"Because Man is not great" – on the relationship between atheism and socialism
The linked post is a review of The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith by Peter Hitchens, younger brother of Christopher Hitchens, whose paean to atheism god is not great, received a certain amount of attention several years ago. While The Rage Against God is not, as Gerry T. Neal, author of "Throne, Altar, Liberty," points out, "a comprehensive rebuttal of the atheistic arguments his brother Christopher compiled," a number of interesting and cogent points are found in Mr. Neal's account thereof.
Among them is a discussion of the relationship between World War Two and the functional end of of both Empire and Christianity as applied to Britain: "The War marked the end of Britain’s being a Christian nation in anything other than name. It also marked the end of the British Empire with the United Kingdom being eclipsed as the world power by its wartime allies, the United States and the Soviet Union."
The two are not unrelated; both represent a crisis of faith: on the one hand, faith in a transcendent sacred reality, usually referred to as God; on the other, faith in traditional social and political structures and norms, as represented by the British Empire, which had existed for several centuries at the time of WW II (and arguably, intermittently at least, for a thousand years or more previously).
As the younger Hitchens points out, "I had replaced Christianity and the Churchill cult with an elaborate socialist worldview — because I had decided that I did not wish to believe in God or in patriotism."
And socialism, of course, is a utopian political and economic worldview and ideology which believes that we can bring about a return to Eden on our own, if only we can enact (and bring people to accept, by persuasion or, if necessary, compulsion) enough programs of social engineering. It is therefore by its very nature predisposed to be amenable to, and compatible with, atheism, although it does exist in at least nominally Christian forms.
[I shall be speaking, here, of socialism primarily in its social / cultural form, as described above — which in its more extreme manifestations is sometimes referred to as "cultural Marxism." Critiques may be made of both socialism and capitalism as economic systems, but that is not the topic of this essay.]
Rather than accepting (in How the Irish Saved Civilization author Thomas Cahill's idiom) that "St. Paul trumps Plato" — a clear-eyed realization that Paul's admission that "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (Romans 7:19) is far closer to the experience of most humans, most of the time, than Plato's assumption that one who comprehends "the Good" cannot help but pursue it — socialists and atheists alike continue to believe that we can "boot-strap" ourselves into a secular analog of salvation.
Ironically, then, while secularists — both socialists and atheists — pat themselves on the back for their "rationalism" and "realism," it can be argued that Christianity actually has a much more realistic and rational view of human nature. But despite, or perhaps because of, its more modest expectations, it has nonetheless inspired its adherents to accomplish some pretty amazing things, intellectually, artistically, and socially. It has also, of course, fallen prey to the vicissitudes of human nature.
Atheists continually try to downplay the countless ways Western civilization has benefited from Christianity and to condense Church history into the Crusades, Inquisition, and priestly child abuse. As Hitchens points out however, violence and persecution that has been conducted in the name of faith is “not because they are religious, but because Man is not great.”
That is to say, violence and persecution in the name of religion occur not because of the Christian faith, but despite it. Religion may be the justification or rationalization used, but it is not the cause. Human nature is the cause. This does not deny that Christianity has sometimes been used to justify oppression, but it places the blame where it belongs: on the human element, not the doctrine. (Of course, some religions have doctrines that encourage violence in a way that Christianity does not. The fact that the human religious impulse itself comes from God and tends toward God does not mean that all religions are morally equivalent, or theologically interchangeable. Discernment is vital.)
Similarly, in the words of Hitchens, atheists ought to
concede that Godless regimes and movements have given birth to terrible persecutions and massacres. They do not [make this concession], in my view, because in these cases the slaughter is not the result of a misunderstanding or excessive zeal. Utopia can only ever be approached across a sea of blood. This is a far greater problem for the atheist than it is for the Christian, because the atheist uses this argument to try to demonstrate that religion specifically makes things worse than they otherwise would be. On the contrary, it demonstrates that our ability to be savage to our own kind cannot be wholly prevented by religion. More important still, Atheist states have a consistent tendency to commit mass murders in the name of the greater good. [emphasis added]
Similarly, if (hopefully) less drastically, socialist states have a consistent and easily-observable tendency to enact ever-more-stringent social controls in the name of "equality" and "protecting the rights of the individual," until you have what amounts to a "soft" totalitarianism of oppressive laws that drastically limit individual freedom in the service of ostensibly protecting individual rights.
In other words, the right of individuals to freely express themselves is constrained, sometimes dramatically, in pursuit of the right of other individuals to not be "put out"... which is another way of saying, to freely express themselves.
So who decides whose rights to express themselves are more important? Why, whoever is in power at the time! Is this morality, or is it the law of the jungle? As Mr. Neal accurately notes, "Atheists such as Greg Epstein insist that man can be 'good without God.' Hitchens shows that apart from an external source of justice, morality among humans ultimately breaks down into 'might makes right'."
Or as C.S. Lewis famously put it,
"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep; his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."
So while socialism and atheism may not be identical, and may not always and necessarily co-inhabit the same person's psyche, they are natural allies and frequent fellow-travelers. It is therefore not a surprise that post-WW II Britain – and indeed, much of Europe – has become increasingly both socialist and atheist (a process which actually began with World War One, and only accelerated after the Second World War).
But the combination is a problematic one, to say the least. As discussed previously, it leads inevitably toward the devaluing of faith: not only faith in a transcendent sacred reality, replacing it with a dubious faith in the ultimate perfectibility of human nature (against which both reason and experience counsel strongly), but faith in traditional norms and structures of society: ironically, despite the name, socialism tends to result in a radically individualistic social milieu, compared to more traditional societies.
The result is a too-frequent and perhaps inevitable breakdown of the moral and practical constraints which these traditional elements place upon the more violent and hubristic elements of human nature. As noted above, apart from an external source of justice, morality among humans ultimately breaks down into "might makes right" — an unreliable source of moral rectitude, to put it mildly!