Haunting Stefan Molyneux’s attempt to write a book on philosophy is Ayn Rand. Objectivism and Rand get no mention in Molyneux’s book and nor should either of them in a serious general introduction to philosophy. Rand was not a competent philosopher but she provides a model against which right-wing thinkers might judge themselves. Part of that model is a hyper-individualism which manifests both politically and as part of a kind of character trait. Not just that the world would be better if forceful, strong-willed individuals get to be forceful, strong-willed individuals but that the speaker is an example of such a being. Not surprising then that the Rand-style philosopher tends to ignore their ideological forebears.
I thought it was interesting that Jordan Peterson talked about Nietzsche as much as he did partly because of that. A difference between Peterson and Rand or Molyneux is that Peterson aims for a cloud of academic respectability. Citing thinkers is part of his schtick and also Peterson’s hyper-individualism is occluded behind an ostensible concern for mankind*.
Molyneux doesn’t talk about Rand and Rand’s followers don’t talk about Nietzsche much. An objectivist once got very angry with me for merely mentioning Nietzsche, seeing it as an attempt to call Rand a Nazi. Other thinkers such as the intense Max Stirner (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Stirner ) the nineteenth-century anarcho-individualist, don’t get a look in. An ideology of egos is disinclined to portray their ideas as being derivative or fear of looking inadequate when compared to more complex thinkers or just plain ignorance. I’ve noted before that Molyneux treats concepts as if they are wilderness land that he is claiming and turning into arable acres as thus making them his property. Like many colonists, he is not likely to acknowledge that others may have occupied this territory in the past.
There’s not much room for god, gods or God either. Defiant atheism is part of the model — a rebuke to the ultimate authority. At the turn of this century, there was no lack of assertive libertarian, objectivist, anarcho-capitalist atheists. I think it is also fair to contend that the underlying egoism was nearly identical to an ideology that essentially valorises being an arsehole.
Now, as an atheist myself, I don’t think being an atheist neccesarily involves being a bit of a shit but its notable how many public atheists head in that direction. I’m not sure either of these Venn diagrams quite capture the relationship. It’s certainly not the case that Left-atheists are free from arseholes.
Molyneux’s analysis of God is one of authority:
“Concepts of “gods” and “virtues” were originally summoned to infuse authority figures with credibility over and above mere physical presence. A king is merely a man who can be easily slaughtered in his sleep, as Macbeth showed. However, if the king is infused with the divine right of monarchy, and is placed by an all-loving and all-powerful God to rule over a sinful mankind, then opposition to the king is opposition to God. You may kill the king, who can then no longer do you any more harm – but God will get the king’s revenge by robbing you of sleep and sending you to hell forever. Moral concepts were generally invented – or they evolved – to hide the aging mortality of merely empirical power relationships. “You are not obeying me,” says the king. “You are obeying God, who placed me to rule over you.” You must obey the king, because he represents God. But the king himself does not have to obey God, because the king prays for instructions from God. And whatever the king does is informed by that mysterious and unverifiable interaction.Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 346-355). Kindle Edition.
Fair enough as far as it goes. Like many analysis of religion and ethics from both left and right, it is simplistic and incomplete but as a sketch of an aspect of religion and political power, it’s not wholly wrong. It doesn’t even imply atheism, although it does imply that a person should be sceptical of any state-religion connection.
Which takes me to Molyneux’s problem. He wants to take an atheist stance but right-wing atheism is not what it was. Molyneux’s audience has evolved from the You-Tube atheist pundit of the past and is now more overtly of the Alt-Right. Molyneux’s work aims to provide cover for more overt racial extremism and far-right ideology by framing ideas in terms of rational free-thinking, hence his obsession with race and IQ. His audience is not atheist and some of the themes such as ‘defending Western civilisation’ are entwined with right-wing conceptions of Christianity. Molyneux isn’t unique in this — more respectable and prominent figures of early 21st century atheism find themselves in a similar position e.g. the woeful Sam Harris.
Molyneux’s strategy is to attack atheists and atheism as a movement without attack atheism as a concept. It’s not that well done but at least it is a rare example of Molyneux showing some intellectual adaptability. For example:
“Through relentless materialism and secularism, we have created generations of deterministic, nihilistic, socialistic and empty atheists and agnostics – and now we are losing our freedoms.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1878-1879). Kindle Edition.
Out of context, that looks like a standard attack on atheism but in context his argument is with “determinists” (such as the aforementioned Sam Harris — not that he names Harris either).
In a longer section he tells as story entitled “The Storm and the Self: An Analogy”. The story starts with a village in the midst of a storm. The villagers are sheltering within the village church:
“Into the village, through the storm, rides a group of atheists. Dismounting, they pull out sledgehammers, cry out that there is no God, swarm up the wet walls and start pounding on the roof of the church, tearing it away. The storm, the hail, the wind, the debris – all begin flying into the church and smashing into the people.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 2017-2019). Kindle Edition.
Molyneux goes onto describe the lightning striking the villagers and the collapsing masonry putting the villagers in danger. So the villagers now flee the church which is now more dangerous the storm. Molyneux’s point being that atheism (or secularism) has damaged religion and made it dangerous but offered no new intellectual shelter for people.
That there are features of religion that a post-religious society might need is not a new idea (e.g. Alain de Botton’s “Atheism 2.0” https://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_atheism_2_0 ) but not one I’d trust anybody with. Molyneux’s tack here is less constructive, it’s more of an appeal for people to join his quasi-cult. I say “quasi” because rather like Jordan Peterson’s following, it isn’t organised or systematised enough to be a genuine Scientology-like cult.
The cultish aspects of Molyneux have been noted before. His “Free Domain Radio” has been described as a therapy cult (see https://www.theglobeandmail.com/technology/how-a-cyberphilosopher-convinced-followers-to-cut-off-family/article7511365/?page=all ) with a tell-tale feature of pressurising people to cut themselves off from their family**
Of course the other aspect of a cult is the money. A Daily Beast profile of Molyneux describes the process:
“Molyneux’s plan to fix the world may start with disassociation from family, but it also relies on devotees sending him cash—although recently he has insisted it’s not necessary—in a tiered donation system not unlike the one Scientology uses. Weed said her son had been giving money to Molyneux in order to reach the highest level of membership and, in turn, become part of Molyneux’s inner circle.”https://www.thedailybeast.com/meet-the-cult-leader-stumping-for-donald-trump
That same article goes on to describe the other common feature with Scientology — the harassment and shaming of ex-members:
‘Worse yet, Molyneux’s staff and followers publicly shame and post personal information about those who leave the group. Molyneux’s group calls the process of reuniting and making amends with family “reFOOing.”’https://www.thedailybeast.com/meet-the-cult-leader-stumping-for-donald-trump
I’m reminded of an earlier part of Molyneux’s book where ostensibly he is discussing modes of arguments and approaches to debate in the abstract:
“Calling someone a misogynist, a cult leader, a racist – we all understand that none of these are arguments; they are confessions of intellectual cowardice and impotence.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 3828-3829). Kindle Edition.
Of course simply “calling” somebody those things are not arguments. However, demonstrating a person is those things is another matter.
Modern leaders of established religion warn that secularism and the abandonment of their churches, mosques etc is removing a necessary bulwark from society that protects us from superstition and predatory cults. The irony is that superstitious predatory cultists use the same argument. There’s some evidence that traditional faiths provide a kind of prophylactic vaccine against wackier ideas but we need stronger medicine than that.
*[Emphasis on “man”]
**[Obviously, for some people, getting away from their family is necessary to escape abuse. It is the frequency with which this is offered as a psychological solution that makes it a feature of a cult.]