There has been a flood of atheist books lately. Dawkins and Hitchens, for instance, argue that religion drives people to conflict by deluding them with idealistic fantasies. That’s so 1600s.

Religion is a declining political force in the modern world. Religions once made predictions about natural and social events and was used as tool of political organizations by ancient monarchies. Today, religion is restricted to the private sphere and only describes personal beliefs of metaphysical topics. The separation of Church and State has kept religious idealism from directly interfering with political matters. I think religion is a spent force, which is why Atheists are now “brave” enough to go public.

The real story is worse. Since the French Revolution, Political Idealism and fantasy ideologies have replaced religion. These political beliefs create a political mythology, teleology, and idealistic morality. These beliefs become neo-religions of absolute truth which are imposed upon society through coercion. And no one likes to admit they are a medieval fanatic, so non-believers are attacked and exiled.

I think that Political Atheism is much more important than classical religious atheism. Politics is about shifting forces and interests. We cannot create a political “identity” without sacrificing rationality.

I’ve discussed Empiricism and Idealism before. It’s a major philosophical debate over where our knowledge comes from.

Idealism is the root source of fantasy ideologies – religious or political. It is the belief that the universe and mankind have a function and teleological purpose which can be discovered. Idealism does not require evidence like empiricism. It describes what mankind should be, rather than what it is.

Idealist intellectuals function like a modern priesthood. They borrow most of the same ideas from religion – original sin, guilt, morality, special knowledge, manichean dialectics, and so forth. They call them something else, but the core concepts remain. Sometimes it is utopian, sometimes dystopian, sometimes more subtle. Their followers join a mass movement of True Believers – well described by Eric Hoffer.

The dogma of political ideologies is simplistic. They imagine a Manichean world where your side is on the winning side of history. It argues that one tribe is morally superior to the rest – which encourages the use of coercion to enforce that faux-morality. It’s a pseudo-religious teleology which claims there is a final cause for all events. They just put the end times on Earth rather than in heaven. The Revolution of the Proletariat is to Marxists what the Rapture is to Christians.

When you walk away from that dogma, what do you have left? You’re an atheist, believing in nothing without evidence.

We need a Popperian mindset. We have to update our beliefs incrementally and question our beliefs to tests. All our beliefs must be falsifiable. If they can be twisted to explain anything, they really explain nothing.

Lee Harris wrote about these fantasy ideologies. Al-Qaeda is one such fantasy ideology, but there are many. Fascism, Communism, and a variety of “radical” movements were about political fantasy.

Harris begins by recounting a disagreement between him and his roommate during the Vietnam War. Both opposed the war, but completely differed about how to oppose it. Harris believed that protesters should try to persuade other Americans to join his point of view. His roommate wanted to protest in a potentially violent and disruptive way, even if this would be counterproductive and harmful for the war effort. Why? Because it was “good for his soul.” It was about him – not the war, the Vietnamese people, or the commuters stuck in a traffic jam because of protestors.

The protest for him was not politics, but theater; and the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve, but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. In short, he was acting out a fantasy.

For want of a better term, call the phenomenon in question a fantasy ideology — by which I mean, political and ideological symbols and tropes used not for political purposes, but entirely for the benefit of furthering a specific personal or collective fantasy.

These political fantasies should not be confused with politics. Politics is the way to resolve conflicts of interest.

It would be possible to rationally debate men like Harris about political differences, but how can you discuss politics with the other man who determined that only one course of action is good for his soul? Even the word soul is a throwback to religious mythologies.

This power of the fantasist is entirely traceable to the fact that, for him, the other is always an object and never a subject. A subject, after all, has a will of his own, his own desires and his own agenda… And anyone who is aware of this fact is automatically put at a disadvantage in comparison with the fantasist — the disadvantage of knowing that other people have minds of their own and are not merely props to be pushed around.

Some political fantasies even reject that there are individual conflicts of interest depending on situational needs. They force a view that all members of the “tribe” have unitary desires and should act in unison.

This ranges from the hard and nasty fantasies of Communism, Fascism, and Islamism to the softer but vaguely malicious “identity politics” in the West. Individuals are assigned to group roles. Rather than accepting the individual as a unique subject, he must conform to his or her group identity.

It’s difficult to break out of this mindset:

For the moment I stop thinking about you as a prop in my fantasy, you become problematic. If you aren’t what I have cast you to be, then who are you, and what do you want?

Instead of breaking away from the fantasy, it is easier to label rogue individuals as class, race, or gender traitors.

They are heretics, in other words.

Religious idealism was the source of zealotry and mass movements for much of recorded history. Religious sect was more like a political party than the idea of personal religious beliefs today. Political fantasies were confined to the individual. Indeed, a person suppressed his fantasies to be accepted by the group. The violence of the late Middle Ages, culminating in the 30-Years War, caused political religion to decline in significance.

Political fantasy ideologies became mass movements. It began with philosophical idealists such as Jean-Jacque Rousseau. Rousseau created a false image of mankind declining in physical and moral virtue over time. He invented this concept of a noble savage who was contaminated by civilization. Rousseau – clearly not an empiricist – suggested restoring this lost virtue through a revolutionary Social Contract.

But this changed with the French Revolution. From this event onward, there would be eruptions of a new kind of collective fantasy, one in which political ideology replaced religious mythology as the source of fantasy’s symbols and rituals. In this way it provided a new, and quite dangerous, outlet for the fantasy needs of large groups of men and women — a full-fledged fantasy ideology. For such a fantasy makes no sense outside of the ideological corpus in terms of which the fantasy has been constructed. It is from the ideology that the roles, the setting, the props are drawn, just as for the earlier pursuers of millennium, the relevant roles, setting, and props arose out of the biblical corpus of symbolism.

Idealism works by invented axioms. From these axioms, you can deduce any theorem about society.

What happens if outsiders disagree with the axioms and reject them as false? The Noble Savage is a myth afterall. In that case, you lose your head to the Guillotine.

Maximilien Robespierre, a true believer in Rousseau’s Social Contract, justified the use of terror in the French Revolution.

This great purity of the French revolution’s basis, the very sublimity of its objective, is precisely what causes both our strength and our weakness. Our strength, because it gives to us truth’s ascendancy over imposture, and the rights of the public interest over private interests; our weakness, because it rallies all vicious men against us, all those who in their hearts contemplated despoiling the people and all those who intend to let it be despoiled with impunity, both those who have rejected freedom as a personal calamity and those who have embraced the revolution as a career and the Republic as prey. Hence the defection of so many ambitious or greedy men who since the point of departure have abandoned us along the way because they did not begin the journey with the same destination in view. The two opposing spirits that have been represented in a struggle to rule nature might be said to be fighting in this great period of human history to fix irrevocably the world’s destinies, and France is the scene of this fearful combat…We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people’s enemies by terror.

If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.

This manichean belief – where the chosen people were morally superior in virtue, and all others were traitors and tyrants – led to the mass murder of the Reign of Terror. Tens of thousands were murdered, usually by beheading.

Jean Marie Roland was one of the moderates who supported this terrorism in the name of virtue. The Revolutionary “vengeance mingled a sort of justice” because it eliminanted the hated class enemy – the monarchists and aristocrats. Yet, the neo-religious belief always found new enemies. Liberals would be mass murdered just as quickly as the aristocrats.
Roland later committed suicide when the Jacobin radicals killed his wife and went after him. He was a moderate liberal, and therefore lacked the revolutionary zeal and virtue of radicalism. His final words were: “…from the moment when I learned that they had murdered my wife, I would no longer remain in a world stained with enemies.”

The French Revolution, particularly under the Jacobin radicals, almost reinvented a new form of political religion. It was a war between good and evil – far greater in importance than the older battles of Christianity. This was the forerunner of revolutionary socialism in Europe and across the world.

Back to Lee Harris. He describes why political idealism is very distinct from political empiricism:

But the concept of belief, as it is used in this context, must be carefully understood in order to avoid ambiguity. For us, belief is a purely passive response to evidence presented to us — I form my beliefs about the world for the purpose of understanding the world as it is. But this is radically different from what might be called transformative belief — the secret of fantasy ideology. For here the belief is not passive, but intensely active, and its purpose is not to describe the world, but to change it. It is, in a sense, a deliberate form of make-believe, but one in which the make-believe is not an end in itself, but rather the means of making the make-believe become real. In this sense it is akin to such innocently jejune phenomena as “The Power of Positive Thinking,” or even the little engine that thought it could. To say that Mussolini, for example, believed that fascist Italy would revive the Roman Empire does not mean that he made a careful examination of the evidence and then arrived at this conclusion. Rather, what is meant by this is that Mussolini had the will to believe that fascist Italy would revive the Roman Empire.

The fantasy is about the virtue of your soul, not about interacting with the political community. Others in the community are props, not human beings. They are toys you can hate or love and project your fantasy upon. It’s a fact-free belief system on par with religion. Religion, in its defense, speaks of abstractions beyond the realm of science. Political fantasies occur in the real material world.

The fantasies call for revolution and the perfection of mankind. This was the New Virtuous Man of the French Revolution; The Ayran Ubermench of Nazism, the New Soviet Man of the Russian Revolution. Al-Qaeda has its own fantasy ideology.

This is not just about intellectuals creating the fantasies from nothing. They fantasy has to attract a mass movement and resonate with the population. Then it has power to act on the fantasy.

There are code-words for these kinds of fantasies. One code-word is “social-justice.”

The political idealists will always sacrifice individual liberty in the name of “social justice.” The justice is for the mass movement, the true believers. This is irreconcilable with independent individual decision-makers who are subjects, not props in the fantasy.

Social equality is unachievable because it ignores the tradeoffs that empiricists study. Since it ignores tradeoffs, anyone who opposes the fantasy becomes morally evil. They must be exterminated as enemies of the mass movement.

Empiricists know that human rationality is bounded. Individuals act on local information, have limited knowledge and act within constraints of time. Human knowledge cannot be vast or global or gnostic in origin. Humans perform best when they specialize in knowledge, since generalists know little.

Everything in the political arena is a mathematical tradeoff. There are no “solutions” to “problems.” There are only tradeoffs in resolving conflicts of interests. Individuals respond to “if/then” stimuli in their environment, so they need signals, incentives, and disincentives to interprete local information about tradeoffs. Decisions are made incrementally.

The fantasists reject empiricism. They argue that dicussion of tradeoffs is an apology for “social injustice” and humanity should be made into something better.

Religion used to offer this purging of sin with a concept of heaven where there would be no conflicts of interests and there would be perfect justice. Political fantasies have substituted the abstract heaven with the promise of a material heaven on Earth – if only you believe.

Gnosticism is a religious belief that describes how special enlightened individuals receive exclusive knowledge through intuitive or transcendant means. They are gifted with the vision of God, like prophets.

Political Fantasies have their own prophets. These prophets, ranging from Rousseau, to Marx, to Hitler, to minor figures of lesser movements in radical environmentalism, socialism, and so on. Standpoint theory, popular with Marxists and Feminists, is gnostic. It believes that special groups in society have intuitive access to knowedge that eludes logical or empirical measurement. It’s a non-falsifiable belief that women or the proletariate are innately superior and have special knowledge outside the realm of science.

Every so often, True Believers look at themselves and feel doubt. “The God That Failed” was a famous book by ex-communists describing the appeal of the fantasy ideology and their slow realization that it was nothing more than a fantasy – and a dangerous one at that.

Such political apostates are purged from their former tribe and exiled as heretics. They are maliciously attacked, defamed, and sometimes murdered by neo-Inquisitors of the fantasist movement.

Has religion caused conflicts? Definitely. I think this tells us more about humanity’s penchant for forcing their personal fantasies on others. I think political fantasies are the great threat today, not religion.

Empicism does not seem to come naturally. I try to be an empiricist, but I am aware that I continually fall short as an individual. Perhaps humans just need to believe in something – and if so, belief in a personal metaphysical religion is a much better alternative than a political fantasy ideology.