An Asymmetric (Failed) Masterpiece

Tom Flynn

Dangerous Illusions: How Religion Deprives Us of Happiness, by Vitaly Malkin, translated and adapted from the Russian by an unknown party (or parties) (London and New York: Arcadia Publishing, 2019, ISBN 9781911350286). 416 pp. Hardcover, $30.00.

 


Vitaly Malkin, sequentially a physicist, banker, Russian senator, and billionaire oligarch, aspires to a new (fifth?) career as a public intellectual. Hoping his epic anti-religious manifesto might become a cultural phenomenon in the West, he spent heavily on London transit advertising when Dangerous Illusions debuted in the United Kingdom in 2018. This year’s U.S. edition received no such support, perhaps because it’s now clear that Malkin’s tome is not the next god Is Not Great after all. It is nonetheless a fascinating work: an arresting specimen of the printer’s art that gives a unique cross-cultural perspective on religion and one man’s rebellion against it.

Like many Soviets, Malkin (born 1952) apparently had an insular early life; he emerged internationally only in the 1980s at the time of perestroika. His often idiosyncratic choices in structuring what is meant as a sweeping indictment of religion say as much about his own background as they do about the religious strictures he criticizes.

What do I mean by that? Let me offer two admittedly oblique examples.

The first concerns an anecdote I once shared about a cross-cultural gap between some European humanist leaders and Free Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz:

Some years ago Paul Kurtz made the mistake of offering decaffeinated coffee to a roomful of humanist visitors from Europe. Few Europeans share the American passion for denatured foodstuffs; “Paul!” chided one Scandinavian. “Decaffeinated coffee? That’s like religious humanism.” (Tom Flynn, “Why Is Religious Humanism?” FI, Fall 1996.)

Leaving aside how American tastes in coffee have improved since the mid-1990s, the anecdote contrasts a culinary inclination of Europeans (for strength) and Americans of that time (for blandness). Intriguingly, when the conversation turned to religion, the roles reversed. The European humanist leaders championed a softer approach, downplaying criticism of religion; they found Free Inquiry’s harder-hitting critiques not only harsh but anachronistic; at that same meeting several of them told Paul Kurtz so.

“In your countries Christianity has already lost the culture wars and is in decline,” Paul rebutted (as best I can recall). “In America, literalistic religion remains powerful. We must resist vigorously.” Of course, events such as the Oklahoma City bombing would underscore how genuine the threat of America’s fundamentalist far-Right truly was. And soon enough, Europeans would find themselves contending with an emerging creed every bit as absolutist and intolerant as anything in the American Bible Belt and if anything more dangerous (namely, Islam).

All told, the cultural contrast was instructive.

My second oblique example: I’m currently reading Chinese novelist Liu Cixin’s Three-body trilogy. (As I write this, I am midway through the trilogy’s second book.) In 2015, an English translation of its first installment, The Three-body Problem, won the Hugo Award, U.S. science fiction’s highest honor. The trilogy is a classic humanity-unites-to-trounce-the-alien-menace space opera. Events of cavernous scope are narrated with a chilly detachment reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem or even A. E. van Vogt (apologies to those who do not follow the genre, for whom these names will mean little)—yet these passages of inhuman scale are interposed with vivid character studies and prose of startling loveliness.

Reading Liu, one is struck by just how differently Western sci-fi tropes play out when reimagined through the lens of Chinese sensibilities. For example, in the trilogy’s second installment, faced with the need to spend more than four centuries preparing to repel an alien invasion advancing at sublight speed from Earth’s nearest star, Liu emphasizes with an aching romanticism the need to maintain high morale in the military and the importance of Communist Party–style political officers. Really. What Western author would think of those things first?

That’s the sort of cultural disparity that runs through Dangerous Illusions. Here is Malkin (who now lives in Europe) celebrating the joys of music appreciation before he veers off in an unexpected direction:

Who has not “flown” to the edge of the universe during a symphonic concert? The time of sublime pleasure feels like it has a completely different nature and quality compared to ordinary time in everyday life. This is especially so after the concert when you get back home to the smell of urine in the stairwell and old slippers in the hallway.

Okay then, and how was your young adulthood?

And how else to explain a broadside against Christianity that lurches into an extended, creepily romantic meditation on, of all things, the Catacombs?

Physically, Dangerous Illusions is imposing, textbook-sized—all but a coffee-table book—printed in two colors on elegantly weighty paper stock and with numerous full-color illustrations, many presenting an Eastern-Europe–centric selection of religious art (and a flurry of explicit images in the chapters dealing with sex).

Malkin’s principal contention is that self-abnegation before false religious doctrines condemns humans to waste their time and intelligence on chimeras. In mythology, the chimera is a hybrid creature (such as a centaur); in biology, it combines genes of multiple individuals or species. What Malkin means by the term is more nuanced, not to say obscure. Chimeras—“parasites that have been torturing humanity for thousands of years”—are “dangerous illusions, because they are imposed on people by ethical standards that are contrary to common sense and biological nature.” They make the person in thrall to them

permanently unhappy because, on the one hand, he can’t fulfill his basic needs, and on the other he falls short of the ideals proclaimed by the chimera in question. [No “he or she” or alternation of genders for Malkin. Such sexism, which would be thirty years out of date in an American or European text, is another of this book’s strangenesses.] The situation often ends with a crime being committed against other people or an internalized disorder.

If you scent an uncritical Freudianism, you are not wrong. But back to chimeras, which

consume vast amounts of your energy. That same energy could have been put to use in creating something of value for yourself and others. In the end, they will have gradually and insidiously consumed your ardor, your efforts, your faith in miracles, and your hopes for the future, and not once will they have returned your calls or offered any encouragement, reward or help. Your entire life will have fallen down one of these holes and there’ll be nothing left.

Whatever they are, then, chimeras are bad. Moreover, few human inventions generate them as prolifically as the Abrahamic religions. “Being a creature of God robs the believer of his freedom and a person that isn’t free is not capable of creating values for himself or others. His contribution is confined to creating chimeras,” Malkin explains. “Faith is a cage for reason.” The need for action is urgent: “Look around. Do you really not see how the situation in our world has radically changed and become lethal for us all? … Religious obscurantism is back and, if we do nothing, it will gladly destroy not only our present, but also the future of our children.” When Malkin’s right, his prose can soar.

If Malkin detests chimeras, he really, really likes sex, from married love to casual dalliances. Abrahamic religions denigrate sex, Malkin reasonably observes, before he embarks on an extended polemic against the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception. So thorough was Christianity’s revulsion toward sex, Malkin speculates, that the unparalleled holiness of Jesus could only be justified if both he and his mother were proclaimed to have been celibate throughout their lives; imagine what that must have done to believers’ psychologies.

The sprawling volume contains only eight chapters, one of them a fifty-four-page defense of onanism. Yes, masturbation—and who knew how many famous artists had taken it as a subject?

Malkin’s guileless sex boosterism seems, again, lost between cultures—or out of its time—a throwback to the salad days of the Sexual Revolution. It’s as if he had just stepped away from the USSR and discovered Robert Rimmer’s 1966 hedonistic best-seller The Harrad Experiment:

Christianity has to do everything possible to suppress the natural sexual desire or, at the very least, severely compromise it. Then, monotony will eventually kill the sex drive and the nausea arriving from the boredom of marital sex will finally put out not just sexual passion, but any form of sexual activity in marriage. Only then does a powerful desire to pray to God come forward.

The greatest idiosyncrasy of this book may be how inconsistently it portrays Malkin’s own worldview—a surprising problem in a work whose author seldom hesitates to break the fourth wall. Is he an atheist? “Whether everything I have just said applies to this specific case must be decided not by me, an atheist, but by you, my dear readers.” Yet elsewhere he dismisses atheism with the contemptuous query, “Who would accept leaving this delusional hope [offered by religion] and reconcile with the idea that it all ends with worms in one’s grave?” Also, he insists he is not a humanist—“I have never been a humanist, incapable of wishing death on someone else”—here he seems to confuse humanism with a milquetoast quietism that won’t take its own side in a fight. (Malkin broadly favors capital punishment.) Ultimately, it seems he is a reluctant deist: “The One God, the Big Brother, as monotheistic religions understand it, doesn’t exist. … Probably there is an omnipresent God the Creator, but it’s a different story.” If Malkin expects readers to accept his counsel in matters of faith, it would help were his own stance clearer.

Finally, the book is marred by occasional sloppy thinking. Here is Malkin attempting to criticize the Christian philosopher Peter van Inwagen, who echoes Leibniz in insisting that God’s omnipotence is consistent with his being unable to do the logically impossible. Malkin quotes van Inwagen: “… even God can’t draw a round square … or change the past because these things are intrinsically impossible.” To which Malkin counters: “The past, as we well know from history, has been re-written before, is being re-written even now, and no doubt will be re-written in the future.” Any former Soviet should recognize that historians (or, for that matter, apparatchiks) can always rewrite our record of the past, but that is never the same as physically changing what has come before.

These defects aside, Malkin is frequently eloquent. This dismissal of theodicy, the theological enterprise of trying to hold God blameless for the existence of evil in the world, is worthy of Hitchens: “I find the whole question of theodicy senseless; rather than fighting the evil in the world, it consumes enormous resources in presenting arguments exonerating God for any blame for it.” Hear, hear.

Dangerous Illusions is a gorgeously produced, sometimes maddeningly argued work. If it fails to strike the savage death-blow against Christianity its author intended, it inadvertently offers surprising deeper insights into a life-path that millions of former Soviets involuntarily followed, if seldom as prosperously as Malkin. Suddenly emerging from a premodern insularity that, in such subjects as religion and philosophy, had scarcely moved on from the late nineteenth century, former Soviets burst into a jangling West they were ill-prepared to understand except in asymmetrical ways. Dangerous Illusions is what results when a thoughtful, wealthy ex-Soviet attempts to expose religion to Westerners whose culture he grasps only incompletely. (In this connection I can’t help thinking of Goldeneye [1995], the first James Bond film made after the Soviet Union’s collapse, whose triumphalistic opening titles featured women in bikinis and high heels taking sledgehammers to outsized red stars, hammers and sickles, and busts of Lenin.) Reading Malkin—more precisely, reading him between the lines—can be weird in very much that way.

For the reader prepared to invest in viewing Dangerous Illusions through such a filter—and interpolating the play of premodern and contemporary influences lurking beneath the surface of Malkin’s work—it can be a mesmerizing experience. If you seek instead a relentlessly effective assault upon Christianity, reach for Hitchens.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


Dangerous Illusions: How Religion Deprives Us of Happiness, by Vitaly Malkin, translated and adapted from the Russian by an unknown party (or parties) (London and New York: Arcadia Publishing, 2019, ISBN 9781911350286). 416 pp. Hardcover, $30.00.   Vitaly Malkin, sequentially a physicist, banker, Russian senator, and billionaire oligarch, aspires to a new (fifth?) career as …

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