Saturday, March 02, 2013

Marx Madness: Ten Criteria for Historical Influence

Sam Harris says that it "really does matter" what we believe.  Richard Dawkins agrees, and devotes a great deal of space to the pernicious effect of belief in God. (As does Hitchens, and to a lesser extend Dennett.)
But how does it matter what we believe?  What is the link between belief and effect of that belief?  How can we be sure there is any real causative connection? 

Dawkins and Harris talk about two parallel historical phenomena quite a bit: the Gulag, and the Inquisition. Although the former is much more recent, and injustly hurt far more people (Stalin killed as many innocent people on an average day of his 25 year rule as all the Spanish inquisitors killed in hundreds of years), Dawkins and Harris mention the Inquisition about twice as often as Stalin's depredations. Their point in the former case, is that theism is responsible for the Inquisition. Their point in the latter is that atheism is not at all responsible for the Gulag.

I respond in The Truth Behind the New Atheism with what I take to be a more nuanced argument. I admit that it "would be unjust to judge all atheists" by a few lunatics, and that every barrel has bad apples. However, I argue that Marx' "repudiation of God" and the "terrible things" that followed were in fact related. (Not inevitably -- atheism by itself is not a sufficient cause of the Gulag, nor a necessary cause -- but an actual if partial historical cause.)  
But it's easy to be sloppy in making such arguments.  It's easy to spot slivers in the eyes of those we disagree with, and overlook planks in our own collective eyes. 

So before arguing over the effect a given religion or ideology has on the human race, it might be wise to take a step back, and look for criteria to evaluate the influence a person generally has on his or her followers. If we make any headway on criteria, we can apply those criteria, modified perhaps, to specific historical arguments: the case of Karl Marx, or perhaps Jesus of Nazareth.

I'll use Buddha as a "control subject." I do so because my feelings about Buddha are relatively neutral -- or ambivalent -- because Buddhists seldom seem to visit here, and because Buddhism also has a long, complex history and therefore lots of material to consider.

I take it that a religion (or quasi religious ideology) can be defined in three ways: (1) by the example of its founder or transcendent figures; (2) by the teaching of those figures, canonized in a set of Scriptures or authoritative oral traditions; (3) and by developed tradition. "Conservatives" and "liberals" often talk past one another, because the first tend to emphasis (1) and (2), while the latter defines religions according to (3).

Here are ten criteria to consider:

(1) Does the founder model this activity? (Say, murder or hatred of unbelievers, or tantric sex -- let's call the activity "X.")

(2) Does he or she model that activity in a specific, or general way? (It is one thing to express hatred of Jews, for instance, another to advocate killing them.  Someone who does the former may deserve some blame for the Holocaust, but of course not as much blame as someone who actively promotes genocide.)

(3) If the religious founder models X, does he do so consistently?

(4) Does he model its opposite? (Say, love of outsiders, or celibacy?)

(5) Does he relate X positively to his fundamental teachings?

(6) Does he teach X (murder, tantric sex) at all?

(7) Does he strongly teach actions that are inconsistent with X (love neighbor, celibacy)? (It is, of course, possible to both teach sexual purity, and to commit wanton adultery.  It is human nature to praise "founding sages" for the wisdom of their teachings, even when their lives contradict what they teach.) 

(8) Does X follow clearly from the Master's teaching historically? Or is there a long time lag?

Besides these eight primary criteria, it seems to me we should attend to two additional considerations:

(9) Is X a common human activity? Is it something we do in the normal course of events, or in particular situations, and are likely to rationalize doing it? (In the case of Buddhism, sex is a normal activity, and therefore it is not surprising that Buddha's followers found their way to rationalize having sex despite the Buddha's own distaste for conjugal activity, in Tantric Buddhism, for instance.)

(10) Is the Master's teaching so extreme on the subject of X, that a reaction becomes inevitable? Could the extremity of the teaching obviate moderation and common sense in the reaction? (For example, in one sutra Buddha teaches that sex with one's wife is as bad as bestiality or other extreme perversions. One could argue that lacking clear affirmation of marriage, extremes in later Tantric Buddhism are a reaction to the general repudiation of sex in early Buddhism.) This is a more complex argument, and may muddy the clearer waters of 1-8 somewhat -- but may also allow potentially valid criticisms of a religious or ideological founder.

So, now, let's apply these criteria to two historical claims:

A. "Christianity helped cause the Holocaust!"  (paraphrase of Hector Avalos)

B. "Atheism contributed to the Gulag!" (my claim)

A. Did Christianity help cause the Holocaust? 

According to our ten criteria, above, this question can be broken down into ten parts, and answered as follows: 

(1) Did Jesus model genocide against Jews?  Well, no, he modeled dying for their salvation, and forgiving the sins of the worst Jews, even as he was dying. 

(2) If not genocide against Jews specifically, did Jesus model murder in general, or at least hatred of out-groups?  No again.  Jesus did not kill anyone.  When his disciples proposed asking God to send the fire of judgement on a village, he warned them that they "did not know of what spirit they were of," in other words, the idea was from the devil, not God.  When Avalos looks for some passage to defend his attack on Jesus' morality, the best he can come up with is "If you want to be my disciple, you must hate your parents . . . and your own life . . . and come, follow me."  But obviously (to readers with sense) Jesus was not teaching suicide, any more than hatred of one's parents, still less mass murder of the Jews. 

(3) If Jesus models genocide (or murder, or even hatred), does he do so consistently?  No, Jesus consitently modeled love and forgiveness, while warning of God's judgement.  That is why Avalos has to stretch so far to find their opposite, while ignoring the forest for one (largely imaginary) tree. 

(4) Does Jesus model the opposite of genocidal fury?  Yes, he does, consistently, and in a striking and revolutionary manner. 

(5) Does Jesus relate genocide positively to his fundamental teachings?  Of course not.  His fundamental moral teaching was "love God, love your neighbor," and the goal of his ministry, to reconcile God and man. 

(6) Does Jesus teach genocide or murder of the innocents at all?  Never. 

(7) Does Jesus strongly teach actions that are inconsistent with genocide? Absolutely and overwhelmingly.  The New Testament contains some 700 references to love.  How can one pray for those who persecute one, love one's neighbors as oneself, and then round them up and toss them into Auschwitz? 

(8) Does genocide (or murder) follow clearly from the Master's teaching historically? Or is there a long time lag?  Christians do not seem to have engaged in any murder for the first three hundred years, to speak of.  When they gained power, there were some retributions, and some mob violence.  But this only occurred long after, by historical parallel, Enlightenment revolutionary thinking had led to the murders of 100 million innocent people in 20th Century Marxism, or the concepts of the Superman and of Social Darwinism led (by historical declension) to the Holocaust far more quickly, as well.

(9) Are genocide (or murder) common human activities?  Unfortunately they are, especially the latter, but not excepting the former.  The Holocaust was, it is true, extraordinary in its scope and venility.  But from Yanomamo tribal villages that wipe out rivals, to the conquests of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, to genocide against Armenians, and ethnic cleansing in India and Pakistan, the Holocaust can be seen as the fulfillment of common human modes of expression.  The main difference lay in technology and the high culture of the Germans, infused as it was with Christianity, making for a startling contrast, but deadly efficiency.  Even there, however, Joseph Stalin and the communists had anticipated the Nazis. 

In fact, in Mein Kampf, Hitler describes meeting communists at his worksite in Vienna, who threatened to throw him off the scaffolding of the building they were both working on.  Hitler was inspired by their methods, he just hated their anti-national ideology. 

(10) Is Jesus' teaching so extreme against genocide or murder, that a reaction becomes inevitable?  One might claim, to turn Avalos' argument on its head, that "love your enemy" is too lofty a moral calling.  Human beings being mortal, perhaps one could argue that the very difficulty of Jesus' teaching made it inevitable that people would reject those teachings and go to the opposite extreme.  One might claim Nietzche did just this.  And according to Albert Speer, Hitler complained about the weak, soft Christian religion, wishing that the German people had inherited the faith of the Samurai in Japan, or of Islam. 

But of course, "Christian" civilization generally did not take "love your enemies" to mean civilization must not defend itself militarily.  Hitler himself fought in one war, in his youth, for which both sides dubiously claimed God's sanction.  The "Just War" tradition has the sanction of most great Christian thinkers, I believe.  There is, therefore, little sense in blaming Christianity for the fact that Hitler had to go outside of it to justify his far more extreme violence. 

By none of these criteria, then, does it make much sense to blame Jesus, or even "Christianity" in general, for the Holocaust.  That does not mean, however, that individual Christians may not share some blame.  Avalos may be right in assigning Martin Luther some blame for the Holocaust, under (6) and possibly (8), for instance. 

C. Did Karl Marx cause the Gulag? 

(1) Did Marx model murder of counter-revolutionaries?  Marx was a revolutionary, and did advocate violent insurrection.  He does not seem to have killed anyone personally, if that matters -- Joseph Stalin didn't either, as far as I know. 

(2) If not genocide specifically, did Marx model murder in general, or at least hatred of out-groups?   Some of his writings are naturally read that way. 

(3) If Marx modeled genocide (or murder, or even hatred), did he do so consistently?  He certainly modeled hatred consistently.  As one veteran of the American Civil War wrote on meeting him:

"Never have I seen anyone whose manner was more insufferably arrogant.  He would not give a moment's consideration to any opinion that differed from his own.  He treated with open contempt everyone who contradicted him.  Arguments that were not to his taste were answered either by mordant sarcasms upon the speaker's lamentable ignorance, or else by casting suspicions upon the motives of his adversary." 

Marx also seemed to exult in mass violent bloodshed, such as that which worldwide revolution promised to bring. 

(4) Does Marx model the opposite of genocidal fury?  Marx seemed to love his family, to some extent, and to have a few genuine friends, like Engels.  (Though his genuine kindness to Engels is questionable.)  But no, in general he did not often model love, certainly not to "class enemies" or to those with whom one disagrees. 

(5) Does Marx relate genocide positively to his fundamental teachings?  Yes.  Violent revolution against classes and individuals that oppose that revolution, is a fundamental part of Marx' materialistic dialectic theory of history. 

(6) Does Marx teach genocide or murder of the innocents at all?   Yes to the latter.  Genocide is not technically something he encouraged, rather the liquidization of opposing classes -- the means of liquidating them being it seems to me somewhat ambiguous. 

(7) Does Marx strongly teach actions that are inconsistent with genocide? Not in this broader sense of "genocide."  On the contrary, he says that communist "abolishes all morality" in the Communist Manifesto.

(8) Does genocide (or murder) follow clearly from Marx' teaching historically? Or is there a long time lag? The time lag is very short.  Marx died in 1883: the Russian Revolution occurred just 34 years later, in 1917.  The Cheka created the same year to arrest, torture, and murder those of whom the communists disapproved on a large scale.  Stalin ascended to leadership in 1928, and his political purges began a few years later. 

(9) Are genocide (or murder) common human activities?  Yes.  But Gulag set them on a grand modern scale, reversing an (oft-ignored) centuries-long trend towards more humane treatment of prisoners and outcastes in western societies. 

(10) Is Marx' teaching so extreme against genocide or murder, that a reaction becomes inevitable?

One can't easily accuse Marx of that.

D. Conclusions

Yes, it does matter what we believe -- or whom we follow.  In modern times, much of humanity has taken one or more of three famous Semites as their gurus, to lead them "out of the darkness, into the light," as the Rig Veda puts it: a theistic Jew (Jesus of Nazareth), a theistic Arab (Mohammed), and an atheistic Jew (Karl Marx). 

Human nature is complex, and the ID/ Dark Side of the Force / sin nature is strong with us.  Straight-line causation is not always clear. Sometimes kindly-minded people contort the teachings of bad teachers to rationalize doing good.  More often, venal or just "normal" people contort the teachings of great teachers (Confucius, Lao Zi, St. Francis, Jesus) to do evil.  And most teachers are ambiguous mixtures of good and evil, limited by cultural blinders or ignorance, so that it is unrealistic to expect that history will precipitate out into little piles of good, bad and ugly of crystalline purity. 

Indeed, the Gospel itself teaches us otherwise.  Some will kill, Jesus warned, thinking they are doing the work of God.  His own disciples not excepted: "You do not know what spirit you are of." 

Numerous instances in Christian history verify the wisdom of this saying: the murder of Hypatia.  Charlemagne's brutal treatment of the Saxons and institution of the death penalty for those who did not convert.  Columbus' exploitation of American natives in the name of God.  The Wars of Religion. 

But admitting all such ups and downs, it is foolish to blame a teacher when his disciples do the exact opposite of everything he taught. 


Brian Barrington said...

It goes without saying that for anyone who is a Christian, Jesus is central to their worldview – it therefore matters decisively to any Christian what Jesus did and said. It also goes without saying that for anyone who is an atheist, Marx is not necessarily central to their worldview – in fact, you can be an atheist and think that Marx is the biggest asshole who ever lived, or that Marx was wrong about absolutely everything except his atheism. You can’t be a Christian and think that Jesus is the biggest asshole who ever lived.

Indeed, many atheists do not think you should follow any particular person, book or tradition. A person or book or tradition might provide some guidance in how to live well, but none necessarily has the status of a “supreme authority” – you just need to follow the truth, which is ultimately discoverable independently of any person, book or tradition, even though certain people, books and traditions may help you along the way. That would be a fairly standard atheist position, I think. In general for atheists there is less exclusive focus on a particular person or a particular book – the more creedal, theistic religions, such as Christianity and Islam, are the opposite of this.

This is even true of more “atheistic religions”. To take your example, Buddhism is more atheist than Christianity and a central element of the overall Buddhist attitude is expressed in the following comment from the Dhammapada: “No one saves us but ourselves, no one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path but Buddhas clearly show the way.” Consider the Buddha’s doctrine of free enquiry “Do not go by revelation; Do not go by tradition; Do not go by hearsay; Do not go on the authority of sacred texts; Do not go on the grounds of pure logic; Do not go by a view that seems rational; Do not go by reflecting on mere appearances; Do not go along with a considered view because you agree with it; Do not go along on the grounds that the person is competent; Do not go along because ‘the recluse is our teacher’. Rather, when you know for yourself, ‘these things are wholesome, these things are not blameworthy, these things are praised by the wise, these things are rational, these things when undertaken and observed lead to benefit and happiness’, then having undertaken them, abide in them.”

Another famous Buddhist quote is: “Suppose there were a row of blind men, each holding on to the one in front of him: the first one doesn't see, the middle one doesn't see, the last one doesn't see. In the same way, the statements of the holy men turn out to be a row of blind men: the first one doesn't see, the middle one doesn't see, the last one doesn't see. So this being the case, don't the statements of the holy men turn out to be groundless?"

Brian Barrington said...

However, Marxism is an example of an atheistic philosophy that for a time many atheists did take as creedal, even though very few people do now, as it has become evident that Marx was seriously mistaken in many important respects. But I wouldn’t be quite as anti-Marx as you are. Marx did not himself advocate genocide or argue that genocide is a good idea. Marx did he support tyranny, or support slavery or anything abominable like that. Quite the contrary – he adovcated fighting slavery and tyranny. Marx did not exult in bloodshed for its own sake, or think that bloodshed was a good thing in itself. One might plausibly argue that trying to implement Marxism leads inevitably to tyranny, slavery and genocide – maybe so, but Marx himself did not want those things to happen – he actually wanted to end tyranny, slavery and genocide. (I can think of another very famous atheist thinker who openly says that he supports slavery, tyranny and even murder and mass killing – Nietzsche).

Marx argues that rebellion, resistance and revolution are inevitable and justified if political oppression is bad enough – to take the opposing position would mean arguing the pacifiist position that people should submit without resistance to tyranny and oppression no matter how bad it is, which is arguably what Jesus says, but it’s an open question whether that’s a good idea or not (to put it mildly). In any case, it doesn’t seem unlikely to me that if Marx had still been around in the 20th century he would have supported the resistance and rebellion that put an end to the Communist tyrannies of the 20th century – since his motivation is clearly outrage at political oppression of vulnerable people. One might argue that he was completely wrong in the solutions he advocated – that Marx’s hatred of injustice led to a utopian political philosophy that ends up creating even more injustice than existed previously. Again, this is a plausible argument – but the motive for Marx was his hatred of injustice and oppression.

Marx may have been arrogant, but at least he didn’t say that anyone who disagrees with him is going to hell to suffer for eternity. Did Marx say anything as arrogant as this: “I am the way, the truth and the life, and no one gets to the Father except through me”?

David Marshall said...

Brian: To be clear, "theism" can be compared to "atheism," while "Christianity" should be compared to "Marxism-Leninism," or "communism." The target of the "New Atheists" is broader than just Christianity, it is theism or religion in general. And so they bring up the Inquisition to denigrate not just "the Catholic synthesis of the High Middle Ages," but religion in general. And since Marxism was the largest atheistic "religion" of modern times, they seek to blame its crimes on "politics" or even "religion" in some convoluted manner, such as pointing out that Stalin went to seminary, and of course Stalin was the only communist thug worth mentioning.

But I do admit that atheism was neither a sufficient nor even neccessary cause of the Gulag, above.

No one really knows for sure what the historical Buddha taught. But most "Buddhists" do not put such as the Dharmapada front and center, and probably don't buy its message of self-salvation. The most popular Buddhist sect is probably Pure Land, or Mahayana generally, which look for a savior.

I think you badly misread Marx as a person. Take a gander at Marx and the Intellectuals, or Aikman's Atheism in the Marxist tradition, which tells the story of his conversion to "atheism." If you're feeling especially bold, try Wurmbrand's Marx and Satan. (I won't recommend Intellectuals, which I know you dislike -- and I reviewed it somewhat critically, too.) There seems to be surprisingly little evidence that Karl Marx was genuinely motivated by compassion for anyone other than himself.

Brian Barrington said...

The new atheists are incorrect if they think that there is something intellectually or morally wrong with being a theist or a follower of Jesus. Although in fairness to the new atheists, they don’t think that anyone who disagrees with them is going to hell for eternity. A substantial proportion of Christians seem to think that anyone who does not believe in Jesus or God is going to hell for all eternity.

Buddhists want salvation, but what is meant by salvation is Nirvana - by which is typically meant the complete annihilation of the personal ego - thus the precise opposite of the doctrine of personal immortality taught by Christianity. Most forms of Buddhist salvation involve the annhilation of the personal soul or ego - the self and the world become indistinguishable – the illusion of the ego is finally overcome, and one becomes thoroughly dissolved into the World. That is Nirvana. The Pali Canon is the earliest Buddhist scripture so it is most likely to reflect what Buddhism was originally about.

But yes, Buddhism is very tolerant and there are a lot of types of Buddhiism - some forms of Buddhism, like Pure Land Buddhism, have something more like personal immortality in another world – so it appears some Buddhists believe in personal immortality and others don’t, and there is no single creed on the matter. But most schools of Buddhism do not teach any doctrine of personal immortality, as far as I can see.

Do you really think Chan or Zen Mahayana Buddhists are looking for a personal saviour? According to one Zen monk “If you meet the Buddha on the way, kill the Buddha”. Another one says: “If you students of the Way wish to become Buddhas, you need study no doctrines whatever, but learn only how to avoid seeking for and attaching yourselves to anything.” That means not attaching yourself to the person of the Buddha. In general they do not sound to me like people looking for a personal saviour.

Marx was arrogant and he was wrong, but I don’t think he was a particularly bad person. He wasn’t an angel either, but I wouldn’t regard him as evil, like Stalin was evil.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: The difference is commonly recognized among Chinese between a "school" and a "religion" -- all three traditional faiths come in both forms. The Buddhist school teaches the things you say. The Buddhist religion, as popularly believed by most "Buddhists," is more interested in divine help and some form of eternal life. Zen temples often have Guan Yin, who in Chinese religion is the most popular goddess, and the person one calls on for help and salvation most frequently.

I don't know how this works in Theraveda countries, whether Buddhists there also really believe in the afterlife and hope for a savior -- I wouldn't be surprised.

Brian Barrington said...

Yes, I wouldn’t be surprised either if in Theraveda countries many or even most Buddhists believe in personal immortality – human nature has a way of breaking through doctrinal teachings that try to go against it :-) But I think it is also in some people’s natures not to believe in personal immortality.

David B Marshall said...

G.K. Chesterton says religion tends to evince four kinds of beliefs: in God, the gods, the philosopher, and demons. It is the glory of philosophy to be skeptical. But then as Chesterton puts it, "An open mind, like an open mouth, is meant to be closed on something solid."