Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Religious Views of Ludwig von Mises

In an email exchnage with Walter Block, Michael Edelstein et al., Michael raised a question about the religious views of Ludwig von Mises. None of us were certain, so I emailed the man who would know, Richard Ebeling, and he did not fail us. He emailed back:

I once spoke to Margit von Mises about Ludwig’s views on religion. She told me that he was an agnostic.

Margit said that she had been asked to be God-mother to one of Hans Sennholz’s children. After the ceremony at a church, Ludwig, who had been sitting way back in the church, said to her, “That’s enough religion for one day.”

This was not uncommon for German and Austrian Jews of Mises’s generation. In the nineteenth century, especially though not exclusively, in Central and Eastern Europe, there had been a great Jewish movement to join and immerse oneself in modern secular society.

There was, in particular, an attitude that German cultural reflected modernity in science, art, literature, music. Immersion into German culture was an entree into Western Civilization and escape from
the isolation and primitive ritualism of Orthodox Judaism. German society was “Enlightenment.”

Plus, due to the social and political prejudices and restrictions on Jews in German society in the nineteenth century, to be accepted into “society,” conversion to Christianity was found necessary. (This is how Karl Marx’s father could become a Prussian civil servant in Trier in the Rhineland.)

But while there were many sincere conversions to Christianity, many more were “expediencies” for social advancement. Over time,  this fostered a shift toward “secularism” among the children and grandchildren of those who did so.

Reading the memoirs of some who attended the same “Academic Gymnasium” (high school) in Vienna that Mises attended in the 1890s, there was a desire to study the “modern” languages along with the required Greek and Latin. To read the latest “progressive” (in the non-political sense) literature of the time, and to be informed on all things “scientific.”

Half of the students at this Vienna high school that Mises attended in the 1890s were Jewish, and the required Hebrew courses (for the Jewish students) were considered a millstone of superstition for which most only had ridicule. It was viewed as an attempt to keep them linked to a cultural past that was only an embarrassment.

“Modern man” was free from these shackles of irrationalism. Now, I don’t want to create a wrong impression. There were many “modern” religious, practicing Jews in both Germany and Austria before and after the First World War. But there was a noticeable percentage who were atheists or agnostics. (Often this was particularly, though certainly not exclusively, among those drawn to the political “left,” as well as the more “advanced” liberals.)

Ludwig’s bother, Richard, had converted to Christianity (but whether this was sincere or an expediency I’ve never read). Their mother, Adele, remained a practicing Jew all her life,  contributing to Jewish charities in her home  town in Galicia. Their father, Arthur, clearly was more “modern” but active in the Jewish community leadership in Vienna after moving his family from Lemberg in the early 1890s.

And, of course, Ludwig’s great-grandfather had been “ennobled” by the Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph, in 1881 (the year Ludwig was born) for his service to the empire as the head of the orthodox Jewish community in Lemberg. But the Mises family orthodoxy was sufficiently “enlightened” that they supported and fought for the liberal political reforms of the revolution of 1848.

But for the generation of Austrian Jews of which Ludwig von Mises was one, a philosophical utilitarianism, a political and economic liberalism, and a belief that “reason” and science were marks of thoughtful “modern man” (as was certainly Ludwig’s worldview) atheism or at least agnosticism were almost “inevitable” complements.

This episode of Jewish history in the Germany and Austria of this period is fascinating and revealing (including why and how in spite of this wide attempt by many in the Jewish community in these countries to become “Germans”and “Austrians” parallel to or above their identity as “Jews,” yet that they remained nonetheless “Jews” living in Germany and Austria in the eyes of most non-Jews.)

All best wishes,

Richard also reports that he discusses the subject in greater detail with appropriate references in his introduction to volume 1 of the “Selected Writings of Ludwig von Mises” (Liberty Fund, 2010).



  1. "“Modern man” was free from these shackles of irrationalism" I see. You mean the irrationalism of believing that something comes from nothing, order can be derived from disorder, and precision comes from randomness. Doesn't sound very "reasonable" or "scientific". No one denies that DNA is information yet somehow billions of years of evolution will produce information to turn bacteria into man. As Romans 1 states:

    For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

    1. Excellent. A while back, I put together some statements and paraphrases from others along with some comments of my own and came up with this:

      I reject the notion that everything came from nothing, life came from lifelessness, all living things came from a rock that was rained on for millions of years, and consciousness came from matter. One may choose to believe those things as part of a fairy tale religion, but you shouldn't use the word science in a discussion of these issues because no scientist has ever observed or duplicated those events, let alone measured or studied them in any fashion.

      They are a construct of those who would have us a believe that one-off fantasy processes, and an unimaginably long period of time, "scientifically" explain the origin, nature, and contents of the universe. These imaginary events, coupled with the myth of Darwinian evolution, allegedly explain all living things, and, more specifically, human beings, who are nothing more than rearranged pond scum in the fantasy world of those who desperately require a rationale to avoid answering to a Creator.

      This is not science. It is hope against hope and is not really suitable for discussion in a conversation above kindergarten level. The subjects of the Big Bang, abiogenesis and Darwinian evolution should be banished to the realm of the tooth fairy - they certainly do not belong in any serious conversation where real science (observation, repeatability and measurement) is being discussed.

    2. You admit that DNA is information but appear to deny that "billions of years of evolution will produce information to turn bacteria into man." But how would you know that God did not create man through the evolution of simple life forms in to more complex ones? I don't see that your quotes of Romans 1 precludes that possibility. In fact one could use your quotes to argue that one way God reveals the truth to man is through the scientific method and empiricism.

    3. Praise, Ye Lord! And Pass The Pancakes!

    4. DesertBunny His Word says He created everything in 6 days.

    5. To DesertBunny

      We know how and when God created man from Genesis, not the book of Romans. And we know the biblical account contradicts man's attempt to explain himself. And to evolution in general, in Genesis 1:31, after completing the creation of the world, including all plant, animal and human life, we read, "God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good."

      Evolution tells us that it took God millions of years of suffering, disease, struggling, pain, bloodshed, war, ignorance, poverty, mutilation, anguish, rape, misery, torment, violence, and death to get us to the point where God said it was "very good."

      Christianity, otoh, tells us that God created the world, plants, animals, Adam and Eve, and THEN sin entered the world (Romans 5:12), and we have been under a curse since.

      Why would the omnipotent Creator of the universe use such a wasteful (and cruel) process of survival of the fittest (meaning that animals have been ripping each other up over millions of years) to bring about the higher forms of life? This view of "theistic" evolution goes against God's very nature--and logic itself.

      As far as DNA, where did this information come from? The adherents of the evolution religion say that DNA is the result of millions of years of naturalistic processes. Information scientist Dr. Werner Gitt responds this way: "There is no known law of nature, no known process, no known sequence of events which can cause information to originate by itself in matter."

      Our DNA came from our Creator - starting with Adam. Evolution is a fairy tale for adults. All discussion of evolution should start with the words "Once upon a time..."

    6. The early church fathers like Augustine argued that Genesis was allegorical

      "In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture"

      Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 41

      One can certainly make a logical argument that Augustine's view is harmonious with biological evolution

    7. Andrew: "The early church fathers like Augustine argued that Genesis was allegorical"

      The majority of the Church Fathers either specifically stated that the days of creation were ordinary days or that the world could only be a few thousand years old.

      The creation account in Genesis is historical narrative, not allegory, and the days listed there are obviously ordinary 24-hour days. The context is clear. Augustine was very confused about Genesis and wrote contradictory statements about it. He also knew no Hebrew.

      And, as Martin Luther said, concerning the church fathers that didn't believe in the six literal days of creation:

      "Whenever we observe that the opinions of the fathers disagree with scripture, we reverently bear with them and acknowledge them to be our elders; nevertheless we do not depart from the authority of scripture for their sake."

      Specifically of Augustine, he wrote, "I ask you, dear reader, what need is there of those obscure and most foolish allegories when this light is so very clear … Do they not smother the true meaning and replace it with an idea which is not merely useless but disastrous? … For we have the Holy Spirit as our Guide. Through Moses, He does not give us foolish allegories, but He teaches us about most important events."

      Andrew: "One can certainly make a logical argument that Augustine's view is harmonious with biological evolution"

      No, you cannot. No matter which of Augustine's statements you choose regarding the days of Genesis, he still believed in an earth that was only a few thousand years old. Only a looney would argue that goo-to-you-via-the-zoo evolution can occur in a few thousand years. Evolution is laughable to start with, but no one is stupid enough to argue evolution in a few thousand years. You'd be laughed right off the playground.

  2. Considering Mises was a Benthamite liberal philosophically, his views don't surprise me. Bentham was hostile to religion

  3. I'll stay with Jordan Peterson on religion.

  4. I am a believing Christian and a chemist, and I don't see any problem with evolution at all. There simply is no conflict between Christianity and the theory of evolution. People whose understanding of either is still mired in superstition and self-idolatry conjure a conflict from their confusion and use it to paint their opponents as silly people who believe in absurdities.

    1. Donxon, very well put. As that quote above from Augustine (ht Andrew Murphy) shows, self-idolatry is nothing new, but seems to bloom still.

    2. Donxon: "I am a believing Christian and a chemist, and I don't see any problem with evolution at all."

      Then you understand neither Christianity nor chemistry.

      "There simply is no conflict between Christianity and the theory of evolution."

      Au contraire (that's French for 'you must be kidding.') As I mentioned above, the Bible is clear about how and when man was created. In addition to the revelation in Genesis contradicting evolution, it is against God's nature to use a ghastly process of millions of years of death and suffering to create something called very good. To say nothing of the fact that there is zero evidence for evolution.