Should Atheists admire Monotheism, the same way Socialists love Capitalism?
When I first read Karl Marks’ The Communist Manifesto, I was very much surprised. I expected a demeaning rebuke of Capitalism, a scourge of fire scathing evil wealthy industrialists. But I found nothing of the sort. The Manifesto struck me as a paean for capitalism. It is full to the rim with the praise of capitalism. Marks and Angels are charmed with capitalism. There are a couple of (very big) issues which make capitalism the greatest peak of civilization (so far) in their eyes.
- The first point is that capitalism has brought an age of limitless capability. From their perspective in the middle of the 19th century, it is more than understandable. As they rightly exclaim, humans can now cross vast oceans in mere weeks. Fertilized crop yield vast amounts of food. For the first time ever, the medical establishment is doing more good than harm. Medicine actually works(!). And on and on. The list is endless. Capitalism has unleashed an enormous power. This power can do much good, and it does.
- Traditional societies are tiered into a myriad of social classes. The Indian Caste system might be extreme, but it is not unique. All traditional societies have similar structures, where one is born into an (almost) inescapable social position. A slave is a slave, even if he is one of the greatest philosophers of antiquity. When 19th century silk workers in Lyon had their salaries cut so low as to reduce them to starvation, their strike was broken by gunfire, and they had no alternative but to go back home and starve there in quiet. It was always rare for a person to escape the bonds of his social strata. This has severe legal implications. There are different sets of laws regulating the interactions of slaves, serfs, wealthy merchants, land-owning nobility, and priesthood. This creates a complex legal labyrinth, which is not easy to navigate. During the European middle ages, the legal system of the free cities was a civic nightmare in which professional guilds constantly fought each other for hegemony. All this is gone. Capitalism has butchered the old social structures. It has crushed the legal system into a simple 2-tier system. It has imposed legal equality. No more do shoe-makers and map-makers stand on distinct legal strata. They now share the same level as other proletarians. There are only two distinct surviving legal systems – one for the rich industrialists, and the other for proletariat. All other ancient tiers are merged into these two. Life is much more simple.
The main thesis of the manifesto is that capitalism, having done with the old legal mess, has almost brought us to a situation in which everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. It has taken us almost to the end of the road. It has crushed a system built on dozens of legal strata into just two. For achieving full legal equality, for finishing what capitalism has done, we have a very small task at hand. Surely, going from a double-tier system into a single tier system is just a simple matter. The trivial conclusion of the Herculean feat already achieved by capitalism, to merge the remaining casts of industrialists and proletariat into a single, harmonic, body of men – that should be trifle (sorry, girls, this is 19th century stuff written by 19th century men). And when this last bit of social stratification is done with, surely, so goes the narrative, surely then the forces unleashed by homo industrious will be unimaginable.
Now, one of the funniest things about Marks’ socialism is that it’s goals have been achieved by the national democratic state. In nationalism, humanity has found a force strong enough not only to glue both industrialists and proletariat to common goals, but to merge society. Indeed, in the post-WWII world of democratic nationalism, the different social-economic strata have really been merged into a single legal strata. No more are children of farmers banned from the universities. No longer are workers banned from 1000000$ salaries. No more does the boy of a grocer needs to run away in order to marry the daughter of a fisherman. No more can a high-class citizen safely harm a low-class member of society and expect to get away with it. True, the legal system is never perfect, and judges are often influenced by class. They are part of an imperfect society, and always will be. But the old days are gone for good. The high-class criminal may expect to find the judge lenient in his favor, but he might just as well find himself becoming the object of a moral play, bearing maximum penalty exactly because he is a high-class. I doubt that a layperson will ever get convicted in court for a mere kiss, as was recently a member of the Israeli cabinet.
Back to the issue at hand.
Marks’ socialism entails him to admire capitalism, for capitalism has already done most of the work. Our primary goal as socialists is to achieve equality before the law. And capitalism has taken society from the old labyrinth of multiple legal strata into just a couple of. What work we, 19th century socialists, have left to do, is the (seemingly) simple matter of crunching the remaining two-tier system into a single-tier system. Almost no job at all.
And this is exactly the same reason for which atheists should love monotheistic religion. You see, we atheists want to do away with gods altogether. We want to do with them all. Thor and Jove and Buddha. There were thousands of them in the old days. How do you kill so many gods? This seems like an impossible task, doesn’t it?
But, here came monotheism to the rescue. Monotheistic religions have done with almost all of them. It has murdered all but one (or three) of them. So much easier now, isn’t it? All we have to do is do in with this single god left, and we’re free from the scourges of religion for ever and ever. And everlasting praise for monotheism which did most of the work for us.
So, should we?
Let us go back to antiquity. To the Greeks, and to the Roman empire. There, amid the myriad of godletts, there came into being the first true atheists. Anaxagoras and Epicurus, men of ancient Greece, were the forerunners of atheism. So was, to some extent, Buddha, some time earlier. Their views, while certainly not popular (Anaxagoras was exiled. Socrates executed) were hardly as dangerous in antiquity as they were in monotheistic societies. We know well what became of heretics in Christian lands.
There was more than a single Sufi who got similar treatment under Islam for lesser crimes than heresy. Monotheism was certainly harsher on atheists than the multi-god cultures of old. And it’s resilience seems stronger as well. It is much harder to convert a monotheist than it ever was with a polytheist.
Monotheism has a totalitarian aura. It is not political totalitarianism to which I am referring here. It is the totality of the presence of the One True God in the life of the believer which is the crux of the matter. The monotheistic God is a tough nut. It does not yield as easily as Baal did.
Nor does Capitalism, for that matter.
It is much easier to contemplate the importance of equality when there are 100 social strata, than in is when there are only two of them. Sometimes, history is as hilarious as it can possibly be. At the same age in which Democratic Nationalism did the job, killing the vertical legal stratification of society, it also entrenched and enshrined the demarcation of humanity into distinct horizontal (national) units, poised against each other as were the social tiers of old.
On the plus side, capitalism might – just might – be able do away with that remaining segmentation of humanity via Consumerism and Global economy. At the end, if anything seems remotely close to bringing about Marks’ vision to completion, it still seems as if Capitalism might have within itself the seeds of new social revolutions. In that respect it is far more interesting a phenomena than Monotheism ever was.