Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Atheism and neoconservatism

I don't want to directly address the main point of Luke Savage's article, New Atheism, Old Empire:a few prominent New Atheists — Savage names Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens — have views on Islam that explicitly or implicitly support American Imperialism and neoconservatism. First, I think this part of his critique is mostly correct. I know of Hitchens' and Harris's views, and I definitely disagree with them. I'm not as familiar with Dawkins' present views; I liked Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, but his project as a popularizer of atheism is very different from my own, so I don't follow him closely. Dawkins is also a sexist pig, which reduces my interest in following his thoughts to zero. Regardless, I don't find it extremely counterintuitive that he might not just find the Islamic religion terrible (it is), but that he might be bigoted against Islamic people. More importantly, it's just not particularly important whether or not this or that New Atheist is or is not aiding and abetting the neoconservative cause. To the extent that some are, they deserve criticism and correction, but New Atheism (and atheism) is not a left-wing project, and that some New Atheists are not on the left is not by itself problematic. What is more problematic is Savage's implication that the atheist critique of religion itself is nothing but neoconservative propaganda.

I want to first object to the idea of using New Atheist or New Atheism as any kind of meaningful collective noun, even a noun that refers (as does the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article, The New Atheists). People who write books (other than textbooks) are not representative, contra Savage's assertion, of anyone or anything. Writing a book is an intensely personal, not a collective, effort. The God Delusion represents Dawkins' views; God Is Not Great represents Hitchens' views, etc. And reading a book is just as personal; each reader brings their own unique point of view to every book they read and takes from that book their own individual value. Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens — and Stenger, Eller, Myers, Coyne, Carrier, and every other author who has written on atheism — are all sui generis. We can judge them, but We must judge them individually, by name.

If "New Atheist" is not appropriate to label actually published authors, it is even less apt to label — except in the broadest, most general terms — any actual group of people who are not published authors. The term "New Atheist" is originally a pejorative label established by critics of atheists. The use of the term goes back (at least) as far as David Haxton Carswell Read's 1966 book, Whose God is Dead: The Challenge of the New Atheism. The term is still used pejoratively to collect a disparate group of people whom some critic disagrees with, as if they constituted some cohesive collective. While there are, of course, many cohesive atheist groups, such as American Atheists, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, etc., there is no overall cohesive atheist group at all, let alone any cohesive group of New Atheists. It would be an exercise in vacuity for Savage to define (or adopt the implicit definition) New Atheists as "neoconservative atheist writers" and then "prove" that New Atheists are neoconservatives.

Savage seems to want to talk about what is at least a real intellectual thread, a particular kind of critique of religion, and connect that critique to neoconservatism. According to Savage, "New Atheism’s intellectual foundations are also exceptionally weak." Savage claims that there is an intellectual thread that seeks to expose the "inherent 'irrationality' of all religions [emphasis added]" by "scrutiniz[ing] religious myths without attention to, or even awareness of, the multiplicity of social and theological debates they have provoked, the manifold ideological guises their interpreters have assumed, or the secular belief systems they have helped to influence." But this criticism is misguided. Most atheist writers are not anthropologists, and simply assume that the the dominant religious (especially the most problematic religious ideas) in their own culture is what religion is in all cultures. This view is obviously incorrect. If atheist critiques of religion were intended to address the full diversity of religious expression, including the culture of the Walpuri, Yanomamo, Jain, etc., then this ethnocentrism would be extremely problematic. But atheists tend to focus not on deep sociological, anthropological, or philosophical issues, but on political and cultural issues in their own polities and culture. When an atheist criticizes, for example, the religious causes of evolution or climate change denial in American culture, it is irrelevant that the Walpuri have a completely different conception of religion than do American Christians. In no other field does the charge make sense that thought and opinion in that field must necessarily be absolutely universal to be meaningful. Political scientists, for example can criticize Republicans (and Democrats) even though the American two-party democratic republic is hardly universal; economists can criticize or support the PPACA even though the American health care system is not even prevalent in most capitalist countries. The idea that some criticism of some particular idea invalid because it is not universal to all ideas in the same (very general) category is simply nonsensical.

Savage segues almost imperceptibly from the true but trivial claim that atheist critique of certain brands of American Christianity (and perhaps Islam) do not apply to all religions to the idea that our critique does not apply to any religious expression. For example, Savage reproduces Terry Eagleton's objection to God Is Not Great:
Hitchens argues earnestly that the Book of Genesis doesn’t mention marsupials; that the Old Testament Jews couldn't have wandered for forty years in the desert; that the capture of the huge bedstead of the giant Og, King of Bashan, might never have happened at all, and so on. This is rather like someone vehemently trying to convince you, with fastidious attention to architectural and zoological detail, that King Kong could not possibly have scaled the Empire State Building because it would have collapsed under his weight.
Not even Hitchens, much less atheists in general, use this "factual" approach exclusively; God Is Not Great engages religion on a number of fronts. But Savage uses Eagleton here to imply that no religious person ever (or only an insignificant, marginal, minority) ever holds factual beliefs about their religious texts, in the same sense that no one believes that King Kong is a documentary. Savage's position might be correct, but it would require an empirical argument, and engagement with the empirical arguments of atheist thinkers. Simply quoting the opinion of a literary critic is insufficient, especially without presenting any opposing argument.

Savage goes on to quote Richard Seymour's book, Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens to "define" religion:
Religion is a labour of interpretation, of symbolic and ideological production from which agents derive meanings adequate to their life circumstances. Apart from anything else, the sheer indeterminacy of religious texts would make it impossible for there to be a literal, consistent meaning present in the texts: interpretation is indispensible [sic].
But this definition is obviously nonsense. What does Seymour mean by the "sheer indeterminacy of religious texts"? If there is no "literal, consistent meaning present," what precisely is it that religious people are interpreting? In what sense is a passage such as Leviticus 20:13 —"If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." — at all indeterminate? We might or might not like what it says, but it seems crystal clear that it says something very specific and definite*; the need for "interpretation" does not come from a lack of literal meaning, but from us not liking the literal meaning. Would Savage claim that no Christians today justify their opposition to homosexuality just because the Bible literally says so? If so, let him prove that thesis.

*Context and translation are of little help to indeterminists here.

Savage then asserts that the atheist critique of Islam is flawed because it "assumes that fundamentalism is the product of bad ideas rather than particular social and material conditions . . . [and] attribute [violence] to some monolithic orthodoxy." First, atheists do not really hold that "fundamentalism" (whatever that means) is the product of bad ideas; we argue that fundamentalism is a bad idea, regardless of its genesis. Second, to be fair, most atheists are not Marxists, and do not give as much importance as Marxists to social and material conditions. But Savage is being at best inconsistent and at worst hypocritical: if Islam is "the product of particular social and material conditions", and not "the product of bad ideas," so too is atheism. Indeed, on the narrowest interpretation of Marx, consciousness is purely epiphenomenal; criticizing ideas of any sort — religion, atheism, capitalism, communism, science, law, etc. — is sterile and useless. Savage wants to have his critical cake and eat it too: religion is exempt from criticism because religious ideas are just the result of social and material conditions; atheist ideas are fair game and create the social and material conditions of imperialism and neoconservatism.

Finally, "monolithic orthodoxy" is unacceptably vague. If Savage means to imply that atheists believe that every religious person (or every Muslim, Christian, Hindu, etc.) ever, past and present, believes exactly the same thing about everything, and, more importantly, that the atheist critique of religion fails if this absolute agreement is even trivially compromised, he would clearly be demolishing a ridiculous straw man. More importantly, his critique depends just as much on attributing an equally ridiculous monolithic orthodoxy to the atheist critique of religion. Atheism is hardly monolithic; not even capitalism is a monolithic orthodoxy. But if Savage does not mean to imply an absolute agreement, what does he mean? Does he mean to imply the idea that most members of religious groups do not agree within their own group about a substantial collection of ideas, and their agreement rests on authoritative interpretations of authoritative texts? That every religious person's beliefs are sui generis, and that almost every religious group encourages unrestricted individual ideas about god and the divine? Such an interpretation could perhaps be argued, but to present this interpretation as obviously, unquestionably true seems as ridiculous as the straw man of perfect agreement.

Even if Savage's specific criticism of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris were completely correct, Savage clearly has made no effort to engage with the larger atheist critique of religion as it actually exists. So why go farther? I suspect there is an underlying reason: it is tempting, and false, to believe that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and my friend's enemies are my own. Clearly, the Islamic world is engaged in a struggle against western imperialism, in its sharpest, most directly military form. As opponents of western imperialism, it is tempting to see the victim of imperialism as our friends, and shield them from criticism. But just that the Islamic world is the target of western imperialism does not make them friends of the western Left, the working class, of the struggle for freedom and justice. I don't think that the Islamic world really is on "our" side; they are, at the very least, on their own side. Savage appears to argue that any criticism of any victim of oppression justifies that oppression. We must be careful, of course; blaming victims for their own oppression is never correct. But criticism need not be blame. We should not claim that we should never criticize, for example, Islamic misogyny because that justifies imperialism to "correct" that misogyny, we should realize that even if the Islamic world were a thousand times more misogynist that it actually is, such misogyny cannot justify imperialism; indeed, no "faults" can ever justify conquest, subordination, and oppression. Criticism can be used as a partisan tool, but it is not intrinsically a partisan tool. We should, like Marx, seek to be ruthless critics of everything existing, and Marx himself offered some of his most ruthless criticism for opponents of capitalism.

In truth, while errors in atheist thought should never be shielded from criticism, atheists and the modern atheist critique of religion should be seen not as enemies of the left, but as potential allies. Throughout history, religious thinking, however broadly and diversely defined, has served most often not to undermine but to reproduce relations of domination and subordination. More importantly, all relations of domination and subordination require the kind of thinking that religion must necessarily employ: asserting some privilege, whether textual, interpretive, or traditional that is immune to ration criticism by its very nature — as Eller defines religion, where "the nonhuman and ‘supernatural' are seen as profoundly human and social," i.e. as fetishized non-human expressions of human relations. Domination and subordination must employ some sort of epistemic and moral privilege. Without such privilege, the "right" of one group to subordinate another cannot stand. Epistemic and moral privilege need not be strictly "religious"; it is arguable, however, that any assertion that cannot be established by common natural reason and observation, whether it be a monotheistic deity, an unseen spirit, or a universal moral principle, is ipso facto supernatural and therefore, in the broadest sense (that Savage seems to advocate), "religious."

The problem is not that religion, and religious thinking, can be used only for evil, for reproducing relations of dominance; the problem is that religious thinking can be used for anything; I have no way of independently evaluating the claims that "God loves homosexuals" and "God hates homosexuals (or homosexuality)." It doesn't matter whether these statements stem from a reading, literal or "interpretive," of some text, or from personal revelation, or from theological debate; I have no way of knowing what God wants, good or bad. I know what I want, and I can get a good idea, using reason and observation, of what other human beings want, but I have no idea of what God wants. And I'm not just going to project my own desires on a mythical God and pretend I'm talking about more than what I want. To claim that "God loves homosexuals" is not just to endorse equal rights for homosexuals (yay), but to endorse the idea that equal rights is about what God wants, not what we want. And, since I don't actually know what God wants, for all I know, God really does hate homosexuals. Our social norms become a conversation only among those who claim privilege, with the rest of us as passive spectators.

We on the left must, I think, share the true core narrative of atheism: there is no privilege. There is no religious privilege. There is no capitalist privilege. And there is no socialist privilege. We should be socialists and communists because we have good reasons to believe that, at some level, people want socialism and communism. To oppose the fundamental project of atheist criticism of religion (and not legitimately criticize its errors and inconsistencies) is to endorse privilege. And I would no more endorse so-called socialist or communist privilege than I would capitalist or fascist privilege.

1 comment:

  1. Reading your essay is a breath of fresh air. Thank you for your insights.


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