivable, the humanly visible, the humanly sensible.’ That seems like a decent philosophy of life to me.

Donigan said...

Yes, Miguel de Unamuno, a Spanish contemporary of Jose Ortega y Gasset; something of the Gabriel Marcel type of Existentialist, Spanish style. I wrote my Bachelor's degree honors thesis on his work. I was impressed by how he continually struggled with the faith-reason conflict, and why he thought it life's most vital struggle. He wrote a couple of short novels and some short stories, but they were actually vehicles to express his philosophy. He is probably most known for the work: The Tragic Sense of Life.

Mark said...

Well, this discussion is a somewhat ridiculous example of general historical ignorance and the classic arrogance of the modern rationalist who assumes that the vast majority of mankind was and remains mired in ignorance while he and his few are the enlightened ones, the grizzled ones who look reality in the face instead of cowering behind the mere chaff of superstition. Puh. Lease.

Donigan, you are right that a great deal of evil has been done in the name of religion. But finger-pointing is a dangerous game, and the road goes both ways. A great deal of the people murdered in the modern age were murdered in the name of Progress, science, rationalism. The French set up Reason as Goddess and then slaughtered some tens of thousands. How 'bout the old Nazi human experimentation? Mao and the Soviets seemed pretty freed of a heavenly father complex and pretty dedicated to a pseudo-scientific vision of Progress.

Of course, your language in your last couple sentences is interesting... 'rational thinking' and 'honest list,' you say. So you want to say that all that has been done in the name of religion is the fault of religion, but what's been done in the name of progress or science or rationalism isn't *honestly* the fault of rationalism, right? You had better pick: either 1. you can saddle the Crusades on the Christians and take the gulags and the Great Leap Forward for yourself or 2. we can maybe agree that 'in the name of' doesn't always express a legitimate causal connection, and so I don't blame Nazism on Dawkins and you don't blame the Salem Witch Trials on Billy Graham.

But let's not forget the little bait-and-switch of starting with 'rationalism' and ending with 'rational thinking.' Obviously you believe that using your mind is the same as eliminating God from the conversation, and so naturally rational-thinking means rationalism, or the exaltation of the human mind as the solver of all problems, bringer of Progress. I'm afraid it's possible to think rationally without being a rationalist (you can even go to Church and think at the same time!), and I'm pretty sure when Voegelin talks about secularizing he doesn't mean thinking more clearly.

Though I will say that you are both right about the Nazi's being both secular and incredibly religious but not rationalists. The religious nationalism of the Nazi Party is a fascinating combination or concoction of numerous sources: Christianity, neo-paganism, scientism, and more. There's an interesting recent book called 'The Holy Reich' that argues that the Nazis were basically Christian. It's well-argued and a good challenge to long-held assumptions, though it has some major flaws. Namely, it swings overfar in the other direction (from the accepted story of Nazism as pure neo-paganism to this revised portrait of mainstream Christianity, neither of which is true). The Voegelin quote makes me think of Churchill's late 1930's quote about Nazism being something like 'a great lurch forward to a new Dark Ages made more protracted by the lights of a perverted science.' Churchill was not a Christian, but I think he saw the same thing as Voegelin: that these Nazis were not so much reactionaries as revolutionaries. I think also of TS Elliot saying (in '37 or '38), 'If you will not have God (and he is a jealous God), you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.' But that's just more finger-pointing.

Mark said...

And a last little historical silliness: how is National Socialism a silly name for Nazi? The latter is a shortened form of Nationalsozialismus. So saying National Socialist is a dumb name for Nazi is like saying James is a dumb name for Jim. Moreover, it's a pretty accurate denominator. Hitler was a nationalist and a socialist and a populist. Of those three perhaps the second was emphasized least, but you cannot look at 1933-42 and not see a socialist program. Incidentally, Stalin was the first one the late 30's to demand that his followers not call the Nazi's National Socialists, but instead Hitlerites... perhaps because he wasn't exactly an Internationalist which made him a *gasp* National Socialist?

Yes, I understand there's lots of neo-con hysteria that basically says Oh God Obama and Europe are socialists and Hitler was a socialist. And thatäs built on the premise that anything held in common with Hitler is horribly evil (Hitler liked dogs! Kill your dog! He built Autobahns! Destroy highways!)... but the response isn't to grant the neo-cons that premise and then just deny any similarity no matter how obvious it is (This beagle here is really a cat.).

Tom Conoboy said...

Well, this discussion is a somewhat ridiculous example of general historical ignorance and the classic arrogance of the modern rationalist who assumes that the vast majority of mankind was and remains mired in ignorance while he and his few are the enlightened ones
Not sure what historical ignorance I displayed, and I made the point that rationalists should consider Voegelin's point about religion.


But finger-pointing is a dangerous game, and the road goes both ways.
Yep, agree totally.

I'm afraid it's possible to think rationally without being a rationalist
This is the nub of the question, isn't it? Those like Dawkins who take rationalism too far do a disservice to rationalism, because it slides into dogma. This was my starting point in posting the Voegelin quote.

Mark said...

I meant the discussion that followed the post, not the original post. And I suppose I mostly meant Donigan's two posts. The historical ignorance point had mostly to do with Donigan's mass dismissal of all religion + the lazy attribution of negative things throughout history to religion (while exempting secularism from the same examination) + the Nazi point re National Socialism.

In any case, ignorance was a strong word, and I probably used it unjustly here. So, apologies all around.