left biblioblography: Lies The Christians Tell: George Bernard Shaw

Monday, June 08, 2009

Lies The Christians Tell: George Bernard Shaw

I'm an atheist and I thank God for it. - Shaw

Deathbed recantations are especially obnoxious. Have you heard this one yet?

The science to which I pinned my faith is bankrupt Its counsels which should have established the millennium, led instead directly to the suicide of Europe. I believed them once. In their name I helped destroy the faith of millions of worshippers in the temples of a thousand creeds. And now they look at me and witness the great tragedy of an atheist who has lost the faith. – George Bernard Shaw

Do a Google on select portions of this quote (in quotation marks), and guess what pops up? You got it – religious websites decrying atheism. Closer inspection shows (surprise!) that not one of them ever cites the work this quote is from.

It took a bit of searching, but I double-checked the fact listed here, which states:

Evangelist and editor Homer Duncan has been instrumental in spreading this fraud. The words are actually from Act 3 of Shaw's 1932 play Too Good to be True. Shaw, incidentally, was not an atheist (Free Inquiry, Winter 1985/86: 37-38).

And sure enough – it is in Act 3, the character of the Elder, and I quote:

THE ELDER [rising impulsively] Determinism is gone, shattered, buried with a thousand dead religions, evaporated with the clouds of a million forgotten winters. The science I pinned my faith to is bankrupt: its tales were more foolish than all the miracles of the priests, its cruelties more horrible than all the atrocities of the Inquisition. Its spread of enlightenment has been a spread of cancer: its counsels that were to have established the millennium have led straight to European suicide. And I--I who believed in it as no religious fanatic has ever believed in his superstition! For its sake I helped to destroy the faith of millions of worshippers in the temples of a thousand creeds. And now look at me and behold the supreme tragedy of the atheist who has lost his faith--his faith in atheism, for which more martyrs have perished than for all the creeds put together. Here I stand, dumb before my scoundrel of a son; for that is what you are, boy, a common scoundrel and nothing else.

Shaw was apparently an atheist for a short while, but became a mystic, blathering about the ‘Life Force’. He also was something of a nut:

Shaw joined in the public opposition to vaccination against smallpox, calling it "a particularly filthy piece of witchcraft", despite having nearly died from the disease when he contracted it in 1881. In the preface to Doctor’s Dilemma he made it plain he regarded traditional medical treatment as dangerous quackery that should be replaced with sound public sanitation, good personal hygiene and diets devoid of meat. Shaw became a vegetarian while he was twenty-five, after hearing a lecture by H. F. Lester. In 1901, remembering the experience, he said "I was a cannibal for twenty-five years. For the rest I have been a vegetarian." As a staunch vegetarian, he was a firm anti-vivisectionist and antagonistic to cruel sports for the remainder of his life. The belief in the immorality of eating animals was one of the Fabian causes near his heart and is frequently a topic in his plays and prefaces. His position, succinctly stated, was "A man of my spiritual intensity does not eat corpses."

His political beliefs pretty much widen the eyes and drop the jaw:

Shaw asserted that each social class strove to serve its own ends, and that the upper and middle classes won in the struggle while the working class lost. He condemned the democratic system of his time, saying that workers, ruthlessly exploited by greedy employers, lived in abject poverty and were too ignorant and apathetic to vote intelligently. He believed this deficiency would ultimately be corrected by the emergence of long-lived supermen with experience and intelligence enough to govern properly. He called the developmental process elective breeding but it is sometimes referred to as shavian eugenics, largely because he thought it was driven by a "Life Force" that led women—subconsciously—to select the mates most likely to give them superior children. The outcome Shaw envisioned is dramatised in Back to Methuselah, a monumental play depicting human development from its beginning in the Garden of Eden until the distant future.

In 1882, influenced by Henry George's views on land nationalization, Shaw concluded that private ownership of land and its exploitation for personal profit was a form of theft, and advocated equitable distribution of land and natural resources and their control by governments intent on promoting the commonwealth. Shaw believed that income for individuals should come solely from the sale of their own labour and that poverty could be eliminated by giving equal pay to everyone. These concepts led Shaw to apply for membership of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), led by H. M. Hyndman who introduced him to the works of Karl Marx. Shaw never joined the SDF, which favoured forcible reforms. Instead, in 1884, he joined the newly formed Fabian Society, which accorded with his belief that reform should be gradual and induced by peaceful means rather than by outright revolution. Shaw was an active Fabian. He wrote many of their pamphlets, lectured tirelessly on behalf of their causes and provided money to set up the The New Age, an independent socialist journal. As a Fabian, he participated in the formation of the Labour Party. The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism provides a clear statement of his socialistic views. As evinced in plays like Major Barbara and Pygmalion, class struggle is a motif in much of Shaw's writing.

After visiting the USSR in the 1930s where he met Stalin, Shaw became an ardent supporter of the Stalinist USSR. The preface to his play On the Rocks (1933) is primarily an effort to justify the pogroms conducted by the State Political Directorate (OGPU). In an open letter to the Manchester Guardian, he dismisses stories of a Soviet famine as slanderous and calls reports of its exploited workers falsehoods. He wrote a defense of Stalin's espousal of Lysenkoism in a letter to Labour Monthly.

So Shaw was an anti-vaccinationist, anti-evolutionist, pro-Stalin socialist, a Lysenkoist, a vegetarian, and all-around blowhard. Good writer, though.

The video clip I’ve provided is worthwhile up until the end of Shaw’s speech: the rest of it’s ridiculous rhetoric (I’m fairly sure that Himmler didn’t cop any ideas off of Shaw anyhow).

So, no, he doesn’t qualify for the Profiles in Atheism (I usually don’t include folks who renege later in life), but he sure qualifies under Fringe Theories.

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