Two Modes of Atheism: On how we respond to a world without God
The pessimistic irrationalism of the existentialists clashes head-on with the militant temper of Marxism, which feels sure of the victory of humanity over all obstacles. For the historical materialist, humanity is above all the creative producer that has succeeded through its own titanic efforts in elevating itself from animality to the atomic age—and is just on the threshold of its authentically human career.
What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose.
-Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Firstly, I’d like to praise the strength of project, sharpness of mind and succinctness of writing of George Novack. A underappreciated Marxist theoretician, Novack is not only brilliant in his depiction of the intelligence and virtue of Marxism, and having the skill to state the positions of Existentialists without outright defaming them in his description (but showing their irrationality and illness later on), but most importantly in bringing to light the irreconcilable natures of Existentialism and Marxism. From my early days in philosophy, I was befuddled that Sartre of all people would call himself a Marxist, and I was pumping my fist in applause as I read the following from Novack:
The existentialists aver that the individual’s sincerest act and tragic responsibility is the necessity to choose between anguishing alternatives and take the consequences. Sartre shrinks from doing this in philosophy. The confrontation of existentialism with dialectical materialism is a genuine case of “either-or.” But Sartre wants to embrace both Kierkegaard and Marx without choosing between them.
The work Marxism vs. Existentialism is nothing short of laudable. His work is so well-crafted and useful in instructing the distinctions ‘tween the two philosophies I will make the optimistic assumption that any who wish to invest themselves in my own paper will read the previously mentioned paper. For in it, Novack makes one of my main points for me, namely that Existentialism is an idealist bourgeois philosophy with no real-world utility or verifiability (asides from I suppose the most basic facts of its focus namely human mortality and the occasional sensation of the subjective states of mind the Existentialists speak of that they make far-more of then they really are) while Marxism (along with Social Anarchy I contend) is the philosophy and method of the liberation of the working class and human species. To make reference of Nozack:
The first commandment of existentialism is, as has been said: “Be yourself!” This is not a bad maxim, and it ought to be applied as strictly to philosophies as to personalities. Let existentialism be what it really is—the ideological end product of liberalism and individualism—and not pretend to be something else. Let Marxism likewise be what it should be: that dialectical materialism which is the scientific expression and practical guide of the world socialist revolution of the working masses.
As a Social Anarchist I contend that there are more productive and more-likely to implement tools of revolution rather than the explicit violent revolt of Marxism (there will be a litany of tactics to use, however the worker organizations of Bakunin and the Anarcho-Syndicalists hold particular sway over me in their reasoning). However, this is not an essay directed at particulars in Socialist methodology. Instead, it is an analysis of the two alternatives to faith whether it be expressed explicitly or implicitly in general being (which must be the case for explicit being to manifest) in our “God is Dead” Era.
Regardless of personal sentiment the facts are clear. In the western world (America is to some extent an outlier but is catching up to Western Europe particularly with the death of the Baby Boomers in the next two decades or so) religious sentiment is a thing of the past. Though Christians try to claim that Christian “culture” is dying but “Christianity” is preserved (http://blogs.christianpost.com/dear-ephesus/empty-churches-the-decline-of-cultural-christianity-in-the-west-17067/) this is both simply untrue (http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/culture-lifestyle/world-religion/130602/europe-church-mosque-christianity-islam-religious-crisis) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Europe) and a lack of understanding of what a belief (particularly one such as Christianity or Islam) is. Beliefs that have “practical” applications ones that unlike a belief in quantum mechanics, we can see clearly and measure with a higher degree of certainty. The extent to which the belief is adhered to is the extent the belief is held. Religion is a malleable thing yes, but largely Christianity has become so malleable that many “believers” particularly of more Progressive background believe in “belief” or a non-descript benevolent God more so than the actual sentiments of the Bible. When Christianity as it was understood throughout the majority of Christendom largely died out in Europe (and to a smaller extent in America, for there are still semi-substantial flocks of “traditional” believers there) it is safe to say for all real purposes of what a belief does and means that Christianity died out in Europe. Not only do the polls indicate a large amount of Atheism, but a somewhat sizable proportion of the believers in the polls aren’t natural-born Europeans in-terms of ancestral background, but are Muslim immigrants or the children of immigrants who have clung to their ancestral faith for a multitude of reasons.
Humans have to have beliefs and psychological convictions to guide them. Even Nihilism is in some sense a belief and conviction. What has and will replace the guiding ideological and psychological motives for Mankind once God is no longer present or significant? Largely rampant consumerism in the case of America. In part a result of economic and political forces, but in part a result of a shift of culture and way of looking at the world which is partly created directly by material conditions, and partly created by this (or other) change of human outlook and experience which too is largely a product of the change in material conditions and relations as I stated above. This, consumerism, to the extent that it is not created directly by material forces simplified as Capitalism, is the product of Existentialism, also known as bourgeois individualism.
The focus of the Existentialists is strictly personal and petty. Even for Nietzsche, who spoke of the history of entire nations and peoples, the main focus is on dissatisfaction, individual creation of personal ethics (which is a result of his or her own nature, which is why Nietzsche is half-way between materialism and existentialism, but ultimately sides with the latter for reasons I will momentarily describe) and on not allowing any external circumstance hold back the aristocratic conqueror from his destiny of greatness which excuses the death and suffering of millions. Though Nietzsche rejects free will and says that we are largely confined to our biological nature(s), he makes them secondary to the Will to Power, which he posits to be the central essence of all human action (even of the slave-class) and existence. This unscientific depiction of things, this summation of all existence into what is essentially a theory of human motivation and ethics (Psychological and Ethical Egoism) is a clear trait of the Existentialist, which wants to make all of existence a drama of the individual human soul through either the Universe’s indifference to human suffering, or the human ability to find typically arbitrary meaning in a otherwise meaningless universe (e.g. Sartre and Camus among others). This is in contrast to Materialism, which has mainly scientific priorities in the “impersonal” realm, and social priorities in the human or “personal” one. Though science is done not always entirely simply for the utility it has in Man’s life (typically) it also has the benefit and the incentive of increasing the standard of living and enjoyment of people everywhere.
Ethically Existentialism preaches various forms of Nihilism or mutilates reason from attempting to come-to-terms with the submissive tendencies of Christianity (in the case of Kierkegaard) within the individually-focused mentality of Existentialism; though Existentialism and Christianity do have some natural similarities as I’ve shown in On Discontentment and Dissatisfaction. Ethically Materialism is far-more derivative of the social/biological imperative to pursue objectively measurable and verifiable standards of health as illustrated in the Virtue Ethics of Aristotle (who may not be a Materialist explicitly but is in his mindset). Socially and politically Existentialism manifests itself in Liberalism and Individualist Anarchism (seen in the writings of Max Stirner and aspects of Nietzsche) while Materialism both explicitly and implicitly manifests itself in Marxism and Social Anarchism. They are night-and-day differences in almost every facet of human conception and perception as Novack has already detailed.
There is even a fundamental difference in explaining why Atheism has increased amongst the European people. The Materialists (Marxists and Anarchists) claim it is the increase of material prosperity and both scientific knowledge and the common man’s reliance of science in day-to-day life. The Existentialists claim it is because of WWII and specifically the “senseless” horrors of war and genocide. Which one is more sound in their reasoning should be clear. Man has suffered the “absurd” both due-to nature and due-to Man’s hand before, and if anything the barbarity of Mankind only makes Man believe in God more. Seen in Lenin’s depiction religion as consisting largely due-to the suffering and ignorance of the working class, a theory more-or-less confirmed by studies depicting the most religious countries being the most backward (specifically the Muslim countries) and the most advanced countries (more-or-less namely the European ones, though Japan and Australia are indicators of this as well) becoming more and more Atheistic and losing the faith (with natural-born citizens; immigrants who were raised in religious countries by-en-large at-least to my understanding keep their faith for reasons I will hope is self-evident).
The Nazis killed millions of Jews, Gypsies and Communists. Did the horrors of war force them to abandon their faith – a faith which (though one could argue wasn’t a proper understanding of the ethics of Jesus) was a major motivator for their death frenzy of Jews (inferior races) and Communists (secularists and materialists who’re also political dissenters)? I think not. Man has constantly been plagued by the horrors of this world, however, it is only recently (because of the increase of material conditions and secular norms) that these atrocities are deemed such. Though there are Communist regimes which commit atrocities, they consistently rationalize mass-murder as something for the greater good of the State. History however consistently has religious and ethnic groups slaughtering each other on a systematic level and instead of rationalizing it via Utilitarian Calculus simply does not comprehend or view the murder of the Infidel or the Other (e.g. race, nationality, religion etc) as something that most be reasoned away with. They have been so thoroughly indoctrinated by King and Church that their cause is a noble one that they simply have to varying degrees lost the ability to psychologically internalize the Golden Rule and the Universalization of all rational agents that Chomsky and Kant speak of. This lack of Universalization is clear in not only the history of nations and the faithful but by the creeds of bourgeois individualism, particularly Existentialism; for as Novack has provided citation and argumentation for, the Existentialists primary concern is to his own self-created ethic and his own state-of-mind, and his main view of human existence is every person is fundamentally unique in being radical free agents that do not bow to the laws of causality.
In conclusion, the Existentialists speak of a certain “nothingness” of existence and that human beings through a type of radical freedom or pure subjectivity embody this complete “nothing.” If people embrace Existentialism, and in effect embracing Bourgeois Individualism (which whether or not is explicitly Capitalist cannot in any real sense reject or overturn Capitalism) and its consequences rather than Materialism, whim rather than science, neurotic ego rather than psychological health and morality they will be correct in that in destroying ourselves Man will be no-thing and the Universe could very-well (though we will then never know) be a void devoid of any objective value incapable of being utilized for any rational purpose or end.