Atheism and Arms Control: How Spiritual Pathology Afflicts Public Policy

What causes war and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war.

The Epistle of St. James (4:1-2)

The great enthusiasm for the flurry of nuclear arms reduction offers from Mr. Gorbachev and the recently concluded INF agreement seems to be based on the idea that a diminution in weapons, in and of itself, will necessarily increase stability and promote peace. And why not? It would seem that with fewer weapons, fewer threats would be made and fewer people would be hurt. There is certainly a surface appeal and plausibility to the idea that fewer weapons mean a safer world, but it can be true only if weapons are themselves the source of conflict. Such a notion, however, is difficult to maintain either logically or historically. War requires not only weapons, but the will to use them and a purpose to do so. Given the will, men will use whatever weapons are at hand. A sword, for instance, may be a museum piece or material for a plowshare. It becomes a weapon only in the hands of a person who intends to use it as a forceful means to advance or defend a particular cause. In other words, weapons do not give rise to threats, but rather are mere expressions of them.

In fact, people with no weapons to speak of have done incalculable damage. The recent slaughters in Cambodia were largely carried out by fanatics with crude wooden clubs. No one would suggest that clubs or the trees from which they are made cause war. In 1964, African tribal strife between the Tutsi and the Hutu in Rwanda and Burundi resulted in a large number of people being eaten. Yet no one has offered orthodontics-control as the path to peace. Normally, then, people think quite sensibly about the relationship between weapons and war.

However, when it comes to nuclear weapons, some have sought to invert the relationship between the tools of war and the causes of conflict. This same inversion occurred before World War II with respect to aerial bombardment, spoken of at that time with exactly the same rhetoric as nuclear weapons are today, and before World War I with respect to naval power. In each case, the weapons were described apocalyptically as the principal source of danger. In each case, the danger was addressed by arms control treaties which were heralded as harbingers of peace. (“Peace in our time.”) In each case, war followed because the underlying political and moral realities which would have preceded any possible use of these weapons were ignored.

Eugene Rostow wryly remarks that the world hasn’t really seen a successful arms control pact since the Rush-Bagot Convention of 1817 between the United States and Great Britain which demilitarized the Great Lakes. Actually Rush-Bagot succeeded because it reflected the political realities which preceded it and was not itself used as the means to achieve an otherwise unobtainable peace. Even without the treaty, the war ships would have disappeared from the Great Lakes because the underlying conflict of which they were an expression had been resolved.

Likewise, today’s political realities are not shaped by the nuclear bomb. Rather the bomb’s significance flows exclusively from political realities. France and Great Britain possess enough atomic bombs to destroy every American city with a population of over 50,000. But this does not scare us, nor impel us to arms control efforts, because the political realities of our relationships make the use of these weapons against us inconceivable. We worry about the bomb because the Soviet Union has it, and because of the moral character of the Soviet regime. These political and moral realities give nuclear weapons their relevance, not the other way around.

However, this simple truth regarding any weapon is being forgotten by those who focus on the symptoms of conflict to the exclusion of its real causes. More importantly, the fundamental error of this inversion is only a part of a greater error. One can come to think that weapons are the basic problem in human relations only if one has become confused about even more important things. What conception of human nature would one have to have in order to assign to weapons and their control such paramount importance in human affairs?

If one logically thinks through this question, one will eventually have to arrive at a view of man that is fundamentally secular and materialist, with roots going back as far as the ancient heresies of the Manicheans and the Pelagians. The Manicheans thought the cosmos was radically split between good and evil and that the two were completely separate. Within this dualistic vision they demonized material things. The Pelagians thought man was untainted by any fundamental disorder within himself, and, therefore, was capable of complete self-perfection. Today’s new Manicheans embrace a radically dualistic vision according to which weapons are evil, people are good. As a corollary, the new Pelagians deny the assertion of St. James’ Epistle that man’s passions are at war within himself. Therefore, they believe that peace requires only a rearrangement of things external to man (e.g., weapons), rather than an internal transformation or right ordering of man’s soul. Man is already good; therefore, the requirements for peace are purely secular.

Yet the daily experience of man is that there is little if any peace. The crime page of any newspaper, the divorce statistics, the regional wars throughout the world testify that something is profoundly wrong. If man is good, why is this so? In each case, whether the strife be domestic or foreign, those who view man as thoroughly good assign the source of these problems to external factors. Therefore the solution to these problems must be external as well. If there is growing neighborhood crime — build a housing project or begin a literacy program. If armed conflict threatens in some Third World area — send food or enforce an economic embargo. If tension with the Soviet Union increases — decommission several submarines and send the New York Philharmonic to Moscow. In other words, peace is a management problem requiring no moral choices, but rather certain social engineering skills. Various peace institutes have sprung up where apparently these engineering skills can be learned in courses called “crisis management” and “conflict resolution.” Arms control is at the top of the curriculum.

The management approach to the causes of conflict, whether it is applied to Vietnam or to sex education, ultimately fails because it discounts the spiritual disorder in man’s own soul of which, as St. James tells us, wars and “fightings” are simply a manifestation. In other words, the fault is not in arms, but in ourselves. In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul explained at length what St. James meant by saying “your passions . . . are at war in your members.” He stated that there was a struggle within himself, that though he knew in his mind what the good required of him, he nevertheless did evil: “For the good which I will, I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do.” Why? Because, he said, even “when I have a will to do good, evil is present with me.” Therefore, “I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind and captivating me in the law of sin that is in my members.” Every person who has not killed his conscience knows this as the interior condition of his own soul and experiences simultaneously the knowledge of the good and the attraction of evil. It may be called concupiscence or some other thing. But the fact that man can choose evil over good constitutes the central human problem in every great faith and moral philosophy.

The Western tradition has assigned the origin of this spiritual disorder to the dislocation in the relationship between God and man which is usually called “original sin,” or “fallen nature.” “Fallen nature” sets the parameters within which man seeks his betterment. He must face the moral imperfections of himself and of his world with the realization that there will be no end to wars and “fightings” without a resolution to the spiritual war within his own soul. If he prefers, like the Pelagians, to deny the existence of “original sin” and of the struggle it occasions, he must find another culprit for the evil he sees. If sin is no longer personal in the sense that individuals are responsible for it, then it must be social in the sense that the structures of society produce it.

Therefore, the fight against sin becomes political, and one can march for peace or pass laws against war. Or one can engage in arms control. It is all part of the same spiritual pathology which, while denying the interior struggle between good and evil in each person’s soul, actually externalizes it by projecting it onto society. An obsessive concern with arms control is simply another manifestation of this denial of human culpability and another element in the externalization of the spiritual struggle it implicitly denies. In fact, faith in arms control as the solution to conflict increases in direct proportion to the decline of belief in “original sin.” The more adamantly one refuses to acknowledge the source of disorder as internal to man, the more blindly one will believe in and insist upon an external resolution to conflict, such as arms control.

The words “faith” and “belief” are used advisedly because this use, or rather misuse, of arms control is part of a secular religion in which arms control is transformed into a sort of secular sacrament, a semi-liturgical rite performed to reinforce the faith of its Pelagian practitioners and adherents. Its pseudo-ecclesiastical character is evident in the reaction of those devoted to arms control when anyone points to violations of arms control treaties by the Soviet Union and argues against any such future arrangements. One may as well suggest to a clergyman that sinners should not go to church. One would be quickly informed that if a person sins it is all the more reason for him to go to church. In fact, he should go more often. Likewise, violations of arms control are simply seen as reason for more arms control. Any attempt to stop the arms control “process” is seen as the secular equivalent of sacrilege.

The ultimate version of this secular view of the causes of conflict, however, sees the source of the problem so deeply embedded within the existing social and political structures that the actual elimination of these structures is required for a cleansing of the earth and the dawning of a New Age. No tinkering with our existing institutions will do. Since they are the source of the problem, any solution is predicated on their complete destruction. This destruction will presage the construction of a new man. Ironically enough, this radically secular view sometimes parades today under the label of “liberation theology.” It used just to be called Marxism.

Marxism is the most powerful answer to the spiritual problems of the world posed in material terms. It is superior to less radical forms of secularism because it has the logical force of complete consistency and has boldly reached the clear conclusion from which the lazy materialist of the West shies away: it is not arms control that will change the world, it is man-control. This clarity of vision and the pseudo-religious dedication it inspires give the Marxist a natural superiority in any negotiations with the obsessive arms controller who thinks a community of interest exists based upon his own fear of extinction. Since the obsessive arms controller sees the source of disorder as external to man, peace for him is simply the absence of external conflict, predicated upon fewer weapons.

The Marxist sees the source of disorder in the material forces of history which have shaped man in a malignant way. The Marxist therefore does not share in the neo-Pelagian illusion of the Western secularist: man is not already good for the Marxist. Man must be changed. To change man, total command of those historical forces must be obtained. The path to that command is total power. Peace for the Marxist is predicated not upon the absence of conflict, but upon the extinction of all opposing forces. Arms control is simply another tool for that purpose. That is why Marxists are better at using arms control to gain relative advantage than are the mild materialists of the West for whom peace is solely a question of disarmament.

Of course, the truly theological view of conflict, as already adumbrated in the quotations from St. James and St. Paul, recognizes that there is a war within man’s own soul and that the nature of this war is a spiritual one because it primarily involves man’s relationship to God. This is why that great warrior, General Douglas MacArthur, said: “The problem (of peace) basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence. . . . It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh.”

The proper relationship to God is achieved only through a favorable resolution to that conflict within man’s soul by which he prefers himself to God: pride and its corollary hate. To confront the central dislocation in life between man and God requires either reconciliation or revolt. Reconciliation through the grace of God is the answer of Judaism and Christianity. Revolt is the answer of modern totalitarian ideology. Both require sacrifice and discipline. But while one commands a reordering of one’s will to the will of God, the other commands the reordering of the world to one’s own will.

That act of reconciliation between man and God is the true theological source of peace because it is the only means by which man can be at peace with himself. It is the conjunction of the knowledge of good with good acts that ends the moral schizophrenia diagnosed by St. Paul. The vertical harmony between man and God is also the prelude to and necessary condition for the horizontal peace between men. A man who is still at war within himself is not likely to make true peace with his neighbor.

Nothing could be a greater disorder in the primary relationship in which man is engaged than that act of revolt which is the denial of God’s existence. Atheism is not only a disorder in the God-man relationship, but a denial of it. Atheism is the attempt to resolve the spiritual problem central to man’s life by simply denying its existence. Man’s problem is principally with God; if there is no God, there is no spiritual problem either. Since God is the source of the transcendent standard by which the distinction between good and evil is ultimately made, His removal erases the recognition of the moral struggle in man’s soul. If there is no firm foundation for the knowledge of the good with which man ought to bring his acts into conformity, then man is free to reorder or to reconstruct himself in any way he wishes. Man can live “beyond good and evil.” Man can be made over — not in the image of God — but in a new image conceived by man. But in what image? Who is man without God? And, if there is to be no relationship between man and God, what shape will the relations between men take?

The problem is that by denying the possibility of a relationship between God and man, atheism also denies the possibility of a just relationship between men. In other words, atheism removes the grounds for the recognition of, and therefore respect for, another person as a fellow human being. Before one can know what is justly due a man, one must know what a man is. But in the absence of God, it is impossible to know it. Nicolas Berdyaev encapsulated the problem: “If there is no God, there is no man either.” He meant that atheism strips man of his nature and transforms him into a material product of historical circumstances. Human life is sacred only if there is a God to sanctify it, Otherwise, man is just another collection of atoms and can be treated as such.

How does one treat a collection of atoms? Paul Eidelberg has pointed out the logic and consequences of this loss of human nature: “Unless there is a being superior to man, nothing in theory prevents some men from degrading other men to the level of the subhuman.” If man does not have an immortal soul, the very standard by which one would judge the degradation of a human being is gone, because no fundamental distinction remains between a man and a dog. The degradation of man thus follows as a natural course from the denial of God. The consequences of this could not be more profound for the relationship between men. If a man dehumanizes another person, how can he then love him as a fellow human being and vice versa? Degradation removes the grounds for love between human beings because, as Pope John Paul II pointed out, “there can be no love without justice.”

Karl Marx was one of the first thinkers to grasp this consequence of atheism for human relations and he concluded from it that “exploitation” is necessarily the fundamental relationship between alienated human beings. However, without love as the animating principle among men, with what is one left as a basis for human relations? Lenin followed Marx’s ideas to their clear and inevitable conclusion. “We must hate,” Lenin counseled, “hatred is the basis of communism.” It is extremely important to note that, for Lenin, hatred is not so much a passion as it is the theoretically correct solution to the philosophical problem arising out of a world without God. As Khrushchev later said, “hatred of class enemies is necessary” (emphasis added). Soviet textbooks teach this as well, by informing students of “the principal class enemy against whom it is essential to concentrate class hatred.”

Within his own soul each individual is, and always has been, faced with the fundamental choice between reconciliation with God or revolt against Him. These moral choices are bound to affect not only the individual making them, but, to various extents, those with whom the person comes into contact. A morally depraved person, for example, hurts not only himself but most likely his family as well. However, it is seldom that such damage spreads to society as a whole. Modern, totalitarian ideology, however, is the 20th century’s unique contribution in collectively organizing the choice of revolt against God in the form of political institutions that affect everyone. It is one thing for a single individual to deny God and hate his neighbor. It is quite another to attempt to use that denial and hatred as the founding principles for a political enterprise the purpose of which is to bring the consequences of the revolt against God to all mankind.

The spiritual disorder within man’s soul of which Saint James wrote has become, in the modern age, institutionalized. In other words, the moral disorder of the individual soul has become the principle of a general, public disorder: first as it was articulated in the teachings of Nietzsche and Marx, and then incarnated in the Nazi regime and in the various Marxist-Leninist regimes of today.

Of course, no political order is perfect, but at least most publicly acknowledge in principle the transcendent moral standards by which to judge their imperfections in practice. What happens in a regime based upon the public denial of a transcendent principle of justice? As Lenin said, “For us, ‘justice’ is subordinated to our interest in overthrowing capitalism.” In the absence of a transcendent standard of justice, there is no recourse from injustice since the means of distinguishing between the two have been removed. Force then becomes the adjudicator. Totalitarian ideology is the very “philosophy” of force. As John Paul II said, it “sees in force the source of rights.” In other words, force or unlimited power becomes its own justification. By definition “the stronger is the right,” as Hitler put it. Injustice therefore reigns, not as it has at other times in history in the tyranny of a single person or persons, but by principle and through the institutions embodying that principle. It is a systematized injustice. That is why who rules in the Soviet Union is largely irrelevant to any fundamental reform. So long as the principles of the Soviet Union remain unchanged, glasnost can only be, as it has been in the past, a change in window dressing. As the former Polish ambassador to the United States, Romauld Spasowski, said of the Soviet Union, “it cannot change, because it is based upon power.”

The institutionalized disorder of modern totalitarian ideology has both vertical consequences for the relationship between man and God and horizontal consequences for the relationship between men. The consequences of the Nazi regime in both respects are now obvious, but only with the hindsight of history. In the 1930s people seemed to have had as much trouble grasping the true dimensions of Nazi ideology as we do today in realizing the real nature of the Soviet enterprise.

First of all, the attempt to sever man’s vertical relationship to God has had the consequence of making religion the number one enemy of totalitarian ideology. Mikhail Borodin, Stalin’s agent in China, once explained to Madame Chiang Kai-shek that the greatest threat to communism is the Christian concept of forgiveness because it so undermines Lenin’s notion of inevitable class struggle and class enemies. As Lenin put it, “Every religious idea of a god, even flirting with the idea of god, is unutterable vileness of the most dangerous kind, ‘contagion’ of the most abominable kind. Millions of sins, filthy deeds, acts of violence, and physical contagions are far less dangerous than the subtle spiritual idea of a god.”

This virulent condemnation has translated into incredible devastation for religious life in the Soviet Union. Before Lenin’s coup d’etat in 1917, Russia had 77,767 Russian Orthodox churches and 112,629 clergy.

By 1975, according to estimates by Natalia Solzhenitsyn and material from Keston College, there were only 7,062 churches left, and 8,500 clergy. Today, there are only 5,994 priests in all of the USSR and a currently estimated number of 6,500 Orthodox churches. Of the 25,000 mosques that existed in the caucasus and Central Asia, only some 400 to 500 remain today. Without being too crudely quantitative, if one wishes to measure glasnost as a standard of fundamental change, keep count of the churches. While Mr. Gorbachev may be willing t0 give up his SS-20s, he is unremitting in his call for a determined and unbending struggle against religious tendencies” with a necessary “reinforcement of atheistic propaganda” (Pravda Vostoka, March 4, 1987). According to the March 1987 CSCE Digest, “Fewer political activists are being arrested, but the rate of arrests of religious believers remains the same.” Natan Shcharansky, however, claims that “attacks against religious observers are (now) larger in scale.” At an October 6 press conference after his release from the USSR on September 18, 44 year-old Yosyp Terelya, who has spent over 20 years in Soviet prisons, concentration camps and psychiatric hospitals, testified: “Christians in Soviet prisons receive the worst treatment. They are punished for praying. . . . The suppression of the Church in the Ukraine is worse than it was.” Nonetheless, without flinching, Mr. Gorbachev proclaimed in his TV interview with Tom Brokaw that the Soviet Union is preparing to celebrate the millennium of Christianity in Russia during 1988.

As one would logically expect, the severance of the vertical relationship between God and man spreads devastation to the horizontal relationship between men. Thus were ruptured the relations between the rulers and the ruled, the relations among the ruled, and the relations between nations. Totalitarian regimes do not differentiate between the reactionary elements within their own societies and those without. Both must be either forced into conformity with the totalitarian ideology or destroyed. Thus a state of permanent revolution and implacable hostility exists, in which it is impossible to distinguish between war and peace, except as different facets of the same struggle for total victory.

This disorder takes its toll even in so-called times of peace. Stalin revealed the ideologue’s inability to distinguish between internal and external enemies, and between war and peace. In a conversation at the Moscow conference in 1943, Churchill asked Stalin whether the stresses of the war had been as great as those experienced with the forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture. Stalin responded: “Oh, no, the collective farm policy was a terrible struggle.” It involved, he added, not just a million people, but “ten millions.” Indeed, the civilian casualties from the forced collectivization of the Ukraine eclipsed the total body count of all combatants in World War I.

In fact, more people have died from this horizontal rupture, in the various gulags and concentration camps of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century, than have died from all the wars of this century. While the casualties from war have been estimated at 45.7 million people, well over twice that number of innocent people have fallen victim to totalitarian state violence during the same period. Stalin typified the totalitarian perspective in which murder is a logical necessity: “One traffic death, that is a tragedy; a million executions of counter-revolutionaries, that is a statistic.” The most recent “statistics” are from Southeast Asia where, since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, more people have lost their lives to the victorious communists than during the entire course of the war. In Cambodia, only several thousand of the 60,000 Buddhist monks survived the religious extirpation efforts of the Khmer Rouge.

The consistency of the Soviet regime in its internal and external affairs was recently reaffirmed by Mr. Gorbachev in the introduction to one of his books of speeches: “Our foreign policy is an organic and logical extension of our domestic policy.” As Lenin said, “there is nothing more nonsensical than the separation of international from domestic policy.” These statements should worry anyone familiar with the internal history of the Soviet Union since 1917. Of course, it will not disturb those who accept Mr. Gorbachev’s claim in Paris during his 1986 visit that there are no political prisoners in the Soviet Union. In an early example of glasnost, he told L ‘Humanite: “They do not exist in our country, just as persecution of citizens for their beliefs does not exist.”

The predominant feature of world politics today is the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. To focus upon weapons in isolation from the moral character of that struggle with the hope that such discussions might lead to peace is a dangerous delusion. Change in the fundamental nature of the Soviet regime is the only realistic basis upon which to judge arms control or reduction proposals. Otherwise one will fall victim to the secular illusion that the weapons themselves are the danger. It is, of course, in the Soviet Union’s interest to foster this illusion because it diverts attention from its true character and purpose. At the same time it induces a disposition in the West actually to cooperate in the Soviet Union’s own efforts to strengthen itself in ways which would shift the “correlation of forces” decisively in its favor. Nazi Germany nearly succeeded in this same “peace” strategy. Winston Churchill had to win the war that this false peace precipitated. Ironically, victory in that war led to nothing but the transfer of half of Europe from one totalitarian power to another, precisely because nothing had been learned about the true nature of totalitarian ideology.

Should the Soviet Union ever succeed in its often proclaimed goal of global hegemony, a goal to which it is far closer today than ever before, it will do so on the basis of a series of inversions, all of which are intimately related: the inversion within man’s own soul according to which he thinks of himself, rather than God, as the ultimate arbiter of the universe, codified into a plan for secular salvation (Marxist-Leninist ideology); the institutionalization of that inversion in a regime based upon its principles and dedicated to its universal application (as in the Soviet Union); and the inversion of the relationship between weapons and politics, which addresses the material effects rather than the spiritual causes of conflict (a secularized West incapable of seeing that the true source of peace is justice, founded upon the sanctity of each individual). These inversions may lead to a war in which the West may lose. Far more likely, they will not. Rather, they will lead to a defeat without war. But the “peace” which follows that defeat will have more casualties than the war that never was. Pax Sovietica.

This is not an argument against arms reductions per se. It is an argument against those who cry “peace, peace,” when there is no peace, and who, by doing so wittingly or unwittingly, perpetuate the underlying injustice which makes true peace impossible. The antidote to these dangers to peace is the truth. President Reagan has consistently insisted on telling the truth about the nature of the Soviet Union despite the upset his “evil empire” remarks caused. As he unrepentantly told Barbara Walters on March 24, 1986, “I thought it was necessary to establish reality; to let them see that, no, we definitely saw what they were doing as evil. . . . I wanted them to know that I saw them realistically.” The President has repeatedly said to Mr. Gorbachev: “We have distrust between us, not because of arms; we have arms because there is distrust.” In other words Mr. Gorbachev, if you give up your totalitarian ideology, we can give up our arms; short of that, we must proceed even in our arms negotiations on the basis of the mistrust caused by that ideology. Justice requires nothing less.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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