Archive for May, 2013

Lenin: Atheist Propaganda Official Soviet Policy

May 31, 2013

Lenin and The Official Publication of Soviet Militant Atheism: Necessity of Including Non-Communist Atheists

This is further to my post yesterday, in which I explained that atheism was a vital part of Communist ideology, citing Marx and Engels. In his article ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’, published in the March, 1922 issue of Trotsky’s journal, Pod Znamenem Marksizma (Under the Banner of Marxism), Lenin advocated the establishment of atheist materialism and propaganda as a vital part of Soviet ideology. He praised the above magazine, for including both Communists and Non-Communist materialists. ‘This statement says that not all those gathered round the journal Pod Znamen Marksizma are Communists but that they are all consistent materialists. I think that this alliance of Communists and Non-Communists is absolutely essential and correctly defines the purposes of the journal … Without an alliance with non-Communists in the most diverse spheres of activity there can be no question of any successful communist construction. … This also applies to the defence of materialism and Marxism’.

‘At any rate, in Russia we still have – and shall undoubtedly have for a fairly long time to come – materialists from the non-communist camp, and it is our absolute duty to enlist all adherent of consistent and militant materialism in the joint work of combating philosophical reaction and the philosophical prejudices of so-called educated society’. Lenin furthermore said of the magazine that ‘such a journal must be a militant atheist organ. We have departments, or at least state institutions, which are in charge of this work. But the work is being carried on with extreme apathy and very unsatisfactorily, and is apparently suffering from the general conditions of our truly Russian (even though Soviet) bureaucratic ways. It is therefore highly essential that in addition to the work of these state institutions, and in order to improve and infuse life into that work, a journal which sets out to propagandise militant materialism must carry on untiring atheist propganda and an untiring atheist fight. The literature on the subject in all languages should be carefully followed and everything at all valuable in this sphere should be translated, or at least reviewed’.

Communists Should Publish Atheist Propaganda

Lenin then cited Engels’ recommendation that Communists should translate and republish the militant atheist literature of the eighteenth for mass distribution amongst the people. This should be done in abridged editions omitting material that was unscientific and ‘naive’, and including brief postscripts pointing out the progress in the scientific criticism of religion since the eighteenth century. This material should not be purely Marxist. ‘These masses should be supplied with the most varied atheist propaganda material, they should be made familiar with facts from the most diverse spheres of life, they should be approached in every possible way, so as to interest them, rouse them from their religious torpor, stir them from the varied angles and by the most varied methods, and so forth’. He then stated that this material was more suitable than the dry material of Marxism.

He considered one of the journal’s tasks should be atheist propaganda, particularly using material showing the connection between the modern bourgeoisie and religious institutions and propaganda, particular in America, where the connection between the boureoisie and religion was not obvious:

Pod Znamen Marksizma, which set out to be an organ of militant materialism, should devote much of its space to atheist propaganda, to reviews of the literature on the subject and to correcting the immense shortcomings of our governmental work in this field. It is particularly important to utilise books and pamphlets which contain many concrete facts and comparisons showing how the class interests and the class organisations of the modern bourgeoisie are connected with the organisation of religious institutions and religious propaganda.

All material relating to the United States of America, where the official, state connection between religion and capital is less manifest, is extremely important’.

Communists to Ally with Militant Atheist Scientists

He also recommended that the Communists should also ally themselves with those scientists, who inclined towards materialism and were willing to spread it:

‘In addition to the alliance with consistent materialist who do not belong to the Communist Party, of no less and perhaps even of more important for the work which militant materialism should perform is an alliance with those modern natural scientists who incline towards materialism and are not afraid to defend and preach it as against the modish philosophical wanderings into idealism and scepticism which are prevalent in so-called educated society.’

Communist Atheism Threatened by Non-Communist Atheists and Science

For all that Lenin advocated an alliance with non-Communist atheist materialists, particularly scientists, he felt threatened by those atheists, that were, in his view, insufficiently hostile to religion. He inveighed against these as the ‘ideological slaves of the bourgeoisie, as ‘graduated flunkeys of clericalism’. He attacked an atheist account of Christianity’s origins by a Russian scientist, Professor R.Y. Wipper, because Wipper declared that he was above extremes of both idealism and materialism. He similarly attacked a book by the German author, Arthur Drews, which tried to make the case that Christ didn’t exist, because Drews wished for a revived, purified religion that would withstand ‘the daily growing naturalist torrent’. He was particularly afraid of contemporary philosophical trends towards religion that were based on the investigation of radioactivity – the discovery of radium – and particularly Einstein’s theory of relativity. ‘It should be remembered that the shap upheaval which modern natural science is undergoing ery often gives rise to reactionary philosophical schools and minor schools, trends and minor trends. Unless, therefore, the problems raised by the recent revolution in natural science are followed, and unless natural scientists are enlisted in the work of a philosophical journal, militant materialism can be neither militant nor materialism’. He believed that the interest caused by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and other scientific developments since the late 19th century were leading the world’s people to atheism. This movement towards atheist materialism could only be politically and philosophically secure if it was firmly based in Marxist philosophy, particularly the Hegelian dialectic.

Communist Atheism and Science to be Based on Marxist Dialectic

‘For our attitude towrads this phenomenon to be a politically conscious one, it must be realised that no natural science and no materialism can hold its own in the struggle against the onslaught of bourgeois ideas and the restoration of the borgeois world outlook unless it stands on solid philosophical ground. In order to hold his own in this struggle and carry it to a victorious finish, the natural scientist must be a modern materialist, a conscious adherent of the materialism represented by Marx, i.e., he must be a dialectal materialist…In my opinion, the ediotrs and contributors of Pod Znamenem Marsksizma should be a kind of “Society of Materialist Friends of Hegelian Dialectics”. Modern natural scientists (if they known how to seek, if we learn to help them) will find in the Hegelian dialectics, materialistically interpreted, a series of answers to the philosophical problems which are being raised by the revolution in natural science and which make the intellectual admirers of bourgeois fashion “stumble” into reaction’.

Communist Atheism Highly Ideological, Soviet Science Explicitly Atheist, Communist Politicisation of Science Retarded Scientific Progress

Lenin’s demand for Marxist atheism to appeal to scientists partly explains why a number of scientists did join the Communist party, such as J.B.S. Haldane. It also shows that the Marxist conception of atheism felt itself to be highly vulnerable to developments in natural science that appeared to contradict a pure materialism. Furthermore, the highly politicised, ideological form of atheism that formed the core of Marxism was to be imported into science itself. Now the proponents of Intelligent Design theory have maintained that atheism and materialism have corrupted science. While this is generally highly contentious, nevertheless it was true of Soviet Science. Soviet Science was supposed to be informed and based on Marxist materialism. As a result, it was highly politicised. The Soviet Union could produce some superb scientists, such as the rocket pioneer Sergei Korolyev. Yet it could also viciously persecute those individuals whose scientific views did not find official favour, with the result that in many areas Soviet Science was remarkably backwards. They remained behind in computer technology, for example, because Stalin’s scientific advisor believed it was a pseudo-science. It is therefore very clear that for Lenin, Marxism was a kind of militant atheism to be promoted as the only true atheism, and that Marxist atheist materialism was to form a vital part of the Soviet scientific enterprise.


V.I. Lenin, ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’, in Lenin: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1968) 653-60.

Communism’s Basis in Atheism

May 30, 2013

A few years ago I got into a long argument with some atheists on here about my assertion that atheism was an integral part of Communism. Marx was influenced by Feuerbach’s view that God was a projection of humanity’s own alienated nature. For Feuerbach and his followers, humanity could improve itself by rediscovering its own creativity through a new ‘religion of humanity’. The atheists contended that atheism was not integral to Marxism by arguing firstly, that Marx wrote little about religion or atheism. Secondly, Marx’s conception of the origin of religion was different from Feuerbach’s. Lastly the connection between atheism and Communism was disproved by the granting of freedom of religion and worship by the Soviet authorities in the last days of Communism under Gorbachev.

Atheism of Marx and Feuerbach

Marx’s own view of atheism was certainly different from Feuerbach’s. Marx took from Feuerbach the idea that religion, and human culture in general, was formed through the material conditions in which people lived. Where they differed is that Feuerbach saw this as affecting only humanity in the abstract, while Marx held that it defined human society and their communities. There’s also a difference in that although Feuerbach was an atheist, he was not an anti-theist. He has even been described as a ‘pious atheist’, as he did not deny religious values.

Influence of Feuerbach on Friedrich Engels

Feuerbach’s influence on Marx’s friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, can be seen in Engel’s review of Thomas Carlyle’s 1844 Past and Present, ‘The Condition of England’. One of Engel’s criticisms of the book was that Carlyle failed to realise that the roots of the hollow, rotten state of British culture with its soullessness, irreligion and atheism, lay in religion itself, explicitly following Feuerbach’s critique of religion.
The next five pages are more or less one long rant against religion. This is explicitly anti-Christian:

‘We too attack the hypocrisy of the present Christian state of the world; the struggle against it, our liberation from it and the liberation of the world from it are ultimately our sole occupation’. Again in this section he cites Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer as exposing religion’s true nature. Engels then proceeds to state very clearly that the Communists aim to attack and destroy religion:

‘We want to put an end to atheism, as Carlyle portrays it, by giving back to the man the substance he has lost through religion; not as divine but as human substance, and this whole process of giving back is no more than simply the awakening of self-consciousness. We want to sweep away everything that claims to be supernatural and super-human, and thereby get rid of untruthfulness, for the root of all untruth and lying is the pretension of the human and the nature to be superhuman and supernatural. For that reason we have once and for all declared war on religion and religious ideas and care little whether we are called atheists or anything else’.

The next one and a half pages are an explicit attack on the Christian conception of history and the central position within it of the Lord’s incarnation, again stating Feuerbach’s idea that God is merely humanity’s own projection of its alienated nature. Engels felt that the Christian belief in the incarnation made the 1800 years since Christ’s birth meaningless. In fact the incarnation demonstrates that there isa transcendent meaning to history through the deep involvement in it of a loving God. God’s involvement in history did not end with Christ ascension into heaven. Rather, God remains active in the world, as St. Paul states. In Him we live and move and have our being. He is at work bringing good out of evil until the end of time when the world will be renewed and He will once again dwell with us.

Marx on the Economic Basis of Religion

Marx’s own views on the basis of religion in the economic structure of society is stated in the section ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’ in volume I of Das Kapital. In it Marx stated that the form of society’s religion depended on its stage of social development. Christianity was suitable for contemporary society and its developed capitalism. The ancient world did not have trading societies except at their margins, and so these ancient societies were based on the worship of nature. This view of the nature of primitive religion is also highly flawed. Both the Phoenicians and their great colony, Cathage, were powerful trading civilisations with outposts all over the Mediterranean. The extent of their mercantile contacts is shown by the fact that objects from ancient Egypt have been found in Spain, where they had been brought through Carthaginian merchants. Archaeologists have discovered how extensive trading networks in Europe were as far back as the Bronze Age. These were not capitalist societies, and Marx was correct in viewing some of them as based on subjection. Nevertheless, trade was widespread and important.

Marxism Based in Atheist Materialism, including that of Ancient Greeks

Marx himself was an atheist materialist while at university, before he adopted Hegelian philosophy. His dissertation was on Democritus and ancient materialism and scepticism, and he always considered his own political philosophy to be a continuation of that tradition. This for Marx himself, Marxism was inherently atheistic. The atheist with whom I was arguing also raised the point that it would be possible to adopt a Communist or socialist economic programme without basing it in atheism. This is true. There have been a number of ‘red priests’, clergy with Communist sympathies, in the various Christian churches, including the Anglican. However, Marxism is based on an exclusively materialist conception of the world: there is no God, therefore reality is defined and determined purely through material processes and natural laws. Human society is no different. Any form of belief in God, or a transcendent reality, such as Spiritualism, directly challenges this fundamental assumption, even if their believers adopt a Communist programme for other, moral reasons. Hence the Communists persecution of religion, and Lenin’s denunciation of his ideological opponents as philosophical Idealists, for the supposed basis of their views in a separate, transcendant realm.

Freedom of Religion in Last Days of Communism due to Pressure from Democracies and Human Rights Groups, not Based in Communism

Finally, there is the issue of Soviet state’s recognition of freedom of worship and conscience under Mikhail Gorbachev. Now Gorbachev was a convinced Communist. Indeed, he has been described as the last Communist, and he continued to beleive in the Communist system even as it crumbled around him. He tried to prevent its finally dissolution for as long as possible. He was, however, a radical reformer of Communism, which he believed was necessary for it to survive. In his book, Perestroika, he claimed to base these reforms in Lenin and the democratic nature of Soviet socialism, declaring that the solution was ‘More socialism, more democracy’. Yet Lenin was extremely autocratic, who persecuted the Orthodox Church. Gorbachev’s claims were therefore not convincing. Furthermore, the Soviet Union had been under immense diplomatic pressure to grant freedom of religious belief and conscience since the 1950s and particular after the foundation of human rights groups in the 1970s, such as Charter 77. The granting of religious freedom was to accommodate these groups, not from any rejection of the materialist basis of Communism itself. Gorbachev himself has made it clear that he is an atheist, but appears to have a sympathetic interest in religion. He has published a book with the Dalai Lama, and has visited and contemplated the Vatican. Regardless of his view of religion, I feel that Gorbachev should be admired simply because it was through his relationship with President Reagan that the Cold War finally ended. By stopping Soviet troops entering the satellites during the Velvet Revolution, Gorbachev secured these nations’ freedom and independence. These countries have suffered greatly during the transition to capitalism and democracy. However, the threat of war with Soviet bloc that hung over three generations since 1917 revolution has been lifted. People are now free to travel to and from the former Soviet countries largely unimpeded, to set up businesses and make friends. And that truly is an awesome achievement and one reason to be cheerful in this often threatening world.

Failure of Communism as Philosophical and Economic System, and Its Brutality

As for Communism, that resulted in monumental alienation, oppression and brutality on a massive scale. Marxism continues to have some intellectual vigour through its view of economics as the motive force of history. As an economic system, it has been largely discredited. Amongst the various explanations of the origin of religion, the views of Feuerbach and Marx are now unfashionable and Hegelianism has also been attacked. Even in the Soviet Union, scientists rejected the Hegelian dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. As the despair, alcoholism and drug abuse that permeated Soviet society demonstrates, Marxism did not provide its citizens with a sense of meaning, nor did it reconcile them to nature. The massive engineering projects have caused immense ecological damage to vast swathes of the former Soviet Union. The Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe is only one example. In fact the fall of Communism as an atheist system has been remarked on by at least one historian. Looking through one of the bookshops a few weeks ago, I found one history of the Fall of Communism that paid explicit homage to Sigmund Freud’s atheist attack on religion, The Future of an Illusion. This history bore the title The Failure of an Illusion. Despite Marx and Engel’s splenetic denunciations, Communism has been shown to be as, or even more, fallible and illusory as the religions it claimed to supersede and attack.


R.N. Carew Hunt, The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Pelican 1950)

F. Engels ‘The Condition of England: Review of Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle, in Elisabeth Jay and Richard Jay, Critics of Capitalism: Victorian Reactoins to ‘Political Economy(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1986) 85-95

K. Marx ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’ in Elisabeth Jay and Richard Jay, ibid, 96-104.

Moral Relativism in Totalitarian Dictatorships

May 30, 2013

Sir Isaiah Berlin, Vico and the Origins of the Rejection of Absolute Moral Values

One of the defining features of contemporary Postmodernism is its rejection of an absolute, transcendent morality. All societies are seen as equally valid in their worldviews, and attempts to evaluate them according to a particular system of morality are attacked as both philosophically incorrect and immoral. Indeed, the belief in an objective morality is viewed as one of the components of western imperialism and the horrific totalitarianisms of the 20th century. The attitude is not new, and certainly not pointless. The view that each period of history possessed its own unique morality goes back to the 17th -18th century philosopher, Giambattista Vico. In his book, Scienza Nuova (New Science), published in 1725, Vico argued that human history was divided into distinct cultural periods, so these periods could only be properly understood on their own terms. Vico’s view was championed after the War by the great British philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin. Berlin was horrified at the absolute moral authority claimed and demanded by the Fascist and Communist regimes. He was a leading figure during the Cold War of the 1950s to trace, explain and attack their ideological roots. He was particularly instrumental in making contact with an supporting some of the leading Soviet dissidents. Berlin attempted to counter their claims to absolute moral authority by denying the existence of absolute, unviersal moral values. He attempted to avoid the opposite pitfall of moral nihilism by stating that there were, however, certain values that acted as if they possessed a universal validity. One of these, for example, is the obvious injunction against killing innocents.

Franz Boas and Anthropological Opposition to Nazism and Racism

The view that every culture possesses its own unique worldview, and should be appreciated and assessed according to its values, rather than those of the West, was also pioneered by Franz Boas. Boas was a German anthropologist who migrated to America before the Second World War. He worked extensively among the Native American peoples, including the Inuit. Boas was Jewish, and had been driven out of his homeland by the Nazis. He formulated his rejection of a dominant, universal morality as a way of attacking the racist morality promoted by and supporting the Nazi regime. At the same time, he also sought to protect indigenous peoples against the assaults on their culture by Western civilisation under the view that such peoples were also morally and culturally inferior.

Moral Relativism in Hegel and Nietzschean Nihilism

In fact, the modern rejection of eternal, univeral moral values predates Berlin. It emerged in the 19th century in Hegelian philosophy and Nietzsche’s atheist existentialism. The attitude that there were no universal moral values, and that morality was relative, became increasingly strong after the First World War. Many Western intellectuals felt that the horrific carnage had discredited Western culture and the moral systems that had justified such mass slaughter. It was because of this background of cultural and moral relativism that Einsteins’s Theory of Relativity, which in fact has nothing to say about morality, was seized on by some philosophers as scientific justification for the absence of universal moral values.

Hegel viewed history as created through a process of dialectical change, as nations and cultures rose, fell and were superseded by higher cultures. As nations, states and cultures changed, so did ideas, and so there could be no universal ethical system. Furthermore, some events were beneficial even though they could not be justified by conventional morality. For example, those sympathetic to the Anglo-Saxons would argue that the Norman Conquest was immoral. Nevertheless, the Conquest also brought cultural and political advances and improvements. The dialectal process thus validated the Norman Conquest, even though the Conquest itself, by the standards of conventional morality, could be seen as morally wrong.

Apart from Hegel, Neitzsche also argued that without God, there were no objective moral standards. The individual was therefore free to create his own morals through heroic acts of will.

Hegel’s philosophy, although authoritarian, was developed to justify the new ascendant position of the Prussian monarchy after the Napoleonic Wars. The new Germany of the Hohenzollerns was, in his view, the culmination of the dialectal process. Nietzsche himself was a defender of aristocratic values, who despised the nationalism of the Wihelmine monarchy and the new mass politics. Despite their personal politics, elements of Hegelian philosophy became incorporated into Fascism and Communism, while Italian Fascism also contained the same atheist existentialism. Mussolini had been a radical Socialist before the foundation of the Fascist party and its alliance with and absorbtion of aggressively anti-socialist movements and parties. Even then, the party still contained radical socialist and particularly anarcho-syndicalist elements. These took their inspiration from the French Syndalist writer, Georges Sorel. Sorel considered that in the absence of universal moral values, what mattered was emotion and struggle. It was only in revolutionary conflict that the individual became truly free. This irrationalism thus served to justify the Fascist use of force and governments by elites, who rejected conventional morality.

Marx, Lenin and Moral Relativism

Marx followed Hegel in rejecting the existence of universal moral values. According to his doctrine of dialectal materialism, cultures and moral values were merely the ideological superstructure created by the economic basis of society. As the economic systems changed, so did a society’s culture and moral code. Moreover, each culture’s system of morality was appropriate for its period of economic and historical development. R.N. Carew Hunt in his examination of Communist ideology, The Theory and Practive of Communism, notes that the Communist Manifesto is the most powerful indictment of capitalism. It does not, however, condemn it as a morally wrong or unjust. When it does describe capitalism as exploitive, it is simply as a system of social relations, rather than a moral judgement. He quotes Marx’s own statement of Communist morality in his Ant-Duhring:

‘We therefore reject every attempt to impose on us any moral dogma whatsoever as an eternal, ultimate, and for ever immutable moral law on the pretext that the moral world too has its permanent principles which transcend history and the differences between nations. We maintain on the contrary that all former moral theories are the product, in the last analysis, of the economic stage which society had reached at that particular epoch. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality was always a class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or, as soon as the oppressed class has become powerful enough, it has represented the revolt against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on teh whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, cannot be doubted. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which transcends class antagonisms and their legacies in thought becomes possible only at a stage of society whicdh has not only overcome class contradictions but has even forgotten them in practical life.’

Lenin’s own view of Marxist morality was expressed in his Address to the 3rd Congress of the Russian Young Communist League of 2nd October 1920:

‘Is there such a thing as Communist ethics? Is there such a thing as Communist morality? Of course there is. It is often made to appear that we have no ethics of our own; and very often the bourgeoisie accuse us Communists of repudiating all ethics. This is a method of throwing dust in the eyes of the workers and peasants.

In what sense doe we repudiate ethics and morality?

In the sense that it is preached by the bourgeoisie, who derived ethics from God’s commandments … Or instead of deriving ethics from the commandments of God, they derived them from idealist or semi-idealist phrases, which always amounted to something very similar to God’s commandments. We repudiate all morality derived from non-human and non-class concepts. We say that it is a deception, a fraud in the interests of the landlords and capitalists. We say that our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat. Our morality is derived from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat…The class struggle is still continuing…We subordinate our communist morality to this task. We say: morality is what serves to destroy the old exploiting society and to unite all the toilers around the proletariat, which is creating a new communist society .. We do not believe in an eternal morality’.

Communist Morality Justified Brutality, against Judeo-Christian Values in British Ethical Socialism

The result was a highly utilitarian moral attitude which justified deceit, assassination and mass murder on the grounds that this assisted the Revolution and the Soviet system as the worker’s state. As the quotes from Lenin makes blatantly clearly, Communist morality was completely opposed to Western religious values. This amoral attitude to politics and human life and worth was condemned by members of the democratic left, such as Harold Laski, and Christian Socialists such as Kingsley Martin. In the June 1946 issue of New Statesman, Martin declared that Soviet morality was completely opposed to the Greco-Roman-Christiain tradition that stressed the innate value of the individual moral conscience. Christian socialism was a strong element in the British Labour party. Reviewing a history of the British working class’ reading over a decade ago, The Spectator stated that it wasn’t surprising that Communism didn’t get very far in Wales, considering that most of the members of the Welsh Labour party in the 1920 were churchgoing Christians who listed their favourite book as the Bible. As a result, the Russian Communists sneered at the Labour part for its ethical socialism. This was held to provide an insufficient basis for socialism, unlike Marx’s ‘scientific socialism’. If anything, the opposite was true.

Moral Relativism Does Not Prevent, But Can Even Support Totalitarianism

Now this does not mean that there is anything inherently totalitarian about moral relativism. Indeed, it is now used to justify opposition and resistance to Western imperialism and exploitation. It does not, however, provide a secure basis for the protection of those economic or ethnic groups seen as most vulnerable to such treatment.If there are no universal moral values, then it can also be argued that totalitarian regimes and movements also cannot be condemned for their brutal treatment of the poor, political opponents, and the subjugation or extermination of different races or cultures. Indeed, Marx and Engels looked forward to the disappearance of backward ethnic groups, like the Celts in Britain and France, and Basques in Spain as Capitalism advanced. When the various slavonic peoples in the German and Austro-Hungarian Empire revolted in the home of gaining independence in 1848, they condemned them as a threat to their own working-class movement and looked forward to a racial war against them. Their statement there presages the mass deportations and persecution of various ethnic minorities, including Cossacks, Ukrainians, Jews and some of the Caucasian Muslim peoples by the Stalinist state. And as it has been shown, moral relativism formed part of Italian Fascist and Russian Communist ideology.

Ability of Objective Morality to Defend Different Culture’s Right to Existence and Dignity

In fact you don’t need moral relativism to defend the rights of different peoples to dignity and the value of their culture. The very existence of human rights, including the rights of different ethnic groups to existence and the possession of their own culture, is based on the idea of an objective morality. All that is needed is to accept that each culture also has its own intrinsic moral value. One can and should be able to argue that certain aspects of another culture are objectively wrong, such as those institutions that may also brutalise and exploit women and outsiders to that culture. One can also recognise that these aspects do not necessarily invalidate the whole of that culture, or justify the brutalisation or extermination of its people.


R.N. Carew Hunt, The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Pelican 1950)

David Fernbach (ed.), Karl Marx: The Revolutions of 1848 (Harmondsworth: Penguin/ New Left Review 1973)

The Seizure of Power – this study of the rise of Italian Fascism and Mussolini’s coup.

‘Anatomia Theologica’: Dissection as Display of the Superb Divine Design of the Human Body

May 28, 2013

Another myth about the supposed religious opposition to Scientific advance is the belief that the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages placed a ban on human dissection. In fact human bodies were dissected at Bologna University in 1275 by the surgeon William of Saliceto. His Chirurgia was the first topographical anatomy. It relied heavily on classical sources, but nevertheless also included Saliceto’s own observations. These included the damage to sustained by the internal organs of a man wounded in the chest. The University also carried out post-mortems to ascertain the cause of death. Mondino of Luzzi introduced regular public dissections at the university for teaching purposes when he became a professor there.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries the argument from design for the existence of God also stimulated interest in human anatomy. For scholars such as Friedrich Hoffman, professor of medicine and physics at Halle, Georg Albrecht Hamberger of Jena, and the physicist and Lutheran theologian Johann Friedrich Wucherer, the intricate mechanism of the human body clearly pointed to the existence of a superbly brilliant Designer. This was clearly expressed in their works, which were written to show God’s amazing skill in shaping the human body, and the Almighty as a suitable subject for awe and worship. This argument from the immense intricacy of the human form was known as Anatomia Theologica. Although human dissection was permitted, there was nevertheless much opposition to it. It was believed that dissection of a person’s corpse would lead to that person being incomplete in the next world. As a result, such dissections were performed on criminals as a form of final humiliation. The elevated view of the human body as a demonstration of the Lord’s existence and superb skill in Anatomia Theologica challenged this hostility to dissection. For anatomists such as Lorenz Heister of Helmstedt and Albrecht von Haller believed that dissection could not be wrong if it served to reveal more fully God’s intricate craftsmanship. They therefore held public dissections to display God’s handiwork in the human form.

Thus Christian attitudes could lead to a hostility to human dissection, but this did not prevent academics using it to investigate and teach anatomy. It also served in Germany to promote anatomical science as further evidence of God’s superb design shown in humanity’s very fabric.

The Descent of Man and the Ascent of Faith: Darwinism as Aid to 19th century Apologetics

May 28, 2013

One of the great myths of the history of science is that Darwin’s theory of Evolution by Natural Selection was strongly opposed by the Christian church. There was indeed much opposition, but what is often neglected is that much of this was on scientific, rather than theological grounds. There were also a number of theologians who positively welcomed Darwinian evolution as an aid to faith.

Darwin’s Theory Not Proven Scientifically at Time of Proposal; Support of Theory by Some Clergy

At the time Darwin’s theory was still highly speculative, a fact that Darwin himself acknowledged. He was confident, however, that further facts and fossil evidence would be found to support his theory. Alister McGrath, the theologian and microbiologist, notes in his book, The Twilight of Atheism, that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce opened his legendary debate with Huxley with the statement that if Darwin’s theory of evolution were true, Christians would have to accept it, no matter how uncomfortable they found it. Furthermmore, while Huxley 31 years later remembered the debate as a great triumph, others were certainly not so sure. Sir Joseph Hooker believed that Huxley had turned the tables on the Bishop. He had failed, however, to deal with the weak points in Wilberforce’s arguments and had not convinced the rest of the people there. Indeed, Wilberforce actually convinced some of the scientists that evolution was actually wrong. One of these was Henry Baker Tristram, who was an early convert to Darwin’s theory. He had applied Darwin’s theory to the development of larks and chats in the Sahara desert. Witnessing the debate, he came to reject the theory. In 1867 the Guardian newspaper attacked the view, first proposed by F.W. Farrar, that the clergy as a whole were enemies of science. Its review of Darwin’s Descent of Man was critical. The reviewer nevertheless stated that viewed man as part of the evolutionary process, and considered that evolution would soon be as uncritically accepted as gravity. It stated that there was no ‘reason why a man may not be an evolutionist and yet a Christian. That is all that we desire to establish’. It then went on to state that ‘Evolution is not yet proved, and never may be. But … there is no occasion for being frightened out of our wits for fear it should be.’In 1874 T.G. Bonney’s book, A Manual of Geology, which argued for the vast age of the Earth, was published by the religious publishing house, the S.P.C.K. ON Darwin’s death in 1882, Huxley considered requesting that he be buried in Westminster Abbey. To his surprise, not only was his request not refused, but Canon F.W. Farrar declared to him that ‘we clergy are not all as bigoted as you suppose’ and asked him to make a formal application. Despite some opposition, Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey with full Christian rites. The following Sunday he was the subject of an appreciative sermon by Harvey Goodwin, the bishop of Carlisle. A memorial fund was set up for him that included not only the scientists Galton, Hooker, Romanes, Tyndall ahnd Herbert Spencer, but also the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishop of London. Near the end of the century Asa Grey told the Bishop of Rochester that looking back on the controversy, ‘he could not say that there had been any undue or improper delay on the part of the Christian mind and conscience in accepting, in such sense as he deemed they ought to be accepted, Mr. Darwin’s doctrine’s’. This contrasts strongly with the attitude of some Anglican clergy a few years ago, who issued an apology for the Anglican Church’s ‘misunderstanding’ of Darwin’s theory. Clearly, many of those at the time did not believe it had been misunderstood, or that the opposition had been excessive.

Use of Darwin in Christian Apologetics: Drummond

Some churchmen even viewed Darwin’s theory as an aid to Christian evangelism and apologetics. One of these was Henry Drummond, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland and professor of Natural Science at the Church’s College in Glasgow. In 1871 he hailed Natural Selection as ‘a real and beautiful acquisition to natural theology’, and declared that the Origin of Species was ‘perhaps the most important contribution to the literature of apologetics’ to appear in the 19th century. Taking the laws of nature as his inspiration and model, in 1883 he published Natural Law in the Spiritual World. Drummond used examples from the natural world to illustrate the same processes that he believed were present in the world of the spirit. This confusion between natural and spiritual was condemned by his those readers with philosophical inclinations. Nevertheless, it was also highly successful. This success was partly due to the use of illustrations from Darwin and Spencer, and scientific terminology and concepts such as biogenesis. In the view of Drummond’s biographer, G.A. Smith, his readers were not so much concerned whether he made a convincing case, but simply by the fact that he expressed and reinforced their deep religious convictions using the then dominant intellectual methods.

Darwin’s Theory and God’s Immanence in Creative Process

And Drummon was not the only clergyman who believed that Darwin actually aided faith. Some Christians, such as Charles Kingley, believed that the model of a mechanistic universe in which God only occasionally acted to introduce novelty served to separate the Almight from His creation. It stressed God’s transcendance at the expense of His immanence. For Kingsley and other like him, the doctrine of God’s Fatherhood and His Incarnation also meant that God was actively and creatively involved within His creation as well. In his contribution to the volume of theological essay, Lux Mundi, in 1881, the British theologian Aubrey Moore, used Darwin’s theory to attack the Deist notion of a God, who was not involved with His creation:

‘The one absolutely impossible conception of God, in the present day, is that which represents Him as an occasional visitor. Science has pushed the Deist’s God further and further away, and ata the moment when it seemed as if He would be thrust out altogether, Darwinism appeared, and, under the disguise of a foe, did the work of a friend.’
For Moore, there was a simple choice. Either God was present everywhere, or he was nowhere.

Carpenter: Theistic Evolution without Natural Selection

Some of the believers in theistic evolution held something very similar to modern Intelligent Design. Asa Grey himself suggested to Darwin that, as no-one knew the true source of variation, it was wise to believe that the Lord was involved. William Carpenter, a British physiologist, believed he had found proof of this view in his study of the marine shellfish Foraminifera. In his hypothetical family tree, Carpenter demonstrated how a simple spiral shell had become circular through a regular progression. This had occurred following a definite evolutionary course in which each stage was in preparation for the next. He also pointed to the fact that all the members of the series still existed to demonstrate that their evolution could not be explained by Natural Selection. If the various members of the Foraminifera family still existed, then clearly they could not have been produced through a struggle for fitness, as this would have resulted in at least some of the species becoming extinct.

Emergence of Man too Accidental for Random Chance
James McCosh, a professor at Princeton University, wrote extensively attempting to reconcile evolution with Christian belief. One of his arguments that evolution actually pointed to a belief in the Lord came from the evolution of humanity itself. If humanity’s evolution was entirely due to chance, then our existence was an even more remarkable accident than even the atheists believed. On the other hand, it could also show that all these evolutionary accidents through which humanity was formed were hardly accidental. Indeed, humanity had evolved through ‘adjustment upon adjustment of all the elements and the all the powers of nature towards the accomplishment of an evidently contemplated end.’

Wallace: Evolution Argues against Intelligent Life in the Universe

Alfred Russell Wallace was also deeply impressed with the apparently chance emergence of humanity. In his 1903 book, Man’s Place in the Universe, he used it to attack those physicists and scientists searching for earth-like planets on which intelligent life may have evolved. In a similar argument to Stephen Jay Gould’s on the uhniqueness of terrestrial evolutionary history, Wallace suggested that no matter how similar the environment on another planet may be to the Earth’s, it’s own evolutionary history would be very different. Minor differences in the evolutionary history of that planet’s creatures would mean that they would definitely not be like those on Earth, making intelligent life extremely unlikely.

C.S. Peirce: Evolution Proves Existence of Personal God

For the American philosopher of science, C.S. Peirce, the element of chance in natural selection also pointed to the involvement of a personal God. The manufacture of pre-determined features was a purely mechanical process, which excluded development or growth. If the universe was not the result of pre-determined sequence of events, but he creation of a living personality, then it should show spontaneity, diversification and the potential for growth.

Temple: Evolution Proves God the Only Lord

Frederick Temple also argued that Darwinian evolution also demonstrated the existence of a single, creator God. Temple believed that the doctrine of separate creation was vulnerable to HUme’s argument that the universe’s design showed that it could also have been created by a number of separate deities. If Darwinian evolution was interpreted as a single process in which potential was realised in higher organic forms, it pointed to a single Designer.

Thus not only was the reception of Darwin’s theory of evolution more balanced than simple outright opposition, the theory was also used by some clergy to argue for and strengthen their faith. In his book, Darwinism and the Divine, Alister McGrath demonstrates that, in contrast to the received view that Darwinism ended natural theology, such speculation continued after the theory’s adoption. The theological arguments had been changed under the theory’s impact, as Huxley himself recognised and argued, but nevertheless, they continued.

Natural Theology the Motive for Biological Research between 1650 and 1850

May 28, 2013

In their book on the relationship between Christian faith and the history of science, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton point out that Christian apologetics provided much of the motive for biological research from the Renaissance to the late eighteenth century. Following Aristotle, Christians saw the features of animals and plants as deliberately formed by the Creator to provide for them. Because it was believed that mere chance alone could not create them, they provided superb evidence for the existence and creative power of the Almighty. They quote evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr, stating

‘The study of natural history in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century was almost completely in the nads of amateurs, particularly country parsons’. They, and Meyr, also note that the secular bias of most textbooks obscure just how far Christian belief permeated and shaped all the sciences, including biology, in this period. Meyr states that ‘It is difficult for the modern person to appreciate the unity of science and Christian religion that existed from the Renaissance and far into the eighteenth century. The Christian dogma of creationism and the argument from design coming from natural theology dominated biological thinking for centuries’.

Pearcey and Thaxton make the point that the argument from design was not a ‘god-of-the-gaps’ argument. It instead drew its information from the increasing knowledge of the complexity of living creatures. As a result, the theory became increasingly stronger with the advancement of biological knowledge. They note that natural theology was popular with both orthodox Christians and Deists, and inspired most of the biological field work between 1650 and 1850.

My point here is not that the argument from design is correct, but simply that the Christian view that nature itself demonstrated the existence of an almighty God acted as a stimulus to scientific research, and that criticism of it as a ‘god-of-the-gaps’ argument is unfounded.


Nancy R. Pearson and Charles B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway 1994).

The Lack of Conflict between Medicine and Religion

May 27, 2013

According to some atheist and anti-religious polemicists, such as Richard Dawkins, religion and science are in conflict. This view has long been discredited by historians of science, but it is nevertheless repeated and remains very strong. Dawkins himself has made statements suggesting that people of faith are somehow unfit to be scientists, simply because they believe in something beyond philosophical materialism. This false view of scientific history has also infected the history of medicine. There are a number of myths, which have been repeated in books on the history of medicine, about how Christian ministers and ordinary worshippers have supposedly blocked advances in medicine. These myths were attacked and discredited by Alfred D. Fair in a Ph.D. thesis submitted to the Open University. Fair examined three areas, where it was alleged that Christian belief had been opposed to an advance in medical science. These were the inoculation for smallpox, c. 1720; the introduction of anaesthesia and the issue of unborn children.

In the introduction of smallpox inoculation, Fair noted that there was some opposition to it amongst scatter Calvinist communities in Scotland. Their objections were largely not to the procedure itself, but against the use of compulsion. These objections were not raised in 1798, when Jenner introduced his vaccination for the disease using cowpox, and they were entirely absent during the 19th century. The statements that the English clergy strongly opposed inoculation were myths produced by J.W. Draper and A.D. White, the originators of the belief that science and religion are at war.

There was similarly no conflict between the clergy, lay people and the medical establishment over the introduction of anaesthetics in childbirth. The origin of this myth appears to be a defence by the doctor, James Young Simpson. Simpson was responsible for introducing the use of anaesthetics in childbirth. He was afraid that some might object to it on religious grounds. In the event this was unnecessary, and the expected opposition did not arise. Unfortunately, some scholars appear to have taken his pre-emptive defence as proof that it did actually occur. This particular myth was attacked some time ago in the ‘Mythbuster’ column of that magazine of the weird and wonderful, The Fortean Times.

The issue of the status of unborn children is rightly the subject of intense, and frequently emotive debate. This is entirely correct, as the status of the unborn directly affects debates on the nature of humanity, the person, and humans’ innate dignity and right to life. These arguments clearly affect the issues of abortion, embryotomy and caesarian section. The Roman Catholic Church considers the fetus to have an absolute value as a living human being, the same as others. Apart from this, there has not been mass religious objections to abortion and other medical procedures and operations on the unborn. My own view here is that the Roman Catholics are mostly correct in their opposition to abortion. Their attitude is based not only on theology, but also on philosophy, particularly that of St. Thomas Aquinas. The view is that human life begins at conception, and aborting a fetus is the same as killing a developed human being. There are arguments for the use of abortion, when complications in pregnancy would endanger the mother’s life. These cases are very small, perhaps only about four a year in Britain. The issue of abortion is the subject of intense debate in America, and Roman Catholics are joined in their opposition to it by Evangelical Protestants. Nevertheless, despite this particular issue, there is no evidence for conflict between medicine and the established and Nonconformist churches of Britain and America.

Charles Bell: Surgeon, Expert on the Nervous System, and Christian Apologist

May 27, 2013

One of the contributors to the volume of Natural Theology, The Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation was the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century surgeon and anatomist, Charles Bell. Bell was the son of a Scots Episcopalian minister, who studied medicine at Edinburgh University. After graduation, he moved to London, where he set up a school of anatomy. As well as doctors and surgeons, Bell also taught anatomy to artists, and his lectures for them were published in 1806 as The Anatomy of Expression. With his partner, Wilson, he took over the Windmill Street School of Anatomy. He conducted research on the human nervous system, publishing A New Idea of the Anatomy of the Brain and Nervous System in 1811. In it he noted that stimulating the anterior root of the spinal nerves resulted in contractions. This did not occur when the posterior root was stimulated. This formed the basis of Magendie’s identification of sensory and motor nerves. Bell also described the trigeminal and facial nerves of the face. It was Bell’s student, Mayo, however, who realised that the facial nerves were motor and the trigeminal sensory. He became surgeon to the Middlesex Hospital in 1814. After the Battle of Waterloo the following year, he and his brother-in-law, John Shaw, rushed over to the battlefield to provide medical aid for the wounded troopers on both sides. During his work there he sketched the horrific wounds the soldiers had sustained during the Battle. In 1830 he published a further edition of his work, Nervous System of the Human Body, which has been recognised as a classic of medical literature. In 1836 he moved back to Edinburgh, where he had been appointed to the chair of surgery. It was Bell, who gave his name to the condition, Bell’s Palsy, and the thoracic nerve of Bell.

Bell was also deeply religious, and he was invited to contribute to the above book of Natural Theology by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London. The book was written according to the provisions of the will of the Earl of Bridgwater, who set up a trust fund for that purpose. Bell’s contribution was the chapter, ‘The Hand: its Mechanisms and Vital Endowments, as evincing design, and illustrating the power, wisdom and goodness of God’, published in 1833.

Bell’s career demonstrates that during the 19th century a prominent and brilliant surgeon and medical scientist could not only be a devout Christian, but also use his knowledge to proclaim God’s existence and glory. While the argument from biological design has been largely discredited following Darwin, nevertheless Bell is outstanding as a both a medical figure and someone who tried to put their faith into practice for God’s glory and the welfare of humanity.

Before the Industrial Revolution: The Mechanisation of Industry in the Middle Ages

May 26, 2013

One of the most astonishing features of medieval industry is just how mechanised it was. This aspect of medieval society is little appreciated. The most common view is that the mechanisation of industry began with the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries with the introduction of steam power and the factories. Historians such as Jean Gimpel and Lynn White, on the other hand, view the Middle Ages as a period of scientific and technological change and development. The scientific and technological transformation in the Middle Ages was so pronounced that it also forms an Industrial Revolution. It’s a controversial view. Many historians and archaeologists reject it, viewing the medieval changes as not comparable in extent with those produced by steam power in the 19th century. Medieval society was overwhelmingly agricultural. The industries were craft industries, characterised by workshops owned and managed by a master craftsman under whom were apprentices. These in turn looked forward to running their own workshops and employing apprentices after they had completed their training. The various trades and industries were organised into guilds, which regulated standards, working conditions and conditions of employment, and provided welfare services for their members. This all broke down with the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. The guild system declined as the old craft workshops were replaced with factory system, whose members could no longer look forward to becoming master craftsmen in their turn.

Despite the lower level of industrial development in the Middle Ages, industry was mechanised and sources of power used to drive the machines. These were not steam, but wind and water mills. These were not only used to grind grain, but also to drive trip hammers to forge iron and full cloth. The first fulling mill was built on the banks of the Serchio in Tuscany in 983. In the following decades the new industrial technology spread outwards to rest of Europe. The Schmidmuelen – ‘Forge Mills’ – first appears as a place in the Oberpfalz in Germany in 1010. Its name indicates that it was a site where a watermill drove a system of trip hammers in the forge. In 1086 two mills in England were paying rent in iron bloom, indicating that mill-driven forges had spread to this country. There were iron mills in Bayonne in Gascony too before the end of the eleventh century. Mills were widespread. According to the Domesday Book, there were 5,624 mills in England serving 3,000 towns and villages. According to the great historian of science, Lynn White, by the eleventh century the whole population of Europe was living constantly in the presence of one major form of power technology. Windmills became the typical feature of the northern European plains during the following century. Some towns possessed hundreds of them. There were 120 in the area around Ypres during the thirteenth century, for example.

By the early fourteenth century wind- and watermills was widely used to supplement or replace human labour in the basic industries. In thirteenth century England the centre of the cloth industry moved from the south-east to the north-west. This was due to the introduction of mill power to full cloth. Water power was more easily available in that part of the country, and so the industry moved there to take advantage of it. The guild regulations for Speyer in 1298 show that by that time mill power had completely replaced the fulling of cloth by hand. There were mills for tanning and laundering cloth, sawing wood, crushing mineral ores or agricultural products, like olives, operating the bellows or trip hammers for blast furnaces and forges, driving grindstones for polishing armour and weapons. There were mills to produce paint pigments, pulping wood for paper and mash for beer. The process culminated in the establishment of a mill along the Seine at Parish by Mateo dal Massaro to produce jewels in 1534. Eighteen years later it was taken over by the French royal mint to produce the first milled coins.

Not everywhere adopted the new technology as quickly. There were small areas in southern Europe, such as La Mancha in Spain, where wind and water power was not used. In La Mancha in Spain, windmills were only introduced in Cervantes time, hence Don Quixote’s mistaking them for giants. When they were introduced, these machines could be remarkably efficient and competitive. From the sixteenth century onwards they were used to pump out mines. They were still used in some areas into the nineteenth century, as they were more efficient than contemporary steam engines.
Even if the Middle Ages did not have an Industrial Revolution like that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was nevertheless a period of technological change, improvement and innovation to an astonishing extent, which has not received its proper recognition by the wider interest public outside the field of specialist historians.


Lynn White jnr, ‘Medieval Technology and Social Change’, in Colin Chant, ed., The Pre-Industrial Cities and Technology Reader (London: Routledge 1999) 99-103.

Computers Before Babbage: Schickard’s 17th Century Mechanical Calculator

May 26, 2013

Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine is now considered to be the first computer. Designed in the 19th century by the pioneeering mathematician, it was designed to prevent human error in the calculation of mathematical tables used for vital tasks, such as navigation. Wholly mechanical, it proved far too expensive for the British government to fund completely and so was never built. A replica of part of it stands in the Science Museum in London, while another replica was built for the home of Charles Simonyi, the vice-chair of Microsoft. As an icon of Victorian technological excellence and information technology, it has also been an inspiration to Steampunk Science Fiction novelists. This is most explicit in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s 1990 The Difference Engine.

Yet there is a whole history of mechanical computers extending back as far as the 17th century. The first of these was the ‘calculating clock’ built by the German polymath, Wilhelm Schickard in 1623. Schickard was inspired by the calculating aid, Napier’s Bones and incorporated them into his own device. The Calculating Clock was the size of a typewriter using a direct gear drive and rotating wheels to perform addition and subtraction. The machine used Napier’s Bones in its upper section to multiply and divide.It could computer figures up to six digits in length. Below these were a line of wheels and dials for addition and subtraction lay below them. The wheels were arranged so that when one wheel made a complete turn, the next moved a tenth of a complete turn. The dials were connected by toothed internal wheels that brought forward one digit whenever the wheel passed from nine to zero. The dials were moved in different directions for addition and subtraction. If the result of the calculation could not be displayed because it was longer than six digits, a bell rang.

Unfortunately, like many great inventions, including Babbage’s Difference Engine, it was never built. Schickard was building a replica of the calculating clock for the great astronomer, Kepler, when his workshop was destroyed by a fire. He gave detailed instructions for its construction to Kepler, before Schickard and his family were all killed by the plague in the 1630s. It was only rediscovered in the 1950s amongst Kepler’s papers held in Russia.

Despite this, it’s an astonishing demonstration of the mathematical and engineering ingenuity of the early 17th century, and makes you wonder what else they were capable of, and even how unique are the modern scientific achievements of our own day.