Folly 3: Bakunin on “God”

Folly post 3

[In the early 1970s Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the late founder of American Atheists, instituted a series of talks on the American Atheist Radio Series. One of the talks dealt with the anarchist Bakunin and became a chapter in O’Hair’s subsequent compilation book, Atheist Heroes and Heroines. The text is reprinted here by permission.—R.S.]

Good evening,
     This is Madalyn O’Hair, American Atheist, back to talk with you again.
     I have been trying for some time to get some of the works of the anarchists, for this was a group of persons absolutely dedicated to Atheism.
     In America we have the unusual phenomenon of the largest anarchist group being Roman Catholic. Headed by Dorothy Day and putting out a small newspaper, this organization purports to have 35,000 followers. The newspaper is quite curious, for each one is dripping with prayers and stories about rosaries and Roman Catholicism.
     One of their heroes is Michael Bakunin. I have long known about his Atheism, and have wanted to find a good translation of his one writing on that subject so that I could bring it to you in these broadcasts. These are just things that never get printed. Certainly, Dorothy Day is not about to print his attack on the god idea in her Roman Catholic newspaper. Even an anarchist god cannot be exposed as being an Atheist.
     I finally have had an Atheist send me a copy of Bakunin’s God and the State, published in 1916 by, would you believe, Mother Earth Publishing Association of New York. Let me read some of this to you.

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Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76)

Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76)

     The Bible is a very interesting and here and there very profound book when considered as one of the oldest surviving manifestations of human wisdom and fancy. Yet it expresses the truth that man is endowed with the power to think and the desire to rebel very naively in its myth of original sin. Consider: Jehovah, who of all the good gods adored by men was certainly the most jealous, the most vain, the most ferocious, the most unjust, the most bloodthirsty, the most despotic, and the most hostile to human dignity and liberty, this Jehovah had just created Adam and Eve to satisfy we know not what caprice—perhaps to while away his time (which must weigh heavy on his hands in his egoistic solitude), or that he might have some new slaves. He generously placed at their disposal the whole earth, with all its fruits and animals, and set but a single limit to this complete enjoyment: he expressly forbade them from touching the fruit of the tree of knowledge. He wished, therefore, that man, destitute of all understanding of himself, should remain an eternal beast, ever on all-fours before the eternal God, his creator and his master. But here steps in Satan, the eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds. He makes man ashamed of his bestial ignorance and of obedience, he emancipates him and stamps upon his brow the seal of liberty and humanity by urging him to disobey and eat of the fruit of knowledge.
     We know what followed. The good God—whose foresight (which is one of the divine faculties) should have warned him of what would happen—flew into a terrible and ridiculous rage. He cursed Satan, man, and the world created by himself, striking himself so to speak for his own creation, as children do when they get angry. He cursed all the generations of men to come, generations innocent of the crime committed by their forefather. Precisely because this is monstrously iniquitous and absurd, our Catholic and Protestant theologians look upon that behavior as most profound and very just. After having tormented the existence of a few billions of poor human beings and condemned them to eternal hell, Jehovah then remembered that he was not only a god of vengeance and wrath but also a god of love. So he took pity on the rest and decided to save them, and at the same time to reconcile his eternal and divine love with his eternal and divine anger. But ever greedy for victims and blood, he sent his only son into the world as an expiatory victim, that he might be murdered by men. This is called the “mystery of the Redemption,” the basis of all the Christian religions. Still, if only the divine Savior had saved the world! But no; in the paradise promised by Christ, as we know (such being the formal announcement of scripture), the elect will number very few. The rest of us—the immense majority of generations present and to come—will burn eternally in hell. In the meantime, to console us, the ever just and ever good God hands over the earth to the government of tyrants such as Napoleon the Third, William the First, Ferdinand of Austria, and the abominable Alexander of all the Russias. [This was written about 1870.—Ed.]
poor-souls     Such are the absurd tales that are told and the monstrous doctrines that are taught, in the full light of the nineteenth century, in all the public schools of Europe, at the express command of the government. They call this civilizing the people. But is it not plain that all these governments are systematic poisoners, interested only in stupifying the masses?
     I have wandered from my subject, because anger gets hold of me whenever I think of the base and criminal means which governments employ to keep the nations in perpetual slavery, undoubtedly that they may be the better able to fleece them. Of what consequence are the crimes of a spree killer like Tropmann in the world compared with this crime of treason against humanity committed daily, in broad day, over the whole surface of the civilized world, by those who dare to call themselves the guardians and the fathers of the people? But I return to the myth of original sin…
     God admitted that Satan was right. He recognized that the devil did not deceive Adam and Eve in promising them knowledge and liberty as a reward for the act of disobedience which he had induced them to commit. For, immediately after they had eaten of the forbidden fruit, God himself said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” (Gen 3:22).
     Let us disregard the fabulous portion of this myth and consider its true meaning, which is very clear. Man has emancipated himself. He has separated himself from bestiality and constituted himself a man. He has begun his distinctively human history and development by an act of disobedience and science—that is, by rebellion and by thought.

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     [Madalyn O’Hair:] End quote for a moment. Let me tell you a little bit about Bakunin. He was born into the Russian landed gentry in 1814; however, while yet a young man, he repudiated his army commission and his nobility. He was twenty-six years old when he left Russia to live in Berlin and Dresden, and later in Zurich, Switzerland. At this time, when he was about thirty years old, he became a revolutionary. He was an immediate activist and became inextricably involved in the revolutionary movement of 1848 in Austria and Germany. He was arrested in the Dresden insurrection of 1849. But meanwhile, back in Russia, Tzar Nicholas I issued a decree against Bakunin depriving him of all his civil and nobility rights, confiscating his property in Russia, and condemning him to lifelong exile in Siberia should he ever be caught on Russian soil. At the same time, Bakunin had met Karl Marx and his communist circle and established himself as a firm personal and ideological enemy of Marx.

Palanok Castle in eastern Ukraine, one of the many prisons Bakunin knew well.

Palanok Castle in eastern Ukraine, one of the many prisons Bakunin knew well.

     At the time of his arrest, he spent one year in Saxon prisons in Dresden and in the fortress of Koeningstein until June 13, 1859, when his death sentence was commuted to imprisonment for life. He was then extradited to Austria, where he was chained in his cell. There, after extensive questioning, he was again condemned to death. This sentence was immediately commuted, and he was extradited to Russia. He was, pending the transfer, put in solitary confinement in the Peter-and-Paul fortress, and from there he was sent to Siberia. The imprisonment was to be in Tomsk in western Siberia. There he met and married the daughter of a Pole, and later he was sent to Irkutsk in eastern Siberia.
     Bakunin finally escaped from Siberia on June 18, 1861, after a total of twelve years of brutal imprisonment. He managed to catch an American ship out, went through Japan to San Francisco, Panama, New York, and finally to London. He continued to write and lead a totally revolutionary movement, and one in direct opposition to Karl Marx, until about 1874—that is, thirteen more years. But he was beset by poverty and by physical and health problems stemming from his years of imprisonment. He died on July 1, 1876, in Bern, Switzerland.
     He was, from the beginning to the end, an Atheist. I have read a part of his attack on the “god idea” here to begin this program, and now let me conclude with some more of Bakunin’s writing on this subject:

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     Nothing is more natural than that the belief in God, the creator, regulator, judge, master, curser, savior, and benefactor of the world, should still prevail among the people—especially in the rural districts, where the belief is more widespread than among the proletariat of the cities. The people, unfortunately, are still very ignorant, and they are kept in ignorance by the systematic efforts of all the governments who consider this ignorance—not without good reason—as one of the essential conditions of their own power. Weighted down by their daily labor, deprived of leisure, of intellectual discourse, of reading, in short of all the means and a good portion of the stimulants that develop thought in men, the people generally accept religious traditions without criticism and in a lump. These traditions surround them from infancy in all their situations of life. A multitude of official poisoners of all sorts, priests and laymen, artificially sustain these traditions in their minds until the traditions are transformed into a sort of mental and moral habit, too often more powerful even than the peoples’ natural good sense.
     There is another reason which explains and in some sort justifies the absurd beliefs of the people—namely, the wretched situation to which they find themselves fatally condemned by the economic organization of society in the most civilized countries of Europe. Reduced, intellectually and morally as well as materially, to the minimum of human existence, confined in their life like a prisoner in his cell, without horizon, without outlet, without even a future if we believe the economists, the people would have the singularly narrow souls and blunted instincts of the bourgeois if they did not feel a desire to escape. But of escape there are but three methods—two chimerical and a third real. The first two are the tavern and the church, debauchery of the body or debauchery of the mind. The third is social revolution…
     There is a class of people who, if they do not believe, must at least make a semblance of believing. This class, comprising all the tormentors, all the oppressors, and all the exploiters of humanity—priests, monarchs, statesmen, soldiers, public and private financiers, officials of all sorts, policemen, gendarmes, jailers and executioners, monopolists, capitalists, tax-leeches, contractors and landlords, lawyers, economists, politicians of all shades, down to the smallest vendor of sweetmeats—all will repeat in unison those words of Voltaire: “If god did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” For, you understand, “the people must have a religion.” That is the safety valve.
     There exists, finally, a somewhat numerous class of honest but timid souls who, too intelligent to take the Christian dogmas seriously, reject them in detail. But they have neither the courage nor the strength nor the necessary resolution to summarily renounce them altogether. They abandon to your criticism all the special absurdities of religion, they turn up their noses at all the miracles, but they cling desperately to the principal absurdity, the source of all the others, to the miracle that explains and justifies all the other miracles: the existence of God. Their God is not the vigorous and powerful being, the brutally positive God of theology. It is a nebulous, diaphanous, illusory being that vanishes into nothing at the first attempt to grasp it, a mirage, an ignis fatuus that neither warms nor illumines. And yet they hold fast to it, and believe that, were it to disappear, all would disappear with it. They are uncertain, sickly souls, who have lost their compass in the present civilization, belonging to neither the present nor to the future, pale phantoms eternally suspended between heaven and earth… They have neither the power nor the wish nor the determination to follow out their thought, and they waste their time and pains in constantly endeavoring to reconcile the irreconcilable. With them, or against them, discussion is out of the question.
     They are too puny.

—Michael Bakunin, God and the State.
New York: Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1916.

 NEXT—Folly 4: The Churches, U.S. Government, and Land →


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