[These are first thoughts. I suspect I’ll be writing about this again.]
In the German Ideology, Karl Marx describes his historical method:
“The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather, it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.” (my emphasis)
The main point of that quote is not to point to Marx’s understanding of how our material existence is reproduced. I open this long-intended post with a quote from Marx because that is what left wing people do, right? We quote Marx and Hegel and Gramsci and Luxemburg and Kropotkin and Larkin. Or rather left wing men tend to. A lot. Endlessly in fact. At the Left Forum meeting in Dublin last weekend, some speakers from the floor actually confirmed their point with the phrase “…like Marx said…”. As if confirming their point using Marx makes their sectarian point any more relevant than if they spoke from their own experience. How does citing Marx coincide with their own reproduction? What material conditions determine the nature of these individuals? But this post is not a criticism of left politics in Ireland right now. It is a criticism of a portion of left politics in Ireland that confuses prophets for profits.
A couple of weeks back, Daniel Trilling laid out a fairly compelling argument against the kind of New Atheism that is being led by honey-smuggler Richard Dawkins. Trilling argues that we must take the wider context into account (you know, Islamophobia) when discussing Islam or we risk portraying about 1.5 billion people in the world as a monolithic bloc. Furthermore, he argues, “if you regard organised religion as merely a product of misguided beliefs, then you lose the ability to understand why it grows and changes historically”. That’s right: religion is also an expression of a definite form of life. Many people, including those who declare left wing politics, refer repeatedly to their wish to leave behind a bronze age set of ideas where you couldn’t turn around for burning bushes and tablets of stone (wot, no iPads?) were passed around like rings at a humanist wedding. That this extends to criticism of women for contributing to their own oppression by daring to wear a hijab is hardly an accident. Blaming the apparently oppressed is not tolerated in other forms of it so why for those who confess a religious understanding? These forms of criticism of The Religious imply a set of relations that sees these Others as held still in time and place while we move forward, ever forward comrade! It is reflective of a conservative conception of religious understandings of the world: they are the remnants of old things and as Brights we reject all that is old. Arising from a British Enlightenment belief in the inevitable progression of some while holding others to be primitive, contemporary atheism would rather use clever word games about Sky Fairies than engage with how the material world is actually reproduced. These people over here, goes the argument, are insufficiently educated to the new reality. As people in Ireland we should be particularly attuned to this language because, like, colonialism?
Sparrow’s weaponisation of atheism comes into clearer focus if we understand that criticism of The Religious is a way to align yourself with arguments for more state repression of particular kinds of people: beware of “arguments for war and state repression, tricked out as scepticism”. To declare publicly that you do not believe in god no longer makes you a radical or a dissenter. The political ground of a justification for atheism has moved decisively. In fact it did so almost one hundred years ago: by the 1930s, to be godless became negatively associated with being a communist. In other words, those laying down the accusation of people being communists were not. As Sparrow points out this is “the context for the New Atheism, ‘new’ precisely because it emerged only after the traditional Left had more or less collapsed. Its novelty consisted largely of its separation from the communism that had more-or-less owned the movement throughout the twentieth century”. At the base of the refusal to engage a left atheism is a fear of the mass. No, not the Mass but the mass of people. The same mass of people, by the way, we scratch our heads about and wonder why class consciousness is not more developed among Them. Some on the left in Ireland argue for a kind of free thinking 19th century liberalism: people must be led into education and then made free. But, as Richard says in a different context, we often fear the mass because “the thinking multitude is turned into a seething mob with no mind of its own.” A politics from below requires us to let go of the notion that revolution exists out there, after this has been expunged or after that has been eradicated. We need a different left approach to a religious understanding of the world: one that provides a critical foundation for human care, for example, not one that sneers at the various expressions of life that seeks care now. We can no more wait for religion to be cast out (see what I did there?) than for all the blue things in the world to be destroyed.
Such an approach requires us to acknowledge the contradictions within seemingly monolithic religious positions. How can any New Testament provide cover for both conservative preachers and Peter McVerry? Because the text is interpreted; and these particular texts are no less ambiguous in meaning than Poulantzas. There are cracks everywhere and all of the pieces are in constant motion. Why wouldn’t they be? Were they made by god? The one you don’t believe in? I am going to assume that reciting the psalms feels something similar to the way that singing along to Goldfrapp sometimes gives me the shivers. I am also going to assume that being religious does not give you access to some higher state of materialism. You still have to toil ceaselessly at meaningless work to which you have little relationship. And that’s the point of a new left approach to atheism: the exploitative relations seen in the Magdalene Laundries are first and foremost exploitative. That’s the important bit. Particularly so if you endlessly tell us that you don’t believe in god.