Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Ideas in Conflict

The 20th century witnessed the ascendancy of two powerful ideas. How people approach these ideas largely determines which side of the political spectrum they're on. The first is that God had nothing to do with the creation of our universe or of ourselves. The other is related. It holds that sex should be unrelated to procreation - among humans at least. It is just for pleasure. Some historians believe there were more changes in day-to-day life for the average person in the 20th century than in all prior centuries combined, and it seems that these ideas have had more effect on how the average person feels about his or her place in our world and what it all means.

I saw two bumper stickers on the same car last week. The left one said: “Neitzsche: God is dead.” The right one said: “God: Neitzsche is dead.” That one was on the left and the other on the right seemed appropriate. Whether God is dead or not has been hotly debated since Neitzsche first claimed it in the late 19th century. Neitzsche’s death, however, is accepted fact. He died in 1900, the beginning of the 20th century, but his ideas have had enormous effect on thinking ever since.

Neitzsche was influenced by Darwin’s research into evolution - the idea that humans just happened by chance - a significant departure from the widespread belief that humans were created for a purpose by a Creator-God. If we just sort of happened, what’s the point? Neitzsche claimed there was no point - that life was meaningless. God was dead, he claimed, and so was meaning. Evolution and creation are not mutually exclusive ideas, but they are in the minds of atheists, and thus began the rise of “Nihilism” - the concept that nothing matters. That’s the essence of today’s political and ideological conflicts. Those who see meaning and those who don’t.

The idea that God created the universe also went out of fashion during the 20th century with the rise of the “Big Bang Theory” which proposes that fifteen billion years ago or so, a dense chunk of matter exploded and is still exploding. No explanation for where the chunk of matter came from. No matter for atheists. No meaning either. Galaxies, stars, planets formed incidentally, and so, ultimately, did we. Such thinking was fertile ground for Karl Marx’s teachings. Religion, he said, was the “opiate of the masses,” a drug capitalists used to keep people quiescent during their short lives so they wouldn’t rebel against the nasty rich capitalists who exploited them.

“War, comrades, is a great locomotive of history,” said Leon Trotsky, paraphrasing his intellectual mentor, Karl Marx, who said, “revolution is the driving force of history.” Ideas are catalysts for revolutions whether they be violent conflicts or transformational social movements. Both were ubiquitous in the 20th century. Born in 1951 at the beginning of the century’s second half, I was inculcated with the values and conflicting world views of people who came of age in the first half. Conflict escalated during my lifetime and rages still.

Rendering down the reasons for those conflicting views, we come to a few basic ways of perceiving our world and our existence within it. Some of us still believe God created it and created us afterward. Our Founding Fathers believed it too, and in the late 18th century they started a revolution with words like: “All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . .” Some Americans still believe those words, but others don’t. They tend to believe our rights are endowed by government and our current president is one of them. He chokes on the three of the words “by their Creator” and habitually omits them when reciting that line from our Declaration of Independence.The sexual revolution of the 1960s furthered the notion that sex and procreation should be dissociated, just as meaning and human existence were. Sex isn’t necessary for pregnancy anymore. Pregnancy is a negative side-effect of sexual activity and detrimental to “women’s health.” The misnomer “Planned Parenthood” has become a sacred institution for the secular left which believes parenthood is something to be avoided. Its mission is to disseminate contraception and do abortions when it fails - all in the name of “women’s health.” Sex is good. Babies are bad. Pregnancy is a disease to be “cured” in their “women’s health” clinics. Sex is for pleasure, not for babies.

Governments grant rights to all kinds of sexual activity, and to abortion if those activities lead to pregnancy. For the secular left, there are too many humans on earth already. The more abortions, the better. Fewer humans means fewer carbon emissions and more habitat for other species. Habitat for animals trumps habitat for humanity. Those still believing in God tend to object to abortions and also consider some forms of sexual activity depraved. Government, however, is steadily outlawing references to God in schools and other public places. Many Biblical quotes are being considered “hate speech.” The secular left believes those clinging to belief in God will die out eventually as the brave new world of hope and change emerges. Religion and capitalism are yesterday’s ideas and we can eliminate them forever.

Yes we can.


Alex said...

Hi Mr. McLaughlin,

It's been a while since I've gotten the opportunity to rant, and I'm currently procrastinating studying for an ecology midterm I've got tomorrow.

First off, just as there is a political spectrum, there is a vast spectrum of secularists/atheists that you speak of. Just as I wouldn't assume that all Christians are Catholic, one shouldn't assume that all atheists are nihilist, Big bang believing, abortion supporting, communist liberals. Quite the contrary, if I'm an example to judge:

1. I guess I would say I'm a nihilist, but that word carries terrible negative connotations with it. I (and other atheists I've talked with) still believe there is meaning in life; we just don't believe that that meaning is laid out in exactly one of the thousands of religious texts that exist in the world. Actually, I feel like I hold more meaning in my life, believing that I only get one chance to live. I believe that after we die, there is nothing, and because of that our life here is even more precious. In accordance with that, other people also only get one chance to live, and I should not impose upon them. Basically, my life philosophy boils down to several goals for each day: enjoy the most that I can in each day (the cool sun in the morning, the way light plays off trees at noon, the twilight, the moon at night, my friends, my family, the delicious food I eat, everything is incredible when you realize that it may be gone forever in an instant), prepare so that I can do so in the future (hence why I'm at school), and make other people's lives better so that they may enjoy it as I do. If that makes me a nihilist, baby-eater just because I don't need God to tell me that, then go ahead believing it.

2. I'm not sure if I believe in the Big Bang. I haven't studied it enough. What I do know is that minds that I trust have evaluated the evidence for it, and seem to think that it is a good model for how the universe started. There may have been a creator at the very beginning, but that's where an atheist's faith comes in: we have faith that science will eventually answer that question. We just don't have enough data or evidence yet.

Alex said...

3. I am not a supporter of abortion, just as no one is. No one wants to destroy fetuses. That's a way of twisting an issue to demonize another side, and it is childish and naive to do so. However, I am not sure if I'm pro-choice. I am simply too young, and not afraid to admit that I don't have the experience to make that decision yet. However, I feel that people should decide how they stand on it not based off of what a book tells them, but how they *feel* about it. A young father, seeing the bright eyes of his baby for the first time may not be able to understand how the victim of an incestuous rape feels seeing her baby for the first time.

4. Communist? Really? Is this the fifties? If anything, I'm libertarian. There's enough examples of how communism will not work. However, I feel confident in believing that capitalism isn't a perfect system. This is for the same reasons that communism doesn't work though; abuse of power by a few individuals. I don't know of a better system, but it certainly isn't perfect.

5. Liberal. By dividing people into two distinct groups, it is easier to compare or demonize them, but is far from the truth. As Winston Smith always rants about here, the "two sides" idea is a myth. I may not believe his corporate conspiracy theory, but one must understand that people are complex. There may be staunch liberals and staunch conservatives, but those are the vocal minority. The majority of people are more moderate than you'd think.

Well, that was my rant. I want to thank you Mr. McLaughlin, for consistently providing another side to arguments, and I always learn something from your blog. Thank you also for teaching me (way back in 8th grade) to think for myself, and to push back against what I'm told. That's all I'm doing here; pushing back against what you're saying. I hope I may have influenced (even a little) your views. Otherwise, this was a great way to procrastinate.

Anonymous said...

Good to see there are some young people who have learned to think.
And apprently you have taught some of them well Tom.

I wish you well with your exams Alex.

Anonymous said...

"Nietzsche had his doubts. He suspected that this new secular faith might prefigure an endless middle-class charade. Nietzsche feared the deadening effects of the constant search for material possessions and personal hedonism. Science and technology might rather bring about a new, distorted character Nietzsche called “the Last Man.” The Last Man, Nietzsche feared, would engage in the worst kinds of provincialism, believing he had nothing to learn from history. The Last Man would wallow and revel in his ignorance and quest for personal fulfillment. He would be satisfied with everything that he had done and become, and would seek to become nothing more. He would be intellectually and morally stagnant, incapable of growth, and become part of an easily manipulated herd. The Last Man would mistake cynicism for knowledge.
“The time is coming when man will give birth to no more stars,” Nietzsche wrote about the Last Man in the prologue of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” “Alas! The time of the most contemptible man is coming, the man who can no longer despise himself.”"

Chris hedges, " when religion fizzles, we're stuck with Nietzsche "

“They are clever and know everything that has ever happened: so there is no end to their mockery.” The Last Men indulge in “their little pleasure for the day, and their little pleasure for the night.”

The consumer culture, as Nietzsche feared, has turned us into what Chalmers Johnson calls a “consumerist Sparta.” The immigrants and the poor, all but invisible to us, work as serfs in this new temple of greed and imperialism. Curtis White in “The Middle Mind” argues that most Americans are aware of the brutality and injustice used to maintain the excesses of their consumer society and empire. He suspects they do not care. They don’t want to see what is done in their name. They do not want to look at the rows of flag-draped coffins or the horribly maimed bodies and faces of veterans or the human suffering in the blighted and deserted former manufacturing centers. It is too upsetting. Government and corporate censorship is welcomed and appreciated. It ensures that we remain Last Men. And the death of religious institutions will only cement into place the new secular religion of the Last Man, the one that worships military power, personal advancement, hedonism and greed, the one that justifies our callousness toward the weak and the poor.

Tom McLaughlin said...


Remember I told you about the agnostic-dyslexic-insomniac who stayed up all night wondering if there was a dog? Agnostics would comprise the broad middle between believers and atheists, and there are different degrees of agnosticism. Many of us, maybe most of us, spend a lot of our lives not being sure if there’s a God or not. Even Mother Teresa wondered sometimes.

I write in black and white terms because this is a column and not an essay. I was beyond the limit of 750 words already and didn’t have time to make it shorter and clearer. Of course there is a lot of gray, but a lot of us tend to bounce back and forth between black and white passing through the gray and lingering there sometimes.

You say that “after we die there is nothing and because if that our life here is even more precious.” Today I’m making a box into which will go the urn containing my brother’s ashes. Saturday, I’ll dig the hole and bury it in a Fryeburg Harbor cemetery after delivering his eulogy at the funeral mass. I’ve been pondering eternal things rather deeply lately, and I don’t agree with the first part of your assertion. I do believe in the second, however. Our lives are indeed precious.

Yet you say “no one wants to destroy fetuses.” Why not? Because they’re human life? Why not call them babies? Has anyone ever told you she was having a fetus? Words are important. A mother who supports the life inside her - that separate human being - calls it a baby. A mother who plans to destroy it calls it a fetus. Both women are mothers but the ones who call what is inside them a fetus deny that. Every day, thousands of them destroy that precious life within them, and that’s just here in America. What does that do to our us as people? What happens to a country whose people go on doing that for decades?

“I feel that people should decide how they stand on it not based off of what a book tells them, but how they *feel* about it,” you say. I say feelings are fleeting. Facts remain. Is it a baby or is it a fetus? The answer is clear, even if our president says he doesn’t know when human life begins. If we believe human life - which begins in the womb - is a creation of God, we couldn’t feel justified destroying it. It has meaning. But if we believe human life just happened incidentally, the way the philosophers pictured above believed, well, then it’s a fetus to be destroyed if we don’t “feel” like doing the work to nurture it. It doesn’t mean anything. After it dies, there’s nothing. That’s essential nihilism.

But what if the mother who aborts her child later comes to believe it was created by God with an immortal soul? There millions of American women alive today for whom that is true, and they suffer the enormous remorse which accompanies that realization. Planned Parenthood denies it, but it’s nonetheless true.

Communism is at the extreme left of the political spectrum and communists are still around. You’ll see more Che Guevara images at Occupy demonstrations than crucifixes. Communists march with La Raza too. Go to the rallies out there on the left coast. No, capitalism isn’t a perfect system and neither is democracy. Both seem like terrible ways to run things economically or politically until, as Churchill said, you look at all the others.

Tom McLaughlin said...

Reducing the political spectrum to a dichotomy is generalizing of course. Remember the spectrum I designed for students? I distributed it and asked them to circle positions on issues they agreed with most. Nearly all had positions on both sides of the center line. Those whose positions were mostly on the right could be described as conservatives. Those with most of their circles on the left could be described as liberals. Fair enough? Then there’s Churchill’s other observation: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re twenty, you have no heart. If you’re still a liberal when you’re forty, you have no brain.” His successor, Margaret Thatcher, said: “The facts of life are conservative.” We’ll have two basic choices in November: It’s the left/liberal or the moderate/conservative.

Regarding God, I don’t stay up all night wondering anymore. That’s settled for me at my age, but I was young once too. I started life at a very early age, actually. I began in the womb just as you did. Glad our mothers didn’t “feel” like aborting us. Aren’t you? They were willing to do the work nurturing us. I believe God created me. Of that I have no doubt anymore, but I am still wondering why.

Oh, and thank you for the kind words. You’re the kind of student who made my work meaningful. Keep thinking for yourself.

Tom McLaughlin said...


Whew! Great post. Thank you.

buttercup said...

How many women have confided their feelings about their abortions to you, Mr. McLaughlin? It seems most unlikely that you'd be chosen by ANY woman as a confidante, never mind a representative sampling.

It is unsurprising that a misogynist would choose to believe in the God that men have created in their own image.

Tom McLaughlin said...

A lot goes on that you may think unlikely.

Anonymous said...

Why would a Nihilist who supposedly believes in nothing waste his time going through college?

Mighty said...

"Reducing the political spectrum to a dichotomy is generalizing of course. Remember the spectrum I designed for students? I distributed it and asked them to circle positions on issues they agreed with most. Nearly all had positions on both sides of the center line."

Says it all. Generlaizing? Ya think? You promote extremely limited thinking. Only two sides to any issue? what?
This is exactly the problem with education today.
Who in their right mind would want to live in such a limited
World? You and the rest of the sheep I guess?
How about promoting some true critical thinking?
What a shame.....

Anonymous said...

Some founding father quotes:

"It is the fable of Jesus Christ, as told in the New Testament, and the wild and visionary doctrine raised thereon, against which I contend. The story, taking it as it is told, is blasphemously obscene.”
Thomas Jefferson

"There is not one redeeming feature in our superstition of Christianity. It has made one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites."
James Madison:

"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise."
“The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” (Treaty of Tripoli, Article 11: Written during the Administration of George Washington and signed into law by John Adams.)

Doug said...

I love hearing rants by people like Stephen Colbert and Tom Mclaughlin!!!!

Great comedy in the name of making conservatives look dopey!

I would say Tom is a little bit more over-the-top than Colbert though. Liberals think "Babies are bad"!!!!

Great funny stuff indeed!!!!

Gary S. said...

Wow, what a remarkable contrast between Alex, a young, thoughtful, open-minded individual....and Tom, an old, simplistic, "my mind is made up and facts won't change it" partisan sheep.

How disheartening for Tom to read a reply to his sophmoric rant that shows 10 times the thought and intelligence!!!

Steve said...

True enough, Doug. I think anytime someone as ideologically pure as Mr. McLaughlin frames the positions and motivations of the other side, there’s always going to be some comedic hyperbole.

Mr. McLaughlin, you write that our rights come from the Creator and not government. That might be true, but those rights are enforced, and sometimes ignored by man and the governments we create. Our founding fathers wrote, “All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”But they didn’t extend that declared equality to blacks and women. The government our founding fathers created bestowed the most basic of human rights to some while denying them to others.

The debates surrounding science vs. religion are fantastic, but some of the faithful mischaracterize the objectives of science. Science doesn’t seek to disprove God: that would be impossible. God is a supernatural entity, and we can only conceive of the natural. Science will never prove God doesn’t exist just like the faithful will never prove that God does exist. Science tries only to identify or articulate discernable causes and their effects in the natural world. But whatever question or conundrum science answers always leaves room for the existence of a God. The Big Band Theory and evolution, for example, allow for a higher power to have put into motion the chemical processes that facilitated those events. Science can’t prove they happened entirely on their own, just like religion can’t prove they were caused by the hand of God.

I believe there is a higher power at play in the universe, but the idea that our feeble, mortal minds could possibly conceive of what the power is, to me, is laughable.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Steve. A lot of great, insightful, intelligent responses to a column written by a sophmoric hack.

Josie said...

Just because a person doesn't believe in God doesn't mean he or she doesn't believe in a meaning to life. I try to keep an open mind on the issue of religion because I have no idea whether any sort of supreme being exists, but I still think that life has meaning. We exist (I'm pretty sure), and we are capable of doing things, so we should try to do the things we think are good. As Alex said, there can be meaning without a God spelling it out.

Whether or not abortion is morally right or wrong isn't an easy question even for pro-choice liberals, believe it or not. I'm pro-choice because I don't know if a fetus is a tiny bundle of cells or a person, so I'm leaving that decision up to the mothers. There are many cases in which pregnancy would be more than just inconvenient for a woman, and in those cases, abortion can be the only option. For people who consider the fetus a person and think of abortion as killing a child, of course it seems horrible and not like a valid option at all. However, it could also be just the possibility of a life, and possibilities are lost all the time in completely ordinary ways. I'm not making an argument for either side here; I'm just pointing out that being pro-choice doesn't make you a soulless, baby-killing monster.