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The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

IN DEFENSE OF ATHEISM, IN A MANNER OF SPEAKING

Chris, an indefatigable commentator on this blog, asks for a defense of my atheism.  Jerry, an equally strong voice here, seconds the request.  In my mind, that constitutes an irresistible groundswell, so herewith:

                                                            In Defense of Atheism

except that this will not be a defense of atheism, but rather an explanation of what atheism is, in my understanding of it, and an account of why I am an atheist.  Fair warning:  This will take a while, and will not be at all what you might expect.

I begin by asking, What is it to believe in God?  Contrary to what you might suppose, in the Judeo-Christian tradition of which I am a dissenting participant, believing in God does not ordinarily mean believing that there is a God, believing in the existence of God.  That is taken for granted.  Even Doubting Thomas, the disciple who would not believe in the risen Christ until he had touched his crucifixion wounds with his hands and seen them with his eyes, did not doubt the existence of God.  He simply doubted that the man before him was risen from the dead.  To believe in God, in the Christian tradition, means believing that He will keep His promise of eternal life.  It means believing in the sense of trusting God to keep His word, despite all the evidence to the contrary [including most notably the Crucifixion itself, of course.]

To explain what it truly means to believe in the existence of God, I must make a detour through literary theory.  [You can find a more extended discussion of these ideas in my essay, “Narrative Time”, archived at box.net and accessible via a link at the top of this blog.]  All of us are familiar with novels.  The author of a novel brings a fictional world into existence through the medium of words.  The world of the novel may resemble some part of the real world.  There may even be places in the world of the novel whose names in the novel are the same as the names of real world places.  The novel, we say, is “set in London in the late nineteenth century”  like the Sherlock Holmes stories, or in rural England of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, like the novels of Jane Austen.  But Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s London is not the real London.  The people in Doyle’s London are not the people in the real London, and the events in Doyle’s London are not at all the events in the real London.

But there is something more, something so fundamentally important that it is the essential clue to why I am an atheist.  The world of a novel exists from a point of view, the point of view of the narrator.  The world of a novel has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It has people and events and regions that are central, and people and events and regions that are peripheral.  The centrality or peripherality of these people, events, and regions is not a matter of subjective opinion, it is an objective fact of the world of the novel.  Pip is the hero of Great Expectations.  Elizabeth Bennett is the heroine of Pride and Prejudice.  These are not the self-important opinions of those characters.  In fact, Pip is rather self-deprecating, even though he is the narrator of the novel.  These are objective facts of the worlds of those novels.  Now, one could, of course, write a novel that tells the story of the events of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of Mr. Collins [wouldn’t that be a hoot!], and there are, I believe, novelists who have attempted something of this sort.  But the world brought into being by those novelists’ words would be different fictional worlds.

Let me give you a few examples of what I am talking about.  Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, is set at least in part in nineteenth century London.  In the novel, a character walks from a place called “Tom’s All Alone” to another part of London, and the walk takes a very long time.  Later in the novel, a character makes the same walk in a short time.  This is not a mistake by the author [like Conan Doyle forgetting which leg Watson was shot in while serving in India].  Physical distance is for Dickens in this novel a metaphor for, and measure of, moral or spiritual distance, and the change in the walking time is meant by him to signal a change in the moral relationship between the characters living in those two locations.  In the novel, it is not as though the distance were shortened.  In the novel, the distance is shortened.

Another example.  Ethan Frome is a well-known novel by Edith Wharton [and required reading when I went to high school.]  The novel has what is called a “frame structure.”  The narrator is an engineer who has gone to the northwest Massachusetts town of Starkfield [fictional].  He begins his story as he steps across the threshold of the household where Ethan, his wife, and the woman with whom he had an affair [I hope I am recalling this correctly] are all living a kind of perpetual hellish existence.  The entire narration takes place with the narrator’s foot poised over the threshold.  As the narration ends, he completes the step into the room.  Now thresholds play a significant role in Wharton novels.  They are places objectively fraught with meaning.  In another novelist’s works, thresholds may simply be thresholds, with no objective literary significance whatsoever.

These facts are objective facts of the fictional worlds created by the words of the novelists.

What on earth does all of this have to do with why I am an atheist?  Perhaps some of you are beginning to have a clue.  In the Judeo-Christian religion, God is the Author of the World.  He is quite literally the author.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  These are the opening lines of the Gospel According to John.  How does the Old Testament begin?  It begins with an act of authorial creation.

1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

The Judeo-Christian world [and the Muslim world as well, but that is neither here nor there] has an objective beginning [the Creation], a series of objectively, metaphysically significant moments, and an objective end [the Last Trump.]  The entire universe exists from the point of view of the author and narrator, who is God.  The objectively, metaphysically significant moments include the Creation, the Fall, God’s Compact or Testament with Abraham, the Giving of the Law, the Incarnation, and the Crucifixion.  The spiritual status of human beings before one of these moments is utterly different from the spiritual status of human beings after the moment, regardless of whether they are enmeshed in the same social relations of production or are living at the same stage of technological development, regardless of the political and cultural characteristics of any particular time.  That is why, when medieval artists painted Old Testament scenes, they dressed the characters in clothing appropriate to 13th century France rather than 10th century B. C. Judea.  They understood that conventions of dress were irrelevant to the Biblical story.

To believe in God is thus to experience the world as a divine narration existing from, and unfolding in conformity with, the point of view of a creator and narrator.

Believing in the existence of God is not having an ontology in which are listed all the galaxies and nebulae and stars, and planets, and frogs, and pine trees and Lithuanians and also God.  That is just silly.  Believing in God is experiencing the world as a divine story in which I am a character.

Why am I an atheist?  Because I do not, cannot, experience the world in that way.


Why do I exhibit such fondness for the Bible and, more generally, for this story?  Because it is a grand story, a beautiful story.  And because, although I would find it demeaning to be merely a character in a story, a part of me longs for the security and meaning that being such a character offers.

38 comments:

Chris said...

This strikes me as an interesting and thoughtful foundation for atheism:

"Why am I an atheist? Because I do not, cannot, experience the world in that way."

I have a short story of my own if you don't mind. When I teach, I find that with enough effort I can convince people that the state has no de jure right to rule, animals are mistreated, and perhaps we don't know what a 'table' actually is, although we act as if we do. That is, I can teach most things people are exposed to in intro level courses with various degrees of conversion and minimal resistance. Granted they may all go off to still eat animals, pay taxes, and build tables, but they are at least aware that philosophically their past views are now untenable. Their beliefs have changed somewhat. However, I always find when I run through arguments for or against the existence of God, sans maybe one or two fence sitters, no one is going to budge. I can spend 2 weeks knocking down every last argument for God's existence and the students will continue to believe and be quite confident that some argument just has to exist in God's favor of which I'm not presenting (In the Freudian sense, there is the subject-who-is-supposed-to-know, surely some erudite priest could best Hume, and/or their instructor). Well this constant fact led to a similar revelation in me. A student came by my office yesterday after teaching Hume for over a week and asked, after seeking out paper writing advice, whether or not I was a believer. I said no I was most definitely an atheist, I hoped it didn’t spill out into obviousness while teaching, that I felt the arguments were stronger in atheism's favor, but that in all honesty if William Lane Craig or some unbeatable theist came into the office now, shattered all my arguments and replaced them with superior theistic one's, I, like the class, simply wouldn't believe. Why? As you say, whatever it takes to believe isn't in me, never has been, and seriously doubt it ever will be (unlike you I don't desire theism's security blanket though).

But if this is the case, if there are people like you and I who just won't believe, can’t believe, in my case have no desire to believe, and this isn't a philosophical matter but something else...? Is it psychoanalytic? What is it? And moreover, the more troubling problem to me is, how do we get believers to turn out like Cornel West and not Mike Pence. If we can't argue away their theism, how do we argue their theism to progressivism?

This may be my favorite post from you by the way :)

I'm reminded of an episode of House MD where he's explaining a patients near death experience to a class, and that patient just so happens to be him. One of his fellows figures this out and asks why he isn't a theist given his near death experience:



Dr. Gregory House: Personally, I choose to believe that the white-light people sometimes see, visions this patient saw. They're all just chemical reactions that take place when the brain shuts down.

Dr. Eric Foreman: You choose to believe that?

Dr. Gregory House: There's no conclusive science. My choice has no practical relevance to my life, I choose the outcome I find more comforting.

Dr. Cameron: You find it more comforting to believe that this is it?

Dr. Gregory House: I find it more comforting to believe that all *this* isn't simply a test.

Alan Nelson said...

On your last paragraph:
Is the Bible really a grand story? In the King James version there are many nice turns of phrase, but also a lot of clunkers. And the individual "stories" are mostly told from a remote narrative point of view that makes it mostly rather boring. No?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Alan, no one said Leviticus is a page turner! :) I had in mind the grand narrative, rather than every last begat. I quite agree that even the gifted members of King James's team couldn't make chicken salad out of some of tat chicken shit.

David Auerbach said...

I have a little puzzlement. Your intro (via Dickens, et al) would lead me to think that God, in the biblical narrative, is like Pip. And that the various authors/collators/translators of the bible are the Dickens (so to speak!). But you move God into the Dickens place. Am I wrong about this lack of parallelism?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No, David, you are not wrong about the lack of parallelism. I was trying very quickly to introduce the notion of a fictional world existing from a narrative point of view. The details of what goes on in this or that novel are not pertinent to my point. I should have made that clearer.

Ed Barreras said...

Alan Nelson,

May I recommend, in case you haven't read it, the first chapter of Erich Auerbach's *Mimesis*? The book itself is a classic, but that section in particular, comparing the Homeric mode of narrative with the Biblical one, is especially well known. It may give you some appreciation of what you describe as the "remote narrative point of view" of the Biblical stories.

Matt said...

This is really good. It is a sort of atheism that seems to accurately characterize the nature of religious faith. To see yourself as part of a narrative by which you make sense of your life. It partly reminds me of Camus, who totally disavows all of the false narratives we project onto the world and embraces the absurd. Accepting history as just one dam thing after another. That may not at all be what you had in mind, but that was the person I thought of when reading this.

I enjoyed this because it seems so rare to find an atheist who is able to accurately perceive this and is charitable and understanding in his attitude. A lot of evidentialist arguments seem to often be missing the point. This, however, doesn't seem to miss the point. Beliefs regarding spaghetti monsters concern a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same sort of conceptual space as beliefs regarding the neighbors over the hill or gravitational forces. Whereas, evidence for or against “God,” if it is there, pervades every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us. For you to believe in God it may require a kind of radical skepticism of your own experience in the world. For religious people, it may be opposite.

Ed Barreras said...

Matt,

To add to your point: In the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, God is not thought of as one being among others (like, for example, the Flying Spaghetti Monster would be). He is rather the condition of the possiblity of anything existing at all, identical with the transcendental properties of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.

Kant is widely taken to have refuted Aquinas's natural theological arguments for God's existence. However, Thomists argue that those arguments are at home, as it were, within the Aristotelian metaphysical framework, and so if we accept that framework then the Kantian arguments lose their force.

David Palmeter said...

Chris,

I am struck by your saying that if an unbeatable theist knocked down all of your arguments you still wouldn’t believe. I don’t know if I would or not—I’d probably be more likely to think that my arguments were knocked down because I wasn’t smart enough to see the answers to the theist.

I’m still digesting Prof. Wolff’s metaphor of the novel. I’d never thought of it that way. I simply went from being brought up to believe to shedding it over time because it all seemed too preposterous to me.

Your mentioning of Hume is very timely for me. I’m reaching the conclusion of a study group at a lifelong learning institute on his first Enquiry. Last week we did Of Miracles; tomorrow we do Of Particular Providence and of a Future State, along with the essay Of the Immortality of the Soul.

I find myself very much with Hume as I understand him, and that is as an agnostic, not an atheist. He sees no evidence that would support belief, and for that reason he doesn’t believe. But does not attempt to prove the negative—that there is no God.

He seems to me to be saying that you can believe in God and you can believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster if you like, but there is no evidence for either so he doesn’t believe in either of them.

In a sense, this is the position he takes in the falsely pious openings and closings of these essays, but I think it is also the position he reached as an intellectual matter.

Matt said...

Ed,

That sounds interesting. Do you have any recommended books or authors who argue along those lines? I am a fan of MacIntyre and Aristotle, but I am also sympathetic to some of the critiques. I would be interested in learning more if you have any good suggestions.

s. wallerstein said...

Chris,

Interesting what you say about your students not being convinced by all the arguments against the existence of God. Are core political beliefs, say, the belief that capitalism is the best socio-economic system equally difficult to change?

My experience is that religion never convinced me as a child (I found it ridiculous), but I never fully became an atheist until reading Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian" as a young adult. So in my case while philosophical arguments did not convert me from a believer to an atheist, they did turn someone (me), who never had given the matter much thought, into a confirmed atheist.

I know that the fact that I say that I never gave the existence of God much thought
may seem strange to those to whom it is the number one existential question, but I never felt the need for God or even the need to wonder if a Deity exists or not. I had a conventional Reform Jewish education, which I found totally stupid as a child, but I never went beyond my childhood rejection of Reform Jewish to atheism as a philosophical position until running into Russell's arguments.

Chris said...

David,
I was teaching Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, but I had taught the Enquiry a few months earlier. If I have to get pedantic I'd define myself as an agnostic-atheist. What I mean by that is, if you ask me where did the universe come from the only intellectually honest answer is "I haven't the slightest clue" [For Kantian and Nagel-ian reasons]. If you say "well what about it coming from an powerful deity, or one of these religious deities" I think again the honest answer "totally implausible." So no idea where this world came from or why we are here, but I genuinely disbelieve some deity has anything to do with it. The idea that my limited and evolved mental apparatus can accurately deduce the origins of the cosmos strikes me as the height of arrogance, and then the idea that what it does deduce is nothing but purely anthropomorphic answers seems both necessary and rendering all answers absurd.

My conversion is similar to Wallerstein's. As a kid I always knew there were problems with God, for instance the problem of evil hit me at a young age, but I never had a clear cut philosophy. When I was 18 a friend asked me "what are your religious beliefs", I said "I dunno that word agnosticism seems fitting", he said "well I'm an atheist". To which I responded what's that, and he said "I don't think there's a God", and I said "yeah that sounds right, guess I'm that". Like Wallerstein, religion just never meshed with me. And like Wolff, I just can't believe. So what's going on here?

David Palmeter said...

This reminds me of the quote attributed to Bertrand Russell. When asked what he would say if, upon his death, he was confronted by an angry God. Russell is said to have replied, " Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?"

Brian said...

"And because, although I would find it demeaning to be merely a character in a story, a part of me longs for the security and meaning that being such a character offers."

Precisely. We are all little pebbles of various sizes rolling down the same side of the mountain.

Brian said...

I am also reminded of the dialog between Frodo and Sam in the Two Towers:

“And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo, adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on, and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same; like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”

“I wonder,” said Frodo, “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”

Tom Cathcart said...

All the best Christians are atheists. I.e., they're not theists. I'm thinking Santayana, Tillich, and in a sense, believe it or not, a lot of Christians in the pews. That is, for them (us), religion isn't a set of beliefs or propositions or dogmata. Martin Buber said religion is an attitude. You feel an I-Thou relationship to the world rather than I-It. That's not something you can argue for or against. It's more like music than prose. Some people hear the music, some don't. Those who hear it say it inspires them to humility, forgiveness, awe, gratitude, love. Not that secular people can't have those attributes. Obviously they can. But for the people who hear it, the music seems a sublime expression of those things. Are our religious feelings just projections of our own stuff onto some vague idea of the Absolute? Who knows? Who cares? It really makes no difference. Too bad that religious apologists get hung up on the doctrinal stuff. Harnack thought it was the Greeks that got the Judaeo-Christian religion off on a foreign, conceptual track. As Bob says, arguments for or against the "existence" of God are foreign to the Biblical mind-set. I can't think of a single intelligent atheist that I disagree with. But when I hear the music, I go to church. And when I hear Martin Luther King speak, it gets to me more deeply than when I hear Stokely Carmichael. I don't know why, it just does. It's the difference between poetry and prose.

Derek said...

My undergraduate advisor was a philosopher of religion for some forty years, and at one point right around retirement (and during a Paul Tillich study group) he remarked, "I've never seen a student suddenly stand up in class and say, 'Eureka! I get it now!'"

More to the point, William James, back in his Varieties of Religious Experience, notes that religious conversion often has a long build-up, even if it's not obvious at the conscious level, and even if the person who's about to change doesn't realize it.

Conversion, in any of the accounts I've seen and heard, involves a change not simply in propositional beliefs, but in worldview, in the way things are seen and experienced, how the world seems to one to be ordered. Religious belief in general, in the cases where it deeply held, seems usually to be like this. Arguments, at best, come along for the ride. As someone who has never had that sort of belief, I can see why it would be comforting. To be a character in the story of a great author would be better than good, or than great--it would be important. And that, I think, would trump all other considerations.

Ed Barreras said...

For the record, I think Russell's critique of theism is mostly shallow. It's certainly a come-down from the likes of Nietzsche and Feuerbach, who were leagues more sophisticated in their theological understanding. It seems to me there's a direct line from Russell to the kind of sneering, ill-informed polemics against religion we see from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. This probably has something to do with the proto-positivism inherent in Russell's broader philosophical commitments. In any case, the debate between Russell and the Catholic philosopher Frederick Copleston (he of the multi-volume history of philosophy) is available on YouTube for anyone interested.

Matt, if you are interested in Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy you may want to check out Edward Feser's *Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide*. This is a short, accessible introduction to Aquinas that emphasizes so-called analytic Thomism, that is, Thomistic philosophy as interpreted in light of current topics in analytic philosophy. If you already have a strong background in philosophy, you may find its discussions too basic. The same author recently published a book called *Scholastic Metaphysics*, which I have not read but which apparently is more substantial. I should say, though, that Feser has had a separate career as a particularly nasty conservative polemicist. This is perhaps not surprising, as, for better or worse, Thomists tend to be politically conservative Catholics. Is this a reason not to be a Thomist? Perhaps. But I feel compelled to mention this in case you're someone who likes to be judicious in where you spend your hard earned money (you could buy a used copy). You may also want to look into the great early twentieth-century Thomists Etienne Gilson and Jacques Miritain. Also, Pierre Hadot has a slim book on Plotinus that is, of course, wonderful. In fact, I'd say start with Hadot's book.

Ed Barreras said...

Correction to my previous post: That should read "Jacques Maritain."

Tom Cathcart said...

Interesting definition of religion from the late cultural anthropologist, Clifford Geertz: "(1) a set of symbols (2) which acts to establish powerful moods and motivations in men [sic] (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic." Most argument is about (4), while the nub of the matter is (2) and (3).

Tom Cathcart said...

Just rereading your original post, Bob, and understanding it better. I think you've hit the nail on the head. It comes down in the end to whether one "experiences the world in that way." Nietzsche didn't, and that's why, as Ed Barreras said above, Nietzsche's critique is profound and Russell's not so much. The levels of dialectic, though, are dizzying. E.g., people on both sides of the divide are correct that those on the other side may well have gotten there in bad faith: the religious person, as Nietzsche said, by ressentiment; the secular person by rebellion. And so it goes. It's dilemmas all the way down. That's probably why this post has gotten more commentary than any in quite a while.

Chris said...

Ed is definitely right about the shallowness of the new atheists.

Jerry Fresia said...

Great blog. I don't understand the statement that God "is quite literally the author" when the gospels are "according to" so and so, and differ importantly at that...because they are "inspired?"


s. wallerstein said...

Russell's essay is entitled "Why I am not a Christian", not "Why You should not be a Christian" and that differentiates him from the New Atheists, who are annoying because they are trying to convert the world to atheism, are proselytists, are salesmen. Russell has too much class for that.

I find it strange that several commenters, whom I assume are professional philosophers (I'm not one), find Russell's rational arguments for atheism to be shallow or not profound. Does a lifetime of practicing philosophy convince one that rational arguments (supposedly the lifeblood of philosophy) are somehow superficial or less convincing than an examination of unconscious motives and strategies such one finds in Nietzsche? That would be ironic if it were the case.

It is true that there are good reasons and bad reasons for being religious or being an atheist, but they are as varied as are human beings. For someone as rational as Russell, standard rational arguments are undoubtedly a good reason for not believing in God. Others may reject religion, especially Christianity, because they find it to be strategy of those who are weak and resentful (Nietzsche says that he could believe in a dancing god such as Dionysus). There are those who are religious because rational arguments convince them just as there are those who are religious because they seek the community of believers or find religious rituals to be moving. A bad reason to be religious might be because religious services are a great place to pick pockets. A bad reason to be an atheist might be to piss your mother off, although at times that's not such a bad reason.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jerry, I am sorry I did not make this clear. I was not saying that God is the author of the Bible. I was saying He is the author of the world! The world is a story told by God. Hence the world [not the Gospels or the rest of the Bible] exists from a narrative point of view.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

As a failed philosopher (I have a BA and some MA study), and even more as a fan of Russell, and perhaps even a disciple of Nietzsche, I deeply appreciate this comment.

Jerry Fresia said...

Of course! Your literary examples explain this. I should have gotten it! I will probably burn in hell now.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well, Jerry, if George Bernard Shaw is to be believed, you will have good company and be listening to Mozart.

Chris said...

Alternatively, students often defend evil in the world as necessary for good. E.g., we need pain to appreciate pleasure, we need suffering and loss to experience joy and gain. Oddly enough though these defenses imply that Heaven is going to be a very boring place.

Daniel Langlois said...

It might be relevant to consider why the League for the Revolutionary Party do not in general accept people who believe in God. They're a Trotskyist organisation in the United States. A fundamental tenet of their organization is our conception of consciousness, and specifically class-consciousness. They believe revolutionary proletarian consciousness is a product of the class struggle itself. I mention them, as a small, propaganda organization with an enormous task of cohering the vanguard of the working class. It's not that I'm a member it's just a reminder that there are commies, is this relevant? I'm thinking in terms of clarifying Marx’s view, not my own. If you are an atheist, you are not only against Berkeley and the Pope, you are against Spinoza and Rousseau.In politics, the most important differences are always of course, the differences you have with your closest friends.

s. wallerstein said...

Daniel Langlois,

We had a long conversation a week or so ago about Cuba a week or so ago and one of the reasons that I stopped answering your question is that I found your use of the word "commie" offensive. I'm not a Communist myself, but I have known Communist Party members here in Chile as well as in the United States and I feel offended for their sake when you use the term "commie". I googled the word "commie" and it is
generally considered to be a derogatory term.

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Commie

https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/commie

Just as one would not use a derogatory term for Jews or gay people or African-American people in this blog, I feel that one should not use derogatory terms for Communists.

Chris said...

As an atheist Marxist I can definitely say I have nothing but love for Berkeley, the new Pope, Spinoza, and Rousseau.

Daniel Langlois said...

'I feel that one should not use derogatory terms for Communists. '

I understand how being called a commie by another commie might be very much more agreeable than being refered to in that way by a capitalist pig or liberal apologist wimp or pig -ignorant non-political someone who tries too hard to show that they are clever, in a way which annoys other people. But, I do have a point, it was a point about relevance. If we're going to pitch atheism, then communism seems relevant here. Thanks for helping me to make my point!

I'm not saying it like "arghghhh you damn commies and your cold war". A commie is a communist. I'm saying it like 'when Brezhnev became head of the commie party he did this and this and this'. No one cares what commies think anyway. I think we just might care, though, that talk of the 'commie threat' reached its peak in the early 1950s - a period of US history known as the Second Red Scare. During the infamous witch hunts by Senator Joseph McCarthy in Cold War USA, being branded a 'commie' could lose someone their job, friends and leave them cut off from society.

While I am musing about the proper company that I am in, here, and considering that you shouldn't call someone a commie unless you want to start a fight, I'll plug Bill Vallicella ('Kant, subjectivity and facticity'); I'm looking at his blog posts about Wolff. Sample comment: 'When the otherwise distinguished Robert Paul Wolff over at The Philosopher's Stone plays the stoned philosopher and quits the reservation of Good Sense, I call him 'Howlin' Wolff.'' Another remark: 'he is a lifelong lefty, having first drunk the Kool-Aid at the Sunnyside Progressive School.' I am willing to stipulate that 'lefty' is sometimes considered to be a bit derogatory. Ask me how an American would refer to a socialist, if not by lefty, and I would probably answer pinko, which is rarely used without derogatory intent and is frequently used in phrases like pinko-commie bastard. I would be clear, that there are few localities in America (Vermont comes to mind) where one could publicly use the word 'good' to modify 'socialist' and not start a fight.

Daniel Langlois said...

If you protest against being called a 'commie' because you are not one, that's different than protesting against being called a 'commie' because you are one. I mean, if you are one..you are one. I'm glad we got that cleared up.

As to how much respect communism deserves, I don't insist upon the last word. I'm musing on the relation between communism and atheism. Atheism is a critical part of most branches of the Communist ideology. Many governments with Communistic leanings have made concerted efforts to eradicate or renounce religion. The Communist Party of China forbids its members from adhering to any religion, and the Socialist Weimar Republic is responsible for the ~100% atheism rate in parts of East Germany.Mexico under Calles and Albania also followed an aggressive nationalization policy, while Castro threw the clergy into prison in the aftermath of the botched-up Bay of Pigs Invasion.

I find whenever I am up against the religious who are very outspoken against Atheists, they bring up that these communist countries are Atheists. This question isn't a jab at atheism. People who believe in god tend to believe in themselves and have self worth, that has no place in a totalitarian government. LOL. Crazy stuff. Too bad it's true :|.

s. wallerstein said...

Daniel Langlois,

I'm not asking you to respect communism, but to use respectful language about communists, that is, not to use the word "commie" to refer to them.

This is a philosophy blog and any criticism, respectful or not, of communism as a doctrine or system is welcome, I imagine.

When I ask for respect for communists, I'm not thinking of Stalin, but of many friends and people with whom I've participated in left political struggles, both here in Chile and in the United States, who were members of the Communist Party. I'd like to include Marcelo Concha Bascuñan, member of the Central Committee of the Chilean Communist Party and father of my woman partner, disappeared by the Pinochet dictatorship in 1976. They all may have been blind to human rights abuses in communist countries, but they were well-intentioned human beings deserving of respect, concerned about social injustice in the societies they lived in.

By the way, I'd like to point out that Trotskyites consider themselves to be communists, are very critical of the lack of democracy in communist countries and would be offended by someone using the word "commie" instead of the word "communist".

I hope that you can see why I'm asking you to refrain from using the word "commie" in this blog, where we both participate. If you continue to use it, I guess that I will make a formal protest to the blog owner and ask other participants for their opinion. Otherwise, I hope that we can discuss political ideas with mutual good will.

GJ said...

Don't knock the New Atheists. An effective critique of theism doesn't have to be profound. Indeed, to insist on such profundity would be to miss an essential point of their critique: that something as silly as belief in gods (or ghosts, or fairies, or whatever) shouldn't be accorded the respect and deference it's typically accorded.

But to be more on topic, it's a mistake to assume that one's atheism has to be, or should be, profound. Mine certainly isn't: just as I'm an "atheist" about preternatural beings like the gods of ancient Greece and Rome, so I'm an atheist about the god of Islam and Christianity. It's just that simple...and unprofound.

Charles Wolverton said...


Well, since GJ has opened the door, I'll enter. IMO, broad brush phrases like "the shallowness of the new atheists" who are "trying to convert the world to atheism" are at least misleading and arguably wrong. Consequently, they unjustifiably insult most writers who have been associated with that term.

NA writers with whom I'm familiar wrote at a level appropriate to their target audiences - audiences likely to include few people willing and able to tackle Nietzsche, Feurbach, Russell, and such. In the introduction to TGD, Dawkins explicitly defines his target audience as those already wavering in their faith and perhaps needing assurance that they are in respectable company in doing so - not what I would call "proselytizing". Dennett's Breaking the Spell explicitly seeks to put some scientific meat on the phenomenon of religious belief in general, suggesting a science friendly target audience. Harris's End of Faith is indeed an example of polemics, unfortunately an early entry in anti-Muslim hysteria. Lesser known writers such as Jennifer Hecht (and possibly Susan Jacoby - I'm not sure she accepts the NA label) write as popularizing historians, not polemicists. I can't speak to Hitchens's target audience since by the time it appeared I had already had enough of the genre, but his book presumably is also a polemic although one aimed at his usual audience. Ie, the target audience for NA books with which I'm familiar is the better educated segment of the general public, not the academy. As GJ suggests, theological depth is neither required nor appropriate to that audience. (I assume that public talks and TV documentaries may well be polemic, but obviously neither target the academy.)

In any event, the NA phenomenon seems to have had its fifteen minutes of fame and to be currently of little if any significance. So it's unclear to me what at this late date motivates such seemingly out-of-context de rigueur snarks, especially if arguably inaccurate.

Anonymous said...

As a communist, I am a bit perplexed. Why should a communist be offended when an exploiter calls him/her "commie"? Why should anyone expect the exploiter to act differently?

Nobody would expect a tapeworm to change their behavior: they do what tapeworms do. Exactly the same applies to exploiters: they do what exploiters do.

As a commie, I'd feel worried if an exploiter suddenly acted differently. Makes sense?

The Uninvited Anonymous