The Mechanical Gods
How the Industrial Revolution ushered in pseudo-scientific belief systems
We humans have always created gods in order to externalize the internal mental models we have of the world. Pre-technological societies therefore had gods everywhere: gods of trees, rocks, wind, soil, water, and so on. Axial-age societies had hierarchies of gods, because city-states had hierarchies of human organization. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the old gods of the Axial age no longer seemed adequate, so unsurprisingly we created mechanical gods that seemed better to embody the impersonal forces of the machine age.
The Industrial Revolution changed peoples’ lives beyond imagination. Huge factories powered by steam harbored complex machines that worked day and night, and humans were subordinated to the rhythms and needs of iron and steel. The vast impersonal implacable mechanical forces of the machine age required vast impersonal implacable mechanical gods.
The two most notable mechanical gods of the Victorian period were Marxism, with its vast impersonal forces shaping entire civilizations through the agency of economics; and Freudianism, with its all-powerful yet oddly impersonal fundamental drives. Although both these new gods lacked any empirical support they were widely adopted, because we never ask for empirical support for any of the mythologies we so enthusiastically embrace.
Marx repeated the Abrahamic mythology of The Fall by displacing it into a future where the masses would overthrow the evil capitalists and thus turned it into The Rise, while Freud simply re-worked the tired old Christian Trinity into the Id, Ego, and SuperEgo. This repetition and reworking is what always happens when new mythologies emerge: they borrow heavily from the myths that preceded them. It is why, for example, Christianity is littered with pagan borrowings. Its saints are washed-out versions of Greek and Roman demigods and its embodiment of evil is a botched reworking of Pan.
The key to the success of Marxism and Freudianism were their superficial appearance of being “scientific.” The Victorian age regarded itself as the embodiment of rational scientific principles, so it’s hardly surprising that it needed new pseudo-scientific religions to embody this self-image and it’s equally unsurprising that they would borrow heavily from the dominant mythology of the day: Christianity.
Like all successful emerging religions, Marxism and Freudianism quickly gained enthusiastic adherents and cults sprung up around them. Those who questioned The Word were excommunicated; those who fell into line were granted privileges and attracted followers of their own. In time, as always happens, various sub-cults began to emerge and squabbles over the “correct” interpretation of myth became endemic. But in general terms the new mechanistic religions of the Victorian period did reasonably well, not displacing the old gods but rather supplementing them in most societies. Only where adherents seized absolute power was it possible to sweep away the old and impose the new, as happened after the Russian revolution of 1917.
Notably, the Soviet enterprise became under Stalin’s psychologically astute management an updated version of Christian mythology. Heroes of the Soviet Union replaced old-style saints; red pioneer scarfs replaced confirmation necklaces with their perpending little silver crosses; Marx was transformed into god, Lenin into Jesus and of course Stalin was Saint Paul. This made the new religion of communism instantly acceptable to millions of peasants, who simply altered their liturgy but retained their habitual postures of deference, obedience, and worship.
In the West, communism held less appeal as the vast implacable forces of open markets combined with capitalism lifted millions out of poverty and created a burgeoning middle class. What need for a bloody revolution when a new car was within reach and there was a radio in every home to provide evening entertainment? But while most people were too busy getting on with their lives to be overly self-indulgent, the leisured classes discovered that it was far more agreeable to confess one’s psychological sins to a therapist than to sit in an uncomfortable booth and talk through a screen to a priest whose responses were tediously predictable and often accompanied by the sour smell of red wine.
Not surprisingly, the related-but-separate emergence of Psychology as a discipline went even further and turned people into machines. B.F. Skinner saw all animals merely in mechanistic terms: as black boxes the knowledge of which was restricted to inputs and outputs. Richard Feynman correctly labeled such so-called “social sciences” for what they are: cargo cults aping the practices of physical science without any meaningful comprehension thereof.
All religions do great harm, and the mechanical religions have been no different. Communism has destroyed the lives of hundreds of millions of people due to its abjectly flawed notion of economics and its complete failure to take human nature into account. Freudianism has harmed fewer people but its ills have been inflicted to a large degree on helpless children and the deeply disturbed. Risible notions of ineradicable sexual urges shaped the way in which professionals dealt with children for nearly a century, resulting in untold millions of children being psychologically damaged forever. And psychology likewise has influenced the way children have been treated and taught, similarly causing enormous amounts of untold harm.
Even today the mechanical religions have no shortage of adherents, although in the case of communism most supposedly Marxist governments have learned to retain the title but drop the policies. Only small third-world nations occasionally attempt to impose Marxist economic ideas and the outcomes are reliably catastrophic. Freudian psychotherapy, meanwhile, continues to be practiced in places like the USA and France despite having been shown repeatedly in studies to generate worse outcomes than doing nothing at all. Only psychology is slowly creeping toward more adequate attempts to grapple with what is still largely an undefined domain.
Which is all rather a shame. When we think about it for a moment, both evolutionary theory and ethnological research fatally undermine all of the core assertions of Marxism, Freudianism, and Skinner-style psychology, not to mention the multiple fissiparous sub-branches that likewise fail to account in any way for the mechanisms of evolution.
We know from empirical evidence, as well as from logical reasoning, that all group species compete primarily within the group itself, as each individual attempts to maximize its social status and hence improve its mating opportunities. “By each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs” is therefore the perfect recipe for social and economic disaster, as it’s obvious that freeloading will be rewarded while diligence will be strongly penalized. And that is indeed what every communist experiment has produced: mass starvation, mass scapegoating, mass incarceration, and mass misery.
Likewise we know that key species traits never emerge miraculously from nowhere but always have precursors. Our spatial abilities are shared by our primate cousins, who also evince forms of verbal communication and tool use. We simply have more sophisticated verbal communications and more sophisticated tool use. We have clear evidence that many mammals and some birds not only have theory of mind but also a sense of future outcomes so can plan ahead, just as we do (and just as imperfectly). The only characteristic of our species that is unambiguously novel is our ability to create physically persistent abstractions such as writing — yet for most of our existence as a species, as far as we know, this trait was absent and only began to emerge in earnest in consequence of the Agricultural Revolution a mere 11,000 years ago. It is therefore unlikely beyond belief that our mental organization would correspond to the baroque nonsense of Id, Ego, and SuperEgo when no other mammal appears to suffer from anything remotely resembling the neuroses and mental contortions Freud claimed were a universal feature of our species.
As for Skinner’s idea that all one can know about humans can be reduced to simple inputs and outputs, it’s sufficient to note that this defeatist approach was precisely what crippled Western science for nearly a thousand years until The Enlightenment began to lift the dead hand of Christian mythology off the backs of the inquisitive and thoughtful.
The inadequacies of the mechanical gods were contained in their fundamental conception. As creations of the Industrial Age, each in its own way regards human beings as nothing more than fleshy machines. Press this button, turn that dial, and the machine will do what it’s been designed to do. Freud is thus far closer to the absurdities of B.F. Skinner than his followers imagine. But people are not machines. Keynes, who was a far more astute reader of human behavior than either Marx or Freud, pointed out that people behave according to their expectations. When a new notion appears, people alter their behavior to take the new notion into account. Thus when we expect something, others react to that expectation and thereby drive an outcome that is not the formerly expected outcome. Marx utterly failed to grasp this idea, which is why his predictions about the “inevitable” development of society were so wildly wrong. Freud likewise failed to realize that if people start to believe babble about penis envy and wanting to have sexual intercourse with their parents they’ll naturally conform to the ideas of their therapist in order to gain approval.
Fortunately thanks to the work of people like Bowlby (from the 1940s onward), Cosmides & Tooby (from the late 1970s onward), and far too many ethnologists to name (but a very grateful nod to Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas) we are beginning to see ourselves more in the proper context: as a group primate species, hardwired with certain behaviors evolved and conserved over the course of hundreds of thousands of years that on average enable individuals to survive and reproduce under the conditions that pertained for 98% of our history. We are also learning more and more about how malleable we are and how we adapt to different circumstances and external conditions. Slowly we’re piecing together the disparate elements of what it means to be human, and what the implications are.
No doubt one hundred years hence there will still be a few desperate types clinging on to Marxist-Leninist theory or attempting to explain things in terms of the SuperEgo, just as there are today people who think they’re Wiccans and there are those who believe in a magic pixie formerly known as El. But we can hope that slowly a more coherent and reality-based conception of humankind takes hold in order that we may be spared the ceaseless harm that always and inevitably arises from all religions regardless of their precise details and their particular liturgy.
Because if we don’t grow up soon, we will simply continue to repeat the blunders of the past, with all the horrors that inevitably ensue.
NOTE: if anyone is interested in why religious beliefs inevitably cause enormous harm, my book The Praying Ape is available on Amazon, and I’ll write about this particular topic in a forthcoming Medium article also.