Profit / prophet

[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.



3 thoughts on “Profit / prophet

  1. People really are getting fed up with Richard Dawkins and the rest of those who fit the description of New Atheism. (I always thought it was called ‘New’ not because of the rise or fall of any particular political movement, but because it was demonstrably different from atheism of the past: no longer ashamed of itself, and no longer afraid to openly criticise religion and religious people.) It seems to me that the backlash is driven in large part by a sense that Dawkins et al are not being very nice.

    It’s true that more serious allegations (racism/Islamophobia) have been made against Dawkins and others, Sam Harris in particular, but so far as I have seen, the criticism of religion made by New Atheism is primarily a criticism of the ideas and beliefs that religion espouses. But while I have no doubt that New Atheism would be quite happy to see humanity “cast out” religion entirely, that is not their goal. The goal is to eradicate the influence of some dangerous ideas, which happen to be religious, from the secular realm we all must share.

    A gay teacher working in a state-funded Catholic school in Ireland can currently be fired by his or her employer for no reason other than the fact that they are gay. The Catholic Church believes that gay people are disordered and wrong. They believe that it is dangerous to let them near children. (The irony of that statement is quite something). A Russian politician who espoused such views would be criticised as homophobic (from a safe distance). Those who supported and financed that politician would be criticised along with him. The Catholic Church is homophobic too. But the Church can say that they are adhering to God’s will, so their views cannot be criticised, they must be respected.

    Of course, the homophobic politician can say his is adhering to the will of the people. Homophobic politicians can declare themselves immune from criticism too. Ask Pussy Riot. When politicians do that, they are dictators.

    The respect that Dawkins fails to show for airplane attendants wearing crucifixes is the precisely same respect that the Church demands for its homophobia. The authority which Pope Francis invokes in his criticism of our current version of global capitalism, is the same authority which holds that contraception is wrong, is the same authority which once held that the Earth was the centre of the universe, is the same authority which once burned people to death for giving voice to ideas they did not like.

    This authority amounts to a declaration that they, alone, are the interpreters of God’s will. And yes, they can change their interpretation. But they only do so when that have no other choice. Eventually, there comes a point when you have to give up on heliocentrism. That point generally arrives some time after the majority of people have come to accept a new theory. After the majority of people have been educated.

    Education comes from the latin ‘educare’, meaning to lead out or to bring forth. Not to impose dogma from above, but to create the necessary conditions for learning to take place. The conflict with religion comes when what we have learned challenges what we have been told. That conflict was once resolved with deadly force, with torture, with threats of violence, with threats of eternal damnation. Today the position of religion has, in many parts of the world, been weakened. The power of organised religion, and the dangers that came with it, have receded, to the point that people like Dawkins, who would in centuries past have been tortured to death, are now being criticised by fellow atheists for being too harsh.

    In other parts of the world, religion is more powerful. Powerful enough to convince intelligent human beings to fly planes into skyscrapers. Like homophobia, violence and war don’t need religion to exist. But only religion can espouse such beliefs, simultaneously declare them immune from criticism – because they adhere to God’s will – and expect to be taken seriously.

    When Dawkins is not very nice to someone wearing a crucifix, it is, I believe, because he sees that there is no difference in kind between demanding the right to wear a certain piece of jewellery in your place of work (jewellery which is only contentious because it might offend some of those who prefer different kinds of jewellery) and demanding the right to sack a gay teacher, or the right to refuse to carry out a life-saving abortion, or the right to burn an infidel at the stake.

    Criticism is articulation of the conflict between competing ideas. Criticism can be painful, even when not as intentionally harsh as Dawkins often is. And criticism can be dangerous, as it challenges and weakens the ideas that hold institutions in place. This is why dissent is suppressed by the powerful. But the freedom to criticise, even through satire and mockery, is an essential part of democracy.

    1. I am not sure here of your central argument John but you have made a number of assertions here that need unpacking.

      Firstly, I am not sure how you construe freedom to criticise to be an essential part of democracy because there is no freedom of expression without political consequence. If I say you are a heretic people are unlikely to believe me without some form of understanding of what it is that makes it heretical. No one has been burned as an ‘infidel’ for quite sometime.

      Secondly, there is nothing offensive per se about the wearing of the crucifix. Offense arises when we accord power to its symbol and construct an array of rules about where and when one may wear this symbol. Because Piss-Christ.

      Dawkins et al are criticised not for being ‘not very nice’. Have you read this post or the links from it? I argue that Dawkinsian atheism arises from a political formation which combines Victorian liberal free thinking Enlightenment woo with a colonial argument about who gets to be let into Club Fully Human. Dawkins is a sideshow compared with the vast power and resources of a capitalism that destroys communities and entire ways of being to ensure that you can buy a gold plated iPhone.

  2. No one can be fired for being gay. People can be fired for subscribing to an ethos and then not adhering to it. We can argue that law is wrong. We can argue that some specific ethos is wrong.

    But it seems to me that Eoin’s point is amplified a thousand times in comments like this.

    PS: I am not wearing a crucifix, hence unlikely to get around to burning any infidels tonight.

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