Joseph McCabe

By Jin-yeong Yi

Joseph McCabe in 1910

“[T]he trained athlete of disbelief”

—H. G. Wells

“One of the giants of not only English atheism, but world atheism, Joseph McCabe left a legacy of aggressive atheist and antireligious literature that remains fresh and insightful today.”

—infidels.org

For me, Joseph McCabe (1867-1955), Irish English Roman Catholic priest turned atheist intellectual and writer, has been something of a patron saint of not only atheism and freethought, but also learning and education in general. One of his chief publishers, the Jewish American socialist intellectual E. Haldeman-Julius, declared him to be the “world’s greatest scholar.” Overpraise, perhaps, but there seems to be little doubt that he was a scholar of the first order. Even Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton, one of his most notable opponents, acknowledged his competence and sincerity and applauded his intellect, albeit ironically, writing: “He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding.”[1]

Armed with tremendous mental energy, discipline, dedication (one non-contemporary commentator describes him as “a force of nature”); a thorough knowledge of Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, and Spanish; as well as an unwavering belief in his mission and ideals, McCabe wrote extensively on religion, philosophy, evolutionary biology, chemistry, physics, politics, culture, and, above all, history, for half a century in a lifelong quest to disseminate knowledge and spread the gospel of scientific progress.

Although this Old Atheist no longer had “an atom of religion” in him ever since leaving the church, he was still very much the preacher, except that now he was championing atheism, science, freethought, democracy, secularism, rationalism, materialism, and Edwardian feminism. He wrote over 200 (250 by some counts) books. As he had a firm belief in the educability of all people, much of his output consisted of short booklets (some as short as a few dozen pages) that were designed primarily for working class laymen and laywomen. (I expect that he would be rolling in his grave if he knew of the exorbitant prices his books are selling for today.)[2]

McCabe was justifiably called a “one-man university” by contemporary Isaac Goldberg[3] and dubbed a “20th century Diderot” by biographer Bill Cooke (see his excellent biography on McCabe, titled A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism). When he wasn’t debating or drafting pamphlets, monographs, or encyclopedias with his sleek and lucid prose (which was not infrequently infused with subtle and dry wit), he gave lectures, delivering three to four thousand (according to his own estimate) of them by the end of his long life.

Unsurprisingly, McCabe was a controversial figure in his day. George Bernard Shaw is said to have once remarked that people smelled brimstone wherever the man went[4]. Also consider Hyman Levy’s hilarious recollection of him:

When I was a boy Joseph McCabe was taboo. He was the Bad Man who spread the gospel of wickedness, using Science, the gift of the Almighty, for his nefarious ends. And so when the Bad man came to Edinburgh to lecture the young boy slipped into the meeting (without paying), and listened enraptured to a discourse on the Evolution of the Universe, illustrated with a series of marvellous lantern slides.[5]

Few, if any, would claim that Joseph McCabe’s legacy is perfect. He was perhaps too keen on the atheistic Soviet Union (though he never actually embraced Marxism himself, having no use for dialectical materialism)[6], and, most unfortunately, had a proclivity for alienating other freethinkers with unremitting and unyielding criticism. Nonetheless, he always strove to keep a balanced view of the complex and multitudinous issues he tackled, and what he may have lacked in diplomacy he made up for with loyalty to his friends and all-around honesty. An individual who better represents the love of learning (as well as the love of teaching) would be difficult to find. It is hoped that his legacy will one day be revived and be given its rightful place in history.

Selected Quotes

“…Atheism grows in proportion to the growth of knowledge and freedom. No law of history is more consistently revealed in the records.”

(from “Is The Position Of Atheism Growing Stronger?”)

“Blessed are the ignorant, for they have no difficulties.”

(from “The Mythical History of the Jews”)

“[T]he most deadly solvent of religious belief—let the anti-evolutionists realize this—is the patient examination of the so-called evidence which is offered us in support of it.”

(from “The Myth of Immortality”)

“The mind which has been artificially repressed will, if the process be not continued too long, expand more rapidly than the mind which is suffered to grow normally.”

(from The Romance of the Romanoffs)

“It is one of the ironies of the history of religion that what we call the great, historical, or organized religions took their rise from prophets whose mission in life it was to denounce religion in the sense in which these organized bodies use the word.”

(from How Christianity Grew Out Of Paganism)

“Do not listen to those who say that critics crush the voice of the heart in the name of reason. We want all the heart we can get in life, all the strength of emotion and devotion we can engender. But let it be expended on the plain, and plainly profitable, task of making this earth a Summerland. Do that, as your leisure and your powers permit, and, when your day is over, you will lie down with a smile, whether you are ever to awaken or are to sleep forever.”

“No people is entitled to be called civilised which complacently tolerates war, squalid and widespread poverty, dense areas of ignorance, political corruption, and the many other remnants of barbarism which they tolerated. The twentienth century was the last hour of barbarism, lit by a few rays of the civilisation which dawned in the twenty-first century.”

(from The Tyranny of Shams)

“Death is the law of the universe. In the days when Plato worked out the first rational arguments for immortality, as distinct from mere religious tradition, the claim was not so exorbitant. The stars themselves, the Greeks thought, were immortal. They were small, undying fires set in the firmament. Plants and animals died, of course, but these stars made men familiar with things which never died.

Now we know that the stars—not three thousand of them, as the Greeks thought, but two billion—are born and grow and die just like dogs, except that their life is immeasurably longer. There is a time when each is a shapeless cloud of stardust. There will be a time when the most brilliant star in the heavens will fade from the eyes of whatever mortals there may then be. They are made of the same material as our bodies: of gas and earth and metal. They fall under the great cosmic law that things which come together shall in the end go asunder—shall die.”

(from “The Myth of Immortality”)

“Materialists do not deny the existence and importance of mind and its ideals.They deny that these are spiritual. But because the world has been accustomed to regard the mind and its ideals as spiritual, the cry is raised that ‘spiritual realities’ are in danger, when the question is merely whether they are spiritual or not. A great man of science like my friend the late Professor Loeb would smile at the idea that his interest in science ought to diminish when he came to the conclusion that the mind is only a function of the brain. Most of us ought to smile at the idea that we will turn the world upside down because we have come to the conclusion that it is the only world we shall ever know!”

(from “The Myth of Immortality”)

“Pardon my little ironies whenever I come to these anti-democrats. I have never been able to see why the blunders of an uneducated democracy, as ours still is (though many an artisan is a sounder politician than many a professor or property owner), recommend anything except a practical education of the people.”

(on Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacob Burckhardt)

“[N]early 40 years’ experience has shown me that a taste for beer and cowboy-stories is entirely consistent with a taste for perfect art and the highest intellectual exercises.”

“We are not only evolving, but evolving more rapidly than living thing ever did before. The pace increases every century. A calm and critical review of our development inspires a conviction that a few centuries will bring about the realisation of the highest dream that ever haunted the mind of the prophet. What splendours lie beyond that, the most soaring imagination cannot have the dimmest perception. …

“… Darwin was right. It is—not exclusively, but mainly—the struggle for life that has begotten higher types. Must every step of future progress be won by fresh and sustained struggle? At least we may say that the notion that progress in the future depends, as in the past, upon the pitting of flesh against flesh, and tooth against tooth, is a deplorable illusion. Such physical struggle is indeed necessary to evolve and maintain a type fit for the struggle. But a new thing has come into the story of the earth—wisdom and fine emotion. The processes which begot animal types in the past may be superseded; perhaps must be superseded. The battle of the future lies between wit and wit, art and art, generosity and generosity; and a great struggle and rivalry may proceed that will carry the distinctive powers of man to undreamed-of heights, yet be wholly innocent of the passion-lit, blood-stained conflict that has hitherto been the instrument of progress.”

(from The Story of Evolution)

“The end or purpose of life is what we choose to make it. There is no end or purpose written upon the stars. We make our goal; and the only end upon which we can agree, the ‘supreme good’ to which all other ideals are subordinate, is general happiness—the greatest happiness of the greatest number. …But what is happiness? I am not sure that I know.”

Notes

[1] Orthodoxy, Chapter 2: The Maniac

[2] From what I gather, in McCabe’s day, the books sold from anywhere between $0.05-$0.25, which translates into roughly $1.10-$5.50 today. Granted, they were cheaply printed pocket books, but considering the sheer quantity of volumes that McCabe was generating, it only made sense (no pun intended) to make them as affordable as possible. At present, $15-$25 price tags are the norm.

[3] Joseph McCabe: Fighter for Freethought – Fifty Years on the Rationalist Front 

[4] http://www.mclemee.com/id155.html

[5] A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism, Chapter 3: The Trained Athlete of Disbelief

[6] Also, considering the fact that he died long before the collapse of the USSR, it is difficult if not impossible to tell what a complete evaluation of the regime would have looked like.

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The Freedom of Nothingness

By Jin-yeong Yi

Tasting the forbidden fruit

“Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”

—Thomas Jefferson

Atheistic nihilism isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Well, actually, it is objectively neither good nor bad, because according to nihilism, nothing is objectively good or bad. So trying to “sell” this viewpoint in the marketplace of ideas is pretty much a lost cause from the beginning. And I don’t think I would have it any other way; I like the idea that atheistic nihilism is territory that angels fear to tread.

Still, the question is worth addressing: “What’s so great about having no intrinsic meaning or purpose to life?”

Well, one advantage that the nihilist has, depending on how you look at it, is the fact that he can afford to get his hands dirty. Liberation from religion, liberation from my beliefs about sin and morality in particular, left me free to explore avenues of the mind and soul that I had hitherto never dreamed of exploring: the penetralia of science, of religion, of philosophy, of the occult, of sexuality. Of Life itself.

No longer am I bound by anything, except the limitations of my intellectual equipment and how far I dare to go. The forbidden fruit of knowledge is mine for the picking.

Voivod – “Technocratic Manipulators”

I’ve passed the entry of the system
They taught me with an anthem
It seems like I’m one of them
A kind of people I can’t describe
They got a number between their eyes
Identity has been commanded
Subconscious has recorded
The orders from the big head
I’m now a part of this machine
Supervised by the telescreen
That’s not for me, too much for me
That’s all for me
And they’re going nowhere
To find better somewhere
But can’t get out of there
During the night my soul is hearing
Usual advertising
Message that I’m still learning
One thousand times it’s a routine
Should be enough to fall asleep
That’s not for me, too much for me
That’s all for me
And they’re going nowhere
To find better somewhere
But can’t get out of there
Is it the same message
For the preconceived children ?
Let me know, before I go…
Death of their liberty
Feeds the supremacy
Under hypnosis I take a walk
Controlled people have to stop
Robotic voice starts to talk
Why we must be listening
I think we all had the same dreams
And they’re going nowhere
To find better somewhere
But can’t get out of there
I’d rather think
But there’s something strong
I’d rather think
But there’s something wrong
I’d rather think (6)
I’d rather think
Coz my mind despairs
I’d rather think
Coz I can’t live there
I’d rather think…think !

The Futility of Person-Oriented Fallacies

By Jin-yeong Yi

“It may be remarked incidentally that the contentions of philosophers are often much more justifiable when they are arguing against other philosophers than when they pass on to expound their own views, and as each one generally sees fairly clearly the defects of the others, they more or less destroy each other mutually.”

—René Guénon, The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times

“Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.”

—H. L. Mencken

“I cannot refute you, Socrates, said Agathon: Let us assume that what you say is true.

“Say rather, beloved Agathon, that you cannot refute the truth; for Socrates is easily refuted.”

—Plato, Symposium

When it comes to determining truth, it seems that most people today are overly obsessed with the Who, rather than the What. They tend to scrutinize the conveyor of an idea more than the idea itself. This would explain the ubiquity of argumentum ad hominem, because according to the logic of such people, if you destroy the credibility of a person, you effectively destroy their arguments as well. Thus people who are eager to, say, refute Nietzsche spend more time focusing on his psychological condition than his philosophy; they glibly assume that his insanity in his final years proves that he was wrong all along, forgetting (or simply not realizing) that ideas are to be evaluated independently, and that truth is truth, no matter where it is found (hint: the statement 10 x 10 = 100 is true, even if it’s uttered by a schizophrenic). Ideas stand or fall on their own.

For related reasons, I recognize that appeals to authority are ultimately futile. Consider this observation by Sextus Empiricus:

“[L]et it be granted and established that objects ought to be judged by Man. Then, since there exists great difference amongst men, let the dogmatists first agree together that this is the particular man to whom we must attend, and then, and only then, let them bid us also to yield him our assent. But if they are going to dispute about this ‘long as the waters flow on and and the tall trees cease not to burgeon’ (to quote the familiar saying), how can they urge us to assent rashly to anyone? For if they declare that we must believe the sage, we shall ask them ‘What sage?’”[1]

You can hide behind your Nietzsche, your Dostoevsky, your Gödel, your Popper, your Wittgenstein, your Dennett, your Hawking, or whomever you read, and have them argue your case for you by quoting them at length, but if you consider yourself a “real” freethinker (or at least an aspiring one, if true freethought is impossible), you will ultimately have to draw your own conclusions on the issues at hand, as daunting a task as that may be. At the end of the day, arguing from authority is self-defeating, as even that requires you to make your own judgment, namely, judgment on who wields the greatest authority on which issue.

Notes

[1] See Outlines of Pyrrhonism by Sextus Empiricus.

Why I Am an Eclectic

By Jin-yeong Yi

“[L]et it be granted and established that objects ought to be judged by Man. Then, since there exists great difference amongst men, let the dogmatists first agree together that this is the particular man to whom we must attend, and then, and only then, let them bid us also to yield him our assent. But if they are going to dispute about this ‘long as the waters flow on and and the tall trees cease not to burgeon’ (to quote the familiar saying), how can they urge us to assent rashly to anyone? For if they declare that we must believe the sage, we shall ask them ‘What sage?’”

—Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism

As a freethinker, I do not believe in appealing to authority wherever I am able to use my own judgment. The way I see it, the question is not “Which worldview is true?” but rather “What truths can be found in each worldview? It seems very unlikely that there is a worldview that is correct about all of the various complexities of life; it seems to me more likely that all of the worldviews suffer from major flaws, which means that all of the worldviews are “wrong,” some being more “wrong” than others.

People may very well point out to me that the founders of the various philosophical traditions were incomparably wiser and incomparably more intelligent than I could ever hope to be. They may well ask me if it is not better to trust them than to trust myself, as, being wiser and more intelligent, their errors would probably be minor compared to my own. I would reply that such blind submission would solve nothing, as I would still be left with the problem of figuring out who to trust. I would still need to somehow figure out which teacher/master/guru/sage can interpret knowledge and connect the dots with the greatest precision and has the most accurate picture of reality. That in itself would require me to use my own judgment.

A problem that each of us is faced with is that we are often fed lies along with truth, and it is often difficult to distinguish between the two. It is up to us to separate fact from fiction and adjust our worldview accordingly.

Philosophical traditions are like streams of water. Some are clearer than others, but are nonetheless not completely free from impurities. What is better, to draw water from a single stream, taking in the impure as well as the pure, or to distill and collect the purest water from many different streams?

Is True Freethought Possible?

By Jin-yeong Yi

This blog of mine, which is not yet two days old, received its first comment today. The poster, who was commenting on my entry “The Catholic Atheist?,” wrote that it was suggestive of “a true freethinker….someone who maintains an open mind and contemplates the possibilities.”

Though I thought of responding to the poster directly, I decided that his or her comment called for an entry-length response of its own, and here it is. My apologies if it is needlessly convoluted or confusing. My thoughts on the subject have yet to be developed and organized.

Although I was quite flattered by the comment, it also made me ask myself, “Is there such a thing as a true freethinker?” If a “true freethinker” is someone who successfully avoids all logical fallacies and cognitive biases, I’m not sure if such a creature actually exists.

The development of opinion is, it seems to me, akin to the growth of a tree, the process being wholly accounted for by a long, unbroken chain of cause and effect. I strongly suspect that a thorough examination of a person’s history yields an explanation for the opinions he began with and how those opinions changed or remained the same throughout his life.

As I was shaped by the dual forces of genetics and environment like everyone else, none of my intellectual predilections or tendencies were determined by me. If I didn’t set the initial parameters of the trajectory that my mind is taking, and if that trajectory is unbroken, then in what sense am “I” directing it? Could it be that my thought process is something that is happening to me rather than something that I am guiding? Of course, there is always the possibility that, by sheer luck, my mind accurately processed and parsed all or at least most of the data relevant to the formation of my worldview…but what are the chances that I of all people managed to jump through all of the right mental hoops? Blind spots are so called for a reason. In any case, my views will continue to develop as they will, because I have little choice but to follow my reasoning wherever it leads. I have and intend to continue to strive for accuracy, for truth, but I also accept that, in the end, my worldview is nothing more than the product of a long chain of action-reaction/cause-effect.

As I see it, I’m solving equations for which no answer key was ever provided, as in a mathematics textbook. No matter how confident I may be in my solutions, in all probability I’ll never really know whether they are actually correct or not.