The Carlylean Atheist’s God

Monday, January 17th, 2011

Recently I mentioned Bruce Charlton’s four tough questions for the secular right. What I didn’t realize — until Kalim Kassam mentioned it — is that Mencius Moldbug swooped in and answered them, by saying that he wants a sovereign corporation rather than a democracy, because coherent authority is not fissiparous:

Radicalism, etc, are tempting because these ideologies collectively empower their believers. In a state that does not leak power, they lose their attraction and disappear naturally.

Intellectuals are not inherently liberal. They are liberal if and only if liberalism is empowering. Intellectuals in Nazi Germany were attracted to Nazism, not democracy. Intellectuals in golden-age Spain were attracted to Catholicism, not democracy. Intellectuals (almost all) in Elizabethan England were attracted to the Virgin Queen, not democracy.

Divided authority is entropic and autocatalytic — like rust, cancer, etc. It can be cured, but it has to be cured all the way. The more of it you have, the harder it is to kill.

Present regimes have no trouble suppressing right-wing dissent, violent or nonviolent. They simply need to apply these mechanisms to the left.

Charlton has become disenchanted with — and alienated within — the modern bureaucratic world, which has led him [via neo-Paganism] to Christianity. Moldbug doesn’t disagree with this view of modernity, but he hasn’t exactly found Jesus:

Oh, I don’t at all disagree. My own strongest influence is Carlyle, and Carlyle as you know was a very Christian man — although one could say he had a Christianity of his own. He certainly went through a great crisis of faith in his youth. And he was no hedonist!

My ideal state (a) is run like a business, and (b) does the will of God. It seems to me that these criteria do not conflict, but reinforce each other from opposite perspectives — if you’ll pardon the cliche, a wave-particle duality. I think God wants his kingdoms on Earth to be run like businesses, and I think that if you run a kingdom like a business you’ll find yourself doing the will of God — whether or not you ascribe any sort of reality to Him.

“God” for the Carlylean atheist is a fictional character, like Hamlet. Dear atheist, do you believe in the material reality of Hamlet? Does this prevent you from (a) reading Shakespeare, (b) imagining the person of Hamlet, (c) describing certain actions as characteristic or uncharacteristic of Hamlet?

“God,” for instance, solves or at least greatly ameliorates the is-ought problem. What is good? What is justice? What is right? In each case, it is the will of God — for it’s clear that if we define an ungood, unjust, unrighteous deity as “God,” we are just abusing the English language. We certainly can’t define good as the will of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Does this solve anything? No, the secularist might say, because we cannot see or speak to God, at least not in any reproducible way. Wrong! We cannot see God, but we can imagine God — our post-ape brains are very good at (a) personifying imaginary characters, (b) submitting to higher authorities, (c) obeying moral codes.

Thus a fruitless debate of “ought” becomes a fruitful debate of the nature of God. One ought to eat babies, I say. You disagree. Can we continue conversing? We cannot, Hume tells us. Hume is right.

But if I say, God wants us to eat babies, I have to construct the character of a baby-munching God. You in turn can criticize my baroque construction — just as if I’d written a “Hamlet II” in which Hamlet ate babies. Thus the debate is fruitful, in that (a) we have stuff to talk about, (b) spectators can tell which of us is an ass.

In short, I simply don’t see any real conflict between atheist and Christian visions of reaction. For all sorts of reasons (child-rearing among them), I would much rather be a Christian, or even a Muslim — but I’m not, and I can’t change that.

There’s a story that Oriana Fallaci spoke to John Paul II and asked His Holiness how, as an atheist, she should live her life. “You don’t believe in God?” the Pope said. “No problem — just act as if you did.” I suspect there are precious few atheists who are physically incapable of understanding or following these instructions — and even fewer who could act as if they believed in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

(Foseti found the same passage interesting.)


  1. Tatyana says:

    Mencius, as usual, is involved in verbal equilibristics that would sound good at a dinner party at Oscar Wilde (or B. Show) table, but are nonsensical to an atheist (at least this atheist). He advocates for a figure of god as a crutch, a boogie-man for purposes of “fruitful” discussion.

    But this exact thing — a discussion on a nature of god — is what I consider a bug, not a feature. That is what have been a article of contention, mostly bloodied, of course, through centuries between adherents of various cults and religions — the way they interpret and reinterpret the codes given by fictitious character as an instruction for their behavior.

    As an atheist I don’t need a crutch of a fairy tale to dictate a moral code to me: it’s already there, sans the intermediary. It has been developed by civilization I live it the same way plants and animals progressed through evolution.

    And I certainly can not agree that for a child-rearing purposes one needs to be a Christian or — even worse! — a Muslim. Thanks but no thanks. I raised my son without the influence of any deity, and he grew up to be a decent human being, much more moral, for instance, than members of heavily-Catholic latino gangs, all their 3-lb golden crosses and prayers to idols non-withstanding.

  2. Bruce G Charlton says:

    Isegoria: “Charlton has become disenchanted with — and alienated within — the modern bureaucratic world, which has led him to Christianity.”

    That is not really an accurate statement of my personal history; or at least it is very partial and probably misses the main causal factors.

    From the late 1990s and throughout the mid-2000s I was writing and thinking a lot about alienation and animism, which was related to my academic work on evolution, social intelligence, consciousness, and psychosis.

    I read deeply into the Jungian literature (including his modern disciple James Hillman) — or as deeply as I am capable — and ideas about mythology, and had an engagement with New Age ideas.

    In short I was pretty much a neo-Pagan — which has continuity with my childhood perspective, as I recall it.

    As CS Lewis has said, Paganism is the spontaneous and natural religion of the reflective human in the absence of divine revelation.

    If this account is true, then it tends to confirm an obervation that (as a rule) atheists can become Christian only via paganism.

    In other words, I became Christian via a recovery of the spontaneous and natural human relation to the world which we all experience in childhood and was seen universally in human history — especially the belief in reality as real, including the reality of the soul.

  3. Isegoria says:

    Would you say, Tatyana, that the primary difference between your family and the Latino gangs is religious? Or would you point to other variables to explain the two groups’ behaviors?

  4. Isegoria says:

    Would it be fair then, Bruce, to say that you became disenchanted with — and alienated within — the modern bureaucratic world, which led you via neo-Paganism to Christianity?

  5. Tatyana says:

    Isegoria, other variables are irrelevant in this case.

    Mencius adopted the usual (and wrong) reasoning by religious believers that there is no morality, no ethics without religious instruction; they use it for concluding that atheists are immoral psychopaths, dangerous savages with no sense of right and wrong, etc.

    I argue (no, I know) that it is a lie.

  6. Tatyana says:

    Hey, what do you know? Those Latino gangs have come to my mind before!

  7. Isegoria says:

    Do you honestly believe that Moldbug, an atheist, is arguing that all atheists are immoral psychopaths, dangerous savages with no sense of right and wrong?

  8. Tatyana says:

    Why do you want to distort my words? I don’t believe that it is possible for you to honestly misinterpret what I said so much.

    Moldbug, as he calls himself, can not be called any specific identifier — or said identifiers will be in danger of corrupted meaning.

    No atheist would declare that he’d become Christian or Muslim for the purposes of child-raring

  9. Tatyana says:

    Oh, and about that last paragraph in your quote, about Fallaci asking Pope for guidance, that’s just complete nonsense, from an atheist point of view. Why would an atheist ascribe any special authority to a Pope? Other than being an old man, who [theoretically] possesses the wisdom of old age — which is very, very questionable in case of a celibate man cloistered all his life within sheltered institution of Church — I see no reason for it.

    And his answer, predictably, makes no sense.

    On the contrary, it should be the other way around: let theists live on the moral guidance of their gut, without their cheat-sheet, and then we’ll see who is an adult and deserves to be sent to live in the world on their own.

  10. Isegoria says:

    I’m distorting your words, because I take Moldbug at his word that he’s an atheist?

  11. Bruce G Charlton says:

    “Would it be fair then, Bruce, to say that you became disenchanted with — and alienated within — the modern bureaucratic world, which led you via neo-Paganism to Christianity?”

    (Reluctant at being summarized so easily) I suppose so….

  12. Tatyana says:

    You are distorting the meaning of my words. I am the one taking Mencius at his word, and you are making a mesh of my comment.

  13. Anomaly UK says:

    Tatyana reminds me of the people who kicked a guy I knew out of the Vegetarian Society — because he smoked and drove a Porsche. No true vegetarian would do those things.

  14. Tatyana says:

    Anomaly UK does… not remind me of anybody.

    I don’t keep company with cowards who speak of present people as if they are not standing right there.

  15. Tatyana says:

    Besides, the comparison is not apt.

    Atheism is not a society or a club. Being an atheist is very simple business: either you don’t believe in existence of supernatural deity or you do. Everything else stems from there.

    If you don’t, why would you subject your child, the most precious and dear person in the world, to brainwashing by people who believe in imaginary beings? By assigning believers to take control over the mind of his child he would tacitly declare that he considers his own moral code, his own outlook in life is inferior. Thus he would stop being an atheist, by definition — since he’d defer to “higher authority” in which he supposedly does not believe if he was an atheist.

    Same goes to alleged Fallaci’s question to Pope. As I said earlier, why would an atheist (who, again, by definition does not assign authority to priests and shamans on the basis of their being a snake oil salesmen) ask for guidance from one such shaman? He wouldn’t, or he is not an atheist. Calling someone who is confused in his beliefs an atheist – is the same fallacy as calling American lefties “liberals”. They are the opposite of definition, and so is the “atheist” Mencius describes.

  16. Tatyana says:

    I see my comments and good deal of preceding discussion disappeared from the thread. In their absence my comment is incomprehensible.

    Now I will think twice before posting a comment in a place where opinions are censored.

  17. Isegoria says:

    I briefly (overnight) took down some posts that could be interpreted as snarky (including my own) or righteously indignant, in order to let things cool down, rather than heat up into a flame war. I respectfully ask that we not start up the ad hominem attacks.

  18. Isegoria says:

    If being an atheist is simple — either you believe in a supernatural deity or not — that does not mean that no religious scholar has any useful knowledge or that no religious act has any useful effects on the individual or the community. I cited Anomaly UK on this a while back:

    I have a bit of an interest in Catholic theology, on the basis that since this is what the brightest minds half the world could produce spent about a thousand years on, it is likely to have some value, even if it is fundamentally flawed.

    In the same way, a large proportion of political science in the twentieth century was carried out in a Marxist framework, and while it is no doubt the worse for it, it is a stretch to dismiss it as worthless, less worthy as a point of comparison than Hobbes or Machiavelli, or to examine Lenin and Mao as political practitioners without giving any attention to the theories they expounded before coming to power.

  19. Isegoria says:

    Lee Harris has some fascinating thoughts on this subject:

    A tradition, [Hayek] realizes, may well be justified by a community on nonsensical or irrational grounds; but this by itself need not make the tradition less useful to those who follow it. If a primitive tribe justifies its incest taboo with a myth about divine siblings whose sexual liaison produced a monstrously deformed cockroach, this does not make the tradition a bit less useful to the community.
    For implicit in this observation is the insight that every inherited tradition has come down to us at two distinct levels — first, as a behavioral phenomenon, as an embodied value hardwired into our neural circuitry and into our sweat glands, and secondly, as an articulated value that can be analyzed and discussed, attacked and defended, in words.

    In the case of the tradition against incest, at the primary level it exists in the form of the commandments, injunctions, prohibition, and so on, to keep brothers and sisters, or parents and children, from having sexual intercourse. They work by programming the members of the community to automatically and instinctively avoid committing incest. They constitute the visceral code of the community that commands us to act in certain ways and forbids us to act in other ways.

    At the secondary level, there is what might be called (to use Marxist terminology) the ideological superstructure; i.e., the system of myths and statements and arguments that are used by the community to justify obedience to the commandments, injunctions, and prohibitions. In the case of our islander, this secondary level is represented by the myth of the gigantic cockroach spawned by incest. This ideological superstructure may be used polemically and apologetically as well and is often most fully developed and exploited for this purpose, frequently ending up in immense intellectual constructions that are Summa contra Gentiles: everything that can be argued against those who challenge the truth of the ideological superstructure.

    In evaluating whether a “tradition” is useful or not, we must keep this distinction in mind. For when confronted with any particular tradition, we now have two different criteria to evaluate its usefulness — first, the usefulness of the tradition’s base, the visceral code out of which the social structure of the community is created, and second, the usefulness of the tradition’s ideological superstructure.

    But once we grasp this distinction, it immediately becomes apparent that there can be a conflict, perhaps violent, between the two manifestations of one tradition: the embodied and visceral version versus the articulated and ideal version. In our primitive island’s traditional taboo against incest, for example, the visceral form of the tradition might succeed in preventing inbreeding among the islanders by producing visceral aversion; yet its articulated form, namely, the myth of the monstrously deformed cockroach, may work quite differently. Indeed, as the islanders become more and more sophisticated, the continued use of this myth may actually tend to make people more likely to violate the visceral code and to commit incest on the basis of the quite correct empirical belief that incestuous unions do not produce gigantic deformed cockroaches.

    This means that as a population becomes more “enlightened,” it is more likely to challenge the tradition on the basis of its transparently mythic or fabulous origin; this in turn threatens to undermine the population’s willingness to instill the visceral code into its children. If “everyone” knows that incestuous lovers do not spawn enormous insect children, then what is the point of teaching one’s children not to commit incest?

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