“MODERN masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin — a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or not man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing.” ~ GK Chesterton: ‘Orthodoxy.’
The recent death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il brought to mind a claim by Sam Harris that I had wanted to write about some time ago, but never found the time to. Sam Harris’ statement was in his September blog post on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. He wrote:
Whatever else may be wrong with our world, it remains a fact that some of the most terrifying instances of human conflict and stupidity would be unthinkable without religion. And the other ideologies that inspire people to behave like monsters—Stalinism, fascism, etc.—are dangerous precisely because they so resemble religions. Sacrifice for the Dear Leader, however secular, is an act of cultic conformity and worship. Whenever human obsession is channeled in these ways, we can see the ancient framework upon which every religion was built. In our ignorance, fear, and craving for order, we created the gods. And ignorance, fear, and craving keep them with us.
Here Harris engages in unprecedented sophistry. Obviously in and of itself the fact that Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and the Ils killed tens of millions of people and imprisoned tens of millions more is itself ‘evil’. It is in fact the worst sort of evil in human history. And the regimes that conducted this evil did so without ever resorting to a belief in God or gods – which is the ordinary definition of a religion. Harris of course realizes this but to say so would show that atheism is as capable of atrocities as any other belief, so he twists that definition. Instead of the ordinary view of religion, Harris re-defines religion as any act of cultic conformity and worship of a leader. In saying this Harris displays an egregious, and sadly all too typical weakness amongst New Atheists, that being ignorance of history. The Marxist ideology which led to these regimes was wholly secular – and the movements which installed Stalin and Mao and the Ils weren’t mere devotions to particular leaders, but were the result of the acceptance of the truth of Marxist ideals. These leaders gained power because of the acceptance of a bad secular political and economic philosophy; they didn’t impose this philosophy on the societies in which they ruled. The fact that Harris misses this is wrong-headed and dangerous because it is precisely this sort of ignorance that allows such ideals to grow and metastasize into monstrous regimes.
Contra Harris, the existence of places like the Soviet Union and North Korea show us the critical importance of transcendent beliefs. Rights and liberties that don’t emanate from an immaterial order (as those in the US do) invariably must emanate from the state, and the state is invariably subject to the corruption of human ambition. This is why in declaring their independence from Britain the American founders didn’t appeal to democracy or science or economics in and of themselves, but instead rooted the rights liberties of man in an endowment by a transcendent Creator. That is in fact the only reasonable place from which certain rights can emanate.
North Korea and South Korea are perfect exemplars of these principles in action. Though not explicit in its Constitution, historically the South Korean notion of rights developed as a product of Western (particularly American) influences on political thought. Rights in South Korea are inherent, not bestowed by the state. North Korea on the other hand was modeled after a Soviet style totalitarian society. The ascendency of the Dear Leader in North Korea was a product of the dominance of the secular state not particular religious behaviors. Such ‘cultic conformity’ occurs whenever humans have no authority to answer to but their own coupled with the power to carry out their will.
The only bulwark against such monstrous behavior is the very thing Sam Harris and his co-secularists would eliminate – a set of transcendent truths rooted in the nature of God and his purposes for humanity.
While atheists are certainly free to say they they believe in science and art and poetry and love and marriage and family – and I believe it’s true – those aspects of human life invariably seem to have originated from religious belief. To the extent that the atheists enjoy those aspects of human life they are enjoying the fruits of the labors of others and are mere hangers-on to that which they were given by those who came before them. There is no evidence non-religious creatures could have given us the experiences that make us human.
Recently I saw an atheist claim that ‘spiritual beliefs do not equal religious beliefs’. This may be true, but for an atheist to say so is a bit like a vegetarian lecturing on the best way to prepare a steak.
But it appears to have given us art.
But we already knew that didn’t? After all, the vast majority of art, music, writing, and much architecture in human history appear to be motivated by some sort of spiritual beliefs.
The article on Science Daily discusses how the origin of art and religious beliefs are linked though – and how we had to overcome wrongheaded ideas about evolution to realize it. The paper from the Oxford Journal of Archaeolog – Cave art and the theory of art: the origins of the religious interpretation of Palaeolithic Graphics Expression is more specific; for many years we were hindered in our ability to understand early art by our evolutionary biases about primitive man, namely that he was:
“neither free nor noble; he is a slave to his own wants, his own passions; imperfectly protected from the weather, he suffers from the cold by night and the heat of the sun by day; ignorant of agriculture, living by the chase, and improvident in success, hunger always stares him in the face, and often drives him to the dreadful alternative of cannibalism or death”
And of course such a primitive being couldn’t exhibit religious belief:
“Several authors (Lubbock  1987, 192; Broca 1866, 75) deduced, therefore, that it was impossible that any true religious thought could exist within primitive society. Naturally, Quaternary hunters had no religion, as Mortillet maintained vehemently all his life: ‘It happens that as soon as religious ideas appear, funerary practices are introduced. However, there is no evidence of funerary practices in the Quaternary. Quaternary man was, therefore, wholly devoid of any feeling of religiousness’
It wasn’t until decades later, when researchers were able to free themselves of the earlier biases that a proper understanding of the origin of art took place:
“The extension in the concept of art enabled works that until that time had been considered as crafts or second-class creations to be included within that category. In the same way, the anthropological approach applied in the studies of the History of Art assisted the recognition of the social function of artistic activity. This made it possible to reconcile the concepts of ‘creativity’ and ‘functionality’. Hence, an artistic object, whatever its aesthetic value, fulfilled a material or symbolic function in the context of a certain society. This new discourse steadily took shape in the field of Aesthetics and Art Theory and, in fact, it was believed, through the study of primitive societies, that a meaning connected with magic and religious symbology existed behind many ‘savage’ creations. This new paradigm finally concluded that magic-religious beliefs lay at the basis of the origins of art.”
The reality is that humans are spiritual creatures – we are in fact the only organisms which exhibit spirituality. Divest us of this spiritual reality, and we lose all that that it produces, and which makes us unique as humans – art, music, philosophy, systems of morality and law. All that is good rare about us as humans is inextricably linked to our concept of God, the existence of a soul, and the ultimate and immaterial nature of reality. And in part that is why evolutionary interpretations of human history so often fail; they miss this essentail aspect of humanity. It is also why atheism contains the seeds of its own failure – it ultimately de-humanizes us in the truest sense of the word, and in doing so, erodes the very societies that allow atheists to exist to begin with.