Riots broke out in the spring of 2020. Rioters burned city blocks to the ground, shot David Dorn, a black police officer, to death during a Facebook livestream, and stoned a man till his blood stained the Dallas street. Riot targets included businesses owned and operated by black women (here and here). White protesters, purportedly agitating against racial injustice, called black police officers the n-word (here and here). Protesters defaced statues to heroes to racial justice, including Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Hans Christian Heg, and black soldiers who served in the Union Army. Facebook memes depicted Al Qaeda terrorists watching the news and saying, “We don’t have to destroy America. America is destroying itself.”
How to understand this irrational behavior? In search of comprehending the incomprehensible, many turned to education. For generations, leftists have dominated colleges and universities. These leftists require students to take courses that indoctrinate them in anti-American rhetoric.
In August, 2020, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose published the very timely: “Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody.” This 352-page, Pitchstone Publishing book has been called “The Rosetta Stone.” It offers a guide to the theories and theorists advanced in academia and undergirding diverse cultural phenomena. These phenomena include 2020’s riots, Google’s 2017 firing of engineer James Damore for saying that men and women are different, the promotion of drag, and the rejection of socioeconomic class as a pressing leftist concern.
Americans have struggled with terminology. What to call the ideologies cited to justify destruction, nihilism, and hate? For years, some of the following terms have been used: leftists, liberals, the politically correct, cultural Marxists, identity politicians, the woke, and social justice warriors. Lindsay and Pluckrose use the capitalized words “Theory” and “Theorists.”
James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose first gained national attention in 2018. Along with Peter Boghossian, they wrote twenty academic papers parodying currently popular theories. These papers included a rewrite of Hitler’s “Mien Kampf” using feminist language, and an account of rape culture at dog parks. Their goal was to demonstrate that academia has gone so far wrong that the arbiters of academic truth, peer reviewers, could not recognize blatant absurdity. In this project, designed to expose to the world the nakedness of the academic emperor, Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian exhibited great courage and intellectual brilliance. We all owe them a debt of gratitude.
“Cynical Theories” walks the reader through postmodernism, postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory and intersectionality, feminism and gender studies, disability and fat studies, and social justice scholarship.
These introductions are brief, and just a bit more information could have been helpful. For example, French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) is mentioned several times. Foucault is a highly influential figure. His work is among the most frequently cited in the social sciences. Foucault claimed to have used every drug except heroin. He participated in sadomasochistic sexual activity, he engaged in self-harm, including cutting his own chest with a razor in public, and he attempted suicide several times. Foucault hated his father, he decorated his room with depictions of torture and war, and he fantasized suicidal orgies involving anonymous participants. He expressed approval for sexual relations between children and adults. Foucault was a member of the Communist Party; a gay man, he left it complaining of its homophobia.
Judith Butler, the theorist who gave us the idea that there is no such thing as a woman, and that gender is merely a play in which we perform a role, is a lesbian. Edward Said, the father of postcolonial studies, was a Palestinian, anti-Israel activist. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, another star of postcolonial studies, is a Brahmin from Calcutta. Used to the deference a Brahmin experiences in India, Spivak felt that she was a “subaltern” in the non-Hindu, non-caste-system West. Charlotte Cooper, a fat studies scholar and author is – wait for it – fat. Cooper argues against “medicalization” of obesity, in spite of the objective reality that obesity is a medical issue. Robin Diangelo has, of course, made millions of dollars from “scholarship” alleging that all white people are racist and will be till the day they die.
I mention these biographical details because anyone attempting to penetrate these influential scholars’ ideas would benefit from understanding their biographies. Lindsay and Pluckrose characterize postmodernism as a font of “nihilistic despair.” Foucault’s biographical details contribute to understanding. It’s hard to imagine a more nihilistic exercise than Foucault’s proposed suicide orgy of anonymous participants. Foucault’s fellow communists’ no doubt hurtful rejection helps us to understand his experience of meaninglessness.
Theorists’ biographical details suggest that they are not engaged in discovering and disseminating real knowledge, but are, instead, merely using the cloak of scholarship to disguise activism, personal grievance, and self-enrichment.
Lindsay and Pluckrose provide few to no biographical details on the scholars they discuss. Perhaps they wish to avoid any accusation of ad hominem argumentation. The aforementioned scholars deserve no such protection. Their own Theory insists that there is no such thing as truth, and that people only say what they say in order to enhance their own power. For example, these scholars will say things like, “You are saying X because you are a white, Western male.” The X in the previous sentence could be something as innocuous as “2 + 2 =4.” Math itself is, according to Theory, merely a “Western construct,” and if one lived in another culture, 2 + 2 might equal 5.
“A fundamental change in human thought took place in the 1960s,” Lindsay and Pluckrose write. French theorists, including Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and Jacques Lacan changed everything. Postmodernism and related philosophies emphasize cultural relativism and power as a grid, rather than a top-down phenomenon. In the grid model, we are all perpetuators of unfair power structures, structures we perpetuate through language. Thus, every word we utter must be scrupulously policed for punishable evidence of its racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, xenophobia and fatphobia. The pronoun “he” in reference to a drag queen is an murderous act. To insist, “I am not racist,” is itself racist, and your racism is evident in every word you say. It is the job of the “scholar” to find the racism in your speech.
This, then, is “postmodernism’s applied turn,” which began to take place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and continues today. Postmodernism is comparable to a “fast-evolving virus” that “tore its hosts apart and destroyed itself” and required new hosts to inhabit. It has now “leapt the species gap” from “academics to activists to everyday people,” who, now infected with this virus, struggle “to reconstruct society in the image of an ideology which came to refer to itself as ‘Social Justice.'” These new Theorists “advocate an ought” – that is, rather than discovering and describing the world as it is, today’s scholars tell people how to think, feel, and live. This, the authors say, is “an attitude we associate with churches.” The authors insist that Theory is a new, powerful, and destructive religion.
After introducing the influential postmodernists and allies from decades ago, “Cynical Theories” moves on to contemporary “applied postmodernists” and their antecedents, that is, Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, bell hooks, Kimberle Crenshaw, Peggy McIntosh, Robin Diangelo, and others. Lindsay and Pluckrose discuss intersectionality, microaggressions, allyship, white privilege, body positivity, cancel culture, identity politics, black nationalism, and critical race theory. This is a lot, but the authors stick to providing simplified, layman-friendly, bullet-point-style main ideas. This approach does result in dry prose, but it allows the authors to cover much ground in a minimum number of pages.
In the past, “Cynical Theories” recounts, the job of the academy was to discover and describe what is. Now, the job of the academy is to change reality to make it better. At the same time, the academy questions the very nature of reality, denying, for example, that time and space exist. Time and space are just “social constructs” that people think exist because they have decided that they exist. Similarly, disease, disability and human biology are also merely “constructs.” There are differences between men and women because society has decided that there are differences. Outside of human minds, these differences do not exist.
In this manner, always questioning and denying reality, applied postmodernism will continue to tear down, rather than to build up. “This is not a bug, but a feature … there is always more to deconstruct … anything can be problematized … unjust power is everywhere, always … speech is to be closely scrutinized … ‘problematics’ need to be identified and exposed.” Today’s hero could be tomorrow’s enemy of the people. The revolution eats its young. This constant need for ever new oppressions results in movements like “fat studies,” that insist that “Obesity discourse is totalitarian.” “Research justice” would require that obesity not be treated as a medical issue, but rather be covered with poetry by fat people celebrating fatness.
Lindsay and Pluckrose see this aspect of Theory as comparable to a religious cult. When cult members predicted that a UFO would come to collect believers on a given date, and the UFO did not arrive, believers, rather than admitting that they were deluded, came up with a new myth to justify the continuation of their cult. Just so, Western societies have made great advances in eradicating racism and sexism. Rather than acknowledge that aggressive movements are no longer necessary, activists come up with new problems, for example “microaggressions,” to justify their continued existence – and, of course, their continued power and funding.
Ultimately, of course, this constant search for new oppressions to denounce and new oppressors to pillory results in scorched earth, a Khmer-Rouge-style Year Zero – or a French-Revolution-style Year One. “They wanted to tear it all apart, right down to the foundations … on paper, Theories seem to say good things. Let’s get to the bottom of bigotry, oppression, marginalization, and injustice … we could make our way to the right side of history.” Such purges in the name of Utopia never work, and often result in mass graves.
Interestingly, one of the tools for applied postmodernist revolutionaries is parody. Theorists declared that it is time to deconstruct masculinity through “the politics of parody,” to render heterosexual men “absurd” through “the conscious effort to subvert traditional notions of gender identity and gender roles” “through the employment of drag or the ‘queer-camp’ aesthetic.”
As I write these words, average people, who would never describe themselves as “applied postmodernists” or activists of any kind, are doing just this on social media. In a debate, President Donald Trump mentioned the Proud Boys, The press followed with a concerted effort to depict the Proud Boys as white supremacists. It is difficult for the Proud Boys to refute this, as they are banned from much social media. On October 5, 2020, gay men began sharing, on Twitter, images of themselves kissing their male partners and declaring themselves “Proud Boys.” This is just what the applied postmodernists ordered: parody used to deconstruct masculinity.
It is incorrect to understand Theory or Theorists as authentic Marxist. “Privilege” has replaced social class and poor whites are just as powerful and oppressive as any rich white. “One starling omission” in woke scholarship is “any meaningful mention of economic class.” “Many working class and poor people often feel profoundly alienated from today’s left … [which] has adopted very bourgeois concerns. It is profoundly ironic that a movement claiming to problematize all sources of privilege is led by highly educated, upper-middle-class scholars and activists who are so oblivious to their status as privileged members of society.”
“Cynical Theories” ends as it began, with a rousing encomium to “liberalism.” The authors offer a four-page list of positions, for example, “We deny that critical race Theory and intersectionality provide the most useful tool to [address racism], since we believe that racial issues are best solved through the most rigorous analyses possible.” There are similar declarations for sexism and homophobia.
I do praise Lindsay, Pluckrose, and their collaborator, Peter Boghossian, as heroes. Hosanna! At the same time, I have a few objections about “Critical Theories.” I will address those below, in increasing order of magnitude.
Big, historical shifts have real world geneses. It’s hard to understand Nazism without discussion of the Versailles Treaty, the Depression without discussion of the stock market, the Sexual Revolution without discussion of the birth control pill, or the Reformation without discussion of the selling of indulgencies.
Foucault and his peers did not discover anything new. Jews were aware of something like “cultural relativism” over 2,000 years ago. For them, child sacrifice was forbidden. For the Canaanites, child sacrifice was de rigueur. The question is, why did all these philosophies, that didn’t really say anything new, gain so much power in recent decades?
A related question: what about that signature of the left, selective outrage? One must be in a constant state of high dudgeon over the treatment of women and homosexuals in the West; one must never so much as allude to mistreatment of women or homosexuals in Islamic, Hindu, Confucian, or Communist societies. One must rage against the wealth gap between average blacks and average whites; one must not breathe so much as a word of sympathy for poor white Americans.
Women are granted primacy over men, until a sadistic black man, Karlos Dillard, begins to harass white women he calls “Karen.” Suddenly the “feminist” woke embrace a male stalker who torments women. Black men are given primacy, until Juan Williams, a black journalist, admits to anxiety when he sees a Muslim on an airplane. Suddenly that black man is fired and labeled mentally ill by his white boss at NPR, a bastion of wokeness.
Lindsay and Pluckrose exhibit a dram of selective outrage. They don’t talk much about Islam, except to protect it. They claim that mistreatment of women and homosexuals is merely a result of “interpretations” of Islam. Contrast this with their rhetoric about Christianity, rhetoric that is consistently hostile and misleading.
The Theorists Lindsay and Pluckrose criticize don’t just exhibit selective outrage; they also exhibit selective application of their own Theory. There is no such thing as truth or objective reality, they claim, except when they want there to be truth and reality. Women, as a category, are real, when they are being oppressed by white, Western men. Women, as a category, are not real, when Bruce Jenner insists he is a woman. Further, Bruce Jenner is a heroine for redefining himself through performance; Rachel Dolezal is a criminal for attempting the same.
Selective outrage and selective application of Theory, including the selective outrage of Lindsay and Pluckrose, is informative. Perhaps the best term for the trends, thinkers, theories and street soldiers under discussion is not “political correctness” or “cultural Marxist” or “Theory,” but, rather, “Team Anti-Western Civilization.” When two individuals or groups are pitted against each other, the one deemed most dangerous to Western Civ is granted temporary allegiance.
Black man Juan Williams is less threatening to Western Civ than Islam, so he is canceled. BLM leader Hawk Newsome “will burn down this system and replace it,” so his followers trump any “Karens” they may stalk, harass, and publicly reduce to tears. Misogyny and racism are both great, as long as they are the weapons of the favored social justice warrior, and as long as they are directed against the Western targets.
Why, then, did academics, journalists, politicians, and religious leaders, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, adopt theories and use them to denigrate Western Civilization, and to elevate non-Western cultures? What was the real-world genesis for the West’s masochistic, self-hating, suicidal trend? This genesis preceded the Theorists and gave birth and power to their nihilistic theories.
I would find the answer in popular scholarship from a hundred years ago. Inspired by Social Darwinism and the influx of “inferior” peasant immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, scientists in America advanced Nordic identity as superior. Scientific racism reached its demonic nadir in concentration camps. Newspaper accounts of Nazi atrocities alone were not enough to turn the West against itself. We required visual images, and we have them. There are extensive films detailing the ugly fruits of racism. We have no comparable films of Mao’s Cultural Revolution or the Gulag, which also murdered innocent millions. WW II ended with an unprecedented weapon: the atom bomb. Science, previously exalted as savior, gave us the racism of the camps and now it has given us the power to annihilate all life on planet earth.
European colonialism shrank and died after WW II. England and France retreated. Their retreats, in countries like Vietnam and Algeria, were ignominious In the US, the American Civil Rights movement also produced horrifying moving images: dogs set on marchers, swimming pool owners pouring acid into a pool occupied by black and white swimmers, attempting to integrate the pool. These images shamed a nation and changed history. The pendulum swung away from the Scientific Racism of the early twentieth century, and continued to swing wildly until to be a good American, you needed to be ashamed of your identity as a member of Western Civilization.
Lindsay and Pluckrose do make passing mention of the crushing events that challenged Western Civilization’s faith in itself. Postmodernism, they write, “represents a set of ideas and modes of thought that came together in response to specific historical conditions, including the cultural impact of the World Wars and how they ended … postmodernism … is ultimately a form of cynicism” they say, but they do not say much more on this topic. I think the book could have benefitted from a fleshing out of this theme.
“Cynical Theories” would have been a better book without its Christophobia. Helen Pluckrose self-identifies as a New Atheist. James Lindsay is author of “Everybody Is Wrong about God.” People who believe in God “have certain psychological and social needs that they do not know how to meet,” his book contends. Lindsay and Pluckrose’s colleague, Peter Boghossian, is another “New Atheist.” Boghossian is author of “A Manual for Creating Atheists.”
Lindsay and Pluckrose offer an antivenin to the toxic, society-destroying poison of Theory. Many of us would advance Western Civilization, built upon the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Greeks, and the Enlightenment, as that antivenin.
Lindsay and Pluckrose denigrate Christianity, slur Judaism – “The Bible is filled with tribalism” – and barely mention the Greeks. Lindsay and Pluckrose’s lost Eden is their, highly-doctored, take on the Enlightenment. This glorious age, they recount, gave us something called “liberalism,” and liberalism is the panacea. Evidently, liberalism popped, through parthenogenesis, fully formed out of Zeus’s head, as did the ancient Greek goddess Athena. News flash: babies are not born that way. They don’t pop out of males’ heads. Similarly, historical eras don’t pop fully formed out of the mind of Baruch Spinoza.
The authors frequently cite New Atheist Steven Pinker, specifically his “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.” In that book, Pinker contrasts the Enlightenment, in a black vs. white dichotomy, with the enemy: Christianity. Christianity is typified by “Disdain for reason, science, humanism, and progress.” Christians “believe without good reason.” “Accepting a divine savior” is opposed to “the well-being of humans.” To Christians, “health and happiness are not such a big deal.” Christian attitudes to science can be found in “Galileo and the Scopes Monkey Trial to stem-cell research and climate change.”
I’ve linked, above, a few webpages that offer refutations of these false, Christophobic prejudices. Scholar Yoram Hazony’s response to Pinker is here, and here. Another good source: Rodney Stark’s 2006 book “The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.”
The New Atheists’ use of the Enlightenment has an inglorious predecessor. Protestants used the concept of the so-called “Dark Ages” to bash Catholicism. When Catholicism reigned, everyone in Europe was a primitive savage. This propagandistic take must suppress awareness of such Medieval advances as the invention of the university, crop rotation, and Gothic cathedrals. For those without the time to read the reams of scholarship on the misrepresentation of the very Catholic, allegedly dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks “Dark Ages,” there is a handy Prager University lecture here.
The Enlightenment named itself. Enlightenment thinkers thought that they were pretty damn special, and a few announced that all that came before them was to be overcome or even erased. Like the New Atheists, they, too, championed a past era, that is the Classical Era of Ancient Greece and Rome. Thus, the Enlightenment favored neoclassical architecture. Witness the Supreme Court building, similar to the Ancient Greek Parthenon.
Enlightenment thinkers’ pride was not accurate; their science and championing of democracy were not really all that new. Rather, they were descendants of a long line of European traditions. Scholar Dan Edelstein writes, “More than anything, the Enlightenment seems to have been the period when people thought they were living in an age of Enlightenment.”
The Enlightenment period was like our own in that it was a period of disillusionment after devastating war. The Catholic Church had had something close to a monopoly on religious power in Western Europe for over a thousand years. Martin Luther and the Reformation fractured that power. Kings decided to become Protestant, or remain Catholic, and their subjects had to follow.
Cathedrals, monasteries, and universities were repositories of community wealth and authority. People began to fight over those resources as ownership splintered. These were the wars of religion, though the term is misleading. People were not killing each other over private thoughts about transubstantiation, and Jesus ordered his followers explicitly not to kill over belief. Henry VIII didn’t decapitate his friend, Thomas More, over a doctrinal dispute. Rather, these two hundred years of war were a divorce on a vast canvas. Just as a loving husband and wife go for each others’ throats when they must divide up their home, bank accounts, jewels, children, and pets, Europe tore itself apart over its religious divorce.
Enlightenment thinkers, contrary to the utopian fantasies of New Atheists, were steeped in the Bible, Christianity, and Judaism, and not a few were not only believers, they were men of the cloth. Enlightenment thinkers were wary of organized religion and of the unhealthy and un-Christian melding of church and state.
So, sorry, Lindsay and Pluckrose, you can’t have Isaac Newton, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, John Locke, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Moses Mendelssohn, John Adams, Mary Wollstonecraft, or even Thomas Jefferson himself in your New Atheist treehouse club. And, without these figures, you can’t have an Enlightenment at all. Further, the scientific and political advances of the Enlightenment did not pop fully formed out of Zeus’ head. They were organic outgrowths of the preceding millennia of Western Civilization. “Democracy,” is, after all, a word we get from Ancient Greece. “All men are created equal,” perhaps the most famous sentence of the Enlightenment, is rooted in Genesis.
In his 2008, Princeton University Press book, “The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna,” David Sorkin, Yale University’s Lucy G. Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History, attempts to correct popular misrepresentations of the Enlightenment. “In the academic as well as the popular imagination,” Dr. Sorkin writes, “the Enlightenment figures as a quintessentially secular phenomenon indeed, as the very source of modern secular culture.” This “foundational myth” presents a “triumphalist linear teleology.” That is, those who depict the Enlightenment as the advance of beneficent atheism, and the defeat of that bad, old dragon, religion, are misrepresenting history and misusing that distorted history to flatter themselves as history’s heroes and victors.
Dr. Sorkin continues, “Contrary to the secular master narrative, the Enlightenment was not only compatible with religions belief but conducive to it. The Enlightenment made possible new iterations of faith. With the Enlightenment’s advent, religion lost neither its place nor its authority in European society and culture. If we trace modern culture to the Enlightenment, its foundations were decidedly religious.”
Dan Edelstein is Stanford University’s William H. Bonsall Professor of French and History, and author of some of the most highly acclaimed recent works on the Enlightenment. In response to my email about New Atheist authors’ depiction of the Enlightenment, Dr Edelstein wrote, “It’s certainly the case that many of these authors work with a caricature of Enlightenment thought. In fact, most recent scholarship on the Enlightenment tends to emphasize the connections between the philosophes and religious thought. What’s more, there were only a tiny handful of actual atheists in the 18th century. So while it’s true that almost all Enlightenment thinkers were critical of the Catholic Church and other organized religions, they tended to retain a metaphysical framework that rested on a deity.”
Yes, there were adamantly anti-religious Enlightenment figures. Denis Diderot, Jesuit-educated editor of the Encyclopédie, is alleged to have said that “Mankind will never be free till the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Which brings us to another problem of the Enlightenment not mentioned by Lindsay and Pluckrose: blood.
It took hundreds of years for misguided Christians to decide, wrongly, that their faith permitted them to kill in the name of Christ. It didn’t take half that long for Enlightenment ideals to result in the mass murder of innocents. The Age of Reason, as Thomas Paine called the Enlightenment, produced grisly scenes lacking all reason.
Gouverneur Morris, an eyewitness, in his “Diary of the French Revolution,” described a quarry so choked with the bodies of massacre victims that the quarry owner appealed to Revolutionaries to compensate him for damages. These victims were granted no trial; their corpses were discarded as “dead dogs.” At least two hundred of the bodies were “Ecclesiastics of irreproachable lives who were conscientiously scrupulous of taking an oath” that the Revolutionaries demanded they take. They refused; they were slaughtered. So much for “freedom of conscience.”
A mob beat one of Marie Antoinette’s friends to death in the street, desecrated her corpse, and brought her head to the queen in prison, forcing her to kiss it. When Catholic peasants in the Vendee resisted the Revolution, approximately 170,000 were killed. Decayed corpses of long-dead royalty were exhumed and desecrated. Perceived “enemies of the people” had their genitals cut off and stuffed into their mouths. Executions in the name of purification took the lives of perhaps 40,000.
Historians agree: these atrocities were not merely coincidental with a violent revolution. Enlightenment thinkers advanced the theories that were used to inspire and justify these atrocities. Revolution is a risky business, and a revolution’s canonical scripture matters. When one of your leading figures talks about stranglings with human intestines used as garottes, when many of your leading thinkers declare that the past is so bad that it and anyone who values it must be erased, and you must start over at Year One, you get the Revolution your thinkers wrote about.
In a YouTube interview, James Lindsay expresses the disgust and rage he feels when he is tuning his car radio, likes a song, and suddenly realizes that the song is Christian. I felt something similar when reading his book. I wanted Lindsay’s and Pluckrose’s insights on Theory. I did not want their New Atheist Christophobia, or their self-serving New Atheist Enlightenment revisionism.
In a different interview, Australian politician and Christian John Anderson quotes GK Chesterton to Helen Pluckrose. “When men stop believing in God, they start believing in anything. We were promised that this new secular age would lead to a greater objectivity and would be more rational, more reasonable, and yet we seem less committed to objectivity than ever.”
Pluckrose ducked Anderson’s very important point. She simply says that postmodernism is just another religion. “I don’t think that the problem of postmodernism is a direct result of the decline of religion.” Let’s talk more, Helen.
The authors insist that they are part of a named, coherent movement called “liberalism.” Their liberalism stretches back millennia and across continents. Their book’s introduction begins, not with a critique of “cynical theories,” but with a paean to liberalism. I admire these young people’s public commitment to high ideals like “respect for evidence and reason” and “universal human rights,” but the liberalism they imagine, as they describe it, has never existed, and it does not exist now, and it is doubtful it will ever exist in the form they imagine it.
The people protesting child sacrifice and idol worship, the people insisting on the rights of the dispossessed, including widows and orphans, the people caring about the average guy when his rights conflicted with that of a king, the people advancing literacy, numeracy, trade and urban life 2,000 years ago, did not call themselves “liberals.” They were Jews.
The man who established a whole new concept, the separation of church and state, did not call himself a “liberal.” He was Jesus of Nazareth.
The mothers and fathers resisting female infanticide in Ancient Rome did not call themselves “liberals.” They were Christians. Peter Claver did not enter slave ships, and Bartolomé de las Casas did not champion the Native Americans, because of any Enlightenment manifesto. Claver went down into the depths with food and medicine and de las Casas risked his life for unfamiliar cannibals, because of the Bible. The men and women who sacrificed their lives to end slavery were not self-described “liberals.” They were, for the most part, Christians. It wasn’t “liberalism” that shocked a slaver into writing “Amazing Grace,” it was an encounter with Christ. It wasn’t “liberalism” that prompted British imperialists and Christian missionaries to work to end sati in India and foot-binding in China; it was Christian ideas about the value of women’s lives.
It wasn’t “liberalism” – or “reason” – that inspired the third-century plague martyrs of Alexandria, Benedictine nuns during the Black Death, Polish nun rescuers living under Nazi occupation, or nuns marching in Selma during Civil Rights. It wasn’t “liberalism” or “reason” that informed Father Damien’s work with the lepers of Molokai. It wasn’t “liberalism” or “reason” that inspired Father Mychal Judge to enter the World Trade Center after it was hit by terrorists, in order that he might minister to victims.
It wasn’t “liberalism” or “reason” that prompted the Rev. James H. Gordon to protest the Bronx Zoo’s “scientific” display of a human being, the African Pygmy Ota Benga. It wasn’t “liberalism” or “science” that inspired Pope Pius XI to say, “Spiritually, we are all Semites,” at a time when accepted science was being used by Nazis to justify genocide. Nazis did not send clergy to the priests’ barracks at Dachau because those men were “liberals.”
Lindsay and Pluckrose repeatedly cite Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement as exemplary of the “liberalism” they champion. King did not inspire masses, survive threats and jail, and change the world non-violently with “liberalism.” Witness the titles of Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning, multi-volume, King biographies: “Parting the Waters,” “Pillar of Fire,” and “At Canaan’s Edge.” These three titles allude to the central narrative of the Old Testament, Moses freeing slaves.
When King said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” he wasn’t talking about a trip to the Hollywood Hills. When blacks sang, “Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land, tell old pharaoh, let my people go,” they were not referencing a New Atheist memoir. When Thomas Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal,” he was speaking a truth taught in Genesis at a time when Enlightenment scientific texts were preaching a hierarchy of races, with my own race, the Slavs, near the bottom.
Everyone of the above heroes of Western Civilization was not inspired, and did not act, because of “liberalism” or “reason.” In many cases they risked their lives, and lost their lives, because of a story that New Atheists denigrate as “primitive,” “stupid,” “irrational,” “tribal,” and “oppressive.”
“Where there is no vision, the people perish” reports proverb 29:18. This is a profound truth. Blaise Pascal observed that there is a God-shaped hole in man. Theory tries to fill that hole in our modern secular age. So do Lindsay and Pluckrose. Their master narrative tells of a glorious past, the Enlightenment, that gave us liberalism, that solves all the problems presented by Theory.
Let’s counter with some science. Churchgoers have lower suicide rates and better mental health. And there’s more. The twentieth-century provided many reasons to behave as Foucault did. To hate one’s father, to hurt oneself, and to preach nihilism. I have spent time among two peoples who were uniquely victimized by the twentieth-century’s monstrosities.
My first visit to Eastern Europe took place twenty-nine years after the end of World War II. When they spoke of the Nazism that overran their villages, my own relatives’ eyes reflected the horror. In several visits to Poland and Slovakia, I saw a lot of bad stuff, but I never saw the kind of surrender to despair that I have seen in the US. Poland, including Poland under Communism, Poland during the 1989 fall of Communism, and capitalist Poland, offered me some of the most thrilling and inspirational moments of my life. Poles retain a master narrative that insists that suffering has meaning and that there is ultimate salvation. That master narrative has empowered Poles for centuries.
I’ve also been to Israel, whose rebirth is a miracle, a miracle informed by a master narrative, a master narrative that Lindsay and Pluckrose can write off only as “tribal.” Elie Wiesel survived Auschwitz. In 1972, Wiesel published “Souls on Fire,” an anthology of Hasidic folktales. The book opens with a tale describing overwhelming loss. It describes the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, losing everything. He loses even his memory. He has to start his life all over, from nothing. All this man, known as “The Master of the Good Name,” retains from his previous life is “Aleph, beth, gimmel,” that is, the opening letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Clinging to those letters, as to a life raft in a treacherous sea, and by repeating them over and over, the Baal Shem Tov “transcended the laws of time and geography. He broke the chains and revoked the curse.” He did so by returning, after devastating loss, first to letters, then to words, then to traditional Jewish stories, stories the New Atheists denigrate as “primitive” and “tribal.” It wasn’t “liberalism” that saved Elie Wiesel from Auschwitz, or that allowed him to win a Nobel Prize.
Douglas Murray is an atheist, but he gets it. Murray’s 2019 book, “The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity,” covers much of the same ground as “Cynical Theories.” Murray acknowledges that Christianity offers many approaches that could solve the problems caused by Theory.
I’m not saying that everyone needs to become Christian; I’m saying that if Christians have found a good way to peel an orange, atheists can adapt that orange-peeling technique to their own needs without compromising their atheism. I am not an Ancient Greek Pagan, but I revere their contributions to my life. I am not an Enlightenment figure, but I adore Jefferson. I’m not a New Atheist, but I do acknowledge Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian as genuine heroes. It will be a good day when our New Atheist friends drop their vendetta against the Judeo-Christian tradition and honor and adopt what Jews and Christians have gotten right for millennia.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.