Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Is God Happy?: Leszek Kolakowski on Religion, Politics and Atheism

Book cover of Leszek Kolakowsi's selected essays on religion and communism

As promised, here is the second part of my book review of Kolakowski's Is God Happy?, which happens to be two-parted itself. There was such a wealth of information, knowledge and ideas that a review to do the book full justice would have had to be as long as (or longer than) its collected essays.

In fact, it has been harder here to come up with a unified position since the writings span a lifetime of thought, reflection and experience, and the enemies are not communist authorities, but something that hits much closer to home: organized religion, politics, and atheism.

Defining God and the Position of the Church

When it comes to communism, Kolakowski is as clear as day in his convictions and pronouncements; when he is writing about religion the lines become obscure and ambivalent. My overall impression is that he has some sympathy for religious beliefs and spirituality, but that he is highly critical of the Church as the head of religious institutions.

One of the main caveats of religion is a lack of a clear definition when it comes to its supreme head, the God deity itself. It is generally good scientific practice to first define something before one starts making any sort of assumptions or even evaluations on the matter.

And we are immediately at an impasse. How do we effectively describe the indescribable? If we say God cannot be defined in words or nature, then the conversation immediately comes to a halt. There seems to be no clear consensus or understanding on the issue.

If I claim to believe in God, the very same notion is so emotionally and conceptually charged that we will, more likely than not, end up talking about two completely different entities. Throw in the variables of Jesus, the Old versus the New Testament, Catholics versus Protestants, and our conversation will be endless and essentially pointless, in the sense of not leading to any specific point or direction.

Yet God has been traditionally shelved under the omni-umbrella characteristics, the trio of omnipotent, omni-benevolent, omniscient. And already the philosopher will shout out: Well, what about the problem of evil? I have given different possible answers to this issue in my post Three Unusual Solutions to the Problem of Evil, but Kolakowski gives the simplest one yet.

According to this Polish intellectual, it is possible for such a God to create a physical world that may be considered, to re-instate the much criticized image of Leibniz, the “best of possible worlds.” Since we expect God not to do things in haphazard fashion, and he presumably created the world at his leisure in seven days (the time unit “days” refers to the heavenly or eternal realms, meaning a rather very long time), then we can safely assume that the world is (in fact, it is said so explicitly) created according to his liking.

Therefore, since God has made the rules, there is no reason to expect him to break them himself soon or anytime at all. In other words, God could be either unable (willingly shutting himself out of the process) or unwilling to break physical laws, and hence his perceived lack of interference (which is often equated with indifference). If he interferes to change the laws he has created in the first place, he would break what he had deemed his own approved laws, and hence give the impression that his laws are actually fallible, i.e. not perfect to begin with.

And to continue this logical chain, if God has created something fallible (we are leaving any mention of nemesis out of the equation), then he would be contradicting himself both in the act of creation and the act of interference; he would be seriously undermining the definition we have agreed upon to be worthy of God. We might even say that the physical laws themselves are the miracle but breaking them would only create a tautological mess, a miracle upon a miracle. (Do two miracles make an ordinary event?)

But enough of definitions and speculations about his characteristics, and let us look at what God asks us to do. God expects us to worship him, to follow his commandments and to trust and love him. In the Old Testament, the jealous God has and insists on a monopoly of worship. There is only one God and all his people are given explicit rules in the form of commandments. Straying from them would mean not only alienating themselves from God but also deserving punishment and God's anger.

Religion, in this view, is a type of business contract with God; his subjects must accept the terms and conditions and may, in return, expect certain kinds of rewards and privileges from the deity. In other words, strictly sticking to the laws will not elicit punishment, whereas breaking this contract would lead to one's dismissal of this sought-after and auspicious religious circle. The Catholic Church has taken over this power and position of gatekeepers, and its authorities are believed to ensure, through rituals and actions, that a given member of the flock is and continues to be deserving of God's acceptance.

But according to the Renaissance humanist version, influenced strongly by Erasmus and built upon the writings of St. Paul, there is another dimension to religion, namely the personal relation of love, based on trust and faith instead of control and the fulfillment of obligations. Such a personal relationship would undermine the position of the Church as an authorized intermediary.

In fact, Erasmus turned to previous writers and thinkers to shed more light on his ideas of Christianity. Seeing human nature not as mere vessels or agents of sin but rather as capable of achieving moral and intellectual achievements, Erasmus saw little distinction between believers and so-called pagans. In fact, we owe many modern concepts of Christianity to him; he was the one who further christianized the writings of Plato and turned Socrates into the prototype of the Christian martyr.

Erasmus was different from St. Paul and Calvin in his more positive, optimistic and embracing depiction of and attitude towards humans. Yet he also differed from the ideas of the Reformation initiated by Martin Luther because Erasmus believed in a Christianity without dogma or rituals. Although Luther rebelled against the corruption of the Catholic Church, he ended up creating his own stifling version of religion since it included a similar integrated structure. In other words, the Reformation was replacing one church with another leading to the similar set of problems that organized religion is fraught with. A church is a church nonetheless and needs dogma to validate and propagate itself.

The Stagnation of the Church and the Unhappy Atheist

One of the main concerns of Kolakowski's writing on religion includes the idea of living in a godless world that is still obsessed with religion, even when denying it. This modern world also lacks the means and methods to replace God or the Absolute with anything of equal or similar value.

In fact, since God's death sentence, so sternly and unequivocally pronounced by Nietzsche, the atheist lacks a moral compass or purpose. There is little to hold onto in a world that has killed God. It has changed the general outlook and philosophy and has made most people gloomier and more pessimistic. One can compare the godless world imagined by Diderot with the one envisioned by Camus or Sartre, or the nihilistic world of Kafka, and one sees that there is an even stronger sense of alienation both within oneself and one's relationship with the world.

These fluctuations in outlook may also be the product of a changing society that has altered dramatically since the industrialization. These large scale changes have progressively led us towards our modern conception of fear and dread, and the threat of mass destruction and annihilation. Yet one of the main problems of the Catholic Church has been its lack of ability to address these concerns and social problems. While the world around us has changed drastically, the Church has not managed to successfully accommodate those changes into its fabric or philosophy.

For example, in times where science has been codified and accepted as a main source of knowledge, rituals and actions like prayers may be interpreted as counterproductive since they elicit and encourage superstitious behaviors. In a world that is built on and around the foundations of science and of cause and effect, it seems odd that using a supposedly right technique to ask an imaginary deity for help could lead to a desired outcome.

In fact, I find it abhorrent that certain people would shun modern medicine and rely on prayers only to cure diseases. Although Kolakowski is more critical of prayer and has somewhat differing ideas from what constitutes superstitious behavior, in my opinion, it is most helpful to have a combination of both approaches.

But he has a point in claiming that scientific theology is the worst kind of mistake regarding religion. The moment the Church tries to imitate science, it loses not only its foothold and power, but it also becomes nonsensical and shoots itself in the foot. This leads to instances of pseudo-science; creationism would be its illustriously infamous shining example, the beacon of absurd knowledge.

In fact, the Church should have stuck to its own guns (to continue the metaphor of foot-shooting) and insisted on faith instead of its futile attacks on science and its desperate attempts to gain ground in the fields of science. This is an unevenly configured battle because religion can never surpass science or scientific theories.

What is worse is the Church's preoccupation and involvement with political matters. A Church founded on principles and concerns of the eternal realms should not identify or align itself with politics, since those matters are “profane” and of the world of the senses; they are not of God's jurisdiction. As Jesus clearly made the distinction, one ought to render unto Caesar what belongs to him and to God what is important to his realm. Politics should stay out of religion and vice versa.

Whenever this is not the case, God becomes transformed into a tool or empty mouthpiece, an object of human manipulation towards temporal and non-eternal realms. As a result, the Church and Christian communities would turn into a political party with God as its recruiting instrument. That is a situation that Kolakowski aptly describes as “godlessness in disguise.”

But as we can see, the modern world is obsessed with the lack of God. Even churches and religions feel a certain void and try to replace it with more involvement in things that are unrelated to church matters. On the other side of the spectrum, we have a growing number of unhappy atheists, people with a general lack of faith trying to desperately replace religion with humanism, rationalism, science or what-have-you.

This leads to caricatures of worship. The monopoly of the Old Testament may have ended but now we worship practically anything to reach momentary satisfaction. We adore and worship everything from money, sports, to movie stars to fill this gap of faith, this void within our modern selves.

But it is difficult, not to say impossible, to replace the Absolute with something that is finite and limited. All those temporary solutions will fade away leaving us emptier and hungrier for more. It becomes a vicious cycle that keeps undermining and eroding our own sense of identity leading to a fabricated and insubstantial sense of self. 

The power of religion cannot be forgotten or fully erased, and since we cannot forget God, whether we created him or not in the first place, he will be always present in the back of our minds, even - or especially when - we try to reject or forget him.

Monday, April 22, 2013

You are what you buy: Consumer Culture and Technology

Old-fashioned machines and equipment

Just a few days ago I finally gave in to the pressures of consumer culture: I bought an iPhone. I had resisted rather successfully for a number of years. I felt that technology was getting more and more complex and there were too many functions complicating, not simplifying modern life.

For example, a cellphone is convenient yes, but its main purpose is to make and receive calls. Why would we need to take pictures, use social media, surf the net and download a host of different apps and gadgets? All this I considered technological clutter. It was not only unnecessary but highly distracting.

Moreover, it was not merely a general trend; it was the fangs of consumer culture reaching into our souls and pockets. Everybody (except me) had a smartphone, and I looked old-fashioned with my simple version of a cellphone (In fact, I had asked for a beeper, but the provider just smiled and took me for a nostalgic buffoon).

Consumer culture is a smart concept I admit. Companies reach deep inside of us and claim that they can help us fill the void within. Their products, they say, will bring us happiness. Once we spend our money on them, they come up with a new, a better and improved, a faster and more versatile gadget, the next number up the technological chain, and they say that this new product will make us even happier than the first.

At the same time, there is also a significant element of cultural peer pressure to deal with. Your friends have the latest model with all its new tricks and gimmicks, and you are still using the supposedly obsolete version yourself. So you feel the need to “update” yourself to their level and not fall behind in this technological race.

It is also creating some pressure on companies themselves to come up with new innovative gadgets. You are only as good as your latest book, movie or iPhone. The competition heats up and even companies feel the pressure of having to keep up at a very fast pace, especially when it comes to technology.

So I have fallen into the trap of consumer culture, have become their latest victim. It is rather ironic because I used to give diatribes against consumer culture using Peter Singer's ideas as my erudite support. I wanted others to understand and see the futility of such a culture, that we have substantially more than we need and that we could use the extra money that we waste on those products to follow the voice of our conscience and help humanity.

It is unfair to have all those gadgets in one country and in another to have millions of people starving to death. (The same applies in terms of food itself, people spending millions on diet pills or suffering from obesity, while the other parts of the world are malnourished to the bone.) This money could be saved instead of wasted on items we do not really need, and it could be used to help save people's lives. In other words, we are talking about a moral deed and not a shallow experience of happiness or vanity on our side.

And yet, I have to tone down my rhetoric so as not to become an example of hypocrisy since I am also wasting money on gadgets that are not necessary for my general use and well-being, i.e. the iPhone. I do believe that we have become ensnared or enslaved by modern fashion and consumer culture. Yet in a way, I must say that I also understand the reasons why that happens.

The iPhone, for example, is not only handy, convenient, filling my idle moments while waiting at the bus stop, but it also gives me a certain dose of happiness. In another way, I feel more connected to the hordes of people who are constantly checking and rechecking their smartphones, a technological version of grooming, I suppose. I feel part of them now; I understand them better. The same way, I was sternly against iPads until my son asked for one and I recognized its value.

I also have come to understand the urge or rather addiction of wanting to constantly reach for one's phone to check God knows what. It is not merely a fidget; take the smartphone away from people, and they will go through symptom withdrawal. It is an addiction like any other. I already had a similar experience when I had to go without Internet for a day (it was horrible!) but now to have connection to the world wide web at my fingertip wherever I am is supreme bliss indeed!

In this case, the romantic old-fashioned and traditional version of myself has to give in to the modern technological side. It will affect my outlook. It will change my conversation habits. It affects interactions and relationships. But it is also something that has been ongoing, a continuous progression and extension of the digital age.

I miss the days of my youth where I had pen pals. I would sit down and write a letter of four or five pages. It came from a deeper voice within me right there visible in my own handwriting. I used to await with excitement the arrival of the post to see if I had gotten a response from a friend. I am still at times anxious to see what the post will bring, but nowadays it is mostly bills.

I check my email with the same fervor and excitement although a lot of my emails fall under the rubric of junk. I also check my blog stats on a daily basis and blogs are one of the best parts and the most rewarding bits and benefits of technology.

In fact, nowadays I can reach people globally; I can post my latest musings, doubts and accomplishments, and at a click, it will become visible for the whole wide world. Such a thing would not have been ever possible in a letter format. Copying letters by hand would take eons and would reach a very limited number of people.

Also I keep defining and redefining myself. I used to criticize technology and consumer culture, but that has become a rather futile struggle. It is not a loss necessarily, and I do not think I am a sell-out; I rationalize that one can gain by keeping the “enemy” close. Put differently, sometimes we will see the hidden values and benefits of even those things we tend to criticize. As my students tend to say, every coin has two sides. And nowadays, I am looking on from the other side of the shores of technology.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Is God or Marx Happy? A Book Review on Leszek Kolakowski's Writings Part 1

Anticommunist essay collection of Leszek Kolakowski

First off, I would like to thank Basic Books for continuously sending me so many quality books over the past year, and, in particular, this unsolicited but quite precious and wonderful gem of a book! In fact, this publishing company knows me well enough to send me books that are both interesting and of educational value to me.

This unexpected but welcome book with its intriguing title question “Is God Happy?” immediately caught my eye and attention. It is a selection of essays written by the Polish intellectual Leszek Kolakowski who had taught and lived under the restraints of Soviet communism until his expulsion from the Communist Party.

This book is both heavy in weight and ideas and is broken up into two parts (three actually, but the third one with its undecided and unfocused title of “Modernity, Truth, The Past and some other Things” could have simply been shelved under Miscellaneous). 

The first half under the title “Socialism, Ideology and the Left” contains various essays dealing with the ideology and impact of communism, while the second part “Religion, God and the Problem of Evil” is mainly concerned with religious topics, mostly from a historical and philosophical perspective. Since this is quite a long and comprehensive book, spanning essays written over a lifetime, I decided to offer a two-part review with the second part appearing soon. So here we go with Part 1:

On the Failures and Shortcomings of Communism

From the get-go, Kolakowski does not mince his words and attacks communism and leaves no ground of criticism unturned. He claims it is impractical, cruel, bloody, manipulative, totalitarian, and ideologically bankrupt. In his lifetime, living under communist rule, he had to endure censorship and disciplinary measures on various occasions.

At the same time, Kolakowski equally attacks ex-communists, communist sympathizers, and a number of socialist thinkers. Not even Marx is spared from this critical rampage; Kolakowski claims and admits that Marx may make good reading in the same way an atheist might approach and enjoy the Bible.

Socialism may have kennels of truth, but as a political way of life, it fails. It fails because humankind is essentially born capitalist carrying the seed of greed within them, but moreover and more importantly, fraternity cannot be enforced upon others. You cannot force someone to care about others.

Certainly, Kolakowski has a point there, and he makes astute observations. His own first-hand experience of living under communist rule in Poland and later as an exile add a personal and emotionally-charged touch to his writings. At the same time, it may embitter his view.

Although I do not mean to justify communism or the communist state or any government that suppresses human rights, Kolakowski struck me as someone who is both biased and one-sided in his attacks, and, on some occasions, he may accidentally throw out the baby with the bathwater as he nixes most, if not all of Marxist writings; in fact, utopian ideals are dismissed as childish wishful thinking or even damaging. Depending on one's point of view this could be interpreted as either cynical or realistic, or both.

I found the first half of the book extremely interesting, and it filled various gaps in my knowledge on the issues discussed. In fact, Kolakowski closely and carefully analyzes the different spins, interpretations and additions Marx's teachings have been given by Lenin, Chairman Mao and others. However, he claims that each of their readings and realizations are not necessarily incompatible with Marx.

Put differently, they may not follow Marx to the letter but are faithful to his overall spirit on the matter, something that would then entail the dangerous possibility of totalitarian rule. Or, not having read the primary source Das Kapital myself I am somewhat blindly putting my trust in Kolakowski's scholarship, Marx does not unequivocally and clearly explain how such a revolution and state would look like and how they could be maintained, hence opening up a host of different speculations and interpretations, including the totalitarian apparatus and state.

Totalitarianism can come in different forms; that means it can be clothed in different ideology, though the end effect is usually the same. For instance, in one of his essays, he compares the German Nazis with Stalinism. Both ideologies subject people to slavery. In the former, they are driven by the cult of the leader towards a feeling of racial superiority, an über-national sentiment of chauvinism.

Under the rule of Stalin, they equally wanted to preserve the cult of the leader, but in this case towards a united front versus the perceived enemy, often vaguely referred to as imperialism. This was mainly achieved and fostered by feelings of fraternity, harmony and unity among all its citizens. 

As Kolakowski remarks, fraternity that is imposed by force lacks any merit and is, in fact, dysfunctional. Also, he claims that while the Nazis were upfront and “honest” (!) about their plans, intentions and philosophy, communism under Stalin and others resorted to and freely used lies, deception, and manipulation to control their people.

As the term itself implies, totalitarianism includes total and complete control over the political and social lives of its citizens. The best example would be Orwell's dystopian book 1984 in which individuality was seen as suspect, subversive and even harmful to the collective identity and was hence subjected to approval and control by the ominous Big Brother.

As in 1984, in such a government the truth becomes a relative matter, namely what the leader considers as true at a given moment. There is no such thing as absolute truth, only what the leader deems as acceptable and appropriate; hence truth becomes a fluid, malleable and interchangeable matter.

Totalitarianism also has its fair share of paranoia. It is paranoia both within and without its borders. The Cold War, incidentally on both sides of the spectrum, meant fortifying oneself against the negative influences from the other. Totalitarianism hence needs a closed-border policy to protect itself from the outside threat.

But the threat can also be internal, emanating from its own citizens. They too can be “infected” by the ideas of the enemy, hence the necessity to create a state police and a flexible law system to imprison and execute anyone who stepped out of line with the leader's teachings and pronouncements. Censorship becomes just a matter of fact, an essential and necessary tool for such a closed system, while people become distrustful of each other and are encouraged to spy on others and to report suspicious persons to the police.

All of this is clearly unacceptable under democratic and human-rights-oriented principles. The communist state then becomes a life of servitude where the hired labor of capitalism may have been eliminated only to be replaced by “forced” labor. Citizens in a communist state then lose their fundamental rights and freedoms and become puppets, or worse, slaves in a system in which they have no say.

What it is like to live under communist rule, I do not know but listening to most people's accounts, I would rather pass. I cannot criticize Kolakowski's ideas for what they are worth since I lack the necessary background experience. It is similar to people who give me their fair share of knowledge on parenting without ever having had children themselves. 

To those I would reply that although their intentions may be good, they simply do not know what it is like to be a parent. Studying something and experiencing it may complement each other, but they certainly are not one and the same. For instance, French writer and intellectual André Gide was a supporter of communism until he actually visited the then-Soviet Union with its horrifying conditions and misery.

I often wonder why communism, which is based on humanitarian ideals of equality should be so ignorant and dismissive of human rights. Again the term of communism is an umbrella term including many factions and styles; yet what may happen is that those who control the state will fall prey to their own ambitions, a necessary and unavoidable human by-product. The same way, there are few, if any, “good” dictators as power does corrupt.

In the Western world, communism has had a bad rap. Anybody who spoke of support for the poor or any remotely socialist idea was often seen as a threat to the status quo. Even though the Soviet Union has been soundly laid to rest, there are still fragments of the paranoia within the Western soul. We need to make sure that we also put to sleep the McCarthy area and do not accuse our neighbors of communism, although this has been mostly replaced by the new fear of terror. The paranoia may be similar but they are two completely different entities and ideologies.

It is also interesting how there are often polarized views and opinions on one person. Although most people would clearly condemn the actions and behavior of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, the case of Hugo Chavez was altogether different. Chavez also did not mince his words, but there was some truth in them, and he had sympathizers and followers all around the world.

It seems to be a complex and difficult, but I think not impossible, task to implement socialist ideals in a state that essentially guarantees freedom and respect of human rights. Europe has had more success with it on some grounds than North America, especially when it comes to welfare and education.

The United States, the self-declared land of the free, is often referred to as a champion of human rights, especially if we exclude the Second Amendment and Guantanamo from its current record, and the horrible stain of slavery from its own dark ages. 

However, there are currents of idealism and democracy that have served as a model for the rest of the world. Yet the reality is also that the gap between the rich and the poor has probably never been as wide as it is nowadays. For better or worse, capitalism favors those who have capital to begin with, while communism, as we know it, is not an adequate antidote to this problem.