Religion, Richard Dawkins and the One Dimensional Man

In 1964 Herbert Marcuse published a book called One Dimensional Man in which he describes the advanced capitalist countries of the developed world as Totalitarian. This controversial statement was met with both bewilderment and ridicule. The world was at the height of the Cold War and the countries of the West saw themselves as a bulwark of freedom against the Communist dictatorships of the East, especially the Soviet Union. At the same time America was fighting an unwinnable war in Vietnam, again on the principle of freedom and democracy. America and the West were presenting themselves as the opposite to the oppressive totalitarian Eastern regimes. Of course, at the same time, the Communist regimes were declaring themselves as liberators and freedom fighters from oppressive Capitalism. In many people’s minds these were, in fact, two sides of the same coin and the only real losers were ordinary people! This is what Marcuse says about it:

“Does not the threat of an atomic catastrophe which could wipe out the human race also serve to protect the very forces which perpetuate this danger? The efforts to prevent such a catastrophe overshadow the search for its potential causes in contemporary industrial society. These causes remain unidentified, unexposed, unattacked by the public because they recede before the all too obvious threat from without–to the West from the East, to the East from the West. Equally obvious is the need for being prepared, for living on the brink, for facing the challenge. We submit to the peaceful production of the means of destruction, to the perfection of waste, to being educated for a defense which deforms the defenders and that which they defend.

If we attempt to relate the causes of the danger to the war in which society is organized and organizes its members, we are immediately confronted with the fact that advanced industrial society becomes richer, bigger, and better as it perpetuates the danger. The defense structure makes life easier for a greater number of people and extends man’s mastery of nature. Under these circumstances, our mass media have little difficulty in selling particular interests as those of all sensible men. The political needs of society become individual needs and aspirations, their satisfaction promotes business and the commonweal, and the whole appeals to be the very embodiment of Reason.

And yet this society is irrational as a whole. Its productivity is destructive of the free development of human needs and faculties, its peace maintained by the constant threat of war, its growth dependent on the repression of the real possibilities for pacifying the struggle for existence–individual, national, and international. This repression, so different from that which characterized the preceding, less developed stages of our society, operates today not from a position of natural and technical immaturity but rather from a position of strength. The capabilities (intellectual and material) of contemporary society are immeasurably greater than ever before-which means that the scope of society’s domination over the individual is immeasurably greater than ever before. Our society distinguishes itself by conquering the centrifugal social forces with Technology rather than Terror, on the dual basis of an overwhelming efficiency and an increasing standard of living.” (Marcuse:  One Dimensional Man)

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the assimilation of China into Global Capitalism a new enemy has been found in Islam and The War Against Terror. Of course, none of the Islamic nations can militarily compete with America so other ways of expanding the war machine have become necessary. Instead of defence (although this term is still used as a description) it becomes  necessary to invade countries that “support terrorism” (which in a typical piece of Orwellian newspeak is usually called intervention in the same way that the killing of innocent civilians in the course of these interventions is called collateral damage). In fact, engaging this new enemy has been more productive in the mobilization for war because the weapons actually get used and therefore need to be replaced. It also means new and more effective weapons are researched and developed e.g. drones.

Marcuse considers advanced capitalism as totalitarian because of the way it uses technology and employs rationalism and science to support something that is, in fact, irrational. This creates an idea of common sense that is hard to refute i.e. why should anyone criticise the system when it is creating a high standard of living?

” By virtue of the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian. For “totalitarian” is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests. It thus precludes the emergence of an effective opposition against the whole. Not only a specific form of government or party rule makes for totalitarianism, but also a specific system of production and distribution which may well be compatible with a “pluralism” of parties, newspapers, “countervailing powers,” etc” (Marcuse ibid)

“Indeed, in the most highly developed areas of contemporary society, the transplantation of social into individual needs is so effective that the difference between them seems to be purely theoretical. Can one really distinguish between the mass media as instruments of information and entertainment, and as agents of manipulation and indoctrination? Between the automobile as nuisance and as convenience? Between the horrors and the comforts of functional architecture? Between the work for national defense and the work for corporate gain? Between the private pleasure and the commercial and political utility involved in increasing the birth rate?

We are again confronted with one of the most vexing aspects of advanced industrial civilization: the rational character of its irrationality. Its productivity and efficiency, its capacity to increase and spread comforts, to turn waste into need, and destruction into construction, the extent to which this civilization transforms the object world into an extension of man’s mind and body makes the very notion of alienation questionable. The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to his society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced.

The prevailing forms of social control are technological in a new sense. To be sure, the technical structure and efficacy of the productive and destructive apparatus has been a major instrumentality for subjecting the population to the established social division of labor throughout the modern period. Moreover, such integration has always been accompanied by more obvious forms of compulsion: loss of livelihood, the administration of justice, the police, the armed forces. It still is. But in the contemporary period, the technological controls appear to be the very embodiment of Reason for the benefit of all social groups and interests- to such an extent that all contradiction seems irrational and all counteraction impossible.”(Marcuse ibid)

This is what Marcuse refers to as the One Dimensional Society which is perpetuated by One Dimensional Thinking and promoted by the use of advertising and mass media.

Richard Dawkins is a well known media figure who seems to have made it his mission to prove that God doesn’t exist. In many ways in my opinion he is the ultimate representation of the One Dimensional Man. You may wonder why this bothers me. Well, behind what seems like a radical stance I think his views are deeply conservative. He wants society and people to be organised in purely rational and scientific ways and he seems to want to prove to people who have a religious faith that they are wrong. Apart from the arrogance of this, many of his proofs are flawed and are not rational at all. For a start, as the Logical Positivists have pointed out, debating whether God exists or not is pointless. Unless you have a clear definition of what God is you can’t possibly prove he doesn’t exist. As far as I can see there are virtually no religious organisations that give a clear definition of God. For example, the Catholic Church describes God as a “great mystery beyond all understanding”. How can you possibly prove that this doesn’t exist?

You’d think he was on safer ground when he argues against the literal truth of the Bible but even here it becomes fairly problematic. It’s also noticeable that he doesn’t engage in debate with the leaders of other religions like Muslims or Buddhists. Why’s that?

Does literal truth matter? Many Christians believe that the New Testament replaces the Old and see the stories as parables and an insight into the background of the figure of Christ and Christian belief. Jesus says “love your neighbour  as yourself” and this replaces the laws of the Old Testament. Alright, there are people who do believe in the literal truth of the Bible but how much real influence do these people have, and is it a problem for society as a whole? My one agreement with Dawkins is that there shouldn’t be Faith schools promoting dogma. He also wants all people to make their own choices about what they believe which I think is a laudable suggestion. But it’s naive to think that people growing up in families with a cohesive cultural background will not be influenced by the prevailing values of that culture. Even his rational and scientific society would influence it’s young with it’s own values. At best, people can only reject the values they have been indoctrinated with.

In a debate with Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Richard Dawkins  acknowledges that in terms of danger to humanity and used in the wrong hands, science and technology are the most destructive forces available. Although, without doubt, religious conflict and zealotry have created real problems on Earth, the technological wars of the 20th Century (and now) have created the most destruction. In the main these have been perpetrated by secular governments (like the Nazis) who have been antagonistic to religion. On the other hand, religious groups like the Quakers have actively opposed war and were a major element in the formation of CND. It doesn’t follow that a secular society is necessarily a good one. An influence on Nazi racial policy was a distortion of the writings of Charles Darwin who, as we know, is a big hero to Dawkins. This resulted in the genocide of six million Jews and countless others. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame Darwin for the Nazis but it shows how any text can be misused and misinterpreted, even scientific ones.

I agree with Jonathan Sacks that Religion isn’t necessarily in competition with Science. Religious belief can bring comfort to people in times of distress. It can also give them hope. It has been a source of inspiration for great works of art and acts of great unselfishness. It doesn’t need to be narrow minded or dogmatic. Most peoples beliefs are personal and don’t fit in with any religious dogma anyway. In fact, attendance of official religious services in the West have declined to the point that some of them are no longer viable, organised religion has been forced into a defensive position. The real problem, as far as I’m concerned, is the growth and misuse of science and technology and, apart from some brave attempts, the lack of alternatives to the prevailing capitalist system. And it is this system that is propped up with the dogma of Rationalism and Science!

Oppenheimer next to an H Bomb test. Is science and technology the real danger to the World?

2 thoughts on “Religion, Richard Dawkins and the One Dimensional Man

  1. Pete Henderson November 13, 2012 / 3:44 pm

    ‘Unless you have a clear definition of what God is you can’t possibly prove he doesn’t exist.’

    It’s not up to scientists to prove the existence of god because scientist work on using repeatable evidence to prove or disprove hypothesis. Therefore, by nature it is the religious’ job to prove the existence of god and there is no useful or repeatable evidence to prove this, so by your argument, they can not possibly prove that god does exist. It’s the logical fallacy that those who rely on evidence should have to prove the unprovable. Those with no conclusive evidence are the ones who need to bring evidence to the proverbial table so that it can be tested in a rational, scientific way. You can argue that faith is believing in something without evidence (and that is fair enough), but if you want to convince atheists then the conviction of a religious persons faith is not enough.

    ‘It’s also noticeable that he doesn’t engage in debate with the leaders of other religions like Muslims or Buddhists. Why’s that?’

    Dawkins on Muslim’s:

    These are two articles found on the first page of a google search. You can find Dawkins’ criticisms of all religions doing the same thing.

    Meanwhile Kenny, I’ve broken my ankle and am wheelchair bound at the moment, but am gonna see if I can make it to the Marquis tonight.

    • Kenny Wilson November 15, 2012 / 8:26 pm

      Sorry to hear about your ankle. Hope you’re better soon. Yes, I should have Googled it! On the other hand I was basing it on television programmes I have seen where the only participants are Jewish or Christian. Of course Islam is part of the same tradition. The point I was trying to make is that without a clear definition it’s impossible to prove or disprove God i.e. there’s no point trying to prove it either way because, yes, it is a statement of faith. But isn’t the use of science also a matter of faith? I can be told about global warming for example and even provided with the evidence (although this is rarely done on TV) but the chances are I won’t understand it and therefore can either believe it or not. It is still a matter of faith. I don’t think religion and spirituality need to be about proof because it is highly personal and is a way of dealing with crises and insecurities. It can also give meaning to the world on a personal level. I don’t believe in indoctrination of any sort and,yes, organised religion can be about power and domination which I don’t agree with but I do believe there is a spiritual side to humanity which can and should be a force for good.

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