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Religion & Liberty: Volume 29, Number 3

How socialism causes atheism

George Orwell’s 1984 defines the booming genre of dystopian literature, but Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World provided a more accurate prophecy of the future. In another of his works, Ends and Means, Huxley offered deep insights into why people choose to become atheists. In a time when 26 percent of Americans are unaffiliated with any religion, and the number of atheists and agnostics in the U.S. has doubled in the last 10 years, people of faith must pay heed to his observations. Huxley wrote that he and “most of [his] contemporaries” saw atheism’s moral vacuum as their “instrument of liberation,” because it allowed them to embrace sexual hedonism and socialism:

The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning (a Christian meaning, they insisted) of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever. Similar tactics had been adopted during the eighteenth century and for the same reasons.

“Serious writers associated political with sexual prejudice” and recommended atheism as “a preparation for social reform or revolution,” he wrote. The idea that atheism foments the revolutionary spirit was not lost on the revolutionaries. In 1905, Vladimir Lenin encouraged the Bolsheviks to “follow the advice Engels once gave to the German Socialists: to translate and widely disseminate the literature of the eighteenth-century French Enlighteners and atheists.”

More than a generation later, a young American radical reiterated to William F. Buckley Jr. that the locus of the struggle lay in the soul. “You have to change the conscience of people,” Dotson Rader, a onetime revolutionary who went on to write celebrity profiles for Parade magazine, told Buckley during a 1972 episode of Firing Line. “You’ve got to change people’s sexual attitudes, people’s attitude towards the church, people’s attitude towards education, towards business.” He admitted that drug use, “sexual promiscuity and sexual deviancy is a device,” because they create “natural allies to a revolutionary movement.”

Another generation later, America’s faithful and faithless voters cast mirror images politically. The Pew Research Forum’s Religious Landscape found that 47 percent of those who say religion is “very important” to them call themselves conservative, while 47 percent of those who find religion “not at all important” identify as liberal/ progressive. Moreover, this pattern exists on both sides of the Atlantic. “The most left-wing locality” in Great Britain “is the north end of Havelock Road in Brighton,” according to political and financial analyst Martin Baxter. Census data also rank it as the UK’s least religious city.

A growing body of research reveals that as the welfare state grows, the church shrinks.

Huxley explained that atheists may be more inclined to accept comprehensive socioeconomic ideologies as a substitute for faith. Secularists embrace “absurd” doctrines like Communism or fascism, he wrote, “to satisfy their hunger for meaning.” Atheist literature lends credence to this notion. The Humanist Manifesto III states that an atheist’s “life’s fulfillment emerges” from building a “global community” of “progressive cultures” that “support a just distribution of nature’s resources.”

However, a growing body of research reveals that as the welfare state grows, the church shrinks. Adam Kay of Duke University discovered that church and state have a “hydraulic relationship”: Events “that lower faith in one of these external systems (e.g., the government) lead to subsequent increases in faith in the other (e.g., God).” Another study found that increased welfare spending “in a specific year predicted lower religiosity one to two years later.” It concluded, “The power and order emanating from God can be outsourced to the government.”

There is an undeniable correlation between socialism and secularism, but does it prove causation? A strong case is made by analyzing the “Nones” at different stages of their flight from faith. Pew Research asked “Nones” in late 2017 the reason they no longer affiliate with a religion. The overwhelming majority of atheist “Nones” (75 percent) said they do not believe in God, while a plurality of agnostic “Nones” (38 percent) said they “question a lot of religious teachings.” Those “Nones” who still believe in God are equally motivated by two factors: They question religious doctrines (25 percent), and they “don’t like the positions churches take on social/political issues” (21 percent).

Further, the data show that “Nones” are becoming increasingly secular as time goes on. The percentage of “Nones” who do not believe in God increased by half from 2007 to 2014. This leads to an inescapable conclusion: The social and political issues that drive a wedge between young people and traditional Christianity – including the envy that drives socialism – eventually blossom into full atheism.

For most, the transference of faith is not so coldly transactional as it was for Huxley. Instead, faith in the transcendent gets crowded out by faith in socialism’s utopian promise of equality-of-outcome on earth. This path transformed Michael Harrington from a daily communicant volunteering in the Catholic Worker movement to the atheistic founder of the Democratic Socialists of America. After seeing India’s ghettoes, he wrote in The Vast Majority that “if he were half the God he claims to be, he would leave his heaven and come here to do penance in the presence of a suffering that he as God obscenely permits.” A lesser-known case can be seen in Guy Aldred, a London “boy preacher” at the turn of the twentieth century who became an outspoken socialist and atheist. He belittled Christians who “never realized that charity, even continuous and genuine charity, is not enough. It can never compensate for social injustice and inequality.”

The socialist path to atheism begins by substituting a temporal, class-based morality for divine revelation. Collectivists reject the notion that God’s acts of mercy and providence give us our daily bread, that differing talents result in different economic results, and that wealth acquisition funds charity so that “your abundance at the present time should supply their need” (II Corinthians 8:14). Instead, Harrington blamed God for an inequality that he believed should never exist, and Aldred believed the only remedy lay outside the means sanctioned by Christianity.

The cultural revolution has succeeded in changing millennials’ conscience. Nearly four-in-10 millennials believe it’s “immoral” for society to allow people to become billionaires, however they earned their money. People under the age of 30 are 30 percent more likely to resent wealthy Americans than those over age 65, although Christianity teaches that envy is one of the seven deadly sins. They are more likely to agree that “very successful people sometimes need to be brought down a peg or two even if they’ve done nothing wrong.” And the Cato Institute study found that “resentment against successful people is more influential than compassion in predicting a person’s support for … redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor.”

Martin Luther would recognize their reverse evangelization. In his Large Catechism he wrote, “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress.” Socialism looks to the state to establish “equality” instead of looking forward to an everlasting kingdom. “The Revolution did not adopt a Church. Why?” asked nineteenth-century French historian Jules Michelet. “Because it was a Church itself.”

As socialism makes inroads among America’s young people, it replaces Christian eschatology with a secular narrative. Left unchecked, it erodes both the adherent’s religion and society’s liberty.

Young people make particularly fit activists for utopian Marxism. Whittaker Chambers wrote in Witness that socialism “summons men to struggle against the inertia of the past which Communism claims is blocking the will of mankind to make its next great forward stride.” Soon, they come to revile Western, Judeo-Christian civilization for blocking the road to earthly paradise, as did Huxley and his friends. There is nothing new in the Brave New World.

Decades after Huxley, another collectivist combined personal and economic rationales for secularism. Thomas Nagel studied under John Rawls and wrote that the common good “requires the abolition of private property in the means of production.” Nagel forthrightly discussed his will-to-doubt (call it der Wille zum Zweifel) in The Last Word. He admits his opposition to religion grew out of its purportedly “objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence,” but it did not end there:

I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

Religion posits another Being as the source and summit of existence. For this reason, Chambers called Communism the “second oldest faith,” the promise “whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: ‘Ye shall be as gods.’” Marxism promotes “the vision of man as the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in His image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. Communism restores man to his sovereignty by denying God.”

“The Communist revolution,” Chambers wrote, “like all great revolutions, occurs in man’s mind before it takes form in man’s acts.” As socialism makes inroads among America’s young people, it replaces Christian eschatology with a secular narrative. It supplants traditional morality with alternative ends and means for this life. Left unchecked, it erodes both the adherent’s religion and society’s liberty.

Upholding the morality of a free and virtuous society could be the key to preserving freedom and preventing an entire generation from sliding into spiritual darkness.

(Photo credit: FibonacciBlue. This image has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.