In the early 1990s the Humanist Association of Canada (HAC) created an on-line open discussion forum for people who believed in the free and open exchange of ideas and were committed to respecting the dignity of each individual. This forum moved to Facebook shortly after 2005, and the discussion group’s membership grew to more than 1,500. Then, in 2015 a re-branded Humanist Canada unveiled its new professionally designed Facebook page. Only board members could initiate posts on this new platform (although this right was eventually taken away from them as well). The old HAC listserve was allowed to continue. Although it was basically self-monitoring, board secretary Michel Virard was named administrator and I was named as one of three moderators. This article is about how this discussion group came to be viewed “problematic,” and was terminated.
The major part of my time as a volunteer Humanist Canada board member at the time was to research the need for ceremony in the lives of humanists (Robertson, 2017b). As a consequence, I was invited to participate in a HAC thread initiated by the Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba on the need for humanist ceremonies. As expected, the discussion was cordial, informative and productive. I returned to the discussion group site in 2019, but this time the language was anything but cordial. Some members were calling on the moderators to ban others they called “racists,” “alt-right,” “white supremacists,” and “anti-humanists.” I read the offending posts. No one had advocated racism, white supremacy or even conservative politics. Earlier, white academic activists who used such language to support what some called “cancel culture” had appropriated the term “woke” from black culture to imply those that did not share their views were “not awake.” I told these Woke to keep the discussion civil. A couple of weeks later I found the former victims giving as good as they got, so I admonished them all. Over time non-Woke stopped participating. With no debate, the only new threads on the old site were pleas for donations from a humanist school in Uganda that was, at the time, partially funded through Humanist Canada. To stimulate discussion, I posted an article by a police officer (Wilson, 2020) arguing against the then current campaign to defund the police. I invited comments, but as a moderator offered no opinion. One commentator stated that articles published in Quillette Magazine should not appear in a humanist forum. I set up a separate thread to discuss whether we should censor articles based on their magazine of origin.
Several articles from Quillette were posted but none promoted an ideology of racism, sexism or hate, and I refused to impugn motives based on some subjectively held notion of “dog-whistling.” One participant repeatedly expressed insult over my refusal to share my own views on the RCMP officer’s article. I agreed to do so, but under my own name outside of the moderator role. The resultant exchange was reasoned and civil.
Two posts in a different discussion thread implied, without evidence, that humanist Steven Pinker was associated with pedophilia. I viewed this as promoting hatred against an individual, and in the role of moderator, I deleted the posts. During the subsequent discussion, I informed one of the posters that he could appeal my decision to the site administrator, but he replied that he would approach “Martin,” the Humanist Canada president, instead.
During the ensuing months the HAC site generated more comments than the official Humanist Canada page despite having one third the members, and discussions were mostly civil. Then, in early August 2020, another moderator who had only recently become involved, cancelled a participant’s right to post under circumstances I challenged. The moderator explained:
The reason I blocked Ullrich Fischer form (sic) the HAC site had nothing to do with the nature of the content he was posting, but for targeting another member for harassment by systematically going through her previous comments on previous posts and replying to each one. (Sassan Sanei, e-mail, Aug. 6/20)
Ullrich had posted “five or six” replies to separate posts mostly responding to comments the other member had posted to him. For example, she had advised “Please don’t post alt-right material to a Humanist Group” to which he had responded, “Please don’t define as alt-right everything which disagrees with you about anything.” I restored Ullrich’s privileges because due process had not been followed. I explained that we could create a rule limiting the number of posts a member could make, but in fairness we would need to communicate such a rule to everyone in advance, and no one should be cancelled after a first offense. I also pointed out that the alleged “victim” here had called yet another member a “terrible human being” and had sent that member a private message calling her a “condescending bitch,” so if anyone should be cancelled it should be this alleged victim. Sassan then apologized to Ullrich admitting:
It was wrong of me to do that without informing you why the action was taken, giving you an opportunity to respond, or discussing it with other moderators. I’m sorry, and I promise you it will not happen again.
Sassan took exception to my use of the term “Woke.” While the term had been appropriated from U.S. black culture, he explained the word was now used as a slur directed against the appropriators. I agreed to use an alternate term “Identitarian Left” instead.
In early September I deleted four posts that consisted of name calling, swearing or belittling of people. In keeping with our protocol, I notified the other moderators. Sassan re-instated two of the posts explaining in an email, “The idea of a safe space does not extend to non-victimized or non-marginalized persons.” One member whose post remained deleted after calling another “a racist piece of shit,” declared that I, the moderator, favoured “raping and torturing children.” When asked for evidence, he posted that I had deleted the incriminating posts.
At a meeting that included the Humanist Canada president, Sassan and me, it was decided to remove all reference to Humanist Canada in the old discussion group as the discussions were “hurting our brand.” I thought it odd that the site administrator had not been invited to this meeting. Nonetheless, the Identitarian Left still insisted that anything stated on the site represented Humanist Canada policy. In keeping with the discussion at our meeting, I posted:
This is not the official webpage of Humanist Canada and the opinions expressed here do not conform to any official statement or position. This is an open discussion group for humanists with a wide variety of opinions and perspectives. We ask that participants to this forum talk to each other respectfully.
One poster became so offended by this statement that he called on the president, Martin Frith, “to do something with me.” In the meantime, Sassan suspended comments on a thread in support of ex-Muslims who had become humanists, and he suspended the person who started the thread for the next 30 days with the ominous warning “if another admin approves (his posts) I will remove them.” As it had become apparent that the two moderators were following different rules, I decided to bring it to the Humanist Canada board for resolution. I proposed that Sassan and I each resign to be replaced by a former Humanist Canada treasurer who could be seen as a neutral moderator using the following rules:
No racist, sexist or hate speech permitted;
Bullying including name-calling is not permitted;
Posts that contain racist, sexist or hate speech or otherwise exhibit bullying will be removed;
Participants who have posts removed will be advised of the reason for the removal;
Persistent abuse of the rules will result in an individual losing their posting privileges.
Sassan’s response at the board meeting was to demand an apology from me for using the term “Identitarian Leftist!” The board decided to refer the matter to its social media committee. I reverted to using the term “Woke.”
Four new discussion group members identified as transgender. When Sassan posted a “trans rights are human rights” banner in the forum, one trans person accused him of appropriating trans issues to advance his organization. He replied that his post was necessary because many humanists had been posting “transphobic” and “hateful” statements. I had not seen any such statements, and I asked Sassan to produce them. He said he had deleted them, but as moderator, I had access to all deletions, and found none. Sassan subsequently deleted as “transphobic hate speech” an article written by a transwoman, that was critical of J.K. Rowling. I did not consider her call for dialogue to be hate speech, so I reposted it under my name. The initial discussion on this article was civil, but it was interrupted by an individual who called me a transphobe and a bigot without any arguments supporting those assertions. Ze also contacted me on my private messenger service with threats to have me removed as moderator. Ze subsequently posted, on the personal Facebook of another member, “You are completely uneducated. Ignorant. Privileged and bigoted.” As this individual had six similar posts removed earlier, I cancelled the member’s posting privileges. Sassan reinstated the person without contacting me. I cancelled the person again. I then discovered I was cancelled as moderator. I appealed to the site administrator but he had been cancelled too! The president suggested we sort this problem out at the social committee meeting he would schedule.
The dam burst. Transactivists and their allies attacked non-Woke with the same derision that had prompted me to become an active moderator the year earlier. Three participants defended me saying that they had searched my postings and did not find any posted by me that were anti-trans. Woke replied that I had removed the offending posts. One of the Woke organized a letter writing campaign. Sassan defended this behaviour stating, “The member(s) in question was (were) not harassing anybody. They were standing up and speaking out against the endless stream of hateful, transphobic commentary and bullying that has dominated the group in recent weeks.” No examples of such hateful, transphobic or bullying comments were given.
The HAC discussion group was shut down with the rationale that social media necessarily degenerates into such divisive name calling. I believed this was likely true at the time, but the New Enlightenment Project (NEP) established its own Facebook discussion forum in 2021, and it has proven to be a safe place in which humanists can have respectful, informative and civil conversations about controversial topics.
Sassan had not been authorized to terminate a moderator or the discussion group administrator. President Frith was determined to ensure that this matter would not be discussed by the Humanist Canada board, and he invited me to attend a “discussion group post-mortem.” After waiting for Martin who failed to attend, Sassan apologized for his actions to the cancelled administrator and myself. I thought he should apologize to the board because he had broken a board protocol, but the former administrator suggested that we should move on to educate humanists about the threat of Wokism.
This was my first direct experience observing Wokism in action. The Woke accused those who disagreed with them of being anti-humanist. People who said Canada’s first prime minister should not be blamed for things that happened well after his death were accused of favoring the torturing and raping of children. Feminists who want to ensure biological females have safe spaces were accused of wanting to deny transsexuals right to exist. Those who defended their positions were accused of harassment or bullying. There were thus two types of humanists represented: the Woke who viewed freedom of speech, science, logic and reason as “white, male ways of knowing” in opposition to their “anti-racist” narratives; and, those grounded in the Enlightenment view that we can learn about objective reality through careful observation, science, reason and logic. To these Enlightenment humanists, freedom of speech acts as an antidote to dogma and is a means of checking our own subjectively held biases. Those who coined the term “The Enlightenment” implied that those who disagreed with their approach were unenlightened, but in my book, The Evolved Self (Robertson, 2020), I argue that these values flow from the individualism inherent in having a self,and that this self is both cross-cultural and ancient. The Enlightenment was not about educating unenlightened people so much as removing cultural constraints on the powers of mind. From this lens, Wokism is a reactionary movement seeking to re-impose such constraints.
I came to the conclusion that Wokism is not a coherent ideology but amalgam of partially assimilated and conflicting belief systems (Robertson, 2021). It replaces the economic ruling class of Marxism with the racial designation “white.” It uses anti-Marxist postmodernism to “deconstruct” all beliefs with no rationale given as to why its own dogma is exempt from such deconstruction. Its attack on science and reason is copied from Martin Heidegger (1962), but it claims to be anti-fascist. It claims allegiance to social justice but ignores the egalitarian basis of the civil rights movement upon which social justice is built. The Woke claim to be anti-racist but promote the racialization of society through identity politics. They claim to be anti-capitalist while being embraced by the largest corporations in the world. They are convinced of their moral superiority, but are prepared to act unethically to defeat their opponents. These contradictions help explain the psychology of the people I observed.
Sassan had been extremely deferential to the transperson who accused him of using trans-issues to further an agenda. Sometimes referred to as “victim culture” (Campbell & Manning, 2014, 2016; Gabay et al., 2020; Haufman, 2020), Wokism establishes a hierarchy of identity groups with members of some groups presumed to have suffered greater victimization thereby acquiring greater moral entitlement. One would think that white males would be at the bottom of this hierarchy, but they are given a special role. Several times white males in the discussion group would state that they were “giving voice” to those “without voice.” This gives them a leadership position in which they engage in aggressive attacks on others as evidence of overcoming their own “whiteness.” On numerous occasions I observed Woke amending their posts after the discussion so as to make themselves appear more effective.
Like a secret cult, Wokism may not be named and attempts to name it are deemed to be “slurs.” The Woke would prefer to be known as “Left” or “Progressives;” yet we know there are many people who identify with the Left who embrace science, reason and free speech. We also know that progressivism is an Enlightenment doctrine that peoples’ lives can be improved incrementally. By this measure a leading progressive is Steven Pinker (2012, 2018), a humanist whom the Woke have repeatedly denounced.
Every cult needs some means of identifying authentic members, and the Woke do this through the inventive use of language. For example, the word “Latinx” is not used by Hispanic people and it is not used by Woke talking to Hispanic people. It is used by Woke talking through Hispanic people to other Woke. The word “systemic” is thrown in before words like “racism,” “sexism,” and “oppression,” but it is not used as an adjective because the Woke never explain how systems work to establish these problems. The word “problematic,” is used in preference to the word “problem” so as to appear more “systemic.” Similarly words like micro-aggression, intersectionality, and cisgender are not needed for communication, but signify that the user is Woke.
In the final analysis, Wokism is about power. The Woke have taken over universities, school boards, media, non-government organizations and government agencies for the purpose of creating more Woke. Although they were successful in disabling and shutting down an open humanist discussion group, the Woke were not finished with Humanist Canada. Enlightenment humanists need to recognize the challenge to our movement and to update our understandings in light of modern conditions.
Campbell, B., & Manning, J. (2016). Campus Culture Wars and the Sociology of Morality. Comparative Sociology, 15(2), 147-178.
Gabay, R., Hameiri, B., Rubel-Lifschitz, T., & Nadler, A. (2020). The tendency for interpersonal victimhood: The personality construct and its consequences. Personality and Individual Differences, 165, 110134. https://doi.org/doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110134
Haufman, S. B. (2020, June 29). Unraveling the Mindset of Victimhood: Focusing on grievances can be debilitating; social science points to a better way. Scientific American.
In August of 2021, the Board of Directors of the former Ryerson University voted to change the name of the institution due to (as one CBC story phrases it) concerns about the man the institution is named for and his links to Canada’s residential schools.
According to www.ryerson.ca, “Names matter. They tell the world who we are and what we stand for. They communicate ideas, values and aspirations. They speak to the future even as they acknowledge the past. A new name offers an invitation to be more inclusive, to imagine novel ways of thinking and creating — to open ourselves to new possibilities. This is a new chapter for our university, informed by the pages that come before but open to the opportunities that lie ahead. Now is a time to recommit to the values that define us, to invite our community to gather around our shared mission and to shape a future in which everyone belongs.” So Ryerson University is now the Toronto Metropolitan University where “It’s the many collisions between peoples and perspectives that take place in a metropolitan setting that drive innovation. As such, our name is as much a marker of location as it is a statement of identity, one that’s befitting of a thoroughly urban university.” Collisions? OK. We can take that as food for thought.
Since questions of a dead legislator’s legacy is not only fair game for consideration (Ryerson/TMU has a 131-page document examining the life and legacy of their former namesake), it is the inspiration for baseball bats and crowbars to be taken to statuary (per featured image), perhaps it is reasonable and even to-be-encouraged that all areas of that legislator’s legacy be examined.
Consider, for example the Common School Act of 1850. As spacing.ca explains it: “The Common School Act of 1850 set into law what was already being practised (sic) by local communities throughout Ontario. The act permitted any group of five Black families to ask local school trustees to establish a separate school. The law also permitted the creation of separate schools for Roman Catholic and Protestant families.”
Here in 2022, as ideas of how to implement contemporary values of diversity and inclusivity collide with the legacy institutions, it seems odd that those who are concerned with updating our systems to reflect the values of the present and our aspirations for the future haven’t decided that a certain elephant in the room needs to be addressed. The public funding of Catholic school boards in Ontario is the single largest and least supportable example of segregation and systemic faith-based discrimination (faithism) in Canada.
By all means, let us rename, rebrand, renew. A better, more diverse and inclusive future is waiting.
In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published in other venues that we think humanistfreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The following article was published on April 19, 2021 on:
By: Solomon Odeniyi
Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, has lambasted Governor Abdullahi Ganduje of Kano State for his hypocrisy and promotion of religious intolerance in the state which allegedly contributed to the 24-year jail term handed down to atheist, Mubarak Bala.
In a telephone interview with The PUNCH, Soyinka said the sentence handed down to Bala must be appealed at once even as he argued that it was hypocritical of the Ganduje government and the Sharia authorities to be chasing blasphemers while the governor himself saw nothing wrong in stuffing his babariga outfit with dollars.
Ganduje was in 2018 caught on video stuffing his outfit with wads of dollars presumed to be kickbacks, a development which attracted criticisms from several pro-transparency groups.
The governor however denied receiving kickbacks.
Soyinka said he was shocked by Ganduje’s statement wherein he promised to sign the death warrant of musician, Yahaya Shariff, who was convicted for blasphemy in 2020.
“You can imagine a governor saying he would sign the death warrant of a musician for blasphemy! For me, it is nothing short of a crime against humanity. It reeks of hypocrisy. This was the same governor that was stuffing his outfit with dollars.
“I have deliberately not called for his arrest because he enjoys immunity. But these are the people who arrest blasphemers,” said the Nobel Laureate.
When asked if he would be seeking Ganduje’s prosecution after he leaves office, Soyinka responded, “Of course, the authorities know what to do once he leaves office.”
He added that it was hypocritical of the northern leaders to hound blasphemers while turning a blind eye to corruption.
The Nobel Laureate called on civil society groups to launch a campaign against the 24-year imprisonment of Bala even as he insisted that the moves should be made to immediately appeal the sentence.
“I am glad that the conviction will be appealed but I think it is imperative for rights groups to launch a campaign against these atrocities. Nigeria is a secular nation and has no state religion. The conviction is one of the fallouts of the so-called Sharia that was adopted by some of these states years ago.
“We are not in the dark ages or cavemen. No one should be imprisoned for their religious views. The concept of blasphemy should not even exist in a secular state,” he said.
Also in an interview with The PUNCH, Bala’s lawyer, James Ibor, said the matter would be appealed soon.
The lawyer said the 24-year sentence handed to his client was outrageous, adding that the court even lacked the jurisdiction to hear the matter in the first place.
Ibor lamented that despite a Federal High Court in Abuja ordering the release of his client, the authorities refused to obey the order.
“We will appeal the matter very soon. This is a travesty of justice. My client only pleaded guilty because he and his family had been receiving threats and just decided to end it all.And even after pleading guilty, the sentence should not have exceeded five years based on Kano sentencing guidelines and he has already been in detention for two years which means he shouldn’t have been given more than three years,” Ibor said.
Human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), also condemned the sentence, adding that he was sure the matter would be overturned once it is challenged at the Court of Appeal.
“The conviction will not stand the test of an appeal. He should also apply for bail. No doubt, the Court of Appeal will uphold his fundamental rights of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression,” Falana said.
The concept of systemic faithism may not be familiar to HumanistFreedoms.com readers, so as a kind of preamble to the focus of this article, consider this definition of systemic faithism as presented by the Government of Ontario’s own Ontario Human Rights Commission presented in its 2013 Human Rights and Creed Research and Consultation Report.:
Systemic faithism refers to the ways that cultural and societal norms, systems, structures and institutions directly or indirectly, consciously or unwittingly, promote, sustain or entrench differential (dis)advantage for individuals and groups based on their faith (understood broadly to include religious and non-religious belief systems). Systemic faithism can adversely affect both religious and non-religious persons, depending on the context, as discussed in the examples below. Some forms of systemic faithism can be actionable under the Code (e.g. those amounting to “systemic discrimination”), while others may not be (e.g. those taking broader cultural or societal forms). This section looks more closely at two dominant forms of systemic faithism in the current era, flowing from the “residually Christian” structuring of public culture and institutions, and from “closed secular” ideology and practice...Among the most obvious examples of residual Christianity in Ontario…public funding in Ontario of Roman Catholic separate schools, but not other religion-based schools.
How is it that a provincial government is able to simultaneously identify, define and detail a form of systemic discrimination and continuously defend and perpetuate the abuse? It’s a puzzler.
The authors of upsetting.ca have decided to do their best to explore and communicate the lengthy and, well as the website says – upsetting history of ongoing privileging of a particular community within the provinces of Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan (a bit of rough math reveals that roughly half of all Canadians live in a jurisdiction that continues to ensconce and fund a major form of systemic discrimination).
Upsetting’s authors make their position clear: On the practical side, the Ontario public has never sanctioned the public funding of separate school systems for Roman Catholic citizens, just politicians. The RC school systems (French & English) were foisted upon Ontario through two dictatorial moves by politicians. Skullduggery (trickery, dishonesty) in the highest places has maintained them. Each post in this series will tell a different story in order to reveal all the events and the characters associated with them. Posts will be every Sunday evening, Tuesday evening, and Thursday evening for several weeks.
Perhaps you’re interested to investigate systemic faithism from a distinctly different angle? Have a listen to a podcastfrom York University’s Critical Spirituality in Leadership who say that they recognize that “neutral” or “secular” views often privilege agnostic or atheist traditions and worldviews (Ontario Human Rights Commission, n.d.) and are “residually and normatively Christian” (Seljak et. al, 2008). This leads to systemic faithism.. we consider Seljak et. al’s (2008) analysis of the close connections between religion, ethnicity and race in the Ontario context and caution that Christian privilege can result in anti-religious sentiment, ethno-religious alienation, polarization, and alienation, rooted in the belief that religious practices and identities are incompatible with Canadian identity and citizenship (OHRC, n.d.). This encourages the creation of religious “ghettoes” that may lead to religious radicalization and disengagement from Canadian public life (OHRC, n.d.). We heed Butler’s (2000) warning that spirituality may be commodified in modern schooling, reducing it to individual approaches instead of situating it in larger contexts of social struggle.
One of Canada’s leading secular humanist organizations, Centre For Inquiry Canada (CFIC) has launched a new podcast titled ThePodcast For Inquiry. The podcast appears to be available on the CFIC’s website as well as Spotify.
Leslie Rosenblood, the podcast’s host and a long-time member of the CFIC community in the Toronto area has walked through seven episodes (to date) of conversation about such topics as freedom of expression, the state of democracy in the world and Quebec’s Bill C-21.
In the most recent March 23, 2022) episode, Leslie speaks with James Turk, the Director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University about “the importance of free expression in a democratic society, the futility and counterproductive nature of censorship, and what limits on expression are reasonable and justified.”
We note that our friend and inspiration, Dr. Richard Thain’s experience of attempting to advertise in the City of Winnipeg, is featured during the conversation.
We hope CFIC continues to provide compelling and valuable insights into our most important humanist rights and freedoms.
Citations, References And Other Reading
The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
Up to recently, news coverage in the 2020’s has been overwhelmingly dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the many considerations, concerns and controversies it has led to. Not least of these has been recurring concerns over the nature of public discourse about COVID-19, mRNA vaccines, the roles of big pharmaceutical companies, media corporations, government, churches and community organizations. One hopes that the world is emerging from active concern over the uncertainties of a global pandemic.
But our experience so far in these 2020’s out to make one think about the nature of the freedom of expression and about the various kinds of laws designed to curtail it. And it makes us think….so what is the state of blasphemy these days?
Well, as always, the Pew Research Center, has some information. A recent headline on the Pew website states that 40% of countries wordwide still have a blasphemy law on the books. That’s 79 countries. 22 countries have a law against apostasy.
As the infographic implies, most of the countries where this is a fact are in Africa and the Middle-East. With that, there’s more than a billion people on the planet for whom blasphemy, in its more original speaking-against-god(s)-and-religious-authoritarians context, is still a clear and present restriction of their fundamental human right to the freedom of expression.
Do a modest internet search at any given time, and you’ll still read such headlines as:
A list of headlines (and the situations they describe) is not, unfortunately, exhaustive, authoritative and final. There’s certainly more going on in the world of “Don’t Say it….or else” than this. But with all the pandemic distractions in mainstream media, maybe the fact that some ideologues don’t intend to tolerate ideas they don’t agree with has been escaping our collective notice? Maybe.
In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we locate articles and information published via other venues that we think HumanistFreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The following information is drawn from UNESCO’s website.
On February 7, 2022, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) launched the Training Manual for Judges on International Standards on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, a comprehensive toolkit for supporting judges to take into account international human rights standards on freedom of expression in their decisions, has been launched. The toolkit was prepared by the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD) in collaboration with International Media Support (IMS), UNESCO and the Judicial Institute of Jordan, and piloted at a training of judges in Amman, Jordan in September/October 2021.The toolkit is divided into six main modules, namely: International and National Guarantees of Freedom of Expression, The Legitimate Scope of Criminal and Civil Law Restrictions on the Right to Freedom of Expression, Legal Resolution of Attacks on Freedom of Expression, The Right to Access Public Information, Media Regulation to Promote Free, Independent and Diverse Media, and Regulating Freedom of Expression in the Digital Era. It also has a number of annexes addressing common questions and answers, and containing exercises to support the training and additional resources.
The 126-page toolkit contains six modules, covering International and National Guarantees of Freedom of Expression, The Legitimate Scope of Criminal and Civil Law Restrictions on the Right to Freedom of Expression, Legal Resolution of Attacks on Freedom of Expression, The Right to Access Public Information, Media Regulation to Promote Free, Independent and Diverse Media, and Regulating Freedom of Expression in the Digital Era.
The key objective of the toolkit is to promote freedom of expression by helping judges integrate international standards on this fundamental human right into their domestic decisions. It builds on work in this area by UNESCO in Latin America and Africa but is specifically tailored to freedom of expression issues that are commonly found in the Arab World.
The launch of the tool followed a recent Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) conducted by UNESCO and the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at the University of Oxford.
Close to 5,000 judicial actors, including judges, prosecutors, lawyers and representatives of judicial training academies, as well as civil society representatives from around the world were trained on international standards and regional jurisprudence on freedom of expression. The highest numbers of participants joined the MOOC from the Philippines, Kenya, United States, Brazil, India, Thailand, Zimbabwe and Zambia.The 5-week course, from 10 May until 07 June 2021, was unique in its global scope on freedom of expression issues, and particularly targeted judges and members of the judiciary, given their essential role in the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression. The course strengthened the knowledge and capacities of judicial actors on regional and international human rights standards through five Modules, including, (1) the general principles and scope of freedom of expression; (2) the limitations on the right to freedom of expression; (3) the right of access to information; (4) the question of the safety of journalists; and, (5) challenges created by the digital world .Notably, the course raised awareness of judicial actors on the legal protection and rights of journalists under international law, particularly addressing the threats, attacks and killings of journalists, the specific nature of threats against women journalists, as well as the importance to protect the secrecy of sources for journalists.
Since 2013, UNESCO’s Judges’ Initiative has trained judicial actors and representatives of civil society on the international and regional standards on freedom of expression, access to information and the safety of journalists in Latin America, Africa and the Arab region. Following the global MOOC on freedom of expression, a total number of 23,000 judicial actors and civil society representatives from 150 countries have been trained on these fundamental issues. While the first global MOOC was in English, subsequent editions will be rolled-out in additional languages in the future. The course received support from the Multi Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists.
In continuity with these efforts to raise awareness on issues related to freedom of expression, UNESCO has also developed an explainer video on the role of the judiciary in ending impunity for crimes against journalists, available in 6 UN languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and Chinese.
In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published in other venues that we think humanistfreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The following article was published on February 22, 2021 on:
Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism
Dr. Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson
The novel coronavirus had not yet been recognized when Yasmin Mohammed (2019) published her memoire blaming “Western Liberalism” for failing to protect her from forcible confinement and beatings she suffered as a child. Following an intervention by child welfare authorities, a Canadian judge acknowledged her suffering but refused to intervene in her parent’s “cultural (Muslim) ways.” Early the following year journalist Margaret Wente was removed from an honorary position with a Canadian university following a social media mobbing in which she was accused of being a racist and anti-feminist (Wente, 2020). “Due process” which would have allowed her to defend herself from the allegations was not given. In March, 2020, demonstrations spread throughout North America and into other continents following the death of George Floyd while he was in police custody in Minneapolis, USA. Systemic racism was assumed to be the cause. During the same year many schools and colleges in the United States ended achievement testing as a requirement for admittance, and employers paid for employee re-education sessions.
Pluckrose and Lindsay (2020b) named the movement behind these interconnected events “Critical Social Justice,” but this paper develops an argument that these events were influenced by an underlying social contagion that can be better understood as a mind virus. In developing this argument, it is first necessary to describe the “body” that may be infected by such a virus. The self is proposed as that body in the next section along with an evolutionary account of its development. In the second section of this paper I apply a model that allows us to recognize a mind virus to the modern cultural phenomenon of “wokeness.”
The self as a mental analogue to the body
The self is core to such psychological concepts as self-esteem, self-concept and self-empowerment. In this section, I describe how this evolved cultural construct became the paradigm of practice within the profession and how cultural units may attach themselves to this self. I discuss the historic tension between collectivism that gives definition to ourselves as a social species and the individualism inherent in a self capable of volitional planning and consciousness. I conclude this section by reviewing how we might determine this self has become infected by other units of culture that serve to appropriate the self’s resources.
Most current schools of psychotherapy emphasize individual choice with respect to personal development with the implication that selved individuals are making these choices. Classical behaviourists (Skinner, 1974) presented an alternative view that consciousness and the self that has it are unnecessary distractions preventing a scientific examination of behaviour. In keeping with this deterministic view, behaviourism focused on helping patients using classical and operant conditioning as opposed to cognitive processing. Behaviourism delivered impressive results in treating such conditions as depression, anxiety, alcoholism, trauma and conduct disorder, and in so doing, providing concrete evidence that we are a species whose behaviours are determined by genetic and environmental factors. Despite these successes, behaviourism failed to become dominant in the profession. As we shall see, this failure was grounded in a species-wide consensus on the mental attributes of humanness. Its successes, however, suggest a way that mind viruses could operate to undermine those attributes.
Thomas Kuhn (1970) described psychology as a “proto-science” for failing to develop a unifying paradigm that would take it out of the domain of philosophy and into the domain of science. Hutcheon (1996) identified three “formations” that potentially could have become such a paradigm: Psychoanalysis, genetic developmentalism, and behaviourism. She identified behaviourism as the most fruitful of the three; however, she concluded it failed “because it attacks the very roots of our cultural assumptions” (p. 261). These cultural assumptions include: 1) human beings have minds, 2) minds presuppose the presence of beliefs, and 3) beliefs are only possible if there is the notion of objective evidence by which we can determine truth.
Many academics have endorsed the determinist alternative to these cultural assumptions, that consciousness, free will and the self are illusions (Blackmore, 1999; Coyne, 2012; Cronin, 2003; DiCarlo, 2010), but the practice of psychotherapy has proceeded in the opposite direction. By the twenty-first century, even those who still called themselves behaviourists were talking about personal choices and cognitive distortions, thus sounding very much like the therapists who now called themselves cognitive-behaviourists. Classical behaviourism had encountered an already-established paradigm that humans are thinking animals with minds capable of logical consistency and rational evidence-based assessment. While a profession that is united by these notions could assimilate deterministic methods, it could not capitulate to a determinist ontology because to do so would undermine the foundational assumption of that we are thinking, rational beings.
A mind capable of having beliefs necessarily posits evidence for those beliefs–evidence that, in turn, presupposes a reality that the mind can understand. Moreover, a mind with the ability to assess evidence, independently and temporally, could not exist without self-awareness. But the self, defined by these capabilities, represents a relatively recent cultural adaptation (Robertson, 2020) that embodies a tension between individualism (with its sense of volition, uniqueness, constancy and reflectivity) and collectivism (with its sense of community, social interest, attachment and productivity). The two case studies that follow illustrate the self in map form, and how that self may change.
Therapeutic change to the self of two clients
“Suzie” (Robertson, 2011) had attempted suicide five times before I saw her. When established methods of treating suicide ideation failed to bring necessary results (cognitive behavioural therapy, Adlerian psychotherapy, narrative therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), I suggested that we map her self to find out what was blocking treatment. We began by identifying units of culture that represented who she was. Each referent word, or meme, included connotative meaning, affect and associated behaviours. Using the idea that connotative, affective or behavioural similarities between memes could be represented as links, we produced the map in figure 1.
Few memes in figure 1 suggest individual volition or social interest. A meme labeled “depressed person” is central and attempts to remove it prematurely had destabilized the entire structure. We began to move or remove memes supporting the placement of “depressed person” as central while building a new core with a focus on social interest and volition. Suzie could now visualize a better self and accept evidence that it was true. Her suicide risk receded. She found achievement and recognition when she relocated to a new community.
When I presented this case study to a doctoral class, one participant declared that I was simply doing cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). From that point of view, the map suggested cognitive re-framing, supplemented by behavioural “homework assignments.” These challenged negative memes such as “ugly” and supported a new “human rights” core. A narrative therapist in class disagreed, suggesting that memes provided the outline of a story, and I had helped my client write a better one. Actually, I began my career as an Adlerian psychotherapist. This anecdote illustrates that the self, as pictured here, is fundamental across psychotherapeutic schools of practice.
Figure 1: Initial self-map of a youth with suicide ideation, showing memes in relation to each other
About a decade after I worked with Suzie, another client, “Olivia” came to me with symptoms of PTSD after being raped by a friend during a night of heavy drinking (Robertson, 2016). After a month of CBT-informed treatment, she was able to return to work. Nonetheless, she acknowledged a personal history that included failed relationships, alcohol abuse and the loss of child custody. She asked for further psychotherapy, focused to become a better decision-maker. We began by developing the self-map represented in figure 2.
Figure 2: A self map of a woman suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder
The bottom bar represents the biological forces that sometimes triggered various clusters of memes labeled “imperfect,” “spiritual / fitness” and “social self.” Thick arrows represent the influence of her family, spouse and work on her self-definition. To the extent that biological and environmental forces control the structure of the self, we can say that it is “determined.” During the course of treatment, we were able to add or modify several memes in Olivia’s “imperfect self” giving her a more balanced identity. She developed a sense of empowerment and volitional control, both of which she used to maintain her commitment to behavioural change. She no longer defined herself as a depressed person, although she acknowledged that everyone experiences sadness and depression on occasion. She developed new associations between clusters that gave her the ability to choose to not ruminate on her deficiencies. We added a second bar, below the menu of emotions, to recognize her “psychological characteristics” such as intelligence, introversion and self-assurance.
Significantly, Olivia now found restrictive the very relationships that she had found to be supportive during her bout with PTSD. Her spouse now accused her of wanting to be better than him, possibly when she refused to join him on his drinking binges. Her employer refused to allow her enough latitude to make decisions on the job. Her mother would unexpectedly enter her house searching for the drugs that she assumed were stashed there. Olivia came to the insight that her spouse, employer and parents had not changed—but that she had changed. If she wanted to keep her newly minted self, therefore, she would have to move to another community. With the help of distance-counselling and some new friends, she re-established herself elsewhere and even negotiated new boundaries with her family.
A determined species unchained and re-chained
As can be seen from the examples of these two clients, the social environment is a powerful determinant of who we are. Determinists would say that psychotherapists, directed by their programming, overpower the other determinants that keep their clients’ old selves in place. Determinists would have more difficulty, however, in explaining why both clients chose to move to other communities without the advice of their therapist. To argue that therapists unconsciously push their clients in such directions requires the assumption of unseen forces. A simpler explanation would be that most of our decisions are determined but that, with hard work and mental resources, we can make decisions at variance from our memetic and genetic programming (Robertson, 2017a).
In The Evolved Self (Robertson, 2020), I argue that volition and temporal constancy combined with a more primal self as recently as the beginning of the first millennium BCE. Our sense of constancy, that we are in some important sense the same person over time, allows us to think about our selves in remembered events while considering how we might have influenced alternative outcomes. Using a similar mechanism, we can imagine our selves in the future and predict outcomes on the basis of available evidence. What constitutes evidence will necessarily, at least in the first instance, be learned. If having a better grasp of reality ultimately favours better outcomes then cultures will evolve in that direction. For example, the scientific method, which originated in post-Enlightenment Europe, has brought about a revolution in new knowledge. The method itself has been appropriated by most non-European cultures where “culture” is defined as current practices, values and artifacts.
Beliefs are possible only in the mind of someone who accepts that there is some way to differentiate truth from falsehood; and that implies an objective reality. To change a belief about oneself, one must first take oneself as an object that can be examined. Unfortunately clients cannot change who they are at will. Like Suzie, they often resist changing even dysfunctional selves. They need evidence to support desired changes; otherwise it feels as though they are merely play-acting.
The rejection of classical behaviourism by psychotherapists, despite its demonstrated efficacy, flowed from deeply held cultural assumptions about what it means to be human. The combination of behaviourism with cognitivism suggests a form of compatibilism, that the concepts of free will and determinism are not mutually exclusive. The ideal of free will became part of our self-definition flowing from culturally evolved changes to the self (Robertson, 2020). While assumptions of personal volition, continuity, and reason became the benchmark of what it means to be human, we do not always attain this ideal. Psychologists are in the business of teaching clients the skills that they need to approximate this self. To Sagan (1996) that ideal involved doing science: “Every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our idea against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes with facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition” (p. 27).
Taking the objective view, as is necessary in science, does not come naturally to the human species. Jaynes (1976) said pre-Homeric Greeks relied on pre-programmed cultural responses to triggering events and when an event occurred that had not been prepared for in their cultural programming they reacted in a random, sometimes schizophrenic way. After a study of early Egyptian hieroglyphics, Johnson (2003) concluded that the early Egyptians did not have minds, as we would now define the term. A simpler explanation is that they did not have the kind of self that we take for granted today.
The individualism that forms a part of what I call “the modern self” (Robertson, 2020) was a potential threat to the stability of pre-modern societies made up primarily of people with a different kind of self. Since the self is a culturally mediated construct, by controlling available memes, collectivist societies can limit the possibilities available for self-construction. Acceptance of such constraints can be supported by appeals to authority, particularly religious authority. The Axial Age of the first millennium BCE (Jaspers, 1951; Mahoney, 1991) produced major world religions that were concerned with regulating the self in some ways. Early Confucian thought dealt with the moral development of the self in relation to the collectivity infusing it with a sense of duty to ancestors (Wu, 2017). Hindu thought divided society into a series of castes with a full education available only to the Brahmin caste. The Buddhist doctrine of “no-self” required initiates to place themselves under the direction of masters who represent the Buddha himself. Like Judaism, Christianity, has held that people must renounce the self, because human reasoning is faulty and true knowledge is divinely inspired. These teachings are consistent with a hypothesis that while the presence of people who could engage in individual volition and planning were valued, their abilities needed to be regulated.
Although the medieval Roman Catholic Church encouraged the practice of science that was consistent with its theology, the Protestant Reformation coupled with the re-learning of classical Greek philosophy in the scientific Renaissance of the sixteenth century led to the Enlightenment that began with Descartes, Bacon and Newton in the seventeenth. This Enlightenment did not invent individualism; it proclaimed that the individualism already inherent in the self that allowed for the determination of objective reality was good. Since a healthy self also requires relationships with others in the form of social interest, collective identity and intimacy, this development did not spell the end of collectivism, and each “individualist” society has retained or created ways of expressing communal or group identification.
In The Evolved Self, I argue that the struggle between collectivism and individualism occurs, in the first instance, within each person’s self. I argue also that, for the most part, we remain the determined beings that we have been throughout most of our history as a species; but also beings with the capacity to reflectively reprogram ourselves by acting on reasons that matter to us as individuals. If we view this conscious self that is capable of such reflective thought as analogous to the body, then we need to consider that memes and meme complexes (which are not part of the self but nonetheless exist in culture) can be deleterious to it. These meme complexes would be analogous to viruses that can enter the body.
The emancipation of the self was not welcomed by everyone. People with functional selves face responsibility, after all, for their own well-being. They must realistically assess their circumstances, selecting those that would provide meaning and purpose, but also implement plans to assure their own happiness. My private practice is beset with clients who would rather place the responsibility for their own well-being on others. In his examination of totalitarian movements following World War II, Eric Hoffer (1966/1951) noted, “The frustrated follow a leader less because of their faith that he is leading them to a promised land than because of their immediate feeling that he is leading them away from their unwanted selves” (p. 110).
Building on the religious trope that our selves are inadequate, Martin Heidegger (1962) deconstructed science and reason by claiming that only one who is “Dasein” could know ultimate truth. “Dasein,” in Heidegger’s idiosyncratic usage, includes being present simultaneously in the past, present and future which only a few can achieve. He named himself and the fuehrer as Dasein. German psychologist Eric Fromm (1969) described the relationship between the totalitarian dynamic and the self:
There is the wish to submit to an overwhelmingly strong power, to annihilate the self, besides the wish to have power over helpless beings. This masochistic side of the Nazi ideology and practices is most obvious with the respect to the masses. They are told again and again: the individual is nothing and does not count. The individual should accept this personal insignificance, dissolve himself to a higher power, and then feel proud in participating in the strength and glory of this higher power. (pp. 257, 256)
It is frightening to consider that if Suzie had lived in pre-war Germany, a Nazi sympathizer could have suggested not only that she needed to accept her sense of personal insignificance but also that she could do so most effectively by identifying her self with glory of the Aryan race. Incorporating a new ideological or religious meme into one’s self, moreover, includes incorporating whatever attaches to that meme. In this example, Suzie would have felt Nazi militarism, anti-Semitism, and fuehrer worship as essential to her self. If both the Nazi and Suzie were caught in the same contagion, then we could say that one passed a mind virus to the other. In an earlier article (Robertson, 2017b), I listed four conditions necessary for diagnosing such a virus:
A mind virus will result in an observable change or transition in self-definition, one that is neither planned nor related to self-betterment;
The change must involve a diminution or negation of the modern self or its component parts;
The change must involve an appropriation of personal resources for the purpose of spreading the meme cluster in question; and,
The change is likely marked by considerable and uncharacteristic emotional valence.
Is wokism a mind-virus contagion?
The first section of this paper examined the structure of the self. I then proposed an evolutionary understanding of that structure and concluded with four conditions that are needed to satisfy a diagnosis of a mind virus that could be said to infect this self. Before applying those conditions to wokism in this second section, I define the term and explain why it is preferred to other labels sometimes used. Each of these labels are examined in turn: (1) postmodernism; (2) identity politics; (3) neo-Marxism; and (4) social justice (as a movement).
Postmodernism, the view that all knowledge is “socially constructed” and a product of power relationships, provides a method for the woke to attack and discredit competing beliefs. Objective evidence cannot be used to counter these woke beliefs since it is assumed that even science and reason amount to nothing other than a “white, male way of knowing” (Strong, 2002) and is, therefore, a conspiracy to oppress others. Tellingly, however, since they never deconstruct wokism itself, it cannot be said that it is completely postmodern. It is more like a religious faith, something postmodernists considered to be a grand meta-narrative.
Identity politics incorporates the tenet that that people are defined by the oppression that they have endured as members of their own races or other identity groups. Advocates do not apply this analysis to all groups. They describe Jews as white oppressors despite 2,000 years of anti-Semitic oppression. They describe East Asians as “honorary whites,” moreover, because in the United States these U.S. Americans are statistically ahead of actual whites on measures of academic achievement and income. Since identity politics is selectively applied, wokism cannot contribute to a general understanding of racism or oppression.
Most woke people identify with “the Left” and are sometimes referred to as “Neo-Marxists,” but postmodernism classified Marxism as a modernist “grand narrative” (Lyotard, 1984). Wokism appropriated Marx’s theory of class conflict where the “white race” is assigned the place of the capitalist or ruling class. By replacing Marx’s idea of class conflict with cultural warfare they ascribe class solidarity to one’s racial, gender or other assigned oppressed group. Thus, a black person who identifies with non-black workers might be accused of “false consciousness” which is, of course, a reversal of actual Marxism. Instead of striving to eradicate the capitalist class the logic of woke-Marxism would be to eradicate “whiteness” or “maleness.”
The social-justice movements that began in the 1960s aimed at eliminating barriers faced by members of disadvantaged groups. The goal of equal opportunity would permit people, irrespective of sex or racial background to advance on the basis of their motivation and ability. Wokism appropriated the rhetoric of social justice. But by insisting on equal outcomes, instead of equal opportunities, they have devalued merit and work thus reversing the original goals of the social justice movements.
Wokism represents an inconsistent application of various historical, and sometimes conflicting, conceptual paradigms. I now examine this movement for the four conditions outlined in the previous section for determining the presence of a mind-virus.
Condition One: Change in Individual Self-Definition
The form of identity politics, on which wokism relies heavily, gives high status to recognized victim groups—which is to say non-whites, non-heterosexuals and non-males. Moreover, it gives even higher status to people who are simultaneously members of several victim groups under the rubric “intersectionality.” Competition between victim groups for greater recognition rewards people for identifying and fixating on perceived grievances (Noor, Shnabel, Halabi, & Nadler, 2012). One study of university students (Gabay, Hameiri, Rubel-Lifschitz, & Nadler, 2020) identified an emergent interpersonal-victimhood personality type characterized by a pathological need for recognition, difficulty empathizing with others, feelings of moral superiority, and a thirst for vengeance. The study noted that those who have this personality type “lash out” when others question their victimhood or challenge their self-image of moral superiority. Increasing numbers of these self-identified victims create a culture of victimhood in which “the aggrieved actively seek the support of third parties as well as those that focus on oppression” (Campbell & Manning, 2014 p. 692). This culture of group victimhood is gradually supplanting a culture based on individual dignity.
Woke identity politics holds that members of the “white race” are collectively and innately oppressors, which makes them analogous to the capitalist or bourgeois class in Marxism (Campbell & Manning, 2014; Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner, 2002; Pluckrose & Lindsay, 2020b). Because it is assumed, in wokism, that white males have benefitted from “privilege” both racially and sexually, they are not allowed to claim victim status even though they may be victims in many ways. Yet, white males are visibly active in the woke movement. I would expect their personalities and self-definitions to vary from those of other woke people. Here is a case study of woke white male personality based on my personal “lived experience” as a moderator of two humanist discussion groups in 2020.
The first discussion group was “open” in that any member of the group was allowed to post any article or topic providing they had not been previously banned from doing so. Although membership in the group varied between 1,500 and 1,600, active participants on any given post rarely numbered more than 20 except for the most controversial ones. Wokists were active on most controversial posts, and most of these activists were, judging from their profile pictures, white males.
When I actively began to moderate this group, I found woke members swearing at people who disagreed with them, calling them racists, “alt-righters,” and “white supremacists.” The woke members frequently suggested that the moderators should ban such people for not being true humanists. I scrolled through the relevant conversations and found that no one had posted anything that advocated racism or white supremacy. I developed a set of rules to encourage civil discourse and announced that I would delete posts that expressed hatred toward any person or any group. I announced that name-calling would be considered a form of expressed hatred.
“Bill” was probably already angry with me for deleting a post in which he called someone “a racist piece of shit” for suggesting that the authorities should not remove statues of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. Macdonald, who gave Amerindian people in Ontario the vote and provided food to ward off starvation, also contracted with four Christian denominations to provide education. Malnutrition, physical and sexual abuses were subsequently found in many of these Indian Residential Schools. I suggested to Bill that Macdonald should not be judged for events that occurred without his knowledge well after his death. His reply was that I was “completely without conscience” and that I favoured “raping and torturing children.”
In a second humanist discussion group, a Humanist Canada board member posted an article about a woke mobbing of a retired professor who had suggested there should be limits to abortion. The woke demanded that this professor lose his emeritus status at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, but the board member suggested that humanists need to fight for the freedom of speech of those even with whom we may disagree. “Jason” replied:
I don’t want anti-choice misogynists to have a platform. Voltaire’s quote you used is nice when you have the privilege to utter it, but it doesn’t mean much to oppressed and marginalized voices to know that their oppressors will continue to get a seat at the table because of some bizarre equivocation around free speech.
Within wokism, Bill and Jason are powerful white males who are assumed to have “voice” and a duty to speak for recognized victim groups whose “voices” are “oppressed and marginalized.” Disagreement with some aspect of a woke narrative identifies oppressors who are to be confronted by the special-status white males. At any point, however, a member of a victim group could find their voice and accuse those who have adopted a saviour role of patronizing them. I observed this in the open humanist discussion group. A board member had created a post with the theme “trans rights are human rights.” A transperson accused the board member of using trans issues to further a political agenda. The member both apologized deferentially and explained, without evidence, that humanists had been posting many transphobic statements which is why his post was needed.
Members of the woke movement who are also members of victim groups and who adopt a personality type consistent with woke narratives will assume a posture of moral superiority. Woke advocates who are white males can forestall negative intervention by these morally superior people by vigorously pursuing attacks on the non-woke coupled uncomplicated by nuance or compromise. We also need to consider the psychological benefits whites may obtain from a process Rene Girard described as “scapegoating” (Girard, 1989). Wokism has labeled whites to be an “oppressor race” with all members presumably guilty of benefiting from this oppressor status. White woke can temporarily transfer this guilt to a named scapegoat who then takes on the sins ascribed to this race. We have seen this process in the example of John A. Macdonald in Canada, attacks on Winston Churchill in Britain and on the founding fathers in the United States. As we will see in the subsequent discussion of woke mobbing, the process of scapegoating can be applied to anyone but in all cases it can only provide temporary psychological relief. While white males are more likely to be selected as a sacrificial scapegoat, as the sacrificial crisis becomes more severe categories start to break down and the actual victim selected by mimetic violence could be anyone. During the height of the sacrifice, it will seem that the victim is to blame for everything.
As can be seen from the foregoing, wokism has the effect of assigning specific personality characteristics to identity groups. While it may be that some people enter the woke movement with such personalities already expressed, the internal logic of wokism pressures individuals to conform to the personality assigned to their particular status.
Condition Two: Diminution of the Modern Self
The first section of this paper outlined how a healthy modern self includes the capacity for relationships with others in the form of social interest, collective identity and intimacy as well as more individualist aspects such as volition, uniqueness, continuity and reason. Combined, this self allows for the objective investigation of external reality. A negation of either our collectivist or individualist qualities would diminish this capacity.
In the humanist discussion groups that I monitored, woke members dismissed as racism or “transphobia” scientific research into the heritability of intelligence and rapid onset gender dysphoria. In doing so, they rely on the critical-social-justice trope that all knowledge is a function of power and is perpetrated by oppressive “discourses.” There is, of course, a contradiction in this argument in that if there is no objective reality, as has to be the case where what is taken as knowledge is a function of power, then there can be no basis to believe that critical social justice is true. In this, the woke are similar to Heidegger who also put limits on science and reason but advocated a “higher authority” to inform the masses as to ultimate truth. The woke present themselves as that higher authority.
A functioning society is impossible if everyone were to uniquely determine their own subjectively held individual realties. If objective knowledge is impossible, then an alternative reality acting in the place of a Dasien must be imposed on non-believers. Free speech is irrelevant in arriving at truth if truth is determined by that higher authority. Indeed, free speech, in such circumstances, is potentially dangerous for allowing other understandings of reality to compete for the minds of those who are to be led. Therefore, the woke have journalists fired, have books and articles withdrawn from publication, “de-platform” speakers, and have professors fired for replacing ideological orthodoxy with heresy. The woke accuse those who fail to conform to their “reality,” of racism, sexism or a host of new “phobias” that no psychologist would ever diagnose. All this is done in the name of those who allegedly lack “voices.”
The voice of former Sacramento Kings broadcaster Grant Napeer was also silenced. Asked his opinion of Black Lives Matter, he said that “All lives matter, every single one.” In an apology, he stated that he had never imagined how the phrase could be offensive to anyone. He was fired on June 2, 2020. Anyone who believes that all lives matter, of course, cannot be racist, but people to whom the woke had given this label had chanted the phrase at counter-demonstrations. As a sports broadcaster, Napeer could be forgiven for not knowing this history. Entertainers, writers and politicians have also been forced to apologize for uttering this anti-racist sentiment. On October 8, 2020 an aboriginal Inuit cabinet minister, Patterk Netser, was removed as housing minister in the territory of Nunavut after posting “all lives matter” on his Facebook page.
The woke list of proscribed phrases includes “sexual preference,” “colour blind” (when referencing racism), “not racist,” and “sex change.” New words such as “intersectionality,” “heteronormativity,” “cisgender,” “microaggression” and “LGBTQ+” are de rigueur. Old words and phrases, moreover, take on new meanings. During the 1970s, for example, “systemic racism” was used in connection with organizational policies and practices that resulted in discrimination. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) during that era had a policy that police officers had to wear a standard issue hat. The effect of that policy was that devout Sikhs, who wear a turban, could not become police officers. That policy was changed. A policy of racially profiling people to be stopped to be searched would also be an example of systemic racism.
In June 2020 RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said she had looked at her organization’s policies and procedures and could not find any examples of systemic racism. The prime minister’s office, using a different definition, forced her to recant her views. This more recent woke definition of systemic racism is that if there are differential outcomes, for example in arrest rates, then systemic racism must be the cause.Such a simplistic analysis ignores the need to research complex socio-economic factors that could lead to a higher crime rate over which the police have no control.
The picture that emerges is wokism as a kind of filter, an overlay on actual events. Because we think primarily in words when interpreting events, the woke emphasis on language and language policing is an attempt to force the general public to accept the interpretations this filter produces. Thus, wokism is not merely about restricting freedom of speech, it is about restricting freedom of thought. In trying to control, restrict or inhibit our ability to reason, wokism diminishes these very capacities of the self returning us to a form of pre-Enlightenment collectivism. From this perspective, wokism is not revolutionary but reactionary.
Condition Three: Appropriation of Individual Resources
When a woke participant in one of my humanist discussion groups amended his comments after others had already responded, I viewed it as a personal idiosyncrasy. After three participants did the same thing, however, I took notice. These actions pointed to a psychological means by which wokism appropriates time and resources.
The term “woke” originated as a self-referent by adherents of this odd mixture of postmodernism, Hegelianism, Marxism, “social justice” and religion. Appropriated from African American slang, it represented a slur against those who were not sufficiently “awake” to accept their belief system. Like early Calvinists, who believed that they are predestined to join the “elect” and end up in heaven but still needed to continually demonstrate their piety as a way of proving their claim, the woke need to continually demonstrate their superior insight. In this example, they did not need to change the record to help the unwoke, with whom the conversation had already ended, but to demonstrate to other woke who might come across that record that they are indeed one of the elect. In “cancel culture” individual posts and records are examined dating back decades so that enemies of wokism can be eviscerated and publically shamed. This results in an impulse for woke advocates to not leave any record that might imply they are not sufficiently woke.
One can display one’s woke virtue by participating in internet and media mobbing. In November 2019, Don Cherry, a sports broadcaster who had been baiting liberals for decades on his Hockey Night in Canada program, decided to promote Canada’s Remembrance Day tradition of buying poppies to support programs for veterans. He lamented that no one from Toronto was buying poppies anymore and opined, “You people, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that.” Within two days, the Canada Broadcast Standards Council received so many complaints about Cherry’s “racist” comment that their website went down. But this was not a popular public reaction. Only those using the woke mental filter can see racism in a request to buy poppies. Because the woke were not politically predisposed to watching Cherry in the first place, it is unlikely that many of those who complained actually listened to the program. But Cherry lost his job.
Another venue for virtue signalling involves participation in anti-racist demonstrations. Not all members of Black Lives Matter (BLM) are woke, but those who are, given their allegedly superior understanding, try to occupy its leadership positions. Within three days of the killing of George Floyd by police on May 25, 2020, BLM demonstrations occurred in at least 30 U.S. American cities and others around the world. Eight thousand protesters demonstrated in Portland, Oregon, on May 28. Rioting that included breaking store windows, looting, starting fires, and hurling projectiles at the police began the day after. A pattern of peaceful demonstrations by day and riots by night soon solidified. “Riots,” in this instance, were planned in advance. On Facebook and Twitter, the rioters found locations, times and instructions. They were provided food, medical attention, gas masks and shields to protect them from rubber bullets and tear gas. They were armed with modified lasers, fireworks, clubs, hockey sticks, hammers, and in one case, a chain saw.
Portland city council responded to demands to defund the police by cutting $15 million from its police budget in June. On July 2, several federal policing agencies arrived in Portland to protect federal buildings and monuments. On July 15, Mayor Ted Wheeler said that the federal “troops” were responsible for provoking the violence and demanded their withdrawal. On July 18, rioters broke into the Municipal Police Association building, setting it on fire. On July 30, the federal police were withdrawn. Except for serious offences, rioters went free without bail. According to reporter Andy Ngo, some rioters were charged and released as many as five times.
In August, Wheeler stated that President Trump had caused the riots through his policies. On September 10, in keeping with the demands of protestors, Wheeler banned the use to tear gas by police. Trump was defeated in November, but the riots continued. Following a riot on New Year’s Day, 2021, Wheeler stated that his “good faith efforts at de-escalation have been met with ongoing violence and even scorn from radical Antifa and anarchists.”
Real revolutions are led by real revolutionaries who believe there is an objective reality outside of themselves, and they use that reality to plan. Violence in their world is connected to goals. It may be difficult but not impossible to negotiate with these realists. But Wheeler could not deal with people who have rejected the realist approach. A virus does not recognize compromise, only an opportunity to grow. From a viral perspective, that is what Wheeler provided with his various appeasements. Not that they would thank him. A woke group assaulted him in a Portland restaurant on January 6, 2021.
In this section I outlined a psychological mechanism explaining the extreme attention to detail exhibited by woke in making their presentations. I also reviewed part of a massive social upheaval that is only made possible through a substantial time and financial commitment by woke. Those woke who participate in riots are also risking their physical well-being. It is clear from this account that wokism involves the appropriation of considerable personal resources.
Condition Four: Emotional Valence
Wokism is a morality play involving an epic and enduring struggle between the forces of good and evil. In this respect, it resembles a fundamentalist form of religion. As Eric Hoffer (1966/1951) noted following World War II, “A mass movement can get along without a god but not without a devil. An abstract devil won’t do, it must be tangible. This is why Christians must demonize and dehumanize opponents.
In True Believers, Hoffer (1966/1951) described a subset of people in each religion or ideology who cannot accept the idea that others, with very different beliefs, could have an equal claim to goodness. Minions of the devil in wokism are given names such as “alt-righters,” “racists” and “gender traitors.” But few people actually advocate white supremacy, support racism, or see themselves as traitors to their own genders. Wokists try to resolve the resultant cognitive dissonance by declaring statistical evidence itself to be a product of racism and by resorting to what Nathanson and Young (2006) called “linguistic inflation.” We have already discussed how calling on people to buy Remembrance Day poppies was seen as the hate crime of “racism.” The linguistically inflated hate crime of being a gender traitor was illustrated with an article by a transwoman posted on the “open” humanist discussion group previously mentioned. The article describes J.K. Rowling’s view that sharing safe spaces between women and transwomen is threatening for women as “overblown.” The author conceded, however, that some predatory men could potentially use their access (as transwomen) to gain access. She recommended that trans and feminist communities should negotiate a solution. A fellow moderator deleted the article on the grounds of “hate speech.” If suggesting even negotiation makes one a “gender traitor,” then any deviation at all from woke dogma is tantamount to complicity in evil. This cynical mentality creates a problem for woke people, because conventional wisdom necessarily changes over time. With no central organization to define or authorize such change, woke people protect themselves from internal criticism by being hyper-alert and over reactive.
Compassion and social interest are likely the initial factors by which the woke memeplex attaches itself to the selves of most woke people. But the driving force behind their activism flows from a moral panic—which relies on the assertion that evil people, who must be stopped, are bent on oppressing others. A similar moral panic emerged in 1966 as the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
China’s policies had produced economic failure and widespread famine. A cadre around Chairman Mao Zedong concluded this was the fault of “bourgeois elements” in industry, in government circles and even in the Communist Party. Believers conceded that many of these people were unconscious of their revisionism. Mao organized idealistic students, his “Red Guards,” to save the revolution. They began by revolting against their respective schools and cancelling classes. When huge demonstrations failed to produce the desired change, they began rooting out the evil, identifying members of the “bourgeoisie” by their lifestyle, use of language, family backgrounds, and how well they applied Chairman Mao’s “little red book” of quotations. The Red Guards publically humiliated offenders, who typically lost their jobs. Mob violence was common and killed many people. Academics and intellectuals ended up in remote “re-education camps.” Vandals destroyed books, statues, monasteries, museums and anything associated with “old culture.”
Moral panics in the United States and Canada show some affinity with wokism. Even though almost everyone agreed in the 1920s that drunkenness was a problem, the Prohibition movement claimed that even a little alcohol was evil. Despite good intentions, Prohibition was a windfall for criminal gangs. And with the authorities confiscating alcohol, it became logical to quickly drink all one had resulting in an upsurge in binge drinking.
Fear of communism drove the McCarthyism of the 1950s. Associates, friends and relatives reported on each other to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which made sure that suspected communists were publicly humiliated and lost their jobs and that those who refused to cooperate spent time in jail. The Satanic abuse and sexual abuse scares of the 1990s, aided by the dubious science of Repressed Memory Syndrome, resulted in lost jobs, broken families and many innocents in prison. These North American moral panics intended to change culture in some ways, but they did not require a diminution of selves and thus would not satisfy the definition of a mind-virus used here.
Wokism meets the four criteria used for identifying a mind virus. Because those criteria include the diminution of the self, it should not be surprising that wokism is heavily deterministic. By controlling the outer world of the cultural environment, it seeks to control the inner world of thought. As classical behaviourists in psychotherapy discovered, behaviourism works. Psychologist Susan Blackmore (1999) described humans as “meme machines” with illusions of free will. But she is only partially correct. Ordinarily, we modern humans follow patterns that our parents, teachers, religious leaders or other significant others mandated. Or we perform some behaviours habitually. Nonetheless, we have the capacity to re-program ourselves by focusing our attention, examining evidence, selecting alternatives, predicting results, and changing our behaviours (Robertson, 2017a). This is hard work and time consuming. Wokism seeks to become our significant other, replacing the role of such people as parents, teachers and religious leaders in generating our behavioural programming, while limiting our capacity for self-programming. That a mishmash involving the partial application of often competing philosophies could accomplish this in a largely educated population invites discussion as to its origin.
We can speculate about how a group of old Stalinist academics, sufficiently traumatized by the collapse of the Soviet Union to ignore the postmodernist attack on Marxism as a grand meta-narrative, began experimenting with pieces of various philosophies. Shaped by the reactions of their students, these professors hit on a combination that, though not philosophically consistent, was highly emotive: implanting a feeling of superior knowledge and urgency in their charges along with built-in “attack memes” that prevented them from easily assimilating non-sanctioned points of view. From the perspective of a mind-virus, people become vectors for the purpose of infecting new hosts (Bjarneskans, Gronnevik, & Sandberg, 1997). I doubt that many of the woke have actually read Jacques Derrida let alone Marx, Heidegger, Hegel or the other white males that grandfathered their worldview. Irrespective of its actual origins, this mind-virus has demonstrated a capacity to mutate that defies placement on the political spectrum.
A virus has no ideological loyalty. New mutations can rapidly overtake older ones. While initial varieties of wokism were anti-capitalist, the corporate media and transnational high tech companies (including some of the world’s richest people) have adopted a new strain. Whereas the Left has traditionally challenged the concentration of corporate power, particularly with respect to corporations controlling news, the woke have embraced the rights of private companies to censor viewpoints. We have to consider, therefore, how wokism serves monopoly capitalism. Globalization has lowered the real wages of working class people and reduced the job prospects of anyone with a high school education or less in the United States and Canada. The jobs that these people once held have been largely outsourced to low-wage economies. If the working class is racially divided, which is guaranteed by identity politics, then it cannot be effectively organized by unions or political parties as a class. Wokism provides the capitalists who benefit most from globalization with opportunities to signal their own virtue while cementing in place the very system that created their huge profits in the first place.
Inoculation against a mind-virus is possible through self-education. We need to recognize the code words that woke people use and the contradictions that are inherent in their assertions. This virus normally begins by appealing to our social conscience. If we happen to be members of an identified minority, it appeals to our group loyalty. If that does not work, then the woke typically lash out, as I have shown. We need to recognize the pattern. I recommend a sense of humour to maintain perspective. I do not recommend apologies, because wokists see these as admissions of moral deficiency, and these “admissions” can be used to manipulate others. Instead, we should focus on the deficiencies in wokism and on objectively verifiable facts. Remember that the world has become a much better place in the last 50 years. Poverty, disease, infant mortality, racism, sexism and the murder rate have all declined worldwide. We need to celebrate these advances and protect science and reason that have made them possible. Pluckrose and Lindsay (2020a) said:
We do not believe that bad ideas can be defeated by being repressed, especially when they are as socially powerful as postmodern ideas are right now. Instead, they need to be engaged and defeated within the marketplace of ideas, so that they may die a natural death and be rightly recognized as defunct. (p. 264)
To defeat a mind-virus we must first re-assert the Enlightenment ideal that human beings, through the use of evidence-based processes, can indeed begin to discern objective reality and truth. I hope that I have contributed to this process with this paper.
Paul Nathanson contributed to the sections on linguistic inflation and moral panics in previous discussions with the author. He contributed his extensive editing skills to this project.
Trevor Robertson of Woosong University, South Korea, suggested the use of Rene Girard’s concept of scapegoating. He also assisted in editing this manuscript.
Dovidio, J. F., Kawakami, K., & Gaertner, S. L. (2002). Implicit and explicit prejudice and interracial interaction. Journal of personality and social psychology, 82(1), 62-68.
Fromm, E. (1969). Escape from freedom (24 ed.). New York: Avon Books.
Gabay, R., Hameiri, B., Rubel-Lifschitz, T., & Nadler, A. (2020). The tendency for interpersonal victimhood: The personality construct and its consequences. Personality and Individual Differences, 165, 110134.
Girard, R. (1989). The scapegoat (Y. Frecarro, Trans.). Baltimore, USA: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans. First English ed.). Malden, MA, USA: Blackwell.
Hoffer, E. (1966/1951). True believer (First Perennial Library Edition ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
Hutcheon, P. D. (1996). Leaving the cave: Evolutionary naturalism in social-scientific thought. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press.
Jaspers, K. (1951). Way to Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Jaynes, J. (1976). The origins of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Johnson, D. M. (2003). How history made mind: The cultural origins of objective thinking. Chicago: Open Court Books.
Kuhn, T. S. (1970). Reflections on my critics. In I. Lakatos & A. Musgrave (Eds.), Criticism and the growth of knowledge (pp. 231-278). London: Cambridge University Press.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge (Vol. 10). Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota Press.
Mahoney, M. J. (1991). Human change processes: The scientific foundations of psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
Mohammed, Y. (2019). Unveiled: How Western Liberals Empower Radical Islam. Victoria, BC: Hearts and Minds.
Nathanson, P., & Young, K. K. (2006). Legalizing Misandry: From public shame to systemic discrimination against men. Montreal, PQ: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Noor, M., Shnabel, N., Halabi, S., & Nadler, A. (2012). When suffering begets suffering: The psychology of competitive victimhood between adversarial groups in violent conflicts. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(4), 351-374.
Pluckrose, H., & Lindsay, J. (2020a). Cynical theories: How activist scholarship made everything about race, gender, and identity. Durham, NC: Pitchstone.
Pluckrose, H., & Lindsay, J. (2020b, July 15). The two big falsehoods of critical social justice. Areo.
Robertson, L. H. (2011). Self-mapping in treating suicide ideation: A case study. Death Studies, 35(3), 267-280.
Robertson, L. H. (2016). Self-mapping in counselling: Using memetic maps to enhance client reflectivity and therapeutic efficacy. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, 50(3), 332-347.
Robertson, L. H. (2017a). Implications of a culturally evolved self for notions of free will. [Hypothesis and Theory]. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(1889), 1-8.
Robertson, L. H. (2017b). The infected self: Revisiting the metaphor of the mind virus. Theory & Psychology, 27(3), 354-368.
Robertson, L. H. (2020). The Evolved Self: Mapping an understanding of who we are. Ottawa, ON: University of Ottawa Press.
Sagan, C. (1996). Demon haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. New York: Ballantine Books.
Skinner, B. F. (1974). About Behaviorism. New York: Vintage Books.
Strong, T. (2002). Collaborative ‘expertise’ after the discursive turn. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 12(2), 218-232.
Wu, M. (2017). The process of self-cultivation and the mandala model of the self. [Hypothesis & Theory]. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(24).
Appendix I: Footnotes
 Dr. Robertson is Lead Psychologist, Collaborative Centre for Justice and Safety at the University of Regina, Canada. He has published on the structure of the self, the use of prior learning assessment in self-construction, self-mapping in therapy, memetic mutations in religious transmission, and “residential school syndrome” as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. His recent book The Evolved Self: Mapping an Understanding of Who We Are was published by the University of Ottawa Press.
 As used here, reflective thought is a kind of thinking involving situating one’s self in past events.
 In 2017, a founder of Black Lives Matter, Toronto was reported as posting on her Facebook page “Whiteness is not humxness, in fact, white skin is sub-humxn. All phenotypes exist within the black family and white ppl are a genetic defect of blackness” (Curl, 2017).
 This second group is Humanist Canada’s official Facebook page. Only Humanist Canada board members and designated employees could post to this page although all members can respond.
Appendix II: Citation Style Listing
American Medical Association (AMA): Robertson L. Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism [Online]. February 2021; 26(B). Available from: http://www.in-sightjournal.com/wokism.
American Psychological Association (APA, 6th Edition, 2010): Robertson, L.H. (2021, February 22). Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism. Retrieved from http://www.in-sightjournal.com/wokism.
Brazilian National Standards (ABNT): ROBERTSON, L. Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism.In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 26.B, February. 2021. <http://www.in-sightjournal.com/wokism>.
Chicago/Turabian, Author-Date (16th Edition): Robertson, Lloyd. 2021. Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism.” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 26.B. http://www.in-sightjournal.com/wokism.
Chicago/Turabian, Humanities (16th Edition): Robertson, Lloyd “Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism.” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 26.B (February 2021). http://www.in-sightjournal.com/wokism.
Harvard: Robertson, L. 2021, ‘Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism’, In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, vol. 26.B. Available from: <http://www.in-sightjournal.com/wokism>.
Harvard, Australian: Robertson, L. 2021, ‘Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism’, In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, vol. 26.B., http://www.in-sightjournal.com/wokism.
Modern Language Association (MLA, 7th Edition, 2009): Lloyd H. Robertson. “Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism.” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal 26.B (2021): February. 2021. Web. <http://www.in-sightjournal.com/wokism>.
In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published via other venues that we think humanistfreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The following article was located on mdpi.com, an open-access publishing source.
According to the author’s biography on Dublin City University, Dr. Peter Admirand “has a Ph.D. from Trinity College Dublin; a M.A. in Theology (Ethics) from Boston College; a M.A. in British and American Literature from Georgetown University; and a B.A. in English from The Catholic University of America. Previously he served as an Interim Programme Coordinator for the M.Phil in Ecumenics Programme at the Irish School of Ecumenics and lectured in peace studies, ethics, and interfaith dialogue. He also was an adjunct lecturer in English Departments at Pratt Institute, Queen’s College (CUNY), York College (CUNY), St John’s University, and Lasell College.…his publications and research interests are in the areas of interreligious dialogue (especially Jewish-Christian dialogue); religion and literature (including comic studies); testimonies of mass atrocity; post-Holocaust Jewish thought; liberation theology; forgiveness, justice, and the unforgivable; memory and ethics; theodicy; war and peace; the representation of God and theological themes in literature; and atheism and secular humanism.“
In September of 2020, Dr. Admirand participated in a forum titled
Turning to the novels, Les Misérables, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Plague, this article focuses on theist–atheist encounters within fiction as guides and challenges to contemporary atheist–theist dialogue. It first provides a discussion of definitions pertinent to our topic and a reflection on the value and limitations of turning to fiction for the study and development of theist–atheist dialogue specifically, and interreligious dialogue more broadly. In examining each of the novels, I will first provide a very brief historical context of when each novel was written, the time and place the covered scenes transpire in the novel, and the authors’ positions toward religion(s) when writing their books. I will close the article on some lessons to glean from these fictional dialogues for contemporary theist–atheist dialogue.Keywords: Les Misérables; The Brothers Karamazov; The Plague; atheism; dialogue
Seeking to learn from dialogues between atheists and theists in literature, I first need to state the obvious. Works written by novelists, who may or may not ascribe to a certain faith or ideology, depict an imaginary encounter between fictional characters as conceived from the novelist’s perspective. As such, they are closer to the monologues that have most often dominated (non-violent) interactions between believers and nonbelievers. Think, for example, of Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods or David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion1. Consider also works that seek to address some so-called “other” though really aims to proselytize and to refute the “other”, not mutually learn. In Augustine’s City of God, for example, he argues why Christianity is the true faith—notwithstanding the recent sack of Rome—and claims that such horrors would not have happened if belief and propitiation of the old gods had not been maintained.2For much of Western history, atheists and theists, if they spoke much at all, often did so at cross-purposes. As Charles Taylor has noted, though, it has only been in recent times that the real possibility of atheism in the North Atlantic World has been deemed a viable, potential life-choice option for the majority.3 Or as Alec Ryrie writes in Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt: “In many of the regional, educational, and political subcultures that make up the modern United States, open and unapologetic unbelief is the norm”.4 Many parts of Europe, especially in the Nordic countries, had already anticipated the trend and seemed to cement the intractable inevitability of the secularization thesis.5 Yet, even as zeal for the thesis has cooled, the so-called European exceptions, such as Ireland and Poland, have seen great growth in the number of nones or those unchurched.6 So, too is there an increase in multiple religious belonging in the West, a feature traditionally aligned with the East.7 Regardless, human identity and longing for what are deemed religious or transcendental forms of belief and belonging, whether in traditionally religious or secular leanings, remain universal in scope.8This article is focused on moments of private discussion and dialogue between two characters in novels, one identifying (or describable as) as theist and another as atheist. In doing so, I will first provide a very brief historical context of when each novel was written, the time and place the covered scenes are supposed to transpire in the novel, and the authors’ position toward religion(s) when writing their books. At times, I will connect the discussions to recent or contemporary debates in interfaith dialogue. I will close the article on some lessons to glean from these fictional dialogues for contemporary theist–atheist dialogue. I will focus on three examples from well-known works of fiction: Les Misérables, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Plague.Why these three novels specifically? According to Michael Schmidt in his magisterial, The Novel: A Biography, critics initially “savaged” Les Misérables;9 Saul Bellow rebuked The Plague as an example of a novel formed from ideas and not believable characters: “Camus’ The Plague was an IDEA. Good or bad? Not so hot, in my opinion”10; while disparaging claims of Dostoevsky’s prose as “deliberately repetitious, flat, low key”, are not uncommon.11 My reasons for examining these three otherwise acclaimed novels are mostly personal. While at The Catholic University of America in the mid-nineties, I was introduced to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov through Professor Declan’s honours seminar and in his book, After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom, while Professor Stephen Schneck encouraged close philosophical reading of The Plague for an ethics and politics class. As Camus so closely read Dostoevsky, the theodicy problem was lit in my own burgeoning theological imagination. Les Misérables was a more recent read, initially spurred by filling a gap in a novel I should have read by now, but has since become one of my favourites, along with Ulysses, Moby Dick, and perhaps an outlier to some, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. For our purposes, though, these novels offer fascinating and illuminating moments of theist–atheist encounters.Before examining key scenes in those novels, I will first discuss definitions pertinent to our topic and reflect on the value and limitations of turning to fiction for the study and development of theist–atheist dialogue specifically, and interreligious dialogue more broadly.
2. Naming and Shaming: On Definitions, Identity, and Judgments
Not surprisingly in these discussions, terminology becomes suspect if not convoluted. Consider atheism, a robustly fluid term. Recall how Christians were deemed atheists by the Roman Empire for their refusal to acknowledge and propitiate the Roman gods.12 Those of the Abrahamic faiths, moreover, have not always seen the God of Abraham in the other and so labelled them infidel, heretic, God denier and even god killer.13 Christians have also slandered other Christians who do not belong to their church or sect,14 while despite the proclaimed oneness of Islam, intra-Muslim conflicts and division are facts of the geopolitical world, as in Indonesia where Shi’ia Muslims or those of the Ahmadya Islamic sect are deemed heretics.15Atheism is broadly defined in The Oxford Handbook of Atheism as “an absence of belief in the existence of God or gods”,16 but probing further reveals further distinctions and nuance among many atheists. Philip Kitcher refers to himself as a “soft atheist” because he does not fully foreclose the possibility, even if unlikely, that science may one day prove a theistic framework.17 He thus distinguishes his position from hard (or strong) atheists, especially New Atheists who are adamant that theistic belief is false.18 J.L. Schellenberg has more recently promoted “progressive” atheism, which aims ultimately to be a moral system that improves upon and so transcends forms of theism in which a so-called God of love is still linked with oppressive actions or beliefs. It is also an attempt to move atheism away from what it does not believe towards what it does believe.19For this article, can I, as a theist, define atheism as a position for those whom the existence of any supernatural power or being, whether manifest as one or the many, is nonsense, nonexistent, a chimera, a false proposition, a nonstarter? In my conception of atheism, such a worldview is bereft of any metaphysical understanding or potential, and so strictly material (even as that term is problematic from a scientific perspective).20 Everything can be, or will be, tested, proved or disproved by rational, scientific means.21 There can be no angels or devils inhabiting such worlds, no afterlife, no ultimate purpose to life and the universe, which instead has arisen only by chance and circumstance.22 There is no metaphysical soul. Divisions, and any form of hierarchies based on reasonableness or goodness, though, persist. For example, just as supposed God-lovers can be misanthropes, atheists can be deeply moral, even saintly in their actions and disposition.23 While moral striving is ubiquitous across faith positions, some atheists, or nonbelievers may also still embrace what they label the “spiritual”. Sam Harris, one of the original four New Atheists, highlights the benefits of meditation and his study under Buddhist masters that opened his worldview to a spirituality that did not entail he “believe anything irrational about the universe”.24 Ronald Dworkin, another atheist attuned to the mystery and sublimity of the universe, liked to call himself a “religious atheist”.25 Humanist chaplain Christ Steadman, open to partnering and dialoguing with theists, came to embrace the term “faitheist”, initially a pejorative term hurled at him.26 Does my definition of atheism above still hold? Not for many atheists, some of whom may self-identify by a wide range of terms, such as nonbeliever, nones, antireligious, secular humanist, Christian humanist, and so on.27Consider also nontheistic religious traditions—such as certain forms of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism—where few definitions or lines in the sand will be tidy and impenetrable on the question of spirituality, metaphysics, other realms, and deities. Going further on definitions, there are serious questions on the universality of Western terms and categories, such as “religion” or “religions”. Such terms sometimes have no direct equivalent in many Eastern or indigenous traditions, or only do so after historic encounters (or clashes). What is deemed “religious” is often plural, porous, and interdependent, learning from and responding to other traditions. John Thatamanil, for example, preferring to speak of what is religious, and not of religion or religions, writes: “Religious traditions are not communities of consensus so much as they are sites of internal contestation”.28 Ideally, he would prefer what he calls “comprehensive qualitative orientation”.29Thus, three descriptors that many theists traditionally claim as exclusively theirs; namely, “moral, spiritual, and religious”, are increasingly present in an atheist or nonbelievers’ worldview and quest for secular meaningfulness. Atheist philosopher Martin Hägglund, for example, highlights how accepting that there is only this life and the permanence of mortality is what gives existence heightened meaning and value.30 In a similar vein, while I am a Catholic theologian, my work examining humility and forgiveness has been inspired by atheist positions which seem to demand a more precarious and so profound humility and forgiveness in a world deemed without God.31Even as terms such as “religion” or “atheist” can be difficult to pin down, other terms such as “misotheist” may further complicate the picture. What about a person who believes in some form of a transcendent God but hates and rejects any kind of worship of such a being or beings?32 One of my examples below, the famous conversation between brothers Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov, is technically a debate and discussion between a theist and a misotheist; not a theist and atheist.33Such terms, however, ultimately depend upon a stable, constant state of belief or non-belief, when in truth, most living people inhabit fairly fluid, if occasionally sharp, fluctuations. Agnostics, moreover, with various degrees, shades, and nuances, acknowledge the possibility and complexity on both the atheist and theist ledger. They do not feel or assert that a definitive position can be proved or determined either way, even as such individuals may lean strongly to one side or the other.34 Still more of us may be nominal believers or nonbelievers, perhaps living extended periods of our lives without deep reflection or agonistic agony one way or the other—perhaps simply believing in belonging35 or prioritizing other areas of our lives beyond religious identity, whether we tick the box for belief in God or not. Some, moreover, consider themselves apatheists, asserting that the God question has no value or meaning in their lives.36Again, most human beings often inhabit shifting and variously solid or porous positions of belief and unbelief, or simultaneously inhabit elements of these various positions throughout their lifetimes. Faith and doubt are more often bedfellows than engaged in any life-or-death duel.37 When we factor in multiple religious belonging, the picture again becomes multi-layered and somewhat paradoxical, or at least a context that cannot be settled as “black or white”.38In the study of interfaith or interreligious dialogue, we speak of various kinds of dialogues: the dialogue of life, the intra or interfaith dialogues (ecumenical dialogues); academic dialogues, intermonastic dialogues, elite/institutional interfaith dialogue, and so on.39 For the purposes of this article, I examine the atheist–theist dialogue, which is often overlooked.40 Many atheists, for example, are pleasantly surprised when invited to academic or government forums on religious pluralism or interfaith dialogue, almost accustomed to not being included. In the West, as well as in many communist countries around the world, atheist–theist relations have often been hostile and tense.41 In the United States, atheists are often the groups deemed least trusted, according to a number of national and local surveys, as Phil Zuckerman and others have noted.42 They are also deemed to be the least electable. There has not been an outwardly atheist, party-nominated US presidential candidate, for example.43 After the 9/11 attacks and the publishing popularity of the New Atheists, atheist voices were more often heard in public discourse and other cultural mediums in the West (even as some scholars have challenged their long-term contribution to any growth in atheism).44 Nevertheless, we have even seen the rise of what Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate have called “The New Atheist Novel”. Examining the tropes and themes of Richard Dawkins and the other New Atheists, Bradley and Tate show how major contemporary novelists, such as Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Philip Pullman, promote reason and science over religious superstition and religious fundamentalism in their works.45While anti-New Atheist books have been written by religious believers, there were also exceptions to the rule, from The Oxford Handbook of Atheism, coedited by a Christian theologian, Stephen Bullivant, and an atheist, Michael Ruse, along with a number of works by atheist writers who sought to present religious belief in a fair and balanced way; for example, Timothy Crane’s The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View.46 My ongoing collaboration with atheist philosopher Andrew Fiala, moreover, has sought to find common ground among atheists and theists even while examining core issues of disagreement and dissonance around belief and unbelief in God.47 Such works also share great resonance with the recent focus of The Dalai Lama in advancing secular ethics, especially the notion that all human beings, regardless of religious belief, are drawn and seek to promote compassion.48 For The Dalai Lama, compassion “constitutes a basic aspect of our nature shared by all human beings”.49The key is to seek and encounter one another beyond identity-barriers, whether religious, economic class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or political affiliation. Through our stories and narratives, many bridges can be built or crossed.50 While encountering real living beings is always preferable, fiction also provides a gateway and platform to meet, empathize, and experience the perspectives, fears, and dreams of the unfamiliar and unknown. The great Israeli novelist, Amos Oz, highlights how literature enabled him to overcome lingering or suppressed hatred of Germans after the Shoah. As he writes: “Imagining the other is not only an aesthetic tool. It is, in my view, also a major moral imperative”.51As a personal aside, I grew up in a rich and layered, even if perhaps a twilight-fading Catholic world in Long Island in the 1980s. While the presence of Jewish neighbours and friends no doubt later nurtured my latent interfaith awareness,52 I knew no atheists. Yes, there were people struggling with their faith or perhaps (angrily was the word) renounced faith in God, but such was presented as an anomaly or mere phase. I also recall one or two instances where loss of faith was linked to an experience in war or the Holocaust, but in general, belief in God was taken for granted. I attended a Catholic grammar school and Catholic high school followed by my undergraduate years at The Catholic University of America. After a year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I received two postgraduate degrees at two Jesuit Universities (Georgetown and Boston College) before my PhD at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland.How deep and lasting were my contacts with atheists before my postgraduate work? Reading the essays of Kai Nielson and his striving for ethics without God in college, stands out, as do other, purely literary or theological encounters. From the writings of Camus to the nature essays of anthropologist and humanist Loren Eiseley,53 I encountered atheists as immersed in the mystery of the world and in seeking to alleviate the pain and suffering of others, as any religious believer or theist. Such reading set a foundation for real, healthy contacts and friendships with nonbelievers today, even as my own Catholic faith (while often battered by doubt from clergy abuse of children)54 still endures. Turning to the novelists, it is not surprising, then, that even as I continue to work in the area of theist–atheist dialogue with fellow flesh-and-blood human beings, I also contend that examining literature can help to hone, challenge, and develop our dialogical, and for me, theological and ethical, language, horizons, and aims. My first example, affectionately called, Les Mis, is, of course, a publishing sensation, whether as epic novel, a perennial East End and Broadway play, or a movie and television favourite.55
Although the origins of Les Misérables begin in 1845, as Adam Gopnik notes, “[Victor] Hugo wrote Les Misérables in the Channel Island of Guernsey in the late 1850s while in exile from the Second Empire of Louis Napoléon, Napoléon’s nephew…”57 The magnum opus was published in 1862. While born Catholic, Hugo pulled away and rebelled against the institutional Church as he grew older, emphasizing instead social justice for the poor and oppressed. As Gordon Leah writes of the role of Providence in Les Misérables:In the final analysis, the novel is an
extended call to drastic social reform, incorporating memorable passages on the sewers, the housing conditions, the lives of street urchins, the treatment of orphans, the exploitation of the poor by criminals and by the social system. Additionally Hugo sees God as the provident Creator and Sustainer whose will it is that these evils should be cured and whose agent in so doing is the man of prayer and action whose soul has, in the words of the Bishop, been bought back from evil and given to God.58(Gordon is referring, of course, to Jean Valjean)For our purposes, we will focus on the story of Monsieur Charles-Francoise-Bienvenu Myriel, who we are told in the novel’s opening, “in 1815…was bishop of Digne” (1).59 The Bishop was 75 years old and had been elevated to the episcopate in 1806. Especially illuminating are his interactions with the character called the Conventionist G—, who is identified and labelled as an atheist. Note that the Bishop was said to be modelled after Charles-Françoise-Melchior-Bienvenue de Miollis, whom James Maddon tells us, also lived simply, cared deeply for the poor, and even offered shelter to a criminal (Pierre Maurin) who was sentenced for stealing a loaf of bread. Conservative Catholics, including the Miollis family, were disgruntled about the Bishop’s portrayal in the book and the critiques of the institutional church (“Notes”, 1195). Others who shared Hugo’s critique of the institutional church feared his message was dulled by such a positive portrayal of a priest. As Lisa Gasbarrone writes: “According to his wife, Hugo defended his choice of the Bishop with the observation that a member of the liberal professions would be anachronistic for 1815, the momentous year in which the novel opens”.60 He also felt the Bishop’s heroic saintliness would accentuate the underwhelming reality of clergy performance in his time. In the longer context of the story, it is the Bishop’s altruistic forgiveness of Jean Valjean that shocks and inspires the ex-convict to overcome his (legitimate) bitterness and strive to take this new chance and live for God and true justice. He had stolen the Bishop’s only real possessions he had clung to from his previous life; “a set of six silver knives and forks and a big soup ladle…and two big solid silver candlesticks” (21). Yet, the Bishop protects and forgives him.The opening of the novel expends 100 pages on the character of the Bishop, who is Christ-like in every way but martyrdom—kind, compassionate, forward thinking, and social-justice oriented. He foreshadows, I would contend, later liberation theologians such as Oscar Romero and Ignacio Ellacuría.61 Unlike Christ, but more like a St Ignatius or St Thomas,62 the Bishop was born into a wealthy family. He had also been married, though childless. His wife died while
they were emigrants, having left the country after the 1789 revolution. He returned to France as a priest. He lived simply. “He didn’t preach so much as chat” (10), speaking with “the same eloquence as Jesus Christ himself, sincere and persuasive” (11). He stood with, and comforted, the criminal on the scaffold and happily met supposed robbers, saying: “Prejudices are the real thieves, vices are the murderers” (25). He was a Bishop to all—or nearly all, as he had eschewed the atheist.The bishop’s dialogue with the atheist occurs in the subtitle: “The Bishop Before an Unknown Light”. The scene reveals both men in human illumination, warts and all. Their scene together is brief, and I can only imagine a deeper and longer-lasting connection if they had more time to converse, learn from one another, and correct false presumptions.G—lived alone and was a member of the National Convention. The narrator says the Bishop’s actions towards the Coventionist were even more “risky than the trip through the mountains held by bandits”. Conventionists, and especially atheists, were often feared and detested by many at that time. “The man was more or less a monster”, it was said—as he had rejected rule by kings. For this position, he was isolated in a “godforsaken hole of a place in an extremely wild valley” (32). He had neither neighbour nor visitor, and so the Bishop would say: “There is a soul there who is all alone” (32). Yet, even the Bishop’s initial thrust for kindness was tempered by cultural and societal “aversion” to what the man represented. A few times he headed in the man’s direction, but then turned away. Word spread that G—was dying and death was imminent. The Bishop, after a few false starts, headed off to that “unholy spot” (32).When he steps into G—’s dilapidated hut, G—asks the Bishop who he is, as no one from the town had ever visited him. G—, discovering the man is his bishop, reaches out his hand. The Bishop does not take it (33). He notes that the man does not look as sick as he had been told.The atheist says he only has a few hours left but is glad the Bishop came and is happy to see the sun one last time. He tells a shepherd boy, who was serving him, to go to bed as he must be tired. G—also thought this way he can die while the boy is sleeping. It was a kind act, but the saintly bishop was unmoved. He was perturbed, though, as G—addressed the Bishop like any other man, even as he “gazed at him with a congeniality in which one might have discerned, perhaps, the humility that is appropriate when a person is so close to returning to dust” (34).As noted, the Bishop was hoping for a deathbed conversion, but G—, emotionally and mentally strong and alert, exuded fervour and perseverance even as his body was moving toward death. In this regard, G—foreshadows Hugo years later on his deathbed in 1885, where a priest also sought (but failed in) his return conversion to the Catholic Church.63Regardless, the Bishop sits down and begins to speak with a tone of “reprimand” (34). When G—says that man should be governed by science”, and the Bishop adds conscience too, G—replies: “It’s the same thing. Conscience is the quota of innate science we each have inside us” (34).Already the Bishop is “amazed” by his words, more so when G—clarifies that he protested and called for the death of ignorance, not the death of the king as he believed no man had such a right, guided by a call for social justice and the end of slavery.They then discuss and clearly disagree on the value of the 1789 Revolution, which pains the Bishop, but which G—sees as “mankind’s crowning achievement” (35). As they further discuss the violence of the revolution, the “bishop almost regretted having come, and yet he felt obscurely and strangely shaken” (36).The atheist mentions the example of Christ, who spoke what we would call truth to power and that innocence cannot only be claimed by one group. The Bishop quietly agrees. The atheist then argues that we must cry over all the victims of state violence and oppression, whether the child king or the common people. Again, the Bishop agrees. G—pushes further and says the suffering of the people has lasted longer and there we must focus. Another silence unfolds. The atheist’s tone shifts. He accosts the Bishop for coming into his home and questioning his motives, so again asking the bishop who he really is, presuming he is just a toadied member of the Church elite, far from the plight of the people. Readers know that is not the case with this Bishop. When G—calls the Bishop “a worm in a carriage!”, the narrator justly remarks: “It was the Conventionist’s turn to show human weakness and the bishop’s turn to show humility” (37).Gently, the Bishop asks—despite all the supposed riches he had and has—how all the destruction from the revolution “prove[d] that pity is not a virtue, clemency is not a duty, and that ‘93 was not hideously ruthless” (37).G—then apologizes to the Bishop for not treating the other and his ideas with courtesy. He also apologizes for using all the Bishop’s material wealth against him in his argument, and that he will not make such references again. The Bishop simply thanks him but does not correct him by saying he renounced such luxuries years ago.As the Conventionist adds and links mistakes on different sides of the political spectrum before and during the revolution, the Bishop, shocked by the comparison, then replies: “Progress should believe in God. Good cannot be served by impiety. An atheist is a bad leader of the human race” (37). Note how the bishop’s bias is still active today. G—, initially silent, experiences a shiver, and with tears exclaims, seemingly in a defensive or sarcastic tone: “O you! O ideal! You alone exist!”In response, the Bishop “experienced an inexpressible commotion” (37). David Bellos contends the scene above and G’s response (which I will note in a moment) are meant to convey the existence of God, “boiled down in Les Misérables to a bafflingly dense paragraph put in the mind of the outcast revolutionary, G”.64 G—’s “bafflingly dense” words, uttered after pointing to the sky, are: “Infinity is. It is there. If infinity had no self, the self would be its limit; it would not be infinite. In other words, it would not be. However it is. So it has a self. This self of infinity is God” (38–39). He dramatically shudders. G—’s words almost resemble something of the spirit of the great 14th century Dominican scholar and mystic, Meister Eckhart,65 or contemporary new age spiritualism. It is not a typical statement of an atheist, and here again may be closer to Hugo’s evolving beliefs towards something Divine but free of any human, religious institution.Returning to the scene, the Bishop looks more kindly on the man, especially sensing death was very near. He reaches towards him and asks if he wants to express belief in God. “This hour is the hour of God. Don’t you think it would be a shame if we met in vain?” (39).The atheist recounts his life, mostly the good deeds he has done and the suffering he has endured, even acknowledging how he protected a convent and “my own enemies—you lot” (39). He concludes: “What have you come to ask of me?”Here, finally, is the key to the whole arc, and it is the Bishop who is changed. As Kathryn Grossman comments, “References to knees and kneeling recur at a number of critical, interlocking junctions”66 and serve to unite the novel’s narrative strands and structure. Just as Jean Valjean later kneels before Myriel, here the bishop kneels before G—and asks for his “blessing” (40). Though G—has already died, the narrator comments that the Bishop then became even more gentle and caring of the poor and of the children, clearly touched and changed by his encounter with the atheist (40). Perhaps Jean Valjean was thus also a beneficiary.
4. Brothers in Dialogue
Fyodor Dostoevsky, like all great theists, was also drawn to atheism.67 Ultimately, though, he firmly believed that religion and God were needed to maintain some moral order in our world, and that without such a foundation, as Ivan Karamazov intoned, “everything would be permitted” (69).68 Dostoevsky was a profoundly angst-ridden man who could also breathe life into holy, optimistic characters such as Zosima, Alyosha, or of Sonya’s unconditional and forgiving love in Crime and Punishment.69Dostoevsky’s gamboling and debts, his early political activism, his sentence by execution under a firing squad in 1849, and his last-minute reprieve, followed by imprisonment in the Omsk stockade
from 1850 to 1854 in Siberia, are well-documented in his fiction, letters, and in scholarly biographies and journal articles. Especially relevant is his autobiographical prison novel”,70The House of the Dead. As Joseph Frank has noted, these prison years “were of decisive importance in [Dostoevsky’s] life and resulted in what he called the “transformation of his convictions”. The experiences garnered in these years changed Dostoevsky from an opponent into a supporter of Tsarism, and finally consolidated the foundations of his faith in Christ and in a Christian God who transcended the bounds of reason”.71 In The House of the Dead, the narrator even blesses the prison for saving his life.72The Brothers Karamazov was published in 1881, so almost three decades after his release, and one year before his death in 1882. In the novel, Fyodor Karamazov, the father, is described as a landowner who is “not only worthless and depraved but muddleheaded as well” (7). He only thought of himself. He was an “old fool” (74). As the opening of the novel reveals, the father had died 13 years previously. As the story unfolds, the question is which of his sons killed him, for any one of them had motive. Fyodor Karamazov, it is worth noting, was said to be modelled after Dostoevsky’s own troubled father, who (among three competing versions) supposedly was murdered by his serfs, whom he treated terribly. Dostoevsky was away at school during the death. Speculation (famously by Freud) on his father’s demise and its impact on the son is ongoing.73In the novel, the father had three sons through two wives. Alexei (Alyosha) is the young novice who often is seen to represent the spiritual side of man. Ivan is the brother who, we will see, has rebelled against belief in God, and represents the intellectual side of man. Dmitri, the eldest, represents the passionate or sensualist side of man. Their father was also rumoured to have a so-called illegitimate son, Smerdyakov. He had raped a vulnerable, mute, and homeless “holy fool” named “Reeking Lizaveta”. The boy’s name means “son of the ‘reeking one’”. She died while in childbirth. According to Sharon Cohen, the rape of Lizaveta not only proved the wantonness of Fyodor Karamazov but the guilt of the town in not trying to care and protect her earlier. Thus, Smerdyakov “is a composite of the devil’s son and a “holy innocent”, for he assimilates both the best and worst of humanity”.74 Smerdyakov was said to have skinned and hung cats as a child, later becomes a servant in his father’s household, and shares Ivan’s anti-God (or atheist) beliefs. He is also the one, perhaps driven on by Ivan’s words, who murders their father (though Dmitri is blamed).For our purposes, we will examine (though briefly) the well-known debate/dialogues about God and theodicy between Alyosha and Ivan, again focusing on challenges and lessons depicted in this believer–nonbeliever dialogue. It should be stressed that, much like Hugo, Dostoevsky was also a theist, but more so than Hugo, deeply feared what he saw as a nihilistic surge through Europe rooted in a turning away from God and traditional religious belief. Alyosha, deemed by Dostoevsky as the hero of the novel precisely for his stance and hope for God, was named after one of Dostoevsky’s sons who tragically died three years into his life from epilepsy in 1878. Note also that Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy (as did Smerdyakov).The Brothers Karamazov is the most important, profound and damning literary text to examine the problem of theodicy: why an all-loving, omnipotent God could create and sustain a world in which the innocent suffer because, it is said, free will is needed for humanity’s striving and fulfilment.75 Ivan, who as Bernard Schweitzer argues, is really a misotheist—a hater of God as opposed to an atheist strictly speaking—presents the young Alyosha with lyrical, emotionally and rationally potent arguments on why he rejects the world as God has apparently constructed it, and so returns his “ticket” to him (245). As Rowan Williams comments, Ivan “is speaking for the Dostoevsky of
decades earlier”76. On the one hand, as with all the Karamazovs, Ivan is attracted to signs of life and verdure—even hope—but is despondent and crushed by the useless suffering and horror also imbued in our world.Even if Ivan was only to experience life’s dregs, “still I would want to live—”, he tells Alyosha, to taste all of life until at least 30. “Though I do not believe in the order of things, still the sticky little leaves that come out in spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me” (230). So, too, he loves “some people” and great deeds. Alyosha says Ivan is halfway there, as he needs to love and believe that all this beauty and life that will die can be reborn and redeemed.Ivan then tells Alyosha that, when he previously had blurted out there was no God, it was to tease him—but similar to the Buddha, now says there is no way of knowing if God invented man or man invented God, and Alyosha is best not to think about it (235). Ivan again admits he can believe in the idea of God as the infinite Good, but not “this world of God’s” (235). He even admits that all the evil and destruction of this world, as Marilyn McCord Adams later argues in her book, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, can and will be redeemed77—though Ivan stresses: “but I do not accept it, and do not want to accept it!” (236). Here Ivan is the opposite of the biblical Job, who bore the majority of his sufferings in silence, refused his wife’s advice “to curse God and die”, and who seemed happy enough when his riches were restored, even if his children, smitten by the satan, were not themselves reborn (he is granted new ones). The Book of Job, an exasperating and (I would argue) immoral biblical book, haunted Dostoevsky, and plays a key role in the novel, especially in Zozima’s preaching upon it.78 Note also that spurring Ivan’s anger at God is the unjust suffering of others. According to Gustavo Gutiérrez’s reading of Job, it was Job’s plight and subsequent solidarity with the poor and forsaken of the world that gave to him the ability to speak a prophetic and contemplative language about God.79 As a theist, I am grateful and humbled by challenges to belief in God because of suffering, whether from an Ivan Karamazov or Primo Levi.80Alyosha thus wants to know why Ivan rejects this world, and Ivan is torn. He wants to tell his brother. He also fears persuading him to his position, and so admits: “Perhaps I want to be healed by you” (236). Is Ivan open, struggling and willing to cross back to the other side?Ivan doubts, though, that Christ-like love is possible for human beings. It is plausible from a distance, but close up and daily love? No. He turns to the suffering of the innocent, of children, especially, at the hands of so-called “‘animal’ cruelty”. He then rightly notes such a term insults other animals, as “no animal could ever be as cruel as a man, so artfully, artistically cruel” (238). Ivan cites “atrocities” committed by Turks and Circassians in Bulgaria (238), a specific claim needing to be contextualized,81 but we can mention any past and present atrocity, with any group of people, to witness such abysmal and creative destruction and terror.82 This leads to Ivan’s deliciously true and wicked statement (after speaking of a game Turkish soldiers played with a baby before they “shatter its little head”, when he remarks: “I think that if the devil does not exist, and man has therefore created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness” (239). Contra Genesis 1:27, we are not holy beings created to be good by a holy God, Ivan is saying, but devilish beings who inflict misery on others. Ivan delights in his shatteringly agnostic comment about the Devil.83Ivan then describes how the torturing of children is universal: “There is, of course, a beast hidden in every man, a beast of rage, a beast of sensual inflammability” (241–42). Of a 5-year-old girl, tortured by her parents, forced to eat excrement, Ivan says her prayers to God show the world should be rejected, especially when we claim we need to know the existence of good and evil, and so of cases like that girl’s suffering. However, he rejects such cases and reasoning and so rejects the world (242). Similarly, Anne Applebaum, in her majestic historical account of the Russian Gulag, retells the crushing story of “Little Eleanora” who is born and dies in the camps, despite the desperate pleas and prayers of her mother to God. Ivan, too, has cut to the heart of the impossible challenge brought to theists, impossible to justify or to ignore if theistic faith can somehow be maintained.84Knowing he has struck a chord, Ivan apologizes for upsetting Alyosha, but his younger brother tells him to proceed. So, Ivan presents the story of a “house-serf” who accidentally hurt the favourite hound of his master, a general from an aristocratic family. The boy had thrown a stone which hit the dog’s paw. Because of the affront, the boy, eight, is stripped naked, and with all the servants watching, especially his mother, is told to run. Mercilessly, the Master sends all his many hounds after the boy. They rip him to shreds. Ivan asks what to do with this general (243).85Alyosha says he should be shot. Ivan approves. However, this returns Ivan to the why question: why must innocent children, especially, suffer for some future harmony? On account of the innocent victims, Ivan refuses to sing, “Just art thou, O Lord”—even if some harmony, some peace could be possible in the future. Ivan will stay here with the victims and their screams and so is incapable of singing such praise. For how can there be any atonement for such suffering? And hell is of no value: “what do I care if the tormentors are in hell, what can hell set right, if these ones have already been tormented?” (245). No one, moreover, can forgive the torturer of the children but the children—and how can we expect hope or justify such an embrace? Ivan thus returns his ticket to God, rejecting this world. He then challenges Alyosha if he would create a world like ours if only one child had to suffer, such as that poor girl whose parents made her eat excrement, to “found your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears?” (245). Alyosha says he cannot. Such a world cannot be justified upon the existence of one case of innocent, useless, anguished suffering (let alone genocides and mass atrocities).Alyosha, does, though, bring up Jesus, and his sacrifice and atonement. Ivan tells him he was building towards Jesus and so tells the story of “The Grand Inquisitor”. As Frank Armstrong comments, through Ivan and the Grand Inquisitor story, “Dostoyevsky is voicing his deep animosity to Catholicism, the Jesuit order in particular and the conflation of religious with temporal power generally”.86 According to Gary Adelman, Dostoevsky also “poured his extreme life-hatred of Jews…into the Grand Inquisitor, quite consciously attacking in him the Jew in his own imagination”.87 Antonio Malo, meanwhile, contends that through the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, “Dostoevsky demonstrates the origin of nihilism, or that is, the system of thought by which one leads his or her life as if God were dead”.88 As Malo, argues, though, “for Dostoevsky, evil can only be defeated by love”, and this claim and hope is embodied in Jesus.89 The tale has garnered a plethora of views. The Brothers Karamazov is what David Tracy would call a classic work, which jars and surprises the generations that encounter it, transforming and challenging them.90 Bridging the persuasive accusation of Adelman with the hope of Malo, I follow here Harold Bloom who writes: “And yet the greatness of…The Brothers Karamazov is unquestionable. Dostoevsky the novelist transcends the idolizer of the Tzar, the anti-Semite, the enemy of human freedom”.91 In Ivan’s tale, a story within a story, Jesus is said to have returned during the Great Inquisition in Spain in the 16th century. Such, too, it is worth noting, was a time of great violence committed in the name of God. Supposed converts from Islam and Judaism were particularly distrusted (recall that Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and surviving Muslims forced to convert after the Reconquista against the Moors). Violence in the name of religious belief is pervasive.Thus, in this charged setting, Jesus is arrested by the Grand Inquisitor because he fears that Jesus’ trust in human beings is dangerous; that humankind needs to be ordered what to do, not presented with more trust. Excessive freedom will only lead to further suffering. The Grand Inquisitor contends that Jesus gave the Church the means to make men happy through obedience. The Church gives the masses the basic sustenance they desire, and in return they relinquish their freedom, which they cannot morally and properly execute. Man cannot have bread and freedom, the Grand Inquisitor argues, and man really needs and prefers bread. Is this assessment of the human condition correct, as DH Lawrence and others have asked?92The Inquisitor’s claims are not new. They echo Juvenal’s phrase of “bread and circuses” given to Roman citizens to appease them. They also resonate with similar phrases in later Maoist China and with a China economically strong today but still hiding past failures like the Great Chinese Famine.93 Just as Jesus would be a threat in such 20th century totalitarian regimes, he is arrested in 16th century theocratic Spain. Throughout the Grand Inquisitor’s narrative, Jesus says nothing. His only reply is to “gently” kiss the Grand Inquisitor on the lips, resembling Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (Mark 14: 44–45). While the betrayed is the same, here the kissed and kisser are reversed. Though the Church betrays Jesus, he kisses the Grand Inquisitor out of kindness and forgiveness, not from Judas’ malice or disappointment. Gorman Beauchamp writes: “The implication of Christ’s remaining silent is clear: there is nothing more to be added to what he had said of old. His message has not changed, will not change, remains forever what it was, admits of no clarification or amendment. One accepts it, suggests Dostoevsky, as it is—a great and profound mystery, apprehensible only by faith—or accepts it not at all”.94 Additionally, it is worth highlighting that Wil van den Bercken notes:Seen from Orthodox iconography, the portrait of Jesus that emerges from ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ is unconventional. It is the opposite of Christ Pantocrator or the throned Christ of the Day of Judgement. Instead, we have here a compassionate Jesus among the people and then a submissive, silent prisoner in front of a human judge.95To me, Dostoevsky’s Jesus echoes my own Catholic theological vision, rooted in my mature following of liberation theology and in the kind, gentle Jesus taught to me as a child.Serving as a Christ figure, Alyosha then also kisses Ivan (263). The elder brother says he will think upon Alyosha’s actions and when he is on the cusp of ending it all at age thirty, he will return to Alyosha for one more talk. Sadly, instead, Ivan suffers the onset of brain fever, a Victorian condition that was said to bring on madness from “emotional shock or excessive intellectual activity”.96 Was he tormented by the “demons” of his anti-God beliefs, as someone like Dostoevsky might think? Examining Aquinas’ account of wisdom, Alina Beary alleges Ivan’s picture of a godless world really showed his “infatuation with his own intellectual brilliance” and not wisdom.97 This failure was especially evident in Ivan’s pride-filled dealings with Smerdyakov. Easily influenced,98 Smerdyakov takes Ivan’s views that all is permitted and that there is no God to then murder their father. It also results in Dmitri’s (false) arrest. While Ivan hopes Smerdyakov will testify to exonerate Dmitri, Smerdyakov instead kills himself. Traditionally, suicide was a symbol of rejection and despair at the possibility of God’s grace and forgiveness, again commonly linked with Judas as betrayer, who died from hanging (Matt 25: 27, though from a fall with his intestines spilling out; Acts 1: 18). The father, though, was no Christ figure as a victim.99Nevertheless, while Alyosha’s religious belief is humbled and challenged and Ivan’s misotheism seems to leave him in madness, few theists would allege that Ivan’s challenges have been satisfactorily answered, especially in regard to growing dissatisfaction with atonement theories.100In our third and final example, it is the theist who is again challenged and ultimately most distraught from these theodicy discussions.
5. A Doctor and a Priest (and Two Journalists)
Albert Camus’ The Plague was begun before WWII, but mostly written shortly after its end, and published in 1947. As Tony Judt notes:He started gathering material for it in January 1941, when he arrived in Oran, the Algerian coastal city where the story is set. He continued working on the manuscript in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a mountain village in central France where he went to recuperate from one of his periodic bouts of tuberculosis in the summer of 1942. However Camus was soon swept into the Resistance and it was not until the liberation of
France that he was able to return his attention to the book.101While perhaps historically rooted in a choleric epidemic that descended upon Oran after French colonial occupation in 1870, the novel takes place in the 1940s. Both a literal and allegorical reading of the plague is common. Its setting in the 1940s with a Nazi and Communist threat and war resonate. The novel is rooted in a search for meaning and purpose in the context of loss and plague, with the hovering sense that all of life, sooner or later, will succumb to such tragedies. How we respond is of the utmost importance. Both now and then, this eternal question lingers: Is it absurd to care about a human response when there are no gods, no ultimate justice? It is not surprising that Camus’ novel has seen deep rereading in our time of COVID-19.For our purposes here, I will mostly focus on the interactions between Dr Bernard Rieux, who is an atheist, and the Catholic priest, Father Paneloux. We will also include some key discussions with Rieux and two journalists, Tarrou and Rambert, who also do not believe in God.Camus is usually identified by others as atheist, even as he could be coy about the label. Some theists have sought to find in Camus a sign or movement towards theism before his tragic death, but at most, I agree with Robert Royle:He’s questing and enigmatic, something like Ivan Karamazov, his favorite character in his favorite novel by his favorite author. He’s more indignant over suffering and injustice than hardened in a stance against God. In this, Camus was somewhat in the Samuel Beckett mode: ‘God doesn’t exist, the bastard.’ He still might exist and be a bastard for all he seems to allow.102It is worth noting that, as Vivienne Blackburn comments, Camus’ desire is “for genuine dialogue” and cooperation with religious believers.103In the novel, as dead rats start to appear throughout the city, foreboding ill, Dr Rieux is contacted by a journalist, Raymond Rambert (as noted, a fellow atheist, 205),104 who is supposed to write about the conditions of the Arab populations, ill-treated then (and now) in France. When Rieux admits he will not share his thoughts if the full truth of their condition is not uncovered, the journalist says he speaks “in the language of Saint Just”, referring to the French revolutionary (who remains a controversial figure). Tellingly, the narrator remarks that Rieux knew nothing of such a claim, but “the language he used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in—though he had much liking for his fellow man—and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth” (12). This is much like Camus’ humanist creed—no belief in God, but deep
love for his fellow man and woman, a commitment to the unvarnished truth and no allegiance or dealings with injustice. Instead, Rieux tells the journalist about the rats (13), whose corpses pile up, soon to be matched by human beings. As the horrid truth slowly dawns on Rieux—that this was plague—he tells himself not to waste time on worry and reflection: “The thing was to do your job as it should be done” (41).Father Paneloux was a Jesuit priest. As an aside, in The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha had tried to distance himself from that Catholic order after Ivan narrated his Grand Inquisitor story.105 In Camus’ novel, after the plague had been raging in Oran for a month, the narrator focuses on a particular homily of Fr Paneloux.106 We are told he was scholarly and reached nonspecialists on previous sermons on individualism. “In these he had shown himself a stalwart champion of Christian doctrine at its most precise and purest” (92). He had earned some “local celebrity” for his unvarnished truths.To combat the plague, the religious authorities organize a week of Prayer, culminating in Father Paneloux’s Sunday sermon “under the auspices of St. Roch, the plague-stricken saint” (92). In his sermon, the Jesuit claims plague has fallen on the people because of their moral laxity and lack of faith—that “they deserved” this present calamity (94). He intones that these are the end times, and we need to focus on God and our salvation—but that “God is unfailingly transforming evil into good”—the classic theodicy statement and justification (99). Words of his sermon—especially as the town is mostly shut down—reach many.Another journalist, Tarrou, asks Dr Rieux what he thought of the sermon. Rieux had heard about the sermon from others. He generously replies that his work in hospitals prevents any belief in collective punishment, but kindly says Christians sometimes say such things but do not really mean it and are “better than they seem” (125). When Rieux confirms to Tarrou that he does not believe in God (126) but emphasizes that the main difference between him and Paneloux is that the scholar has not seen death up close so can speak more confidently of truth “with a capitol T”, he also clarifies that a country priest may know of death.107 Tarrou then wants to know about Rieux’s devotion (to alleviate suffering) while being an atheist.Rieux tells him it is simple: there are sick people “and they need curing” (127)—even as the struggle is a “never-ending defeat” (128). Rieux’s teachers are, in fact, “suffering” (129) and “the moral code” of comprehension (130). He later tells the journalist Rambert the only way to face the plague is with “common decency” (163), doing his job as a doctor, and through healing. His example later inspires Rambert (again, a fellow atheist) to stay in Oran and not run off with his love and to seek happiness because, similar to Rieux, he is driven to work on a cure (210).Plague continues to spread, though. Hope for a cure in a child was instead met with the innocent’s slow, agonizing demise. Surrounded by a sense of helplessness and impotence (216), Father Paneloux sank to his knees imploring: “My God, spare this child!” (217). However, the cries and moans of others only smother the prayer. Rieux, meanwhile, “tightly gripp[ed] the rail of the bed shut his eyes, dazed with exhaustion and disgust” (217).The child, finally, dies.When the priest motions to speak with Rieux, who is utterly spent after months of twenty-hour days, helplessly seeking to heal, Rieux “swung round on him fiercely. “Ah! That child, anyhow, was innocent, and you know it as well as I do!” (218).After Rieux breaks away, they then continue the discussion, Rieux apologizing for his tone, feeling sometimes all one has is a feeling of “mad revolt”. While resonant with much of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus,108 the phrase also resembles the passion of Ivan.Paneloux, ever dutiful, invokes a theodicy comment, saying, “we can love what we cannot understand”. However, Rieux “shook his head. ‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. Additionally until my dying day, I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture” (218).The priest then mentions the gift of grace. The doctor acknowledges he has no such gift, but says the more important thing, despite their differences, is that they are “working side by side for something that unites us—beyond blasphemy and prayers” (219).Paneloux then says Rieux is also working for “man’s salvation”, an extraordinary statement for its time. Remember, this is before Vatican II, and especially Nostra Aetate.As the priest gets up to leave, and Rieux again apologizes for his tone, the Jesuit, unlike the Bishop in Les Mis, cannot conceal his disappointment in not convincing Rieux of God. Rieux again stresses they are both together fighting disease. Paneloux now knows “the smell of the sheep”, as Pope Francis, a Jesuit, likes to say.Paneloux invites Rieux to a sermon he will give touching on their discussions and experiences together. Rieux goes to the Church, which is much more sparely attended than the last main sermon. So, too, the Jesuit’s tone is generally gentler, and as the narrator notes, the priest speaks of we and not you. He does not deny the message of his first sermon but emphasizes that we must have total belief or none. Those are the stakes—and the death of innocent children make the stakes even higher—so he has to fully trust all will be ok. There is a desperation in his voice that other clergy notice and distrust.Physical suffering follows the priest—though, as Rieux surmises, it is not plague symptoms. He still treats him with care. Father Paneloux soon dies, in what is labelled a “doubtful case”. As always, answers are not clear. Why did he die? Was it a statement about his faith?109We again come back to the issue posed by the Bishop and G–– in Les Misérables. As Tarrou asks Rieux: “Can one be a saint without God?” (255; Tarrou is also an atheist).For the narrator, and for Rieux (and Camus), the answer is to be healers (308), with or without faith in God. Of that, there is little doubt.
6. When Fiction Instructs Life: Lessons for Atheist–Theist Dialogue
The three well-known examples above are rich and varied in the types and level of lessons gleaned for contemporary atheist–theist dialogue in the North Atlantic World. Note that I again return to Taylor’s phrasing because, in general, the discussion would shift drastically in, for example, India, where religious pluralism or the historical validity of atheism is more accepted (at least before the rise of Hinduva ideology). In Hinduism, even as perhaps the majority strand emphasizes one God through many approaches and manifestations of deities, there is a healthy atheist path also possible.110In traditional Muslim countries, and for much of Africa, atheism is deeply marginalized if nonexistent. Consider, for example, the ravages of horrors after the Rwandan genocide, and yet, unlike much Jewish writing after the Shoah,111 there was little doubt and questioning about God (though there was questioning of the failures of its institutional churches).112 In Jean Hatzfeld’s most recent publication, Blood Papa, predominantly focusing on the children in the next generation (but born in or after the 1994 genocide), faith in God is deep and engaging.113While there are pockets (especially in the United States) where Christian identification and belief are expressed in more rigid and fundamentalist tones, and despite the reality that atheists are continually viewed with distrust in many polls and case studies, the spread of those affiliating as atheist, none, or agnostic remains robust, if not growing consistently.114 As noted, in Europe attachment to the major institutional Christian churches continues to decline, including the countries often deemed as exceptions, namely Ireland and Poland. Atheism, or at least those identifying as a none (especially among the youth) is also rising. Of course, Muslim immigrants and those of other non-Christian faiths continue to bulk up and nuance overall theistic faith in Europe, but the atheist–theist dialogue has become especially important. There is little or no evidence that those born after the late 1990s will return to the Church in the way of my parents’ generation, for example—and they are more likely to be religiously and spiritually fluid even as they are driven by social justice and especially environmental concerns.Overall, the most important lesson in these novels is the power of face-to-face interactions; the back-and-forth process of listening, responding and questioning, sustained, ideally, over time or by a succession of encounters. Unfortunately, in our novels, the discussions were more often one-off events, as in the case of the Bishop and the Conventionist, where everything was a bit more dramatic and existential. So, too in The Plague as Father Paneloux dies soon after his humbling, while Ivan’s intellectual and spiritual fate in The Brothers Karamazov is left unknown.Crucially—almost despite themselves—we see the way the other’s words move and challenge. This is especially true as there were (and remain) so many preconceptions and biases against atheists in the context of these works. Today, one may also acknowledge contexts where God believers are marginalized. The Conventionist, for example, just assumes that the Bishop is as economically corrupt as all the others (which the Bishop humbly and graciously does not try to refute). The Bishop, however, is steadfast in his belief that salvation and moral good are not possible for atheists and cannot fathom an atheist’s ethics, even as the Conventionist exudes a deep moral life that came with consequences for his ethical ideals and values. When the Bishop asks for the atheist’s blessing—there is no more dramatic and telling sign of the change—we witness the catharsis of an already good and holy man. As noted, the Bishop ends up becoming even more radically attuned to the needs of the poor. While the Conventionalist remains faithful to his atheistic vows (though I am a little confused by his use of the infinite, God language, and the self), he dies in the presence of a bishop (though outside the Sacramental life of the Catholic Church). There is a kindness that both show the other after some testy moments and presumptions. Both, in different ways, are healed and gift one another with their fidelity to their distinctive creeds. The dialogue of the brothers in Dostoevsky’s novel, as noted, is the greatest discussion of the problem of evil in any medium, literary or theological—especially from an atheist or misotheist’s perspective. Ivan’s arguments are concise, careful, and full of vexation. Alyosha was no intellectual equal to Ivan—though a lengthy discussion between Father Zosima and Ivan would have been interesting. Again, the key issue—as it was in The Plague—is the suffering of innocent children. Why do they have to needlessly and unjustly suffer? Ivan is adamant that there is no answer of justification for such loss. Alyosha tries to emphasize Christ—and similar to Father Paneloux’s sermons in The Plague—promotes a total fidelity and trust in God. Neither Ivan nor Rieux (nor Tarrou nor Rambert) is impressed in the end. Again, troubling from a theist’s perspective, the illness of Paneloux is dubbed a “doubtful case” (234), literally in terms of whether it is plague that had killed him, but metaphorically could also purport his movement from extreme fideism to doubt. The dialogues in all three of these novels reveal nuance, integrity, and complexity among its conversation partners, even if there is no full conversion either way. More importantly, we are reminded how labels like “the atheist” or “the Jesuit” can be distracting and restrictive. Human beings are works-in-progress, steeped in contradictions and paradoxes. Faith and doubt can often seem interchangeable words at various periods or moments in our lives. As noted above, Ivan does not deny the existence of God; even Alyosha experiences doubt regarding his faith, echoing some of Ivan’s claims (341).115 The Conventionist G—, while termed an atheist, seems to acknowledge something transcendent, though he rejects any institutional religious belonging. Father Paneloux, dying with the label of a “doubtful case”, best exemplifies the ambiguity and the ebbing and flowing of faith and doubt in our lives. This realization is deeply relevant to the believer-non-believer dialogue, which is usually structured in an oppositional manner. Forced divisions, though, overlook ample overlap and blending. Such is not simply because underneath labels, we are all human beings who love and are loved, though this truth should not be cursorily dismissed. As importantly, the distinctive aims, perturbations, and desires of atheists and theists share sufficient space and similarity for understanding, and hopefully, compassion. Can we recognize one another as parts of ourselves and see ourselves in one another? Such is when dialogue and partnership can flourish. It is unfortunate that Ivan (like Nietzsche) suffers madness so that some theists can posit his doubt of God spurred such a state, but in Dr Rieux we have only reasonable and kind responses to a world of suffering without God. Note also the moral changes and conversions of Tarrou, Paneloux, and Rambert—a conversion of social justice—to choose to be close to death and suffering and to become, as the end of The Plague notes, healers. In all the New Atheism rebukes against religion, and theistic counterclaims,116 what is lost and forgotten are the beauty and value of the people on both sides of the divide, of those in between, and the far greater need beyond, or perhaps deeply intertwined with, some belief in the Transcendent. There was little call in their debates to join together to be healers in this world—for all who are broken, plague-sick, alone, and all those suffering in jails, refugee camps, ghettos, plague-quarantine, anonymity, and general indifference. The God question and labels, such as atheist or theist, become secondary to social justice concerns in two of these novels, and virtually unanswerable outside of faith in The Brothers Karamazov. However, the encounters humble and challenge all who take the time to listen and truly try to learn from the other, whether in real life or as seen in the fictional encounters examined in these three classic novels.
This research received no external funding.
Conflicts of Interest
The author declares no conflict of interest.
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(Augustine 1980). On the question of the ubiquitous clashes between an author’s personal or moral lifestyle and the art he or she produces, specifically the question of whether to still teach an inspiring and moral novel written by an author with a racist and muddled biography, see (Admirand 2018). Care must be taken, of course, to ascribe ideas in a novel with the author’s own, though it is also not surprising that biographical elements are often present, consciously or unconsciously in creators’ works.
Decline in the Church’s lost power and role in Ireland has been especially evident in the referendums allowing gay marriage (2015) and abortion (2018). While Ireland did see great financial gains in the so-called Celtic Tiger, causes of Church decline have been rooted in Church scandals, from sexual child abuse and cover-up by clergy to the Magdalene Laundries, among other travesties. See, for example, (Ganiel 2016). On religion in Poland since the fall of Communism, see (Ramet and Borowik 2017; Luxmoore 2019).
Name-calling (and much worse) has been far too common among the so-called Abrahamic faiths (for an account challenging the term “Abrahamic”, see (Levenson 2012)). Christians calling Jews “God killers” in the Middle Ages or “vermin” during the Shoah, and slandering Muslims as “heathens”, while Jews and Muslims deemed Christians polytheistic on account of misunderstood Trinitarian belief, was once commonplace. Fortunately, the growth of interreligious dialogue and a deeper understanding of religious pluralism, especially after the 1965 Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, has been encouraging. See, for example, (Grob and Roth 2012; Berger 2012). On the legacy of Nostra Aetate and interreligious dialogue, see for example, (Cohen et al. 2017).
Intra-Christian violence, a hallmark especially of postreformation Europe, momentarily stalled after the Treaty of Westphalia, then was masked under various national or racist ideologies and imperial aims, not to mention the horrors of WWI and WWII, but has since seen a great decline, even as some lament the stagnant state of ecumenical progress after the great hope of the 1910 World Missionary Conference. For a concise history and proposal for ecumenical growth, see, for example, (Rusch 2019); on the role of women and the ecumenical movement, see (Gnanadason 2020).
Soft, weak, hard, strong, implicit, and explicit: these adjectives placed before “atheism” can mean different things to different atheists. Sometime “weak” or “soft” implies a lack of corresponding belief or any robust conviction in either the existence or nonexistence of deities. While this latter description would normally point to agnosticism, Shoaib Ahmed Malik contends some contemporary atheists have “conflated” agnosticism with atheism. See (Malik 2018). Consider also the issue of global or local atheisms. See, for example, (Diller 2016).
One place to look are atheist or humanist manifestos in which a call to heal the earth or save the poorest of the poor from economic exploitation and death seem little different from moral imperatives from religious institutions. Steven Pinker, for example, contends that reason and science embodied in humanism, and not religion, are what has most improved the quality of life most profoundly in contemporary times and which should be our focus in the future (Pinker 2018). See also (Roberts and Copson 2020).
(Thatamanil 2020, p 156). Contending that American capitalism is also a “comprehensive qualitative orientation”, Thatamanil contends many Christians who practise capitalism are engaged in multiple religious belonging, especially when such economic practises are supported or allowed to hurt the most vulnerable in society (Thatamanil 2020, pp. 187–90).
Stephen Bullivant contends that through their “dreams, visions, and gratuitous actions”, Ivan, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or Kirillov in The Possessed, imply “that at a deeper level (that of their inner double) they possess a profound and insuperable faith in Christ.” He thus describes them closer to pseudo-atheists or anonymous Christians. See (Bullivant 2008).
Coined by Thomas Huxley in 1869, such a position of learned, but humble unknowing on whether a Divine Being does or does not exist can be of great appeal, even as the position is chided by some atheists and theists for refraining from taking a clear stance. See, for example, (Le Poidevin 2010). A grade between agnostics and theists are deists who believe the universe was created by God who then “withdrew” from the world and so rules out any divine interventions, prayers, or grace. As Charles Taylor and others have argued, the step towards deism heralded the advance of exclusive humanism (Taylor 2007, p. 318). For a history of atheism and its key figures, see (Watson 2014).
On the pervasive need to belong to groups even if doubting the religious or metaphysical tenets, see (Day 2011).
See, for example, (Kosicki 2016). In China, see the amazing book by atheist dissident Liao Yiwu and his interviews and accounts with many religious people persecuted in Communist China, in (Yiwu 2011); for an account of the growth of religions in China despite sporadic (or increasingly, sustained) persecution, see (Johnson 2017). Writing in 2020, evidence for China’s persecution of the Uyghurs (predominately Muslim) in re-education camps is irrefutable. See, for example, (Roberts 2020).
(Bradley and Tate 2010). For an account contending that “various Anglo-American writers have gravitated to religious themes in trying to represent what happened on 9/11 and afterwards”, see (Eaton 2020, p. 69).
As will be seen below, calling G—an atheist again raises problems of terminology. Additionally worth noting is the Bishop’s earlier dinner with a senator who spouts an atheistic creed. As Bellos argues, through the Bishop’s witty banter, Hugo “slams the door on the fingers of his unbelieving left-wing friends” (Bellos 2018, p. 96).
For a good introduction to the writings of Oscar Romero, see, (Romero 2004). For Ellacuría’s impact on Latin American Liberation Theology, see especially his edited collection (Ellacuría and Sobrino 1993; Drexler-Dreis 2019, pp. 136–43). For an accurate, novelistic account of the murder of Ellacuría, along with five fellow Jesuits, their housekeeper and the housekeeper’s daughter, see (Galán 2020).
Debates on the socio-economic standing of Jesus’ family are ongoing. Luke’s Gospel and the well-known nativity tell of “no room in the inn” can be examined in various ways (for a helpful analysis, see (Bailey 2008)). Confer also that Mary and Joseph offer to pay for the sacrifice of turtledoves at their visit to the Temple (Luke 2:24)—such offerings were usually meant for the poor (Leviticus 12:8). Having to flee to Egypt, according to the Gospel of Matthew, would certainly have negatively impacted their economic situation. On the other hand, some may refer to the gifts of the magi at Jesus’ birth and the tradition of Joseph and Jesus as carpenters (Mark 6:3 and Matt 13:55) to contend the term artisan, not peasant, may be more applicable, though the biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan argues that would still position Jesus below peasant farmers. See (Crossan 2009, pp. 28–29). Recent archaeological findings challenge the image of Jesus as a peasant preaching in a pastoral backwater. Of note is the recent archeological discoveries in Nazareth and Sephorris, a sophisticated urban city, only four miles away from where Jesus grew up (see, for example, (Dark 2020)). In regard to Ignatius, after convalescing at Manressa from his battle wounds and determined to spend the rest of his life for Christ, Ignatius famously tried to give all of his possessions away and even exchanged his sumptuous clothes for a beggar—though the beggar was later arrested on suspicion of stealing and so Ignatius had to announce his good deed to clear the beggar’s name. St Thomas Aquinas, as St Francis of Assisi, also came from wealth and sought to give everything to the poor—both against their family’s wishes.
Meister Eckhart’s theology is richly robed in apophatic statements of God, and a contemplative yearning to become one with God, seemingly dissolving and perfecting our self though becoming divine. He had some of his tenets condemned for heresy in 1329 by Pope John XXII in the bull “In agro dominico”, though recent attempts to rehabilitate him during the Papacy of John Paul II were met with claims that such rehabilitation of his overall stature in the Church was not needed. More recently, he is seen as a bridge to Christian–Buddhist dialogue; for example, with his call for detachment and denial of the self. See (Radler 2006).
(Dostoyevsky 2004). All subsequent citations from The Brothers Karamazov will be in the text.
For an illuminating account of Sonya’s radical hospitality through her reading of the raising of Lazarus to Raskolnikov, see (Izmirlieva 2020).
See (Dwyer 2012). Dwyer examines the multi-ethnic and religious depictions of the characters in the novel, showcasing Dostoevsky’s growing awareness of the diversity of people within the Russian Empire. She also highlights what he came to see as his own new awareness of the narod, the Russian people. Interestingly, Gary Rosenshield, referring to the novel as semi-autobiographical, notes “it contains remarkable descriptions of the religious character, behaviour, and practice of Jews, Christians, and Muslims [and] can be counted as one of the few major works of nineteenth-century fiction that portray the religious practices of all the Abrahamic faiths”. See (Rosenshield 2006, p. 581). He contends its openness to other means of salvation besides the Russian Orthodox Church is rejected by the time Dostoevsky writes The Brothers Karamazov.
(Frank 1966, p. 779). As Frank adds, Dostoevsky, in a beautiful letter in February 1854 to “Natalya Fonvizina, “the cultivated and deeply religious wife of an exiled Decembrist”, acknowledged his deep periods of doubt and unbelief, but having had moments of connection with God, contends that even if shown belief in Christ was a lie, he would still “remain with Christ rather than the truth” (ibid., p. 803). See also (Williams 2009, pp. 14–17).
(Dostoyevsky 1985, p. 340). As Joseph Frank reminds us, though, it was really Dostoevsky’s new insights in how Christianity’s moral grounding and life pervaded the camps and “helped to mitigate some of its inhumanity” that it convinced him Christianity could not be replaced without great harm to Russian society. See (Frank 2010, pp. 211–12).
Surprisingly, Primo Levi wrote he profited little from his reading of Dostoevsky.
See, for example, (Sahni 1986). Sahni writes: “Russia in the war against Turkey in 1877 is seen as a saviour of the Slav people still under the yoke of Turkey. The war assumes the proportions of a crusade. Dostoevsky becomes more and more intolerant of non-Christian peoples and nations. The decision by the Russian Government to forcibly evict the Crimean Tartars is fully approved by the writer, who fears that if the Russians do not move in it will be the Jews”, with Sahni adding that Dostoevsky’s “anti-Semitic leanings are well known” (Sahni 1986, p. 42). Regarding Circassians as victims of genocide committed by the Russians in the 19th century, see (Richmond 2013). Finally, Alexis Heraclides and Ada Dialla highlight crimes committed by “irregular” Bashibazouks (mercenary soldiers of the Ottoman Empire) and Circassians (“refugees from Russia”) sent to Bulgaria to “terrorize the population into submission” on account of a recent uprising in 1876. Estimates of the Bulgarian dead vary widely among the Ottoman and Bulgarian sources, from up to 3000 victims according to the former, and 100,000 by the latter. See (Heraclides and Dialla 2015, pp. 150–51).
The question of the inherent goodness of human nature is a standard belief in Christianity—even if various churches demure on how or to what extent original sin has corrupted human beings. For an atheist’s account of our inherent compassion and solidarity (also echoing here the Dalai Lama), see (Bregman 2020, p. 314).
(Lawrence 1955, p. 239). Lawrence notes he initially dismissed The Brothers Karamazov and especially the Grand Inquisitor section as “a piece of showing off”, but had since reread the novel two times, and “each time found it more depressing because, alas, more drearily true to life” (ibid., p. 233).
(Jisheng 2013). On human beings fleeing from freedom and so aligning with dictators who provide basic needs, see (Fromm 1994).
(Beauchamp 2007, p. 137). The main thrust of the article is to show the parallels of the story with Plato’s Republic, both of which reveal sadistic atrocities abutted by attempts to create utopias.
(van den Bercken 2011, p. 86). Den Bercken also writes: “Although the picture of Jesus, sketched here by Dostoevsky, does not fit into Orthodox iconography, it does fit into nineteenth century representation of Jesus, manifested in popular Catholic and Protestant pictures for religious education and in Russian romantic painting (A. Ivanov, I. Kramskoy)” (ibid., p. 86).
Contrary to the claim that Smerdyakov is a mere tool of Ivan, Vladimir Kantor warns that “If we endorse the point of view on Smerdyakov that he is a passive murderer…in someone else’s hand, a person merely carrying out Ivan’s plan, then we will enter naturally into a contradiction with the poetic and worldview-shaping concepts that govern Dostoevsky’s cosmos, a cosmos resting on the fact that each person bears full responsibility for his or her own acts, regardless of the social level from which he comes and no matter how undeveloped he may be”. See (Kantor 2009, p. 190). For Kantor, Smerdyakov is Ivan’s tempter. As Caryl Emerson pens Smerdyakov is “an active force for evil at work on a delicate, corruptible, still undecided soul”. See (Emerson 2009, p. 223).
Rowan Williams helpfully shows how the Story of the Grand inquisitor is not unresolved but has its themes addressed in the “life and teaching of Zosima” in the sixth book of the novel and “Ivan’s encounter with the Devil in chapter nine of book 11” (Williams 2009, p. 29).
(Camus 1975). All subsequent citations from The Plague will be in the text.
The Jesuits had been suppressed by Pope Clement XIV and then later restored by Pope Pius VII in August of 1814, shortly before the opening of Les Misérables. Jesuits receive a few passing references in the novel.
While I focus below on a scene (the death of a child from the plague) which Gene Fendt calls one “of the classics of the anti-theistic argument from evil”, I acknowledge his sharper retort that only seeing the antitheistic layer “suffers from an incomplete evaluation of Paneloux’s sermons, and is blind to the Augustinian substructure of the novel, which reveals that something more divine is present and active.” See (Fendt 2020, p. 471).
See, for example, the poems of RS Thomas, many of which show the local, country priest having to confront the daily reality of death in his parish.
(Case and Deaton 2020, p. 176). Case and Deaton note, however, that the lack of a religious community is one factor that the poor whites under their discussion have grown in isolation, and so deaths of despair.
On December 10, 2020 Humanists International re-launched the Freedom of Thought Report as an updated document. The document has been in continuous development and circulation since 2012 as a monitor of the rights and treatment of humanists, atheists and non-religious people in every country in the world.
The report contains an entry for every country in the world and uses a unique rating system ranging from “Fee and Equal” to”Grave Violations”. Canada’s rating overview states:
“Canada is a federal parliamentary democracy, extending north into the Arctic Ocean, and sharing the world’s longest land border with the United States. Despite what should be strong constitutional protections for freedom of thought and expression, significant religious privileges are in force, both nationally and in several of its ten provinces and three territories.“
Of particular interest to humanistfreedoms.com is the report’s sections covering Quebec’s Bill C-21, education in Canada, and blasphemy & hate speech. Our readers will recall that this site was partially inspired by Dr. Richard Thain’s fight to defend his right to free expression when he attempted to advertise his opposition to the public funding of Catholic school boards in Ontario.
In this year, when speaking publicly about controversial issues has become a notably riskier endeavour, the need to support individuals and organizations who actively defend humanist freedoms has grown enormously.
Consider Humanist International’s Humanists At Risk Action Report 2020, which exposes a lack of separation between state and religion, as well as an array of tactics used against humanists, atheists and non-religious people in Colombia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka to limit their rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly. No other organization may be relied upon to devote a significant portion of its time to defending humanist freedoms.