Fuzzy Thinking #48

April 19, 2010

What possible sense is there in the widely held belief that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot can be put down to “atheism” when it’s obvious to anyone with the tiniest knowledge of history that Communism and Nazism were the bastard offspring of Christianity?


9 Responses to “Fuzzy Thinking #48”

  1. By the same process of incisive reasoning, it will be equally obvious to anybody who is not a complete imbecile that Christianity is “the bastard offspring” of Judaism so let’s just go back to the roots of the problem and blame the crimes of Christianity, Nazism, Marxism &c on the Jews.

  2. ukdonjp said

    Good to hear from you, David.

    Well, in many ways those original monotheists have a lot to answer for.

    And i don’t suppose there’s any disputing that Christianity is a bastard offspring of Judaism.

    But i notice again, David, that you are averting your eyes from the main point, namely the vacuity of blaming “atheism” for Stalinism. As i’ve pointed out before, this is a confusion caused by the conflation of two distinct meanings of the word “atheism”. OK, the second half of my sentence was a bit daft. But it could easily be argued. George Steiner, for example, said that Marxism was a Christian heresy perpetrated by a Jew, bringing the Kingdom of Heaven back down to Earth.

    Anyway, i’m still waiting for an answer on another comment thread. As Hitchens might say, we had “just barely got our trousers off” and you disappeared …

    Let me put the question again:-
    What knowledge has Abrahamic religion furnished humanity with?

    As you will recall, this was in connection with the oft-stated assertion that science and religion are different ways of knowing, parroted recently by Templeton-tainted Francisco Ayala.

  3. Hi Don,

    I was out of the circuit for a while. Not helped by drinking all night with Tim just before starting a particularly busy college teaching schedule. Went down with a cold on top.

    I’m familiar with the idea of Marxism being a Christian heresy an eschatological ideology replacing heaven with the abolition of classes etc. but I think that moving from that interesting idea to the contention that the regimes of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the French revolutionaries during the slide into the Terror etc “weren’t really” atheistic [in any sense of the word?] is at best self-deceptive.

    So, I do find it interesting how touchy atheists get about the crimes of atheist regimes but are shrill in their condemnation of the crimes of theistic regimes.

    Clearly, power corrupts all ideologies and the best regimes are those that separate the various departments of power.

    I’ll have to read your post about the two-meanings-of-atheism again, but clearly atheism would not mean much if it didn’t include dedicated Marxists/Stalinists/Maoists as at least ONE of its categories.

    The question about “Abrahamic religion” and “knowledge” is difficult and complex and the more I began to think about “knowledge” and our grounds for “knowing” anything, the more baffling it seemed. So I am not ready to leave the ground I was on in the previous blog post.

    Of course, it is also a rather hostile question set on your own terms after you bulldozed over my own questions about epistemology!

    Obviously, you think the answer is “sod all”!

    And of course, you can bulldoze to your heart’s content as this is your blog! I just pop up from cover to fire a long range shot at your rear with a rusty Martini Henry and then disappear as quickly as I can [but seriously, every post of any length – like this one already – takes SO long to compose…].

    Knowledge… Experience…?

    Anyway, I suppose I’d better make a tentative start…

    I began to think that “experience” might do better than “knowledge” since there is an experiential aspect to both scientific testing and spiritual contemplation.

    Now you may want to tell me that spiritual contemplation is not “real knowledge” because it is not empirical.

    Ken Wilber points out that “mystical experience is indeed ineffable… like any experience – a sunset, eating a piece of cake, listening to Bach’s music – one has to have the actual experience to see what it’s like. We don’t conclude, however, that sunset, cake, and music therefore don’t exist or aren’t valid. Further, even though the mystical experience is largely ineffable, it *can* be communicated or transmitted, namely, by taking up spiritual practice under the guidance of a spiritual master or teacher (much as judo can be taught but not spoken; as Wittgenstein would have it, the mystical ‘can be shown but not said’).”

    To be continued, with an approach to “the question” coming soon!

    Interestingly to me, one of the greatest of our poets called himself an atheist and wrote poetry replete with mystical vision. I’d like to know what you think about him. Who am I talking about?

    Another problem I have had with this question is that my reading related to this conversation veered off towards a critique of evolutionary biology and the reductive fundamentalism of You Know Who, Stinker Pinker et al.

    That’s your lot for tonight!


  4. ukdonjp said

    Thanks for the reply, David.

    I’m about to go to bed so will confine myself to repeating what i wrote about atheism:-

    The term “atheism” has two meanings. Strictly speaking, atheism is content-less, merely denoting rejection of theism. In practical usage, atheism denotes a vague ragbag of ideas such as the importance of free speech, a secular state, pluralism and so on. Stalin, Pol Pot and their ilk were only “atheists” in the first sense.

    (copied & pasted)

    That is why “atheists” or better say “naturalists” get so irritated at the Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot slur. It’s tantamount to saying, “The apples did this, therefore the oranges are guilty.”

    Incidentally, it’s one of the main reasons why i very much dislike the term and wish it could be consigned to the past.

    Please tell me if you still think this is “self-deceptive.” (I write this without irony.)

    I agree with your fourth paragraph. That’s common ground. Freedom of religion and (as the recent National Prayer Day controversy shows the necessity) freedom from religion.

    You wrote:
    Of course, it is also a rather hostile question set on your own terms after you bulldozed over my own questions about epistemology!
    … about my request for some Abrahamic knowledge.

    Hmmm … when you write “hostile” I read “difficult to answer”. And as for bulldozing … you asked me to define “knowledge” and i responded with a quote by JS Mill, so i reject your characterization, and, (dare I say, Sir?) … you sound evasive!

    Ayala said science and religion are two ways of knowing. I accused him of inanity. I proposed quantum theory as an example of scientific knowledge and challenged you to propose an example of knowledge that the Abrahamic tradition has contributed to humankind. Apologies for this prosaic reiteration but the challenge is clear.

    As for “experience”, that’s no answer because everything comes within its compass.

    Ken Wilber’s quote is a good example of the title of this post!

    I presume the mystical poet is Coleridge. I can’t see any contradiction. No naturalist, as far as i know, is a non-believer in the human imagination!
    (In any case, neuroscientific research suggests a similarity between mystical experience and experience subsequent upon the ingestion of hallucinogens.)
    In the present, well known atheist Terry Pratchett, as you know, is a fantastic fantasy writer (and is active so that he can legally, with a doctor’s help, take his leave from this life with a glass of nembutal in his hand and Tallis on his music system).
    All is grist to the naturalist’s mill: art; philosophy; love; music; religious texts, even.
    Or perhaps you were getting at something else with your comments …

    (Please excuse the poor quality of the writing in this comment … I’ve been feeling very mind-sluggish this weekend but wanted to reply so we could continue the debate.)

  5. Hi Don, Feeling a bit perkier now that Golden Week has kicked in…

    I have a few disjointed bits’n’pieces to offer.

    1. You said: ‘That is why “atheists” or better say “naturalists” get so irritated at the Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot slur. It’s tantamount to saying, “The apples did this, therefore the oranges are guilty.”’

    And that is why I also get so irritated at being bundled up with the fundamentalists and religious terrorists, child abusers etc, as Harris attempts to do.

    I’m glad we agree that Stalin, Pol Pot etc were at least atheists in one sense of the word. I find the second definition weird since on those terms I might as well call myself an atheist. An Anglican mystical atheist? The second set sound closer to “humanism” to me. It would make more sense for you to call yourself a “naturalist humanist” or something and for me to call myself an “Anglican humanist” or something [immediately, I realize the word “Anglican” would need to be qualified!], which at least reflects the divergences and convergences of our dispositions more satisfactorily.

    2. I was watching this debate about the role of religion in schools and agreed with much (not all) that Dawkins and the two other male panelists had to say:

    I appreciated Dawkins comments to the Bish about Anglicanism and was cheering RD on as he skewered Mohamed Mukadam, chairman of the Association of Muslim Schools, and forced him to say what the penalty was for renouncing Islam.

    3. Question: Why is what Ken Wilber had to say “fuzzy thinking”? Please don’t just state things as if that were enough to prove the point (one of your favoured rhetorical habits, incidentally). Please explain to us dunderheads WHY it is so.

    4. Well, talking of “evasion” (is this really necessary?) I took your “quotation of Mill” as an evasive strategy in its own right. Deciding what knowledge is, is the heart of the question in this particular case.

    5. I have been reading about Wordsworth and I came across this passage and I thought it might offer us another approach to the subject. In it the writer is talking about the quality of Wordsworth’s happiness:

    ‘Wordsworth describes himself in the Prelude as “a happy man, and therefore bold to look on painful things”. If it be objected that to look on painful things is not necessarily to sympathise, we may turn to The Excursion, and the description of the Wanderer:

    in himself
    Happy, and quiet in his cheerfulness,
    He had no painful pressure from within
    That made him turn aside from wretchedness
    With coward fears. He could afford to suffer
    With those that he saw suffer.

    ‘This is one of the truths about happiness that could only have been known by a man well-versed in happiness.’

    Here is a form of experiential knowledge expressed in poetic verse. Do you think that this [what Wordsworth expresses in the quoted verse] is a form of knowledge?

    6. Finally, before I retire to bed, I want to clarify what you mean by “the Abrahamic tradition”. Do you mean “The Bible”? “The Old Testament”? “The Books of Moses”? “Genesis”? Or is it wider than the widest of these categories?

    Have a good Golden Week!

  6. ukdonjp said

    Hello David, a good Golden Week to you too.
    Thanks for your reply … plenty to think about as usual. Will respond when i have more time …

  7. BTW, the poet I was referring to in a previous post was… Well, you were quite close with Coleridge, but he was quite orthodox in his religious views. No, it was Shelley, who was expelled from Oxford after publishing The Necessity of Atheism:


  8. ukdonjp said

    David, i’ve embarked on a response but it is in danger of attaining essay proportions. It might be a good idea to put it up as a new post and encourage others to wade in …

  9. Right, I’ll pootle over to the new post!

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