Wednesday, May 30, 2007

An Elemental Impulse: Religion Is So Powerful That Even Soviet Antireligious Policy Failed..... by Paul Gabel

The featured article in this week’s eSkeptic is on the Soviet attempt to eradicate religion by fiat out of the Russian people. The attempt failed utterly. The historical experiment carries an important lesson for those who study belief systems in general and religion in particular: you cannot legislate beliefs and faith. Today’s atheists who are emboldened by Richard Dawkins’ Lennonesque clarion call to “imagine no religion” should read this article (and the book on which it is based) carefully, and then try to imagine another solution to the problems caused by religious extremists, for as another evolutionary biologist — Edward O. Wilson — cautioned us in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, On Human Nature:

Skeptics continue to nourish the belief that science and learning will banish religion, which they consider to be no more than a tissue of illusions… Today, scientists and other scholars, organized into learned groups such as the American Humanist Society and Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, support little magazines distributed by subscription and organize campaigns to discredit Christian fundamentalism, astrology, and Immanuel Velikovsky. Their crisply logical salvos, endorsed by whole arrogances of Nobel Laureates, pass like steel-jacketed bullets through fog.

There is, indeed, something deeply elemental about the power of belief.

— Michael Shermer

The article is reprinted in its entirety here It would be nice to have all the comments back here, rather than under the article, itself.


Hey Skipper said...

It makes no more sense to declare Soviet (or Chinese, nor North Korean, et al) communism anti-religious than it does to say that Catholicism, Islam, or Momonism are anti-religious.

They are all religions, each antagonistic to all others.

Communism, in any of its variants, is no more tolerant of a competing totalitarian ideology than Wahabbi Islam is in Saudi Arabia.

The difference is merely that Communism based its claims upon material success in the here and now, claims which were roundly contradicted by the far greater success of market ecnomomies.

Hence, there were increasingly few people who would muster religious adherence to the tenets of Communism.

All religions are anti-religious. Communism is no different.

bernardo said...

Not all religions are mutually exclusive. I don't see why Communism is incompatible with Christianity (although I can see why Communist leaders would prefer their people to not be religious). Heck, Buddhism is not incompatible with Christianity! Are you saying that Communism is more of a religion that Buddhism? (If you are... you might be right. Probably not, though).

Even science is a kind of religion: Unlike other religions, it changes its models so as to more elegantly explain the universe, but its core axiom - repeatability, i.e. all stuff follows the same unchanging rules - is not provable, it has to be assumed at the beginning. An angry atheist might say "But there is no evidence against it! It is observed time and again", and to that I will reply that a fundamentalist Christian could say the same thing about the infallibility of the Bible - both world views can account for all observations.

Anyways, what I'm getting at is, different "religions" (science, Communism, Christianity) answer different kinds of questions, so they are complementary, not mutually exclusive. Not always, but a lot of the time.

As for Randy's original question... Of course it's silly to try and mandate that people believe certain things. You can mandate that they act a certain way, but the only way to get them to believe one thing or another is through explanations and persuasion and marketing, i.e. memetics, but even that does not always work.

Hey Skipper said...


I am saying that all organized religions -- the ones that make absolute, universal claims -- are mutually exclusive.

Communism is very bit as much of a religion as Christianity or Islam. And just as Islam and Christianity are institutionally antagonistic towards each other and Communism, it is just as antagonistic towards the "sacred" religions.

Communist leaders very much prefer their people to be religious, and that religion be communism.

I very much disagree that science is anything like a religion. You are right that it has some axiomatic assumptions, but, unlike any religion, they are very few, spare, and open to both inspection and refutation.

The other main difference between scientific and religious assertions has to do with decidability between competing, exclusive, assertions.

Whithin religion, there is absolutely no means of deciding (other than the stake, that is).

In contrast, within science, it is possible, indeed, it is essential, that there is some decidability between competing hypotheses. And, furthermore, that the basis for deciding is completely independent of any religious viewpoint.

If different religions answered different questions, they would be complementary.

However, it is too often the case that they don't. All the religions (and I exclude science here) largely attempt to answer the same questions, but they arrive at radically different answers that are completely undecidable within a religious context.

Sometimes, they provide answers to questions that are truly immune to sectarian inclinations. Lysenko attempted to concoct Communist friendly answers in agronomy. Christianity attempts to impose religious answers upon developmental questions -- homosexuality being a current case in point, where a religion desires to demonize a group of people based solely upon religious diktat.

Yet science has somethings to say about that question, none of which are the least bit friendly to those diktats.

You are right, in general it is silly to madate people believe certain things. But that doesn't stop religions from making very determined efforts in that direction.

Unlike science, by the way.

Duck said...

pass like steel-jacketed bullets through fog.

That's a great metaphor. Religion is very foglike. Like fog, it is comforting more for what it conceals than what it reveals.

Randy Kirk said...

For science as a whole, I agree more with Skipper, not so much like religion, other than in its declaration that supernaturalism is by definition excluded from the discussion.

However, certain branches of science that tend to deal with religious topics, can become very much like religion. There becomes a major doctrine around which most scientists claim certainty, a various doctrinal schisms where the deniers and anti-baptists offer the out of favor variation. Commonly there is substantial enmity between these sides.

I like some of the analogies of Communism and religion, but for religion to really be fully formed, it needs statements regarding the big 5: origins, afterlife, purpose, free will, and source of the rules.

Hey Skipper said...


For science as a whole, I agree more with Skipper, not so much like religion, other than in its declaration that supernaturalism is by definition excluded from the discussion.

That is incorrect.

Supernaturalism is not excluded by definition; rather, the exclusion is due to the impossibility of assigning any truth value whatsoever to any statement about the supernatural (which is one of the two big reasons Intelligent Design has nothing to scientific to say).

Put differently, the moment the supernatural is included in scientific inquiry, that inquiry comes to an immediate dead halt (which is the second of three reasons Intelligent Design has nothing scientifc to say).

However, certain branches of science that tend to deal with religious topics, can become very much like religion.


I like some of the analogies of Communism and religion, but for religion to really be fully formed, it needs statements regarding the big 5: origins, afterlife, purpose, free will, and source of the rules.

Now you are guilty of what you accuse science: exclusion by definition.

However, your definition excludes things which behave very similarly, due to some very peripheral qualities. It is like saying a car must have four wheels, an engine, seats, and be painted red.

For a particularly glaring instance, Islam is very hostile to the concept of free will, yet I doubt many would find that sufficient cause to exclude it from the list of religions.

Similarly, neither Scientology nor Buddhism says anything about origins or the source of the rules (AFAIK).

If by religion, one means an organized, bureaucratic, belief system, then these attributes are far more helpful:

- revealed text
- cult of personality
- priest caste
- complex and convoluted assumptions
- argument from authority
- universal and absolute dicta
- the formation of exclusionary moral communities (i.e., actions considered immoral to those within the community are moral when outwardly directed).

With those qualities in mind, there is nothing to distinguish, say, Communism from Catholicism.

The test is in their behavior: both have all the listed characteristics, and both have had schismatic conflict, show trials, secret police, treated outsiders differently than insiders and are antagonistic towards argument from evidence.

What's more, your definition completely excludes the most fundamental element: people. That is, what is the effect upon adherents?

The fervor of true Catholic believers is indistinguishable from that of true Communists.

But it is completely distinguishable from that of, say, Darwinists.

Duck said...

You can make the case that religion survived in Russia thanks to Soviet anti-religion policy. And how has religion fared in those European states with an established church, as in England and Sweden? Religion is certainly persistent, but I think there will be a growing realization this century that unbelief is equally persistent. There's been little fanfare in the press, but a recent Pew Center survey showed that the percentage of Americans that are athiest/agnostic has been growing generationally for the last four generational cohorts. This is a trait that has shown to be fairly stable as each cohort has aged.

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