by Charles Curley
Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
LNeil Smith thought that leftism, or liberalism, or progressivism, is a mental disease. It may well be. But there is a different way to look at it. Is it a religion?
What, then is a religion. A tough nut to crack, that one. It doesn’t require a belief in a god or gods. Buddhism, for example. Taoism, as well. Wikipedia’s definition starts off,
Religion is a range of social-cultural systems, including designated behaviors and practices, morals, beliefs, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that generally relate humanity to supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elements—although there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion.
I think the key word there is “beliefs”, because much of the rest follows from the beliefs. I say “much of” because sometimes actions don’t seem to follow from the beliefs. For example, I find it difficult to see how a belief in the Jesus who gave the Sermon on the Mount leads to the Inquisition.
A key feature of beliefs is that they may be held in the absence of evidence for those beliefs. Nay, sometimes beliefs are held in spite of glaring evidence to the contrary.
Robert Heinlein’s future history chart mentions a number of stories Heinlein never wrote. In “Concerning Stories Never Written” (1952), a postscript to “If this goes on —”, he explains why he won’t write some of them. For one thing, the ending of the story of Nehemiah Scudder would be a downer for any patriotic American and for any libertarian, and Heinlein was both of those.
In that essay, Heinlein discusses factors that could lead to Scudder’s rise, or, more generally, the imposition of a theocracy in the US.
As for the second notion, the idea that we could lose our freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria, I am sorry to say that I consider it possible. I hope that it is not probable. But there is a latent deep strain of religious fanaticism in this, our culture; it is rooted in our history and it has broken out many times in the past. It is with us now; there has been a sharp rise in strongly evangelical sects in this country in recent years, some of which hold beliefs theocratic in the extreme, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-libertarian.
It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics. This is equally true whether the faith is Communism or Holy-Rollerism; indeed it is the bounden duty of the faith to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.
He is certainly correct about the “deep strain of religious fanaticism in this, our culture”. These days, it is not all that latent. In Wyoming, religious conservatives occupy roughly 20-30% of the legislature, and a similar proportion on the Republican state central committee. Not to pick on the Mormons, but a few years ago they built their first temple in Wyoming in Afton, and another is now a-building in Casper.
Heinlein’s truism is also correct. Established religions were the norm until recently. Christianity was legalized in the Roman empire due to a back-room deal between Constantine and the church fathers which resulted in the Nicene Council, where the Church established the four gospels of the New Testament. Constantine legalized the Church and banned possession of any of the more than 40 other gospels on penalty of death. In return, the Church backed Constantine in his wars for the purple against several other contenders. There was an effort to bring back the old religion under Julian (incorrectly called the Apostate). Christianity was established shortly thereafter, and so it remained in Europe until the 18th Century.
Even before the Nicene Council, Christians were busy driving each other out of the Empire. Some settled in nearby countries. Thus Armenia was a Christian country before Rome was. Others went further afield. The Portuguese were surprised to discover a small but thriving Christian community in Goa, India, descendants of those heretics.
Some of the cruelest and most bitter wars were between opposing religions (the Crusades) and opposing factions of a religion (the wars of the Protestant Reformation, or those between Sunni and Shiite Muslims).
One should remember that religions are often diverse. The larger, the more diverse. Islam runs from the Wahabist sect that has run Saudi Arabia for almost 300 years to the laid-back Sufis. Christianity, from the Inquisition to Quakers.
What does political leftism have in common with religion? It is a set of beliefs, often Marxist or Marxist-Leninist or Maoist. I think there’s plenty of evidence that these believes are, by and large, false. We have yet to see the Workers’ Paradise. As I noted earlier, religion does not require a god. You’ll notice that Heinlein, in referring to Communism, apparently agreed with that. Indeed, Marxism is avowedly, virulently materialist. Is there evidence for pure materialism? Remember that lack of evidence for a proposition is not proof that the proposition is false.
The intolerance that has come out on the left these days has been there for a long time, but hidden and obscure, at least in Western democracies. Today they are far more open and overt, with cancel culture and wokery. The gender identity movement, by vilifying feminists as “terfs” (“Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists”), has accused feminists of being heretics. And so it goes.
None of this to argue that Neil’s diagnosis of leftism, as a mental disease, is wrong. The two views are not mutually exclusive. In physics, we treat light as a particle when it suits us, and as a wave when that suits us. So why not treat leftism similarly? If the shoe fits, wear it.
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