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.)