Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Catholicism, the Cult of Progress, and the Alt-Right (Part 2 of 3)


A lot of smart people are raised without any particular religion. Perhaps you are one of them. Or maybe you were raised religious as a child, and have since opened your mind and left. (Since religious people produce most of the children, you are more likely to fall into the latter category.) In either case you may feel, consciously or unconsciously, very reluctant to discard Progress—and understandably so. After losing the purpose given to you by religion, Progress has given you a reason to live. It’s centered your thinking. The liberal way of seeing things has provided you with immuno-responses against extreme ideologies—including racist, anarchist, and violent ones. But you should be aware that there are other sources of these benefits, even outside the Western tradition. Buddhist meditation presupposes no metaphysical unprovables, and trains your mind to quiet itself, which gives strong immunity against ideas or memes run amok. Learning formal mathematics, as Plato asked his disciples to do, can also give you more control of your thinking, and gives you rational tools for contemplating the abstract realm of ideas. You can learn prayer from the New Testament or from any Muslim or Hindu. (There must be a reason prayer is so common in traditional, that is, long-lived societies. In fact, its health benefits have even been measured.) Just as important is to read ancient, living texts, also known as classics or great books. Being old is not enough. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest texts that still survive, but it is dead. It wasn’t passed down to us by monks copying old crumbling manuscripts for generations. Rather, some archaeologists found it on buried clay tablets; it’s almost literally a fossil. Its myths no longer live on in the popular consciousness, as do Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey. There must be something more profound about the latter. The Tao Te Ching is an even younger text, yet its impact has been equally great. Personally, I prefer the Bible, as interpreted by modern Christianity, as my source of bedrock values. It’s my heritage. I was raised on it. Reading it helped save me from endless, pointless, abyssal philosophizing. It re-centered me.

Don’t worry. Christianity may be an irrational germ, but it’s not a Bad Germ. It’s a Good Germ.

We used to all know this. Lacking all religion, that is atheism, used to be seen as an unhealthy thing. The source of modern anxiety is really Progressivism, which has given us an idol—material prosperity for all—that we now hold as the greatest good in the world. Progress has become our exclusive object of worship, to the neglect of older and healthier ideals.

Having materialistic idols is a common thing for powerful empires like ours. The Romans, to a large extent, worshiped Rome itself. It deified its emperors. The gods it had inherited from the Greeks its poets made still more violent, selfish, capricious, and rapacious. It worshiped them as idols, and even imported idolatrous cults from other nations. Babylon, Sumeria, Egypt—all the same story. Worship became an entertaining pastime; power itself (not even love, though this can also become an idol) was often the primary object of admiration. This is all part of the phenomenon conservative thinkers call “decadence,” that is, the disintegration of culture, becoming spoiled by one’s own success.

We are indeed becoming spoiled by our own (temporary, materialistic) success. There’s a reason the Bible warns against seeking wealth, worshiping physical idols, and discarding spiritual tradition. When a culture seeks wealth and worldly goods, and abolishes spirituality, all its striving is thrown at things that are imperfect, fleeting, unworthy, and often impossible for this world. Unless you have a higher ideal you are quite simply setting your sights too low. You get leaders who want nothing but money or power or fame. You get a populace that is selfish and greedy rather than unselfish and idealistic. You get cynicism rather than hope. There is a reason that religions like Christianity have won out again and again. And that reason is that they teach you to meditate on and strive toward the ideal good, that is, the Good, that is, God. Read some Catholic theology and see that God is not anything like an existing material being, but is rather an immaterial, infinite, ultimate Ideal that transcends all human experience. By praying to God, that is, meditating on the Good (which is what even Plato, Confucius, Lao Tzu and all the great philosophers taught) you center yourself in what your instincts and your tradition have passed down to you as the best way to be, whether you want to describe that goodness in terms of evolution (for these doctrines are well-tested by evolution), or material success (for the holy texts teach that goodness does tend to bring prosperity), or in terms of Godliness itself, the last of which is ultimately the best and least materialistic way to look at it.


4

With that immuno-boost, if you absolutely refuse to call it a faith-boost, we are ready to take an excursion into the ugliest, swampiest part of our ideological jungle, get our hands mucky, and face down some petty memetic demons. (All demons are petty by nature, being materialistic, i.e. short-sighted. Lets put some glasses on them.)

Many have come this way before, heretics fleeing the decayed Temple of Progress, lacking sometimes even sword or shield or armor or antibiotics to protect them. Among the most famous of these (at least for the last 15 minutes or so) are the members of that infamous excursion party known most commonly as “Neoreaction,” the “Dark Enlightenment,” or the “Alt-Right.”

But why do we care to follow their trail? It leads through some excessively difficult and dangerous swamps: the Bog of Biological Differences among Races and Sexes; the Marsh of Memetic Frogs; the Haunted Ruins of Absolute Monarchy; the Fen of Frustrated Fascism Fascination; etc.

We care, well, because everybody seems to care, whether positively or negatively. Hillary Clinton has found them important enough to publicly denounce them. Meanwhile, the Alt-Right is recruiting stray conservatives in droves, especially young nerds, and it’s got them working on some huge projects. It’s trying to drain the whole region, known collectively as the Swamp of Old-School, I Mean Really-Old-School, I Mean Dead-and-Gone Fossil-Species Conservatism. It’s been submerged for ages, but they might even succeed, especially if that up-and-coming Conquistador, good old Donny “I Didn’t Say That” Trump, becomes the next president and their biggest sponsor.

Also: there are some incredibly intelligent people on the Alt-Right. You might even call them philosophers. Some of what they say is inspired and even true. Some of it is merely partisan. Some of it is virulent.
I hope you’ll forgive me that off-the-wall preface. I’m not sure how else to summarize the meaning of such an uncentered movement.

I’d like to give a fair assessment. Being fair is essential in this case because fairness, as it so happens, is exactly what has been lacking in how Progressives have been reacting to the Alt-Right, and vice versa. Dialogue has broken down, and with it our ability to reliably distinguish the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of these various ideological organisms.

The Alt-Right is not a unified movement. It includes everything from atheistic neo-Nazis to fundamentalist Catholic monarchists to apocalyptic ultra-capitalists. Some of them have said that what unites them is an opposition to what they perceive as the unconstitutional tyranny of political correctness. They just want the freedom to be honest about their views about sex, race, and class. Others have said that all that unites them is an opposition to mainstream conservatism. But this can’t be right because that makes me automatically Alt-Right, as well as this guy, who rightly challenges the assertion. Because from what I can tell the Alt-Right does have something more specific that unites them. This common thread is the philosophy of Mencius Moldbug as expounded on his blog Unqualified Reservations. Moldbug believes that democracy is rotten to the core, a brain parasite (he uses such terms) and that it should be surgically removed so we can finally see the truth of absolute monarchy, particularly of the Jacobite sort from 17th-century England.

If you’ve never heard of this before you’re going to wonder: Why bother? It’s obviously crazy, right? Well, yes and no. There was a time when Nietzsche was considered obviously crazy. But he’s had a huge impact. Moldbug’s philosophizing is in fact so carefully analytical and in a twisted way fun that you can’t help but hear him through and try to figure him out. (Don’t believe me? CAUTION: ingest at your own risk.

Moldbug’s thesis includes the correct ideas that Progress is an illusion and civilization is in decline. Such truths are dangerous for Westerners who are unprepared for them. They are glaringly obvious if you think about them at any great length. We’re destroying our environment, we’re letting our culture decay, and we’re even letting our DNA mutate out of control. The Temple of Progress is a temple to an idol—our own success—and we know it’s not a real god because it’s decaying before our eyes.

Well, not exactly before our eyes, slowly, but Moldbug gives us photographs of what the idol looked like at various points over the last two centuries, citing little-read primary sources with vivid descriptions of each stage of its decay. Proliferating Democratic freedoms, he claims, have caused the bloodiest wars and revolutions, the increases in crime, the dissolution of the family, the loss of sexual morality, and the disappearance of civic consciousness. He gives us decent-enough eyeglasses to see it. He’s a demon who’s slightly-less short-sighted, and in the land of the short-sighted demons, he’s king.

Horror of horrors; our god is a mortal god. A dying god. Who is to blame? Well, democracy for one, or so he says. It’s been a brain parasite all along, spoiling the uneducated masses of voters with promises of free goods (welfare, minimum wage, etc.) that pave a broad road to totalitarian communist hell. The harder conservatives fight, it seems, the farther left the nation moves. The conservatism of today would have been the extreme liberalism of 50 years ago, and unthinkably radical 150 years ago. But we’re no better off than we were back then. No progress has occurred. Instead, politicians promise more and more, government debt explodes, and we march inexorably toward communism and social decadence. Every year conservatives are forced to retreat and let age-old institutions, such as marriage, decay. Every year divorce rates rise. Every year faster-breeding immigrants pour over our borders, bringing their own culture and diluting our own. And every year political correctness renders it harder to protest. Despairing, self-mutilating his own brain to get the democratic parasite out, Moldbug fled into the swampy ruins of Anglo-American culture, leaving us his snarky trail of clues, and now spends his days attempting to unearth, revive, and polish up, for some reason, idols still older, more decayed, and more primitive than Progress. Idols that were whipped by Progress before, unfairly, and which now just need a second chance to show their true potential. Class hierarchy. Nobility. Aristocracy. Divine Monarchy. If we had only held true to these doctrines, the American and French Revolutions, which essentially gave the power to rabble-rousers and uneducated mobs the world-over, would never have happened. We need to bring Absolute Monarchy back, he says.

But was it ever even possible to stifle the budding power of the people? Or was this force—whether entropic decay or true progress—a part of the inevitable maturation of industrial society? I would lay my bets on the latter. The obvious ridiculousness of attempting to revive those dead idols is the main reason Moldbug’s sanest supporters are Christians. His atheist followers have gone as morally insane as he has, and so typically lack the eloquence for evangelism. His Christian followers have naturally strong immune systems and are thus stronger, more beneficial hosts and carriers. They get that progress is pagan idol. They move on. They fare much better than poor allergic Moldbug in the swamp. They can help him uncover the old idols not to revive them, but as memories of a better time, as promises of worldly goals more fulfilling than Progress, or simply as warnings against idolatry. And the saner of his followers that are non-Christians are philosophers, such as this guy. These philosophers at least have the notion of Platonic good to guide and protect them, if little else.

I had a dream the other night that Freud had an affair with his own daughter, and the two committed suicide together. When I woke I realized I had a perfect allegory for the Alt-Right. It’s a reverse Oedipal complex. Bring back patriarchy; marry your own father. His whacked theories were respected enough in their day, sure, but they were ultimately suicidal. To revive dead traditions rather than learning about live ones is, in essence, a kind of cultural incest.

The postmodern philosopher Nick Land is perhaps the most famous of Moldbug’s followers. While his conclusions are more original, they are for this reason even more mutated and tragically flawed. Land was a philosophy lecturer at the University of Warwick for about a decade, but also writes horror fiction and poetry, does performance art, and dabbles in the occult and psychedelic drugs. His essay, “The Dark Enlightenment,” starts, very reasonably, with Moldbug’s insight that our civilization is not progressing but decaying. After touching on the politically- and socially-corrupting power of democracy, the ongoing breakdown of race relations, the hollowing-out of the American “inner city,” and the resurrection of white nationalism—all rightly identified as signs of this decay—he concludes with a deeply vexing analysis of what kind of future we might expect.

Option (1), according to Nick Land, is “Modernity 2.0.” He thinks China would be most likely to form the center of a second spurt of global modernization. Option (2) is what he calls “Postmodernity.” He calls this future “a new dark age, in which Malthusian limits brutally re-impose themselves.” Option (3) is a “Western Renaissance,” in which the West reboots its traditional power structures—just as Moldbug himself suggests—leading to a renewal of civilization.

What strikes me most about these options is that they are non-options. Options (1) and (3) reduce to the suggestion that some new political idol replace that of Progress. Land’s discussion makes it clear that he sees the best such idol as some form of libertarianism, or monarchy, or libertarian-monarchy. I guess he’s just helping Moldbug polish off another fossilized monument to Absolute Hierarchy. Option (2), while perhaps the most realistic, is presented as a form of nihilism and thus vanishes as a possibility. But in reality, Option (2) is inevitable, and this is why we need an abstract notion of good and not a materialistic one. We need to be ready to face the next Dark Age with as much integrity as we can muster, as the Christians did when Rome fell. It is lacking an abstract Good or God that dooms Land to the realm of politics-for-politics’-sake.

Nick Land’s anti-spirituality becomes most glaringly clear at the tail end of his conclusion, when he considers humanity’s coming ability to engineer its own DNA. Since it is inbred groups of organisms that tend to evolve most quickly, he concludes that some small, incestuous group of cybernetically-engineered humans will achieve a superiority to the rest of humanity so vast that all other racial differences will be rendered non-existent by comparison.

The image is terrifying, but the prospect vanishingly unlikely. We have enough trouble as it is engineering a decent dairy cow. It is hard enough to educate children, let alone build their DNA from scratch.

But the image itself, and the assumptions behind it, and the fact that so many are buying it—here we might say that Nick Land has succeeded in mastering the art of horror, if it can be called an art. For what could be more horrifying than the rise of a new civilization built around the worship of a new master race? We know that he is not talking about a morally superior race. Morality precludes setting oneself up as god. No, he is talking about a demoniacally superior race—a politically and economically superior race. He is talking about deifying greed itself.

What more appropriate climax could the Cult of Progress ask for? We now have philosophers attempting to set up idols whose materialism is so naked it can be called (forgive me but the accusation must be made) pornographic. We are seeing the height of perversity. It pains me to foretell that in our decadence we may yet see higher. As Land himself exultingly proclaims, “a time of monsters is approaching.”

There are, of course, already the neo-Nazis and neo-fascists. Like Land and Moldbug, they tend to be atheists. Catholicism has managed to cure many of these. Still, such extremists are rare, and the last thing I want to do is help destroy dialogue between progressives and conservatives by focusing on the worst aspects of either. When Trump is derided as a fascist or Nazi, this is guilt by association. It’s pure rhetoric; it’s irrational. Among progressives are corporations destroying the biosphere for profit and using propaganda and lobbyism to cover their tracks. But most progressives don’t condone this behavior and it shouldn’t be assumed that they do. Likewise, we should assume that the vast majority of conservatives would fight as hard as anyone to prevent a neo-fascist revolution from taking hold.

The dialogue between left and right has largely degenerated into mere name-calling. If we fail to heal this divide, we hasten the day when confrontations become—for lack of any other mode—violent. I wonder if this outcome is somehow unavoidable. Even if it is, if only a few of us can discuss our disagreements sanely, maybe we can help revive a philosophical ecosystem, at least in patchwork, whose seeds can blossom and help renew our culture after the dust settles.

Despite the fame of Moldbug and Land, I think the most interesting reactionary insights can be found among the Christian Alt-Right. They represent, at least, a faint possibility of reconciliation on the basis of shared moral values. I’m going to focus on a group blog, “The Orthosphere” which has served as the hub for this school of thinking for several years. (For an overview spanning several blogs, go here.)

There is good here, but also plenty that is bad and ugly.

Good? In this article J.M. Smith of the Orthosphere draws parallels between the modern world and Biblical Babylon, where the Hebrews, like us, faced the challenge of not becoming corrupted by the “delectable fruits” of civilization. This single article speaks volumes of the continued relevance of the Bible. (If you're interested in a Good theistic website, but employing a scientific, evolutionary viewpoint, try Anonymous Conservative.)

Bad? In Bonald’s manifesto, the authoritarian beliefs of the movement are honestly stated in their full absurdity. “For the citizens of a ‘moralized’ society, all the major aspects of existence are colored by ideas of duty, loyalty, and status. ... Neighbors become countrymen; power becomes authority ...” This is a very Moldbug-like way of understanding politics. Power becomes authority. According to Moldbug, the depraved essence of democracy is a bending of authority to the spoiled wishes of the people. He concludes that authority must always be taken as absolute. Power becomes authority? This is simply another way of stating the formula that Plato’s Republic was written to destroy: Might makes right. Such a formula can accomplish nothing better than rigidification—ultimately fossilization. The essential question of politics is not what power can do but what it should do. To glorify power itself—whose naked image is Absolute Monarchy—is the poisonous formula that transforms monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy alike into tyranny. We should never define morality as authority or hierarchy or even good government. This is a materialistic, empty, and dangerous reversal. What we should always strive to do, rather, is give authority to what is moral, wise, and good. First, do what is right. Authority will come of its own accord. Let’s not make of it a new idol.

Ugly? Many articles in the Orthosphere and elsewhere use rhetoric like this: “the future of religious liberty under an administration of vindictive social justice warriors.” SJW (social justice warrior) is the label reactionaries like to use to throw discredit on anyone who uses labels like “racist” to discredit others. It’s nothing more than tit-for-tat name calling. This, more than anything else, is causing the split that is dividing the web into mutually-exclusive domains, each allergic to the other.

This is the trivial state of the dialogue. I’ve been accused of being sexist for criticizing Hillary. I’ve been accused of giving the presidency to “Hitler” for refusing to vote for her, even by intelligent people who I have a great deal of respect for. At the same time I’ve been called a “cuck” by equally intelligent reactionaries when they find out I believe in God and democracy. Atheists on the both the left and right have told me I’m holding on to dead ideas.

The truth is, these ideas are nowhere near dead. Nearly a third of the global population is Christian, and this percentage is projected to remain steady for the next four decades. And most Christians are of the most traditional sort, Catholic.

Catholic theology is an interesting system of philosophies to read about, and I find it healthier than much else I can find in conservative literature. Catholicism has a way of respecting and absorbing everything from classical Pagan philosophy to the findings of modern science. The most frequent objections I hear to taking Catholicism seriously are not very serious. (1) “It has perverted priests.” But no man-made institution lacks crooked members, even in leadership. Humans are fallible. This is another case of guilt by association. (2) “It’s about fear and guilt.” But this is a good thing. People need fear and guilt as much as they need hope and love. One should be afraid of sinning. One should feel bad when one does wrong. This is called learning. One should also hope to do the right thing, and have faith that right action will have the best outcome. As long as we are fallible mortals we need these emotions to guide us. Absolute freedom from guilt is freedom to harm yourself, your children, and your neighbor. The word “sin,” before it was ridiculed by modern atheists, simply meant “error.” Is no error to be avoided, then? A fitting formula for producing the modern age.

The Alt-Right, it seems, has absolutely nothing good to say about democracy—it is the ruin of civilization. But some of the best defenses of democracy come from Catholic thinkers. G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic writer who published books through World War I and the rise of Nazism, believed that democracy was—while flawed—a better application of Jesus’ teachings of compassion than either Fascism or Communism. He was a vocal opponent of both eugenics—the breeding of a better race—and Aryan Nationalism—the championing of a master race. Influenced by Chesterton was Tolkien, who issued a formal protest when Germany demanded his genealogical records before he could publish the Hobbit there. Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis, the great conservative Christian philosophers of the 20th century, all opposed extreme reactionary thinking and defended—Lewis and Tolkien in the trenches, all three in word—the right of democracy against authoritarianism.

The ideal of democracy has influenced almost every government and national leader in the world. It is a living ideal, if imperfect. Its previous rivals, Communism and Fascism, squashed and sterilized their respective philosophical ecosystems—a poisonous, incestuous, and ultimately fatal strategy. Free speech is a healthy symbiont that allows for the most reasonable and vital ideas to thrive. For as much ridicule as the Alt-Right pours on political correctness, the Alt-Right’s ultimate goal is a new, sterilized form of PC, entirely under the control of the state. Molbug demands a new University, what he calls the “Antiversity” devoted to “pure truth.” It’s the word “pure” that’s dangerous here—a term for sterile.

What is healthy about political correctness is that it opposes stereotype. But as it is used today, it often abuses stereotype, as sometimes with the terms “racism” and “sexism.” Such terms have lost their original, correct meaning: one who withholds opportunities from others or abuses others on the basis of race or sex. Mere unconscious bias for or against shouldn’t count—then we’d be talking “thought crime.” Nor is discrimination simply any comment that could possibility lead to bias—then we destroy free speech. Used in these ways, we end up with such a broad definition of discrimination that all conservatism becomes classed as racist. Consider the reaction to the Hispanic woman who told the news camera that she supported Trump’s plan to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Conservatives immediately applauded her because they felt that now they could express this idea without being accused of racism. Liberals, nevertheless, were appalled and reflexively scrambled for terms like “self-discrimination” or “indoctrination” to explain the anomaly. In this way the notion of discrimination is stretched so thin—so stereotyped—that most conservatives have trouble taking it seriously any more. “Conservative” and “discriminatory” become synonymous. And this is bad. We need these notions to be different. We need a notion of conservatism that means tradition, respect for the past, and respect for values. This is what conservatism is for. But we also need to be able to criticize people for discrimination, racism, and sexism. In other words, we need political correctness. And we need this to be distinct from liberalism, which is not simply “the stifling of free speech” as reactionaries would have it, but the right to bring new points of view into the discussion, especially minority points of view. If we begin suppressing all liberalism we suppress, along with it, most of the stories and insights coming from non-whites and non-males. In allowing these stories to be heard and acted on, however, we should not at the same time exclude white males from all discussions of race and sex. It doesn’t matter that white males tend to be richer and more powerful. So do Jews, and even more so. Neither should be excluded from having their say.

Dialogue absolutely must be possible, or the foundation of freedom that our country was built upon will be destroyed. When that is lost, all is lost. Violence will be the result.

I propose we start using the term over-generalization. It’s politically neutral. When a liberal says or implies that conservatives are automatically bigots, it’s over-generalization. When a reactionary says or implies that the left is a bunch of social justice fanatics, it’s over-generalization. Over-generalization is bad, whether it comes from the left or the right. And this is why I will hear what you have to say, whether you’re Hispanic, Jewish, female, Alt-Right, atheist, liberal, or black. And I will try not to criticize you based on generalized stereotypes of any of these groups. And if I make a bad joke or a Freudian slip that reveals bias, I trust you will laugh it off, maybe call me out, and move on. I trust that you will not demonize me and never listen to me or my kind again. Because such demonization is the road to war.

The term “cuckservative” should be banned. Also, the terms “fascist,” “nazi,” and “racist” should never be used except to describe those tiny minorities to which they strictly apply. Guilt by association must stop.

If you are unthinking toward your opponents, they will be equally unthinking and vicious toward you. If you are generous to them, you will have a better chance of being heard out yourself.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Catholicism, the Cult of Progress, and the Alt-Right (Part 1 of 3)

1

Your body is home to uncounted beneficial bacterial species, from the ones in your gut that carry out digestion to those in your mouth that help fight fungal and viral infections. In fact, most of the species living in your body are good for you. They are symbionts. They help form the complex ecosystem that is your body.

Unfortunately, our culture has tended to cultivate an irrational fear of germs. Only a very small percentage are harmful, and by simply sterilizing our food, our body, and our homes, we can throw natural ecosystems out of whack and allow for pathological bacteria to spread more easily. To help our own kids develop a healthy immune system, my wife and I have let them play outside in the dirt since they were babies. To help them develop a healthy attitude toward germs, we talk about “good germs” in yogurt and garden vegetables. When they ask us what makes someone sick, we like to say “bad germs” to make it clear that not all germs make you ill.

Your body has many complex mechanisms evolved to fight bad germs. Skin oil, saliva, and tears contain enzymes specially-designed to slice up incoming bacteria, like razor-wire. Your immune system learns to distinguish good from bad and places specially-designed markers called “antibodies” to help remove the bad. These systems aren’t perfect. Sometimes your immune system will incorrectly label harmless substances as bad, and when this happens it’s called an “allergy.”

Among good germs, some of the most interesting are your mitochondria. Billions of years ago these were independently-living single-celled organisms. At some point they invaded the cells of our ancestors. But instead of causing problems they actually provided benefits. Though they still have their own DNA sequence separate from ours (which can be used to traced maternal lineage), they exist in every one of our cells, producing a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that is burned as fuel elsewhere in the cell to provide energy. If your mitochrondria died, you would die, and vice versa. It’s a very close symbiotic relationship.

A symbiont is usually defined as an organism that benefits another, and is given benefits in return. But let’s be a little more precise. Natural selection is unyielding about what survives: it is whatever produces the most surviving offspring on average. So, to be more specific, a symbiont helps another organism reproduce and is rewarded by being able to reproduce more successfully itself. In evolutionary theory, “reproductive success” is considered a mouthful and you normally use the term “fitness.”

By this definition, all the good germs that form the ecosystem of your body are symbionts. They make you healthier, fitter, and in return they come along for the ride when you have children and thus spread them to the next generation. If you’re not used to thinking of it this way, it may sound a little creepy, but it’s life. Every successful ecosystem is like this—as it spreads it benefits its members by giving them an expanding environment to fill.

A parasite, on the other hand, is best defined as an organism that reduces the fitness of another, and in return enhances its own fitness. Invasive species are like this. Bacterial infections are like this.

Brain parasites are a particularly weird example. Toxoplasma gondi, for example, leaves eggs in cat feces. There the eggs lay dormant until eaten, frequently by rats. Once inside a rat, they will mature and often infect the brain. Eventually, sometimes years later, they alter the rat’s brain chemistry, causing it to become sexually aroused by the smell of cats. This is the parasites working hard to be eaten, so they can spread to a new feline host. The fitness of the rat is thus lowered, and the fitness of the parasite enhanced.

Viruses are likewise a bit weird in how they work. Their spores are often shaped like little moon-landers, ready to attach to your cells and inject their own DNA, reprogramming the cell to become a zombie-like producer of more viral spores. Again, this is parasitic behavior. The virus benefits; the host is harmed and often destroyed.

Richard Dawkins claims that religious faith is a special kind of virus, spread not by spores filled with alien DNA, but by priests filled with unscientific convictions. Once infected,

The patient typically finds himself impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn't seem to owe anything to evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, he feels as totally compelling and convincing. We doctors refer to such a belief as “faith.”

It’s an intriguing idea. But is it sound? Dawkins has received plenty of criticism for it. The two most common objections:

(a) Ideas (or as Dawkins calls them “memes,” as analogues to genes) don’t spread mechanically by natural selection, like viruses, but are consciously adopted by reasoning individuals. But this objection falls right into Dawkins’s trap. His point is that religion is not consciously adopted at all, but the result of mystification, indoctrination, and anti-scientific thinking. He goes further and admits that,

Scientific ideas, like all memes, are subject to a kind of natural selection, and this might look superficially virus-like. But the selective forces that scrutinize scientific ideas are not arbitrary and capricious.

In other words, it’s not that religion is a meme and science is not. Dawkins’s point is that science is a good meme, while religion is a viral one. Reason is a symbiont and faith is a parasite. But if symbiont/parasite is the important distinction, why does Dawkins spend so much time arguing that faith is an unscientific meme? (“Patients typically make a positive virtue of faith’s being strong and unshakable, in spite of not being based on evidence.” // “A related symptom ... is the conviction that ‘mystery,’ per se, is a good thing.” // “It is as though the faithful gain prestige through managing to believe even more impossible things than their rivals succeed in believing.” // etc. etc.) He commits a non sequitur here. The conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises. His argument runs like this: Science is beneficial. Religion is not science. Therefore religion is not beneficial. Therefore it is a parasite. But the fact that religion is not science does not immediately imply that religion is not beneficial.

(b) This brings us to the other common objection, namely, that Dawkins focuses on the virus-like aspects of religion and ignores the positive. To properly assess it, we need to be absolutely precise: Is religion a symbiont or a parasite, by the best definitions we have of these terms? Does religion increase or decrease one’s reproductive fitness? For a thorough answer to this question, see this article. If you prefer a summary, see the following table, which uses data from the article linked to:

Religion : Fertility Rate
Islam :  3.1
Christianity : 2.7
AVERAGE : 2.5
Hinduism : 2.4
Judaism : 2.3
Folk :  1.8
Other :  1.7
Buddhist : 1.6

Both Christians and Muslims have a higher fertility rate than average. People unaffiliated with any religion are expected to decline, from 16.4% of the population in 2010 to 13.2% in 2050. Islam is the fastest growing religion and will grow from 23.2% to 29.7% of the world population during the same period. And what about the U.S. in particular? Let’s take a look at another set of data:

Religion Fertility Rate
Mormonism : 3.4
Black Protestant : 2.5
Evangelical Protestant : 2.3
Catholics : 2.3
Jews : 2.0
Mainline Protestants : 1.9
Atheists : 1.6
Agnostics : 1.3

Converting from atheism to Mormonism, therefore, will more than double your reproductive fitness. The two lowest-fertility groups are the non-religious ones.

Religion increases fitness. It’s not a parasite, it’s a symbiont. If you want to get scientific about it, look at the numbers.



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The line between symbiont and parasite can often shift or prove illusory. E. coli is essential to a working digestive system. It keeps bad germs out and harmlessly inhabits us almost immediately from birth to death. Once in while, a mutant or foreign variant can cause infectious diarrhea and even death. Even mutations of cells with human DNA can cause them to replicate out of control, to become pathogenic—a process called cancer.

In the realm of ideas, there are a number of such symbionts gone parasitic. The one I find most interesting, being the most pervasive in the modern West, is the notion of Progress.

There is a certain kind of progress that is most often a good germ, and this goes by the term “civic responsibility.” This is the idea that you should get involved in your local community and help make it better and more prosperous. Unfortunately, this good idea as too often mutated, by stages, into such less-good and eventually harmful ones from state reform, to nation-wide reform, and finally to Global Progress, which I capitalize because it is the deity of modern progressivism, whose ultimate goal, it seems clear, is the elimination of all poverty worldwide and forever.

In my upcoming book, Progress Debunked, I will argue that this goal is not only practically unfeasible, but logically impossible. The elimination of suffering, if we analyze the idea in terms of what it means biologically and psychologically, also means the elimination of joy and with it the elimination of life itself. In biological terms, the elimination of natural selection means decay by mutation. In cultural terms, perfect freedom of thought and of morality means decay by cultural mutation.

If you want an overview see these posts: Preface, Introduction, Chapter 1 Excerpt, Chapter 2 Excerpt. Suffice it to say that at present I’ll be reasoning from the assumption that World Progress (or simply Progress with a capital P) is impossible.

The ideal of Progress is a rather new strain, not much more than three centuries old. It became popular largely as a result of the Marquis de Condorcet’s 1794 book, Progress of the Human Mind. Admittedly, two hundred years is old enough that it throws some doubt on how harmful a meme it might be. That is, Progress can’t be a deadly pathogen because otherwise it would have killed off all its hosts. Still, it is relatively young as religions go and it seems likely that it lacks long-term evolutionary viability.

It has nevertheless succeeded in spreading widely, and most liberals in the West now believe in something like it. Human ingenuity, most believe, will continue to create new technology that will continue to make life better and better. The past is past and the future will either become perfect, or will keep getting more easy-going and fun. Fewer wars, less back-breaking work. We’ll help the rest of the world improve too. This is all part of the complex of ideas that is Progress. In fact it is such a popular belief now that most of us in the West believe it without realizing that we believe it, having grown up around no respectable alternatives.

The idea of Progress does often coexist more-or-less peacefully, even in the same person, alongside various religions, including Christianity. But even then it does have a tendency to reduce fertility. Progressivism teaches that unless you have fewer children, the world will become “overpopulated” (a term, I’ve pointed out, that Malthus himself never used).

This teaching is logically inconsistent. By reducing human reproduction we reduce the suffering caused by having to support children. But this ignores the joy inherent in raising a family. Rather than merely decreasing suffering, birth control also reduces joy, and thus reduces the total quantity of life. This way of doing things will, on the whole, shrink and give way to more flourishing ways of living, such as traditional Catholicism and other ideologies that teach the biologically-sound view that reproduction is the essential function of sex. The suicide of the ideal of Progress is already happening as the native population of the secular West declines, giving way to Islam and more family-centered forms of Christianity.

This is why, on the whole, I think that the myth of Progress should be discarded. Population growth and resource limitations have always given rise to equal amounts of suffering and joy. Looking for some magical formula whereby you can have all the good of life with none of the bad is an opium-dream. Unfortunately, this dream of Progress has become almost inextricably integrated into our Western ideological ecosystem. It is not easy to discard. It’s in fact developed its own adaptations over the last two centuries of its quasi-symbiosis, including its own kind of immune system, comprising ideas like relativism and political correctness. As we’ll see, unless you can replace these defense mechanisms with something more effective, those excommunicated from the Cult of Progress are prone to all kinds of ugly ideological germs.

Might it not be better just to let this benign parasite, Progress, alone? Is it really doing all that much harm? If the worst it can do is reduce the number of white people lording over the world, isn’t that sort of a good thing? What’s wrong with welcoming immigrants and letting them take over the genetic legacy of the West?

I like to think of my challenges to Progress as an FYI. It’s a warning more than anything. What I’m saying is, look, you are free to believe in it if you’d like. We don’t need to outlaw the idea. But people should be aware of what it is, especially its disadvantages, because it’s so taken over our intellectual culture that we’ve left critique of Progress almost entirely to certain ugly fringe elements. Things could get even uglier if these fringe elements start to win the wider philosophical and cultural war.

Because Progressivism is seen as a constant overcoming of the past, it tends to forget tradition, seeing anything old-fashioned as outdated. As a result, it tends to mutate fast, latching on to any new cause it can champion to unite Progressive voters. As it’s mutated it’s given rise not only to political correctness, but all the increasingly sensitive forms it comes in today. Originally, being PC served the useful function of fighting Nazi, fascist, and KKK-style racist ideologies. But today many universities require professors to abstain from mentioning anything that suggests that DNA can make any difference to success, or even that ethnicity can make any difference to economic or political behavior. Many require that lecturers give “trigger warnings” anytime they even discuss the possibility of non-equitable relations among different sexes or cultures.

These are allergic reactions, an immune system gone haywire. It’s the sort of over-sensitive perception that led Hillary Clinton to call most of Trump’s supporters “deplorables,” thus demeaning almost a quarter of the U.S. population. This is too much. Out of self-defense these “deplorables” are starting to become aggressive and allergic themselves. The Alt-Right, a group of anti-democratic libertarian monarchists, is growing in influence. It regularly uses the term “cuckservative” to refer to Republicans or any conservative that they see as selling-out to liberalism. In this way they have made themselves equally allergic, and the divide deepens.

It makes me think of HIV. We’ve got viruses attacking the very immune system that keeps us safe from viruses. The break-down in dialogue between Left and Right is like organ-donation gone bad, the body and the organ reacting with mutual allergies. This sort of thing is deadly.

The cycle of reaction and counter-reaction is halting dialogue. It’s destroying the rational benefits of freedom of speech. It gives rise to viral propaganda with similarities to the sort that created Communism and Fascism.

Freedom of speech is an essential immunological function in our culture. It gives every idea a fighting chance in the ecosystem. It creates a jungle of ideas. Freedom of speech is the Law of the Jungle. Just as your body needs a healthy balance of germs, just as your body in fact destroys fewer germs than it lets be, freedom of speech must tolerate all but those few ideas that cannot be tolerated. It may seem to permit too much from the likes of white supremacists, but if we do not allow them a voice they will find more violent and virulent ways to make themselves heard. The last thing we want to do is make them martyrs to the cause of truth—but this is very nearly what is happening.

The Law of the Jungle is not kind. It means survival of the fittest. And Christianity in particular has survived such jungles before, most especially the late Roman Empire. It is no fossil species. Its numbers have grown to 2.2 billion. If you want to talk about fossil species, I should mention that Paganism and Druidism, popular only among certain pockets of hipsters today, are your prototypical fossil species when it comes to culture, gaining curious converts precisely because they are so small and unique. Nazism is younger but no less a fossil.

I’ve heard Christianity criticized as non-adapting because it retains the same canon of scripture it did millennia ago. But this is to ignore the fact that in the early church there were many competing canons. It was popular choice and debate that eventually led to the scriptures adopted by Catholics. And even then there are differences in canon among Orthodox, Protestant, Mormon, and many other sects of Christianity. And there are differences in translation, interpretation, and application. Just compare the Amish to the Anglicans. In fact, Christianity is part of an even bigger family tree that has diversified from its original Semitic roots millennia ago into Islam and Judaism as well. These churches have gradually accepted and absorbed insights from science, including Greek philosophy, a heliocentric solar system, Newtonian physics, and in some cases Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Christianity is an old symbiont and it’s been with us for several ages, both dark and golden. I’d be very surprised indeed if suddenly a viral argument from a theologically-naive atheist (e.g. Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris) annihilated this entire tradition overnight. I know physicists, philosophers, biologists, successful businessmen, and public intellectuals who are all Christian. I am a Christian. It does not preclude intelligence or rationality—in fact it strengthens the intellect by giving it firm ideological ground in long-standing moral values. And faith is not incompatible with science. Almost every pre-20th century Western scientist, including Newton, believed in God.

If anything’s a virus, it’s those notions that come and go in short-lived epidemics from age-to-age. Fascism, authoritarianism, utopian socialism, materialism, and militant atheism come to mind. These ideas are simple, seductive, spread quickly among the impressionable, mutate fast, and tend to burn themselves out.

Next week, in Part 2 of 3, we’ll discuss this new far-right movement, the Alt-Right, in these terms—parasite or symbiont?