Mr. McCabe and the Long Sought Utopia

Let me post a link to the book HERETICS by G.K. Chesterton, the author most famous for his Father Brown detective stories, albeit this polymath also wrote apologetic, political and social observations, biographies, plays, trifles, and even a science fiction yarn or two.

As an atheist, I read the essays of Joseph McCabe long before I read a word, or even heard the name, of Mr. G.K. Chesterton.

So it is with a peculiar sense of revisiting a long-forgotten childhood scene that I come across the following quote by McCabe, part of an ongoing (but apparently congenial) debate between the two. Call me unobservant, but I had not known the two were contemporary, much less engaged in a joust.

Here is McCabe:

“Mr. Chesterton [...] is as serious as I am in his ultimate purpose, and I respect him for that. He knows, as I do, that humanity stands at a solemn parting of the ways. Towards some unknown goal it presses through the ages, impelled by an overmastering desire of happiness. To-day it hesitates, lightheartedly enough, but every serious thinker knows how momentous the decision may be.

It is, apparently, deserting the path of religion and entering upon the path of secularism. Will it lose itself in quagmires of sensuality down this new path, and pant and toil through years of civic and industrial anarchy, only to learn it had lost the road, and must return to religion? Or will it find that at last it is leaving the mists and the quagmires behind it; that it is ascending the slope of the hill so long dimly discerned ahead, and making straight for the long-sought Utopia? This is the drama of our time, and every man and every woman should understand it.

My comment: Reading such a question with grown up eyes from a pen that once I held in high admiration is a disheartening experience.

Did Mr. McCabe actually believe that the erosion of the religious fiber in the English speaking world would not lead to quagmires of sensuality? Did he actually entertain the notion that the abolition of religion would usher in the era of utopia?

However you decide these questions in your mind, dear reader, allow me to submit into evidence Exhibit A, that the world has not escaped the quagmire:

Phoenix Goddess Temple’s “Sacred Sexuality” Is More Like New Age Prostitution

And here is exhibit B that atheist does not, in and of itself, usher in the peaceful Utopia:

The Black Book of Communism

From the ad copy:

As the death toll mounts—as many as 25 million in the former Soviet Union, 65 million in China, 1.7 million in Cambodia, and on and on—the authors systematically show how and why, wherever the millenarian ideology of Communism was established, it quickly led to crime, terror, and repression.

Naturally, these two exhibits are not exhaustive. You accumulate your own evidences over a lifetime to weigh before the jury of your conscience before deciding whether atheism, as a social movement, has achieved the rather extravagant promises its earlier partisans claimed, or whether its detractors were nearer the mark.

Then ask yourself whether the test of an accurate model of the universe is the accuracy of its predictions.

16 Comments

  1. Comment by David_Ellis:

    Will it lose itself in quagmires of sensuality down this new path, and pant and toil through years of civic and industrial anarchy, only to learn it had lost the road, and must return to religion? Or will it find that at last it is leaving the mists and the quagmires behind it; that it is ascending the slope of the hill so long dimly discerned ahead, and making straight for the long-sought Utopia?”

    Sounds like a classic example of a false dichotomy.

    • Comment by bibliophile112:

      As far as I can see it’s only a false dichotomy if you assume Utopia consists of sensuality.

    • Comment by Andrew Brew:

      Or, to rephrase McCabe, “Will this change lead to disastrously ill effects for society, and have to be abandoned as a dreadful mistake, or will it lead to improvement in society?”

      I see the dichotomy, but where is the “false” part?

      Or, David, are you suggesting that whether the a society follows a religious or a secular path will have no bearing on its nature?

      • Comment by David_Ellis:

        It’s a false dichotomy because there are vastly more than two possible outcomes. Not to mention a vast number of different ways to be a secular society. If one variety of secularism succeeds it does not entail that others would. If one variety fails it does not entail that others will also. And even the same basic approach to secularism may succeed in one society and fail in another because of the many, many other factors influencing the success of a society. It might be that a nation’s religiosity (or lack thereof) is not even a major factor in the success of a society. Or it may be a major factor in one society but not in another.

        And then there is the fact that there are more possible outcomes than quagmire of anarchy vs utopia. In fact, it seems pretty obvious that those two extremes are the least likely possibilities (the vast majority of societies, whatever their degree of religiosity or secularism, don’t come anywhere near either extreme).

        There are not merely two options. There is a vast branching network of possibilities.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      McCabe here may be pointing out the two extremes on a spectrum, not necessarily saying there is nothing in between.

      But the falseness does not seem self-evident. The dichotomy is this: McCabe hoped and promised that secularism would improve the civilization, perhaps even to utopia; his respectful opposition predicted a collapse of normal morality, the quagmire of sensuality. As things stand, the opposition seems to have been more accurate in their predictive power.

      What perhaps you do not realize is that atheists back in the old days were relatively sane and decent, and did not seek a society drenched in the excesses of pornography and perversion and sexual predation the sexual revolutionaries of a later generation sought and found. They thought a purely secular society would be more sane and rational, not less.

      Their error was to mistake the roots of rationality, which lie in a mystical reality. One cannot see solid objects save by means of sunlight, even thought the sun itself dazzles and blinds and is not comprehended by the eye. The comprehensible is understood by means of the incomprehensible. Every logical system rests on axioms that system cannot prove ergo takes on faith.

      • Comment by David_Ellis:

        “What perhaps you do not realize is that atheists back in the old days were relatively sane and decent, and did not seek a society drenched in the excesses of pornography and perversion and sexual predation the sexual revolutionaries of a later generation sought and found.”

        I thought it was the Supreme Court that legalized pornography. Not a cabal of atheist conspirators.

        And, on that topic, I’ve always thought it an obviously idiotic ruling. Pornography is made by paying people to have sex. That’s prostitution. Not free speech.

        “They thought a purely secular society would be more sane and rational, not less.”

        A wildly naive idea. There are as many bad ways to be secular as there are bad ways to be religious. Personally, I’m more interested in having a society which highly values critical thinking and rationality—and as to whether people educated to think critically and rationally end up mostly religious or mostly non-religious I’m more than happy to let the chips fall where they may. Not that I don’t have my suspicions as to which would be more likely.

        “Every logical system rests on axioms that system cannot prove ergo takes on faith.”

        I don’t disagree that a logical system (and a worldview) must include some things taken as axiomatic. But, of course, not all axioms are reasonable. I could take it as axiomatic that the universe was created by Big Bird but I’d still be a fool if I did.

        What constitutes reasonable axioms (and why) is a pretty important epistemological issue—as I’m sure you’d agree.

        Are you familiar with presuppositionalism? Or the transcendental argument for Christian theism?

        • Comment by deiseach:

          “I thought it was the Supreme Court that legalized pornography. Not a cabal of atheist conspirators.”

          And I was unaware that (1) free love equated to pornography, but since you have of your own accord made the comparison, let me not protest against it (2) that Mary Wollstonecraft was a member of the American Supreme Court.

          Her son-in-law, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was an atheist and proponent of free love, and the end result was a tangle of relationships, though he seems at least to have been faithful to Mary; the affairs of his friend, Lord Byron, were not so happy. The early proponents, at least, seem to have treated their women not so well. We come to the 19th century and such upholders of the theory as H.G. Wells, who had multiple affairs (and whose success with women, according to one biography I read, may have had to do with the fact that apparently he smelt of honey?) and whose son by Rebecca West had a very poor view of his mother (though he idolised his father). Even the Fabians, the progressive Socialists, broke with Wells (or he broke with them) over his pushing of a policy of ‘free love’ (and his affair with Amber Reeves, daughter of two prominent Fabians, while married to his first wife).

          • Comment by David_Ellis:

            “And I was unaware that (1) free love equated to pornography, but since you have of your own accord made the comparison, let me not protest against it (2) that Mary Wollstonecraft was a member of the American Supreme Court.”

            My point, which I keep having to repeat in discussions on this blog, is that atheists are not a monolithic block. There are varying views on pornography and why pornography should or should not be legal among atheists.

            I’m a bit puzzled by the comment regarding to free love equating to pornography. I didn’t comment on free love. I was specifically addressing the pornography issue. Nor did Wright mention free love. He spoke of “the excesses of pornography and perversion and sexual predation” which could include free love if he includes that as an example of perversion broadly and wasn’t just talking about homosexuality.

            Regardless, atheists are not generally promoters of “free love”. I doubt most atheists would want to make private sexual activity of that sort illegal—but that’s far from endorsement or approval.

        • Comment by lotdw:

          “And, on that topic, I’ve always thought it an obviously idiotic ruling. Pornography is made by paying people to have sex. That’s prostitution. Not free speech.”

          I asked a lawyer about this once, because I had wondered how prostitution could be illegal but pornography legal. Apparently the payment is for their permission to film the sex, not for the sex itself. In prostitution, the payment is for the person to have sex with the payee, generally. And actually, the really harsh penalties used to be reserved for distributing, rather than making, pornography.

          I find it a tenuous justification myself, but when one abandons all notion of an objective standard in art (or a definition of what art is) then there isn’t anywhere else for it to go.

          • Comment by David_Ellis:

            ” Apparently the payment is for their permission to film the sex, not for the sex itself. In prostitution, the payment is for the person to have sex with the payee, generally.”

            As I said: idiotic. Getting paid to have sex makes one a prostitute regardless of who one is being paid to do it with.

            Not that I care much whether prostitution or pornography are illegal. But they could at least be consistent. I lean more to the libertarian side on that sort of thing—what adults do of their own free choice is not something I generally regard as any of my business. I think mountain climbing is pretty stupid but if people want to risk their lives that’s for them to decide.

  2. Comment by bruce99999999:

    In the long run, atheism is the ‘clear soup’ end of CS Lewis’ ‘clear soup’ to ‘thick stew’ metric of religions. You have ‘clear soup’ Marxism: Fabians. You have the ‘thick stew’ Marx: bandit communism, Lenin, Mao. You have Aquinas looking down on the anthropomorphic conceptions of the Deity from ‘people who can imagine nothing more beautiful than bodies’. You have more personal relationships with Jesus.

    And your quote strikes me as something from McCabe’s early period, ‘when even McCabe wrote like a man’, as CS Lewis said. We have hindsight. McCabe didn’t.

  3. Comment by John Hutchins:

    When I say that my beliefs are not Orthodox it means that they are not orthodox when compared to the established doctrines of the Catholic church and the standard protestants. There are beliefs and practices that are orthodox in the LDS Church but not held by the Catholics. I generally think that it is this form of claiming of heresy that most people that claim to be heretical are wishing to express; that while they do have a set of well defined beliefs that have a logical framework in which (hopefully) most things are explained that framework is not the same one that is used and generally accepted by everyone else. I think that there are relatively few people that have actually thought about what it is they believe that do not have such a framework for their beliefs, even if that framework is self-contradictory or riddled with holes.

    This is commenting on the introduction to the book you posted the link to.

  4. Comment by Ishmael Alighieri:

    Mr. Ellis –

    enjoying your comments, but on one critical point I think you’ve missed it:

    You say:

    “What constitutes reasonable axioms (and why) is a pretty important epistemological issue—as I’m sure you’d agree.”

    The thinking here strikes me as a very common but fundamental error: you can’t say what’s ‘reasonable’ or ‘unreasonable’ until *after* you’ve chosen your first principle, made your assumptions, established your axioms. You must first accept a whole bushel of assumptions AND come up with some definition of reasonableness (which entails a whole ‘nother bushel of assumptions) before you can judge anything as reasonable.

    To take the extreme case by way of illustration: what makes being reasonable a position to valued or chosen or preferred to any other position? On what basis can you assert that choosing to concern yourself with the reasonableness of axioms (or anything else) is correct or important or right or in any way preferable to simple unreason?

    Simply put: a ‘reasonable axiom’ is, as used here, a self-contradiction. If it’s reasonable, it’s not axiomatic; if it’s axiomatic, it’s not reasonable.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “Simply put: a ‘reasonable axiom’ is, as used here, a self-contradiction. If it’s reasonable, it’s not axiomatic; if it’s axiomatic, it’s not reasonable.”

      With all due respect, I cannot agree. An axiom cannot be judged from within the system of conclusions of which it itself is an axiom, true. For any given system, the axioms are a “given” and taken for granted. But they way we humans select what axioms and common notions to believe and not to believe is a matter of judgment, not a matter of deduction from a formal system: it is an assessment of truthworthiness, of reality, or, to use an older terminology, “right reason.”

    • Comment by David_Ellis:

      “The thinking here strikes me as a very common but fundamental error: you can’t say what’s ‘reasonable’ or ‘unreasonable’ until *after* you’ve chosen your first principle, made your assumptions, established your axioms.”

      Recall that I did not say that one must decide whether an axiom is reasonable beforehand. I said only that some axioms are reasonable and some are, to put it bluntly, stupid (and others, of course, may fall somewhere in the middle). Obviously, we already have axioms by the time we have the ability to reflect philosophically about our axiomatic beliefs.

      That one has to already to have axiomatic beliefs to reflect on axiomatic beliefs does not entail that we are helpless to recognize a bad axiom. And it does not entail that there are no bad axioms.

      “Simply put: a ‘reasonable axiom’ is, as used here, a self-contradiction. If it’s reasonable, it’s not axiomatic; if it’s axiomatic, it’s not reasonable.”

      You leap ahead too quickly. Without having even asked what I meant by a reasonable axiom.

      And, of course, not an easy question to answer. One could write a whole book and barely scratch the surface.

      So let’s start with the example I mentioned earlier:

      Suppose someone takes it as axiomatic that Big Bird created the universe.

      Suppose another person takes the law of noncontradiction as axiomatic.

      Do you disagree that one of these axioms should be held and the other shouldn’t? Surely so. And when we answer the question of why this is so we are investigating what constitutes a reasonable axiom. Which I will define at this point as simply one that ought to be held—why it ought to be held or not will be a matter for us to examine further.

      But surely you can agree that some things ought not to be taken as axiomatic and some should. Will you assent to that? If not I’d like to hear why.

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