Friday, April 30, 2010

Totalitarian regimes as religions

This is a follow-up to my previous blog post ... inspired in part by some conversations with a friend, and in part by a book I recently read. In a thorough demolition of any attempt at developing a rational basis for belief in a god, Smith (1989) concludes with a devastating critique of Christian ethics:

Jesus … is only interested in obedience, not in presenting rational arguments. … We are not to judge others, Jesus says, which is merely another facet of suspending one’s critical faculties. We are to tolerate injustice, we are to refrain from passing value judgments of other people – such precepts require the obliteration of one’s capacity to distinguish the good from the evil; they require the kind of intellectual and moral passivity that generates a mentality of obedience. The man who is incapable of passing independent value judgments will be the least critical when given orders. And he will be unlikely to evaluate the moral worth of the man, or the supposed god, from whence those orders come.

Authoritarian regimes require the passivity of their minions. Unquestioning obedience is the only option they allow. So long as large numbers of followers are willing to do the bidding of their leader(s) without question or concern for the morality of their actions, such regimes can maintain their dominance. When the followers question the orders of their leaders, doubt the morality of such orders, and require a rational basis for such deeds, such a regime cannot endure. Most ordinary Germans and Russians obeyed without much in the way of resistance, and the rest, as is commonly said, is history. Will that history repeat itself in the near future?

I don't believe it's coincidental that both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia emerged from nations with long traditions of Christian belief. Imperial Germany was a mixture of Catholics and Protestants, whereas Imperial Russia was predominantly Orthodox Christians (with a Patriarch instead of a Pope, but similar in spirit to Catholicism). These religious traditions in both countries were indeed characterized by an anti-intellectual undercurrent, a deep-seated hatred of Jews (whose cultural traditions, independent of their religious doctrine, encouraged skepticism and intellectual pursuits), and authoritarian regimes.

It’s no stretch of the imagination that Hitler simply replaced the Kaiser and Lenin (later, Stalin) replaced the Tsar. The Nazi and Bolshevik oligarchies replaced the royal oligarchies without missing a beat in those societies. And the cults of personality that developed around Hitler and Lenin/Stalin effectively replaced those of the Pope/Patriarch/Jesus. Much of the agony inflicted by the Bolsheviks and the Nazis flows directly from the tenets of unquestioned obedience, similar to what is demanded by Christian morality. The warrior celebrated in the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” is a thinly-veiled threat that lies behind the supposed love and benevolence of Jesus in comparison with the Old Testament Jehovah. If you actually read the New Testament, you’ll find numerous examples of Christ talking of the same vengeance to be wreaked on unbelievers as is found in the Old Testament. And if you buy the odd paradox of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – they are one and the same, so this consistency is to be expected! Jesus isn’t some feel-good, kindly, updated version of the Old Testament jealous God, according to this doctrine. Jesus is supposed to be the very same deity, in human form!!

The growth of religious influence in the United States, the increasing intrusion of church into state and federal institutions (religious slogans on currency, the intrusion of religion into the Pledge of Allegiance, the presence of the Ten Commandments on state government property, etc.) all point toward a disturbing trend. The infiltration of Christian ethics of obedience and acceptance on faith, without a demand for rational basis, seem to presage a shift toward a faith-based totalitarian regime.

We as a nation are already clashing with religious zealots in another form: the Islamic faith. Of course, Islam is another example of a religion demanding unquestioning obedience, but it happens not to be Christian. The apparent response here in the United States is to rally behind our traditional religious faiths – the Christian version of Jehovah.

The terrible specter of an unfettered confrontation between Judeo-Christians and Islamists is becoming more likely. Some people think it is a sign of Christ's second coming!! Like all religious conflicts of the past, the 'enemy' is demonized, and all actions necessary for a Holy War, including abrogation of human rights we long have held dear, seem not that far away. The prospect of our democracy being swept aside in a wave of religious and patriotic zeal, and the rise of a totalitarian regime that is the Christian counterpart of the Islamic theocracies seems disturbingly possible.

We are far from unlikely to be vulnerable to this sort of catastrophic evolution - what swept Hitler and Lenin into power was the economic struggles of their nations. As we devote hundreds of billions to pointless foreign interventions, our economy teeters on the brink of disaster. Should western economies collapse, it will grease the way for a slide into a totalitarian state that likely will wrap itself in the robes of Judeo-Christianity. And it could even drift toward anti-Semitism, which long has seethed under the surface veneer of tolerance in the United States. Israeli Jews and the Middle Eastern Islamic theocracies are both Semites, after all!

The ground had been broken for Nazi and Bolshevik authoritarian regimes with their personality cults and privileged oligarchies by the dominance of Christian ethics so clearly revealed for the vicious, irrational ideas they truly represent by Smith (1989). It was relatively easy to require unquestioning obedience to the Nazi or Communist parties after they came to power. The mindset had already been established by the dominance of Christianity. The history of the United States traditionally has been one of separation of church and state, and protection of the rights of minorities. With economic decline and the appearance of Islamic jihadists as an external threat to our security, we have a formula for the suppression of human rights and the emergence of an authoritarian Christian theocracy here. I don’t know for sure it will happen, but to assume it can’t happen would be to ignore the lessons of history.
Smith, G.H., 1989: Atheism: The Case Against God. Prometheus Books, 355 pp. [ISBN 0-87975-124-X


Brian Guppy said...

I read through the New Testament for the first time about a year ago and I remember having some of these same thoughts. I don't know the intentions of the original authors of the documents, but you'd be hard pressed to find a better recipe for making people easy to control.

The most powerful religions are those most easily exploited by the powerful.

Dan Robinson said...

As intelligent as many athiests are, I would think that they'd know better than to presume so much about Christians, why they believe, and why they continue to believe. Most of the assumptions are incorrect. I respect anyone's choice to believe what they want about the Bible and about those who put faith in Christ, but at least base the negativity on something more objective than out-of-context Scripture, the fringe elements and anomalies in world history.

Chuck Doswell said...

I don't believe I've presumed anything about Christians or their reasons for their beliefs. My blog post is about how their religion has conditioned people to accept leaders without question, not about Christians, per se. Christians span a wide range of beliefs and the character of those beliefs is dominated by their personal interpretations of the Bible.

What assumptions did I make? Which ones were incorrect? In what sense are my statements about the Bible 'out of context'? What 'fringe elements'? What 'anomalies in world history'? I respect your right to disagree but your comment provides nothing concrete as the basis for any discussion - it sounds more like a blanket condemnation of what I've posted rather than an invitation to have a serious debate about the issues presented in this post.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Christian Apologetics - The art of covering up past "context" with new "context" in an attempt to circumnavigate reason, logic and science. Hey Dan... Ever wondered why there are 44,000+ protestant denominations of Christianity? "Context"!

And, BTW... A large percentage of Atheists were once Christians. In my case, I don't presume to know "why" Christians believe. I know, because I once was one.

Scott Henderson said...

So can men do better when it comes to establishing the guidelines with which to base judgments?

Have you used your critical thinking skills to honestly consider the possibility that your thinking has become conditioned as well? I would counter with the possibility that the character of your beliefs is governed by your own personal interpretations.

Chuck Doswell said...

Scott, I have no doubt that my beliefs - and in particular, my nonbelief - are a result of my own personal interpretations. The primary difference between that and the beliefs of most Christians is that I don't presume that my beliefs are associated with an all-knowing, all-powerful God that I'm obligated to obey. The fact that there are so many different Christian sects is compelling evidence that most Christians cherry-pick the bible to support what they want to believe. Yes, I would prefer that humans use logic and reason to make judgments, rather that blindly following the dictates of religious leaders or trying to figure out what the bible says about something, when that bible is riddled with logical contradictions.

Scott Henderson said...

Well, I certainly agree with your statements concerning the cherry-picking tendencies of the majority of religious adherents. For by far the majority of people, religion is merely a "truth buffet" where they can decide for themselves what they WANT to believe, not necessarily what the Bible actually says. We can thank the leaders of most organized religion for this situation, as they teach what they think people want to hear.

However, it is a stretch in my opinion to relate totalitarianism with Judeo-Christian history or tenets. An enormous number of world governments are not associated with Judeo-Christian religious affiliation in any way. Many states require no religious involvement in government whatsoever. And yet which of these is the government that will solve the very real problems that people have?

Similarly, the majority of previous world powers were not affiliated with Judeo-Christian structures either ... early Rome, Greece, Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt. And yet no matter what religious beliefs their people held, the fact is that didn't make them an inherently BETTER form of government, did it?

Is science capable of bringing the order to society that you are looking for? Honestly? When it comes to morality and societal norms, which scientist(s) interpretation, should we be guided by?

Here's the reality ... the way that men have treated the Bible or religion have very little to do with what the Bible actually says.

We talk a lot about empirical evidence in science, and the ability to let facts speak for themselves. But in all due respect, it would appear you are making your case off of YOUR interpretation of God's actions in the Hebrew scriptures, probably guided by what you've read or what other people have told you. In so doing, it's like you are reporting on a storm's behavior while sitting in your living room watching it on TV.

Are you really capable of standing in judgment of God?

I respect your opinion and your right to it, but just happen to disagree with your conclusions.

Scott Henderson said...

Incidentally, if you have the opportunity, I would enjoy speaking with you concerning the contradictions you perceive. It may not matter to you, and it's ok if it doesn't, but I'd enjoy the opportunity and the conversation.

Chuck Doswell said...

Scott, I will grant you that there are nations without Christian heritages that are fully capable of totalitarianism. However, I maintain there's no society more ripe for dictatorship than one conditioned by unquestioned obedience to religious dictates, no matter what the faith. History definitely supports such a conclusion.

I'm always somewhat bemused by those who claim to be the true interpreters of the bible, as opposed to those others whose interpretations are evidently misguided, at best. Many make such claims. Whose claims should I believe? The most logical thing is to deny the sacred nature of the bible entirely, imho.

I wouldn't want a world ruled by scientists, either, and never advocated such a thing. Logic and reason are not the exclusive province of science.

As a matter of fact, I have read the bible extensively, so your characterization of my position is not valid.

I don't judge god ... because I don't believe in him/it/them. If there were a god permitting the pain, sorrow, evil, and ugliness I see in the world, despite his/its/their infinite power, knowledge, and benevolence, I'd be rather disinclined to be come a supporter. One would have higher expectations for such a being.

I'll be happy to entertain a discussion with you, should the occasion arise.

Chuck Doswell said...

Scott, I also think you missed the point of my post. Perhaps I didn't state it clearly enough: Totalitarian regimes like those of Hitler and Stalin are analogous to religions in demanding unquestioning obedience. I didn't say that having a Christian heritage was a necessary condition for a dictatorship - obviously, oppressive regimes have a far longer history than Christianity. Rather, I asserted that a religious heritage of faiths like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism can be seen as instilling a habit of blind faith in the face of logic and reason that could make a transition to a totalitarian regime pretty easy for many people.

Scott Henderson said...

I believe you 100% when you say you've read the Bible and have examined it. I can tell from your comments. You're probably familiar with the Jewish man from Ethiopia in the book of Acts who was reading the scriptures when Philip approached his chariot and asked him if he understood what he was reading. His response was "how could I unless someone explained it to me?" Maybe, Dr. Doswell ... maybe ... you've heard many explanations so far and you've read into the Bible what you believed it was saying ... but consider at least the possibility that the most accurate explanation has yet to present itself, even in all of your years and the information you've gathered. Isn't it worth continuing the search just to find out? You're certainly free to make the judgment for yourself, and always will be. But I think it's worth it.

As for your question concerning why God would tolerate the situation as it exists now, and your expectations from someone who is supposedly of higher wisdom, power, love and justice than we are ... that's one of the best questions asked of God by men who THINK. And it's been asked of God for a long time, throughout the Bible too.

The Bible has a satisfying answer to this. And it interprets itself on the matter, with no need for us to read things into it depending on what we personally would like it to say on the subject.

I have to go, but I'll come back and type more later. In the meantime, here's an interesting fact I came across a couple weeks ago ...

The divine name that you mentioned earlier, Jehovah (which appeared in the form of the tetratramaton YHWH over 7000 times in the earliest texts available to Bible translators ... and incidentally has been completely removed from most Bibles today - because it doesn't fit into most people's belief of who God is), was found engraved in an Egyptian temple dated to 1400 BC, a wall that predates the Moabite stone by 500 years. It's the earliest secular mention of the name outside the Bible. The temple was constructed by Amenhotep III in Soleb, Sudan. It's an interesting point, because even when men try to hide things based on their interpretations and establish their own "truth," that in itself doesn't make it any less true. That name was indeed used widely in the past, whether people like it or not at this point in history.

And in the interest of forthrightness and truth, there is something else I will tell you. My name isn't Scott, but I didn't want the merit of what I say to be flavored by who I am or your perception of me. I want it to be judged on substance, and hope you understand this. Once you've decided the conversation should end, I'll be happy to tell you who I am and it will end.

Enjoy your evening -

Scott Henderson said...

I won't take your time with a lot of debate, but this is an interesting subject to me and I'm honestly glad you brought it up. And really ... feel free not to publish my comments at any time and I'll stop talking and fade back into the background.

I also agree with you that religious involvement in world affairs is leading to something with grave and devastating consequences. Of course, I believe this not from seeing the evidence around me (which is clear), but rather because the Bible spoke about the end of most religion, and the fact that during our lifetimes, people will turn on it at some point in an effort to get rid of it altogether. It can't come soon enough as far as I am concerned. What has been done in the name of religion is heinous and a crime against humanity.

Jesus also spoke of the fact that not everyone who claimed to know him (meaning people who called themselves "Christians") would have his favor. He stated that to the people who said they did great things in his name during their lives he will simply say "I never knew you." Calling yourself a Christian apparently isn't good enough.

He also said that truth would be found by few people, who made a great deal of effort to squeeze through a narrow door, while by far the majority of men would travel down a much wider path that leads to their eventual destruction. The search for truth is therefore a personal responsibility. Jesus himself claimed that truth exists and that his followers would be people of truth, to which Pilate made the interesting response that is reflected in most people's attitudes "what is truth?" ... this was sarcasm speaking, not a humble man searching for it himself.

As far as who to believe, only you can make that ultimate judgment after making an honest examination of them. I agree that it is without question easier to lump them all together and call them all garbage, which was certainly a temptation for me in the past. But by the same token that theamericanheathen mentioned above that a large percentage of atheists were once Christian ... I personally know of many Christians who were once atheists. Some of whom are men of reason, educated men ... critical thinkers.

I speak to atheists a lot. And the thing I respect about most atheists is exactly what you mention here. The effort to base their beliefs off of reason and logic, rather than emotional attachment or because they were brought up in a family that believed a certain way (contrary to most religious households). And actually I appreciate speaking to them much more than I do most people who call themselves Christian on the subject.

So that is what is same between us. I also use reason and logic ... but in an effort to find a basis to establish a rational faith in God. I have to do this for my own reasons, mainly to make sense out of the world and to have hope.

Scott Henderson said...

By the way - you're correct, I did miss the point originally and needed to go back and re-read what you wrote there to clarify it. I actually don't find a reason to disagree with you on that to be honest, but did want it to lead to more discussion.

Thanks for pointing it out -

Chuck Doswell said...

"Scott" - it was something of a disappointment to learn that you're hiding behind a pseudonym. Apart from our difference in basic beliefs, our discourse here has been civil, at least. You can choose to reveal your name - or not - as you see fit, but I guess I prefer to "end the conversation" now.

Michael said...

My name is Michael Peregrine, and I apologize for allowing intimidation to get the better of me. It really isn't my typical response, but I did see the need to come forward with it as soon as I made that first post.

Dan R. said...

I appreciate the dialogue. The reasing behind my statement was that I see many trying to psychoanalyze why Christians believe, so far none of which have fit my personal experience and rationale. I also believe that a lot of the criticism of Christiany comes from the acts of fringe elements and events in history, such as the crusades, cults, Westboro Baptist Church, and the like. As a Christian for the past 17 years I just haven't found that element to be the norm.

Chuck Doswell said...

Dan R.,

The same argument has been used to rationalize the acts of violence committed by Muslim extremists. If the 'moderate' Christians would speak out strongly and consistently against such extreme behavior, I'd feel a lot more comfortable about co-existing with religious folks. But the 'moderates' typically are cowed into silence by their extreme counterparts, thereby implicitly condoning those acts committed by 'fringe elements' in a religious sect.