Take a look around these days and you’ll see that atheism seems to be gaining ground. It is good to know that more people are challenging the influence of organized religion in American society, demanding that that America live up to its lofty constitutional guarantee of the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. The rise in people openly proclaiming their atheism is both cathartic and encouraging to those atheists who may still feel they must remain “in the closet.”
These benefits cannot be ignored, but it would seem that the atheist “movement,” meaning the growing mass of individuals who now seem to build their entire identity around atheism, may not be fully equipped to usher in a new era of science and reason. In fact, there is good reason to believe that these self-styled “critical thinkers” or “free thinkers” succumb too many of the same failings of religious fundamentalists, and even subscribe to their own ridiculous ideas despite a disbelief in the supernatural.
First, let us consider the wisdom of basing so much of one’s identity and ideology on atheism. If one does not believe in any sort god, one is by definition an atheist. If one does not play football, can we say this person’s hobby is not playing football? Of course we would not. Karl Marx summed up the idea of proclaiming one’s atheism to the high heavens, comparing it to a child who goes around telling anyone who will listen about how he no longer believes in the bogeyman. We are now past the first decade of the 21st century, and thanks to our level of scientific knowledge about the world it is in many ways easier not to believe in god than to be a believer. After all, a non-believer need only accept that knowledge which science has provided us thus far, believers must explain away all these proven facts.
So let us then be clear, becoming an atheist in the United States is not some great accomplishment. What is more, non-belief in god does not necessarily make one a rational thinker. In fact, one can notice a certain trend whereby many of our modern-day atheist evangelists find it easy to reject god and the supernatural, but so easily fall for all kinds of ridiculous beliefs which do not involve supernatural beings. Take a few of the big names you’re likely to see as spokespeople for atheism, starting with Bill Maher.
Maher won an award from Richard Dawkins for his attacks on organized religion. Unfortunately, he treats vaccines with the same skepticism he has for almighty deities. An even more illustrative example is Penn and Teller, comedy magicians and ex-hosts of the Showtime program Bullshit! In the first few episodes of the first season, the duo took on psychic mediums, alternative medicine quackery, UFOs and end of the world prophesies. In the second season they even went for the Bible itself. While the shows were often entertaining and informative regarding a number of issues, if one watches even one entire season it is clear that the hosts try to slip in their radical libertarian capitalist ideas in a number of not-too-subtle ways. They don’t believe in angels, ghosts, god, or aliens, but apparently they subscribe to the dogma of the magic fairies that sanctify whatever a man lays his hands on and claims as his private property.
Let us examine the dogma of libertarianism in detail to see how people who think rationally when confronted with the supernatural can be easily suckered into believing a totally secular dogma.
In one episode of Bullshit! , Penn Jilette explains that taxes are when men with guns come and take your money from you, which is a common argument not only heard from libertarians but conservatives as well. A rational person understands that taxes constitute payment for government services, that they often constitute subsidies to businesses in the private sector by distributing the costs of large, expensive, but necessary fixed capital projects such as highways and roads, and they also provide services at cost or even at a loss so as to meet a vital need or simply to benefit businesses who can reap the benefits without having to pay some other private company with a profit motive.
A rational person understands that men with guns don’t come to collect your taxes; they come if you attempt to cheat on your taxes, just as men with guns will attempt to take you by force if you fail to pull over should you be caught breaking the speed limit. Virtually all law, at some level, is backed up by those “men with guns”; what is a law that cannot be enforced?
Actually, libertarianism of this variety is not far removed from young-earth Creationism in the sense that it is based primarily on faith in a certain dogma, as its central beliefs cannot be observed in the real world. They may weave very passionate arguments, but as soon as we go out into the real world to see if these principles work, we generally find that the opposite is true. Countries which put a lot of money into state welfare programs have much higher standards of living, whereas countries with weak or even non-existent central governments are rife with conflict, starvation, disease, corruption, human trafficking and a whole host of other social ills.
If we look at the history of the United States and its trade and economic policies, we see that thirty years of free market fundamentalism haven’t brought improvements but have in reality helped bring the country into another depression. Virtually no claim of libertarianism can be observed in the real world; it is contradicted by both history and sociology, among other disciplines. Despite these obvious leaps of faith, folks like Pen Jilette believe themselves to be rational thinkers.
So why this inconsistency among people who shout from the rooftops that they don’t believe in god, and thus are rational minds, while simultaneously subscribing to secular beliefs which often go against all scientific or historical knowledge? Perhaps the failure lies in a very simple chicken or egg question. Basically, it is irrational thinking, idealism, which led to a belief in god or gods; belief in god or gods did not lead to irrational thinking.
Early man looked at the forces of nature around him, and supposed that there were unseen forces controlling those phenomena, a practice sometimes known as magical thinking. Magical thinking and idealism are what led to a belief in god, and therefore eliminating the latter does nothing about the former. Eliminating one strain of irrational thinking does not automatically eliminate any others. This is how in this modern age we can have people who easily dismiss belief in the supernatural while believing so readily in libertarianism, conservatism, liberalism, human rights and other such idealistic nonsense.
The question of religion and the workers’ movement for their own emancipation and seizure of society is among the most difficult. Historically the Bolsheviks and other socialist revolutionaries were often very pragmatic and conciliatory. The often repeated line was “religion is a personal matter.” Of course it would not be a personal matter for the thousands of priests, imams, and lamas who enjoyed various privileges of capitalist or semi-feudal society, and claiming to speak for higher powers, convinced the credulous to take up arms against socialist revolution. The revolutionaries fought back. Despite this, it is worth noting that with a few notable exceptions; nearly every socialist or self-proclaimed socialist country in history has tolerated religion at one time or another.
Those who struggle for socialism must continue the fight under the slogan that religion is a personal matter. Decades of globalization and capitalist excess have revealed to many how morally bankrupt, hypocritical and beholden to the ruling class their priests, ministers, patriarchs, bishops and imams are. These people want justice, and rather than attack them for their religious beliefs it would be far better to show them how the values of their faith conflict with capitalist society. When religious people reach out to revolutionaries, the latter should set an example of secular morality and decency by showing gratitude and respect. On the other hand, this does not mean making concessions to religion. Marxism-Leninism, being based on materialism, is incompatible with religion as a philosophy. Marx understood, however, that religion could not be wished away nor crushed outright. Let us look to what are probably his most famous words on the subject:
“It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”
Put simply, Marx is saying that people have a need for religion under the present conditions. The ruling class still needs religion to help justify the system which preserves it, and the working class needs religion to alleviate suffering, to bring hope of a better life beyond this one on Earth, to be sure that if justice is not served in this world, it will be served in the next. This is why those who wish to change the Marxist movement by insisting on an all-out attack on religion whenever they find it is flat out wrong, and contrary to Marxist thought.
The task ahead lies not in abolishing religion, but rather in abolishing the conditions which make religion necessary in the first place. Lastly, we would all do well to remember that atheists come in all shapes and sizes, as well as classes. Never should atheism become such an identifier that it might lead one to find common cause with class enemies solely because they too are “no longer afraid of the bogeyman.”