The prevailing Church of Reason forms a big part of the core-belief system, the foundational world-view in the West. But it ignores its own pre-cult premises, forgets its own previously admitted limitations, and makes many errors as a result. In a post-religious society, certain beliefs about history – for example Solzhenitsyn’s pseudo-historical claims and the characterization of Stalin in the west’s popular historical imagination – amount to far more than merely “a version of history” – they have actually been incorporated to become seen as integral elements of the west’s post-religious, structurally foundational “metaphysic,” with pernicious results, the author explores and explains. – J. Flores, ed
This article primarily concerns the metaphysically grounded seductiveness of historical “Big Lies,” but before I begin to discuss that, I must first discuss on a comparative basis the metaphysical implications of other types of narratives, in particular religious narratives.
All worthwhile religious belief-systems involve combinations of rational and non-rational thought.
Now, in saying that, I should make it clear that what I mean by “non-rational thought” should not be limited to “irrational thought.”
“Irrational thought” is thought which is not rational, but which represents itself as rational.
It either attempts to be rational and fails, or it plays the game of rationality insincerely.
However, there are a number of different ways in which thought might be “non-rational” without being “irrational.”
For example, a way of thinking might be “arational” (self-awarely operating outside of the epistemological scope of rationality) or “pre-rational” (self-awarely operating prior to rationality, in a way which may be seen as necessary in order to underpin rationality).
So why this need for the non-rational?
Well, simply put, reason’s claim to the status of a moral or epistemological imperative cannot be justified within reason’s own terms. In spite of their very best efforts, no historically significant philosopher has ever found a way to make reason self-mandating or self-justifying. Our commitment to reason, and our belief that reason is an integral aspect of a worthwhile and dignified human life, suffers from a certain kind of epistemological weakness.
That is, in order to ground itself, it seems to require a commitment to something pre-rational.
Since the late 18th century, this has been perhaps the deepest insight which philosophy has offered us.
As undeniably necessary as reason is to the task of living a good life, it cannot escape being ultimately grounded in something pre-rational. For example, Kant demolished all of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, showing each in its turn to be inadequate, and yet he still argued that the existence of God was a “practical postulate” on which reason itself could be grounded.
Most present-day zealots within the vulgarized Church of Reason overlook this point, a point which most of the deeper thinkers of the enlightenment were perfectly cognizant.
Namely, if pursued to the end, reason must ultimately culminate in its own self-critique, and in the epistemologically humble admission that it must be normatively grounded in the pre-rational, that reason cannot ultimately be self-justifying or self-mandating.
Perhaps that pre-rational grounding is something purely aesthetic, or something emotional, or a set of first principles which seem intuitively appealing, but which cannot be logically demonstrated.
If your personal commitment to reason as an integral aspect of a worthwhile and dignified human life is secured by your belief that reason’s norms can be extrapolated from the love which you feel for your children, then that’s perfectly fine.
Or alternatively, if your personal commitment to live reasonably is secured by your aesthetic experience of seeing an icon by Andrei Rublev, and how you interpret the implications of that aesthetic experience, then that’s perfectly fine too.
Or your personal commitment to be guided by reason through your life’s path may be secured because you find a given set of metaphysical first principles intuitively appealing, but are unable to logically demonstrate them, simply by virtue of their being first principles.
Maybe it doesn’t really matter too much what the particular grounding for your own personal commitment to reason as a standard to live by is – what matters is that, in your day-to-day practical, political and moral activity in the world, you think and behave reasonably. It’s destructive if you don’t.
First and foremost, the emotional, aesthetic and spiritual aspects of our lives must be seen as valuable in themselves.
Without the capacity to have experiences like these, our humanity itself would hardly be worthwhile.
However, in addition, another valuable thing about the emotional, aesthetic and spiritual aspects of our lives is that they offer our impulse toward non-rational thought a healthy, non-destructive outlet. That is to say, they enable us to compartmentalize our impulse toward non-rational thought in a way which may still serve as a grounding for rational thought, and thereby enable us to behave rationally in our day-to-day practical and moral activity in the world.
Taking systems of religious thought specifically, we can say that all systems of religious thought, even highly venerable ones with formidable intellectual traditions, combine rational thought with varying degrees of irrational, arational and pre-rational thought. It might be argued that the extent to which a religious tradition’s non-rational elements may be characterized as “irrational” as opposed to “arational” or “pre-rational” is partially related to the prevalence of literalism within the religious tradition in question.
Thankfully, most of the ethnographic research done by anthropologists and sociologists on religion indicates that most of the 5 billion religious adherents in the world have a tendency to employ good common sense in the interpretation of their professed religious doctrines – they have a tendency to interpret most of their professed doctrines as metaphors or as allegories. Literalism seems to be a minority-tendency in most religious traditions worldwide. So on this level, we can say that religions exhibit more “arational thought” and “pre-rational thought” than merely “irrational thought.”
If I interpret a particular religious narrative or doctrine as an allegory, then it really does not matter so much whether I “believe it” or I “don’t believe it”.
Once the religious doctrine or narrative in question is understood to be an allegory, the point is then simply to understand its subtext. Allegorical interpretation renders the question of “belief” or “unbelief” meaningless. The more meaningful question is simply whether or not I believe that the allegory’s subtext has something valuable or insightful to say to me about human life, just as the moral subtext of a novel might have something valuable or insightful to say to me about life.
If we were to accept this tendency toward allegorical interpretation as a norm within most religious traditions worldwide, which most of the ethnographic research indicates it is, then it would also dispel the notion that there is any unresolvable conflict between religious and non-religious people.
This distinction between literal and allegorical interpretation will come up again in my discussion of historical “Big Lies.”
One of the systemic virtues of many systems of religious thought, and of transcendental monotheisms in particular, is that they set up a system of cognitive coordinates wherein most of our “non-rational” thought pertains, not to this world, but to another world, a “beyond,” a transcendental realm. Even if we adopted a generally cynical attitude toward religion (which I don’t), we might still concede that this serves a very useful social and epistemological purpose insofar as it compartmentalizes or “quarantines” our impulse toward non-rational thought.
Being so compartmentalized, our tendency toward non-rational or even irrational thought does less damage. If I held irrational beliefs about the everyday world present-at-hand, then that would be far more damaging than if I hold irrational beliefs about some other-worldly transcendental realm.
So even if we were cynical about religion – even if we saw all religions as inherently irrational, which I don’t for the reasons I have explained above – we might still concede that some religions serve a useful social and epistemological function, insofar as they help to compartmentalize our impulse toward non-rational thought, and thereby possibly to even ground worldly, rational thought. We keep our craziness in heaven, and we keep our rationality on Earth, where we need it.
This line of argument is reminiscent of Charles Taylor’s discussion of Judaism in his commentary on Hegel’s phenomenology of religion. In discussing Hegel’s religious typologies, Taylor opines that the development of Judaism, or of a “religion of sublimity” analogous to Judaism, was a necessary pre-condition to the development of what we call “science.” Before we could begin to investigate the natural world solely within its own terms, it was first necessary to demystify the world – that is to say, before we could begin to investigate the whys and wherefores of the natural world in exclusively naturalistic terms, first we had to take God out of the natural world, and put him somewhere else. Therefore, the transcendentalization of God, which historically occurs first in Judaism, was a precursor to the demystification of the world, which was in turn a precursor to the development of science.
However, this presents us with a question – what happens to our impulse toward non-rational thought in a post-religious society? Most neo-atheists would have us believe that the eradication of religion would largely lead to the eradication of irrational thought. However our collective social experience of secularization as a historical process doesn’t seem to bear this out – it seems that our impulse toward non-rational thought has been simply displaced rather than eradicated. More than one philosopher, including Regis Debray, has in recent years observed that the decline in organized religion as a cultural force has led, not to a culture of advancing rationality, but rather to a culture of advancing superstition.
This might be seen as a corollary of Taylor’s insight regarding Judaism in his discussion of Hegel’s typology of religions – just as the appearance of the transcendental in our cognitive landscape had enabled a “de-mystification of the world,” the disappearance of the transcendental leads to a “re-mystification” of the world. With the disappearance of “the transcendental realm” from our cognitive landscape, we no longer have a space in which to compartmentalize our impulse toward non-rational thought, so we bring our impulse toward non-rational thought back down to Earth, where it has the potential to do immeasurably more damage than when we invested it in heaven.
Furthermore, the disappearance of the transcendental from our cognitive landscape creates a need for some other, non-sublime, sub-set of beliefs within our views of the world to be designated as “core-beliefs.” For a fully committed Jew or a fully committed Christian or a fully committed Muslim, the belief in God may be utterly non-negotiable, but he may be open to reasoned persuasion on everything else. Once the belief in God disappears, however, it is usually necessary to designate some other belief or sub-set thereof as “non-negotiable.”
This is because everybody’s Weltanschauung requires some or other type of grounding “metaphysic.” Even if this sub-set of “core”-beliefs is not religious in nature, most people will still adopt a religious attitude toward their core-beliefs.
What I mean by a “metaphysic” in this sense is some sub-set of beliefs which is seen as structurally foundational to all other beliefs, and which is therefore seen as “non-negotiable,” impervious to counter-argument or contradictory evidence, etc, a set of beliefs to which I or you will probably feel compelled to adopt a religious attitude. By “metaphysical,” I also mean that such a set of beliefs is also seen to be impervious to empirical falsification insofar as any conceivable experience of living in the world would simply be interpreted as confirmation of those beliefs. That is to say, this sub-set of “core”-beliefs would be the filter through which all worldly experience is interpreted.
For both the religious and the irreligious alike, such a sub-set of “core”-beliefs is necessary because it plays a role which is both epistemological and structurally foundational – such “core”-beliefs create a conceptual framework within which other, less fundamental, beliefs can be formulated, tested and slotted in. Without any such set of “core”-beliefs (what I here choose to call “a metaphysic”), it would be impossible for a person to formulate or to hold any beliefs about the world whatsoever. Therefore, people have a tendency to be impervious to counter-argument concerning their “core-beliefs,” the sub-set of beliefs in their view of the world which play the role of a grounding-metaphysic. Without these beliefs, their entire epistemological framework would evaporate. They would therefore immediately find themselves thrown into ontological and existential crisis.
In the absence of religion, beliefs about physics, economics, politics and history can all begin to play the role of “core”-beliefs or “metaphysical” beliefs – and therefore become impervious to contradictory evidence. This point helps us to understand libertarianism and worldviews within which the efficient markets hypothesis plays a central role. It helps us to understand “metaphysical” rather than historically grounded or sociologically grounded understandings of capitalism.
It also helps us to understand the power of the historical “Big Lie.”
A certain belief about history may come to be seen as structurally foundational to a person’s entire Weltanschauung, to such an extent that abandonment of that belief would immediately precipitate existential crisis. For the holder of a particular historical belief, it would be almost like thinking “Oh god, if my belief X about history is wrong, then maybe even the laws of physics are wrong too. Maybe everything I think I know about everything is wrong….”
Instant existential crisis.
This point is key – when a person’s beliefs are contradicted by historical or other empirical evidence, and their reaction is defensive or impervious, it is often not explanatorily deep enough simply to say that they are being childish or that they are undergoing “cognitive dissonance” – the psychologization of this process serves up a shallow and inadequate explanation. Much deeper motivational factors will often be involved. My contention here is that what we call “cognitive dissonance” is usually best explained by a person’s fear of being suddenly flung into a state of existential crisis, of being suddenly flung into an ontological abyss wherein they find themselves unable to hold or to formulate any beliefs about anything whatsoever. The core-issue is simultaneously metaphysical and epistemological, and therefore existential.
It arises out of motivational factors much deeper than mere vanity.
During the post-war period, the ubiquity of liberal orthodoxy combined with consumer-capitalism’s culture-war against organized religion (resulting in a “re-mystification of the world”) combined to create a social and epistemological landscape within which certain beliefs about history began for many people to play the role of “core”-beliefs, or what I have here called “metaphysical” beliefs. Within liberal orthodoxy, certain beliefs about history are treated as so sacrosanct that doubting them would be tantamount to doubting the laws of classical mechanics. Doubting these beliefs would result in a person’s entire sense of epistemological trust in everything they had ever been taught being thrown into a meat-grinder. They would find themselves in an ontological abyss, gazing into an appalling vista, in which nothing they had ever believed any longer made sense or could be taken on trust. Well into the early modern period, most “core”-beliefs which were assigned this level of importance by most people were religious beliefs.
This explains why people cling so stubbornly to this or that historical “Big Lie,” even after it has been falsified by an abundance of historical evidence.
It is because, in a post-religious society, it is one of many possible psychological substitutes for religion.
Let me offer one example of such a belief about history, which has come to play a “metaphysical” role within the Euro-Atlantic world’s liberal orthodoxy, in the manner which I have described above – the belief that “tens of millions died in the Soviet gulag.”
All of the available archival and historical evidence suggests that this belief is straightforwardly, factually untrue.
It is one of the wildest exaggerations ever to have been successfully passed off as a historical “fact.”
The originator of this belief, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, was not a professional historian, and never had access to any Soviet ministries’ archives, or any other basis on which to come to a methodical estimate of the numbers of custodial deaths which occurred in the Soviet Union.
He simply made the numbers up.
According to the most methodically careful estimates, based upon archival evidence, a total of 1.3 million people died under different categories of custodial conditions in the Soviet Union between 1928 and 1953. Almost half a million of these people were housed in open prisons, were allowed to go to their places of work every day, and died of natural causes. Of that half-million, the majority would have died of natural causes over the same 25-year period anyway. The bulk of the remainder of the custodial deaths which occurred in the Soviet Union between 1928 and 1953 are accounted for by the great purge of 1937-38 when, admittedly, things did get a little hot.
That means that, between 1928 and 1953, the average number of custodial deaths per year in the Soviet Union was 52,000. Over most of this period, the Soviet Union’s total population was in the region of 150 million. Per capita, it’s marginally higher than most other industrial countries over the same period, but it’s not off the scale by any means.
In other words, Solzhenitsyn had exaggerated the numbers by a factor of 20, but his pseudo-historical fabrications found an ideologically receptive echo-chamber in the liberal orthodoxy of the Euro-Atlantic world.
The overwhelming majority of westerners have heard it repeated so often that “tens of millions died in the Soviet gulag,” that they simply assume it must be true. I cannot think of a more textbook example of what we mean by the phrase “the Big Lie.”
In any case, when you point out that all of the historical and archival evidence contradicts Solzhenitsyn’s claims, the level of defensiveness and imperviousness which some western liberals exhibit indicates that this belief that “tens of millions died in the Soviet gulag” actually began to operate as a component of the west’s post-religious “metaphysic” – that nexus of core-beliefs which are deemed necessary in order to sustain all other beliefs, indeed necessary to sustain any sense of social normalcy, the denial of which would have been as epistemologically destabilizing to the liberal Euro-Atlantic world’s consensual Weltanschauung as denying the laws of classical mechanics.
However, this brings us back to the aforementioned distinction between “literal” and “allegorical” interpretation of doctrines and narratives which so often arises in the discussion of religious matters. There is a certain extent to which some rabid anti-communists, when they defend the claim that “tens of millions died in the Soviet gulag,” are actually playing a cynical postmodernist game. When they are confronted by contradictory historical evidence, they revert to an “allegorical” position. That is to say, they still maintain that Solzhenitsyn’s claims are allegorically “true” insofar as their moral implication (concerning the inherent evil of communism) is “true.”
Except that this type of reasoning is immeasurably more cynical than “allegorically” believing in a deity, isn’t it?
Furthermore, insofar as it pertains to the human historical world as opposed to some other-worldly transcendental realm, insofar as it is not compartmentalized in the same way that religious beliefs about the transcendental are compartmentalized, this type of deliberate irrationality – this grim determination to either ignore or deflect hard historical evidence – is far more intellectually corrosive (and therefore also more morally corrosive) than almost any conceivable form of belief concerning the transcendental could ever be. Once we allow a certain sub-set of our beliefs about the world itself to become deliberately irrational, that irrationality gradually spreads like a cancer through the entire range of our beliefs and through our day-to-day practical and moral activity IN the world itself. That is to say, once deliberate irrationality pertains to worldly matters, it cannot be contained.
It has broader epistemological implications.
Insofar as reason and practical social morality are functionally interdependent, in the end, the consensual historical “Big Lie,” which can only be sustained through deliberate irrationality, inevitably produces a culture of deliberately irrational sociopaths.