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

What does “Freedom of Speech” mean to you?

Note: This was written just before I went to China - it's ironic that my access to my own blog is blocked there, so I couldn't post this until I arrived home!!

In the wake of Westboro Baptist Church’s decisions to protest at military funerals because of their vitriolic hatred of homosexuals, there has been a suggestion that an amendment be passed to make it illegal to protest at military funerals.

In this case, we have a clash between competing elements of the so-called conservative agenda, which opposes any support for homosexuality, but also claims to be supportive of American warfighters.

Although I personally find the protests at military funerals to be despicable in the extreme, we must remember that the Constitutional guarantee of the right to free speech is not limited to causes with which we agree. Historically, this right has been extended to those advocating a host of minority causes, including Nazis, Communists, and even (dare I say it?) fundamentalist Islamists. Whenever such extremist groups come to power, they immediately abrogate the right to free speech as part of their program of staying in power – just as the Nazis did in Germany, the Fascists in Italy, the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Communists in China, the Islamists of Iran, and so on.

Nevertheless, the right to free speech is extended in the USA even to those who would deny that free speech to others if they were to come to power in the USA. Even to those who say and do things that are repugnant to most Americans, including such acts as burning the American flag. Why would the founders of the United States of American deem it necessary to allow such things? Because they understood that the most fundamental characteristic of a democracy is not the rule of the majority, but the protection of the rights of all minorities. So long as what one says or does is not in direct violation of any constitutionally-approved law, you are free to say or do it to your heart’s content. Even if your program involves advocacy of things too terrible for a decent human being to embrace.

If you have any confidence in the principles embodied within the Bill of Rights, then you’re duty bound to accept as protected even the vile actions of the Westboro "Baptist Church". Such activities are indeed unworthy of protection in the eyes of most Americans, but they’re protected nonetheless. Our democratic system survives only because most Americans understand the need for free speech protection, even when they disagree strongly with the free expressions by someone else. Minority opinions are the most important litmus test for the freedoms we claim to support. Once we sanction the suppression of minority ideas that the majority agrees are repulsive, we’ve taken the first step down the road leading toward losing our freedom!