Thursday, January 6, 2011

Marx, Lenin, and the Oldness of Hitchens's Atheism

While recently consulting Alister McGrath's Christian Theology for research on an article I came across the section detailing the gradual moving away from Christianity in Victorian England and Europe. The segment on the emergence of Karl Marx is titled “An intellectual rival to Christianity: Marxism” McGrath discusses Marx's belief that “humans make religion” in order to compensate for social and economic alienation that encourages “intoxication which renders the masses incapable of recognizing their situation, and doing something about it.” This is the basis of his famous declaration that religion is the opiate of the people.

Marx's beliefs have always seemed to me to be neither backed by any particular insight into the nature of God nor grounded in intellectual arguments against theism. They appear as outright dismissals that stem from his worldview and not arrived at independent of his economic and political agendas. Marx simply wishes to will God away with the assertion that contented people, presumably those basking in the glory of communism, would feel no spiritual desires at all. Satisfy the flesh and it will not invent the spirit.

Paul Johnson's appraisal of Marx in Chapter 3 of his book Intellectuals paints a picture that indicates this is consistent with Marx's work as a whole. He dismisses morality as “unscientific” and a regression against advancement that would possibly impede revolution. Notice he does not technically argue that morals are unreal but presumes their unreality because they cannot be empirically proven and might be inconvenient. This is terrible reasoning. As Jonathan Wolff of The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, if Marx truly believed what he said it makes it hard to understand the grounding of his entire body of work. Why is capitalism wrong and communism better if such moral considerations are not real? In the absence of morality what constitutes injustice? Johnson quotes philosopher Karl Jaspers on Marx:

“The style of Marx writing is not that of the investigator... he does not quote examples or adduce facts that run counter to his own theory but only those which clearly support or confirm that which he considers the ultimate truth. The whole approach is one of vindication, not investigation, but it is a vindication of something proclaimed as the perfect truth with the conviction not of the scientist but of the believer.”

Johnson himself says that in relating the truth about facts, figures, and arguments Marx “can never be trusted.” Several contemporaries of Marx are quoted as saying that his views on all things, God included, were born more out of his desire for power than out of genuine philosophical and intellectual reflection. Johnson quotes anarchist Michael Bakunin, “Marx does not believe in God but he believes much in himself and makes everyone serve himself.” (In fairness, Bakunin does acknowledge that Marx seems to earnestly care about the proletariat in as much as a man as vain and fundamentally uncaring as Marx was capable.)

Karl Marx was a man of prodigious talents, but honest and objective metaphysical reflection was not among them. He was a polemicist of the first order and availed himself of the power of words as few others ever have. This all inescapably brought to mind one of my favorite contemporary polemicists, Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens is one of the four horsemen of “The New Atheists” and, like Marx, is powerful with words in a manner that few can hold a candle to. I own a collection of his political essays and articles, his contributions to the online magazine The Slate are must reads, and I admit that I absolutely delight in listening to his commentary in interviews and debates as it relates to political history. So why does Marx bring Mr. Hitchens to my mind? As both McGrath and Johnson point out, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky took Marxism from the theoretical to the actual in the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 and the continued communist experiment was not without early supporters in the west including H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. One later true believer in the ideals of Trotsky and Lenin was a youthful and idealistic Christopher Hitchens.

In his book Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, Hitchens's friend Martin Amis writes about their conversations concerning communism. Amis had lost his own communist sympathies early and admits that by the publication of volume one of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago in 1973 all doubts about the Soviet atrocities were coming to a close. He shares the details of what he characterizes as semi-serious debates in which Hitchens identifies himself as a Trotskyists (“only a Stalinist would have called us Trotskyites,” Hitchens joked) and sold copies of “the Socialist Worker on impoverished London high streets.” Hitchens characterized Lenin as “a great man” when asked about the differences between Stalinist Soviet Union and Hitler's Germany. Though he gave up on any hope of the actual socialism of the Soviet Union working, Amis says that Hitchens and others were holding to a hope that a return to the true revolutionary zeal of Trotsky remained possible. Hitchens himself has acknowledged that for more than a quarter of a century he admired and believed in the myth of the good Trotsky and the purity of the early revolution. (see here for a marvelous conversation with Peter Robinson and Robert Service) Amis goes on to say that he credits the fall of communism to freeing Hitchens from that lie and setting loose the fullness of Hitchens prodigious writing talents.

But when Hitchens thunders his invectives against religion and God accusing it of poisoning everything in the title of his book God is Not Great and dismisses debaters that believe in the virgin birth as being so irrational as to be incapable of being believed I hear the echoes of other atheist before him. Amis quotes Lenin to Gorky:

“Every religious idea, every idea of God... is unutterable vileness... of the most dangerous kind. Millions of sins, filthy deeds, acts of violence and physical contagions... are far less dangerous than the subtle, spiritual idea of God decked out in the smartest “ideological” costumes...”

Perhaps having loosed himself from so much that he once held dear, the remnant of the ungrounded atheism of the communist movement is all that is left. We are all of us stubborn in our own way and I have personally felt the pain of acknowledging that passionately held and long defended beliefs were in fact wrong. It is more than a mere stinging pride. I considered myself reasonable and being outspoken on a point and later proven wrong brought regret and embarrassment rooted in reflection on what I now see as poor behavior. It is a complex process moving from being stridently of one position to something new and the transition takes a tremendous emotional toll. Assuming the same is true of others, then I begin to possibly understand why someone who countenances none of what C.S. Lewis characterized as “stuff and nonsense” in his usual discourse provides such an anemic defense for his atheism.

For all the power of Hitchens prose and the swiftness of his considerable wit, Dr. William Lane Craig thoroughly demonstrated at Biola University that, to paraphrase Lincoln in a debate with Douglas, it will take a better answer than a sneer to dismiss God and religion. When faced with a debater that will not join in the polemical exchanges in which Mr. Hitchens excels and forced into discussing the academic arguments, Mr. Hithcens had little in the tank to impress. Yet the tone and nature of his arguments are thriving in the comment threads of blogs and news articles from people who claim to be intellectually evolved in the same declarative yet vacuous style. Like the other New Atheists, no amount of sunlight shined on the inadequacy of their particular arguments slows the pace of their impact in the halls of base arguing.

This is not to say that atheism is lacking reasonable defenders. It certainly is not. Men like Hitchens simply do not fill that role, and the atheism that Mr. Hitchens has to offer was seen and heard long before. He does not offer a novel view of religious belief, but seems to parrot some remnant of a larger belief that has begun to be consigned, using a phrase that Trotsky himself once coined, into the dustbin of history. His atheism is old and was once championed by people that had their chance to bring about a society built on those views of humanity and history and the world is far worse off as a result. Perhaps it is all that remains of his former passions which would explain why a man of such immense abilities shows no signs of ever relinquishing those views no matter how thoroughly he may be publicly defeated while defending his rationale. Whatever his atheism is, it is silly to continue to label it as new.

(By way of disclosure, I contribute to Reasonable Faith's ministry through addressing e-mails pertaining to sanctity of life issues and consider Dr. Craig a friend. My evaluation of the debate was shared by everyone that I have read with any credibility including several atheist bloggers and commentators)

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