Our Favorite Secular Humanist

Philosopher Sidney Hook Discovers the Limits of Reason

R. Sidney Hook is a well-known philosopher and authority on Marxism. In 1927 he joined the philosophy faculty at New York University and was department chairman from 1934 until 1948, when he became chairman of the N.Y.U. graduate school’s Division of Philosophy and Psychology, a position he held until his retirement in 1972. He was a founding member of the American Workers Party, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom and the International Congress for Cultural Freedom; he was also a signatory to the Humanist Manifesto. After the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, Dr. Hook devoted much of his political energies to opposing the advance of communism. In 1985 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Author or editor of more than 30 books, last year he published his autobiography, Out of Step (Harper and Row).

Today Dr. Hook writes from either of his two homes, one in Vermont and the other at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. In late July, William McGurn, deputy editorial page editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal, interviewed Dr. Hook in his office at Hoover. The following is excerpted from that interview and subsequent correspondence.

In your autobiography, you say toward the end that a lifetime of experience has led you now to rank moral courage above mere intelligence in your pantheon of virtues.,

Actually, the two need each other. Without intelligence, moral courage may result in a stupid kind of rashness, even in barbarism. A man who runs to pick up a naked electric wire fallen from a tree without thinking might be courageous, but he is foolish.

Isn’t that a bit extra-rational for a philosopher?

Put it this way. How do you explain the reactions of the Jews and early Christians to the Romans who had a very enlightened attitude toward the religion of the peoples they conquered. They said, “Look, acknowledge our gods and we’ll acknowledge yours and set them in our Pantheon.” And most of the peoples they conquered agreed — except for the Jews and Christians. It’s true that many of these people were acting in expectation of a reward in the next life. But there was something more involved, a matter of personal autonomy or dignity involved in their belief.

If someone were to come up to me and tell me to say “two plus two equals five” or he’ll kill me, I would cheerfully say “two plus two equals five” convinced that I was only humoring a lunatic. That statement in context doesn’t mean anything to me. But if he were to demand that I denounce my mother or father, assuming he was not a lunatic, I would resist doing that at any personal cost.

The question is: What is the source of my resolution to defy him? I used to think that in some way intelligence would guide me, but although always necessary it is not always sufficient. The person who picks up an electric wire without knowing whether it is live is not an intelligent person. He is taking gratuitous risks. Sometimes a man has to take risks, but they should be intelligent risks. But there are occasions when one must act without calculation of risks.

What I’m saying is that there are some actions we call noble that seem to transcend intelligence. We would not deem such actions as intelligent or unintelligent. The worthiness is a quality that doesn’t depend on the presence or absence of intelligence.

How does this relate to religion?

Religion, with its emphasis on accounting in an afterlife, may help reconcile people to injustices in this world. Sometimes it reaches a level that mere rationality cannot justify. It expresses a need of those who cannot live on the basis of ordinary truth, scientific truth. That was Feuerbach’s message, later vulgarized by Marx. I lost a brother as a baby when a puppy tipped over a pot of scalding water on him. I remember, many years after the event, the look in my mother’s eye when she talked about the event. She learned to live with the pain without trying to understand it as integral to the ways of God. It’s something beyond intelligence.

People suffer from unemployment, disease, hunger, and so on. They can understand that, or think they do, and try to do something about them. But what is there for a woman who has lost a child, especially an only child, or a great love? Or for a man whose ambition constantly outstrips his capacities? Or for anyone in truly tragic circumstances? Religion has an appeal because it seems to make some sense out of human suffering that is inexplicable on rational or scientific grounds. Or perhaps unacceptable on those grounds.

What was the turning point for you in this realization that intelligence simply was not enough?

It came home to me with special force when I was chairman of the philosophy department at New York University. During the 1960s, instead of standing up to the threats and actions of rioting students, men of intelligence simply caved in and kowtowed to those who abused them. In private they would assure me they supported me in my open criticism of actions that violated the academic freedom to teach and learn, but in public they were afraid to do so.

That was when I had it impressed on me that elementary moral courage could be lacking in men of impressive intelligence. It was a very disheartening discovery. Today many of these very students who terrorized them — people who should have been expelled from the purlieu of any university for their violation of the principles of academic freedom and for much worse — are now professors themselves!

You know, when I began my academic career I had more trouble finding a post because I was a Jew than because I was a notorious radical. If I were trying to get a post today, I would have more trouble because of my political views, even though like most philosophers I am a religious unbeliever, indeed an atheist. My anti-communism gives more offence to many who call themselves “progressives” or leftists today than my revolutionary socialism gave to the conservatives of the twenties, most of whom didn’t know the difference between Norman Thomas and Leon Trotsky or care when it was explained to them.

If religion is just a matter of reconciling man to the injustices of this world, how do you account for the fact that Christian philosophy has always taught truths such as man’s imperfectibility (original sin) and that knowledge alone is not enough? These seem to be roughly the same conclusions you have reached over your long life.

Religion is not just a matter of reconciling man to the injustices of this world. Nothing is “just” what it is. Of course some religious myths express important truths about human life. When I say that man is a finite creature, never perfect or infallible, always prone to temptation, living in a dangerous world, I have said what “original sin” means to a naturalist. Wise men, religious and not religious, have always recognized that one must have a sense of limits, of resignation, and sometimes the courage to risk one’s life to make life better, that “it is not always wisdom to be only wise.”

Is there any irony in the fact that you, a materialist, have perhaps more admirers and readers among those who do believe in God than among those who do not?

No. In a way it’s been that way all my life. I’ve always found that I’ve had problems with even those people with whom I agree on fundamental matters because of my differences with them on other matters. Religious people often agree with me because I believe in religious freedom, because I oppose communist totalitarianism. But they do not always recognize that I oppose their authoritarianism.

Yes, I’m in the Humanist movement. But often when I meet with them they sound like a bunch of mere social reformers of the village atheist stripe. I want them to discuss theology and philosophy on a high level — but all they want to talk about is birth control, divorce and that sort of thing, which are perfectly acceptable to many Judaeo-Christians.

My problem with the Humanist movement is that too many of them have uncritical alliances with communist groups and with the Kremlin, which exploits them as “useful idiots.” This is not true of Paul Kurtz, my former student and good friend who publishes Free Inquiry. He is a Secular Humanist Number One of the Devil’s Order in the eyes of fundamentalists. I am one of a lesser rank.

I am admired by some religious because of my passion for religious freedom and my polemics against communist oppression. Yet I would defend the rights of communists as heretics but not conspirators in any society, religious or not.

When you say you are a materialist, do you mean that you believe that the existence of God is repugnant to reason or that the proofs are simply not convincing?

By “materialism” I mean the view that vital and mental phenomena of any kind arise, develop, and cease with certain observable, or legitimately inferable, changes in physical phenomena. It denies the existence of any disembodied spirits or souls.

One can use the term God to refer to anything, but traditionally it refers to a Person. The existence of the God of traditional religion is not logically impossible but I find no compelling argument or evidence for God’s existence. I am, however, always ready to examine any argument or evidence.

I have no moral repugnance to the existence of God if his or her existence could be established, especially if God were a finite creature. The notion that God is all-powerful and all-loving or good is morally repugnant to me because of the immense and insuperable moral difficulties created by the problem of evil. But if his or her all-powerful existence could be established, I would accept it. But I would then call him a devil or Satan for not preventing the Holocaust or the infinite suffering of the innocent since creation.

As a non-believer, do you support, as many of the Founding Fathers did, the notion that religion is required to keep the masses in line? Or do you object to that as a sham?

Not only did the Founding Fathers accept the view that the belief in God and religion is necessary to keep the masses in line, this was also the view of rulers who personally did not believe in God, like Napoleon and Metternich. Whether it is true is a purely empirical question. It may be that if a person can be made to believe that God’s eye is always on him and that there will be a day of judgment, it will make a difference to his conduct. But the moral behavior of religious peoples in the past seems to indicate that such beliefs are no guarantee of good moral conduct.

I believe that good moral habits, inculcated at an early age and strongly reinforced by active public opinion, have a greater influence on human conduct than religious beliefs that run counter to the conclusions of modern science. This is a very complex question, and I have no dogmatic answers. Good moral habits, just laws seen as just, quick, and impartial punishment for violation of laws, would receive my emphasis. But how to establish them? If religious belief is the answer, why have the religious beliefs of the past, beginning with primitive man, failed?

So has everything else, including reason — you say. Maybe so. But the age of the Enlightenment was never the pervasive rule of reason in any society.

What about Protestantism? In your autobiography, you give it short shrift: whenever you talk about Christianity it is always Roman Catholicism you are addressing.

The reason is that most Protestants seem to me pantheists who are afraid to admit it. They want to have their cake and eat it too. Paul Tillich once said to me that if God is a Being, then he — Tillich — was an atheist. Apart from fundamentalists and Pentecostals, most Protestants really don’t believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus Christ. Marx was right about one thing: he said that the last stage of Protestantism is atheism.

What makes Catholicism different?

Well, in the Catholic Church you have something for everyone. If you want to spend your time doing good works, you can do that. If you want to study and devote yourself to philosophy or theology you can do that too. It appeals to many different parts of different people.

Yet you don’t seem to have much respect for Catholic liberals.

It’s part of the same problem. When a Catholic becomes a liberal, especially a “ritualistic liberal” for whom there are no enemies of human freedom on the left, he almost always becomes an extremist. He wants to prove he can be as liberal as anyone. That’s also why Southerners who become liberals are almost always of the extremist kind. They always want to prove they aren’t rednecks. Because they feel guilty about their slave-holding ancestors, which they should, they want everyone else to feel guilty and atone for it, too, especially those whose ancestors were not slave holders.

Similarly, my experience has been that most of the Protestant clergymen I met in the 1930s were very unhappy people. I think most of these people had come to the conclusion that they had made a profound mistake in their calling. In other words, they had lost their faith.

Then what happened? Many of them became fellow travelers in their quest for a substitute faith. In fact, J.B. Matthew, who wrote The Odyssey of a Fellow Traveler, said that the greatest number among the fellow travelers were clergymen and professors. It was true, but the poor fellow lost his job because President Eisenhower, who was once president of Columbia University, was guilty of the fallacy of simple conversion. Matthews had said that “the most numerous among the communist fellow travelers are Christian clergymen.” Eisenhower therefore charged him with saying that “most Christian clergymen are communist fellow travelers.” It was like inferring from the statement “all birds are mortal” that “all mortals are birds.” From my point of view, Dwight Eisenhower was as qualified to be president of the United States as he was qualified to be president of Columbia University.

Speaking of theological liberals, examine the views of the Episcopal bishop of New York, Paul Moore, Jr., on the family, sexual morality, and related matters. If he is a Christian, I am a Mohammedan! He should head the Universal Church of the Hippies! He affects me the way the Dean of Canterbury did who waved his crucifix every time he denied the existence of concentration camps in the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, you have always championed religious freedom.

I have nothing against religion, and in fact I think it’s monstrous to interfere with any of a person’s deeply cherished private beliefs. What I take exception to is any attempt to force these beliefs on me or others. The Catholic Church in the past was guilty of this. The terrible practice began with Constantine, when he tried forcibly to impose Christianity on others as a state religion.

You talk about the startling changes in the Catholic Church in your book, and in the bishop’s teaching. Do you see this as a loss of faith or a loss of reason?

The startling changes I see in the American Catholic bishops’ teaching I attribute to three things:

(a) colossal ignorance of the history, theory, and practice of communism;

(b) ignorance of contemporary economic theory, of which I have been guilty, too, but not as badly as they seem to be. They do not seem to realize that “poverty,” as distinct from the absolute want of elementary necessities, is a relative and historical concept; that poverty, even starvation, by itself does not breed communism without the presence of a communist party. Otherwise the world would long ago have been communist.

(c) They don’t think as rigorously as one expects Thomists to do even when they are wrong. I long for the days of Maritain and Gilson. The bishops, or the leaders among them, sound like muddle-headed followers of the muddle-headed Teilhard de Chardin. To be sure, it is sometimes better to be obscurely right than clearly wrong. But this doesn’t make obscurity and ambiguity virtues.

The pastoral letters of the North American bishops leave me baffled because they are obviously men of good will. But the behavior of Catholic priests and nuns who act as apologists of, and sometimes aids to, communist dictators like Castro and Ortega leave me stunned, especially the Jesuits. As a naturalist I have no right to use the word “sacrilege.” But they are guilty of sacrilege in terms of their own belief. It is possible to fight against social injustice without endorsing revolutionary terror. More people have been tortured and killed in Castro’s jails than in Batista’s.

I honor and respect them for their opposition to right-wing dictators. How, then, can they serve, and lie for, left-wing dictators? Castro has cynically discovered the political usefulness of liberation theology. He has actually said that “Karl Marx could have subscribed to the Sermon on the Mount” — which shows his abysmal ignorance of Marx, and his own hypocrisy about the Sermon on the Mount.

Do you believe in a natural law, in the sense that man reflecting upon man can draw some general truths and principles from this?

No, I do not believe in natural law in the Catholic sense, but like all human beings who manage to survive in human society, I have learned by experience and reflection to rely on some general truths about human behavior. I am often wrong.

As someone who has experienced both extremes, gnosticism and fundamentalism, which do you think is the greater threat to both religion and society: fundamentalism, with its penchant toward crudity, or gnosticism, with its susceptibility to the totalitarian temptation?

Your distinction between fundamentalism and gnosticism presents alternatives that are neither exhaustive nor even exclusive. I reject both for an unillusioned naturalism and meliorism. Progress is not inevitable but it is not impossible. Choices are always made in historical contexts that limit our power. I can conceive of making common cause with a religious fundamentalist who believes in political freedom against irreligious communist totalitarians or Nazi barbaric pagans.

I put freedom first. In my long life I have discovered that many who professed to believe in freedom betrayed it when the betrayal served their immediate interests. They refused to extend the freedom and   tolerance to those who differed from them which they demanded for themselves when they were dissenters. The rebels at Berkeley and elsewhere who demanded free speech for themselves have denied it to others who expressed views with which they disagree. It is hazardous even today for anyone who defends American foreign policy, especially officials, to attempt to speak on many prestigious campuses from Cambridge to California.

In your experience, does religion enervate intelligence? Whittaker Chambers once confessed that it was his sad experience that religion often did.

Not for those who had strong intellects to begin with—Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal and many others. The trouble with Whittaker Chambers is that his original atheism was unearned. He went from one unexamined faith to another. But he was courageous to a degree rarely matched in history. His first courageous act in which he risked his freedom, job, and life — his meeting with Adolf Berle on September 1, 1939 — was taken without benefit of his subsequent religious faith.

Do you have a great many people trying to convert you?

Oh, yes. I get pamphlets in the mail all the time. Mostly from the fundamentalists.

What about America’s Catholic bishops?

Sometimes I think of becoming a Catholic just to bring these Catholic bishops who morally equate democratic capitalism with communism back to Thomistic or rather Aristotelian common sense. Some of them remind me of Southern liberals turned inside out. They are out to prove that the Church no longer believes in inquisitions. They want to be liberal but can’t bring themselves to renounce the encyclical of Leo XIII. I have heard Cardinal Bernardin deny that [Nicaraguan junta leader Daniel] Ortega is a Marxist-Leninist. There are others no better informed.

How so?

In the old days, when the Church used to attack me — Bishop Sheen and others — they were often intellectually worthy foes. Today I don’t understand what these bishops are talking about from the standpoint of Catholic doctrine.

In my book I referred to the “golden reasoning” of Aquinas. Aquinas would say that there are some things even God could not do. He couldn’t be guilty of a contradiction, for example, or believe that two plus two equals five, or reverse the past. But today I read the bishops and a lot of this respect for consistency, prudence, and coherence seems to have been abandoned. Even the Pope said in his recent encyclical that the East and West are morally equivalent. And you have the American bishops talking all this nonsense about capitalism in its most liberal and democratic phase being as great a threat to the spirit as communism, when the evidence is out there for everyone to see — and I’m talking from the perspective of a Social Democrat who still recognizes how far present-day capitalism is from socialism conceived as a “democratic way of life.”

You mention in your autobiography that one of your mistakes was in not seeing the need early on for the state of Israel. What are your feelings about Judaism itself? Does it hold any appeal other than cultural?

This is a very complex question. I support the right of Israel to exist as a nation. It was established as a nation by the U.N. and it has been under Arab attack from the very first day. I am a non-believing, non-Zionist, non-culturally-oriented Jew. This sounds paradoxical but there are many Jews like me. Only a long essay which I shall publish soon can clarify this to non-Jews and to many Jews, too.

You have said that the questions of God, freedom, and immortality are the greatest questions man has to deal with. What is the greatest political question of our time?

It is totalitarianism, and whether our democracy is up to the continuing challenge of such regimes, as well as coping with our own domestic problems. Churchill has said the last word on that — that democracy is the worst form of government except for everything else that has been tried. I put my faith in democracy, but if I lived in a democracy whose citizens freely and fairly chose to live under a dictatorship, in the interest of freedom I would have to surrender my belief in democracy.

The foundation of democracy is the belief that those who wear the shoes know best where they pinch. That’s not true, of course, for children and idiots, but it is true for most other people. The totalitarian assumption is that we’re all children.

My faith, like that of Jefferson, Lincoln, and John Dewey, is that given a free and uncoerced choice, the majority of human beings would never surrender their freedoms. Historically, the weight of history is on my side but we must continue our effort, especially through education, to keep it that way.

Lastly, in your dealings with people of faith, do you see them as not asking the right questions or reaching the wrong conclusions?

Neither. I regard religious faith as a private matter. I no more desire to deprive anyone of his faith or to dispute it — if he lets me alone — than I would attempt to destroy a man’s conviction that his wife is the most beautiful woman in the world, knowing as I do that my wife is the most beautiful woman in the world.

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