Thursday, September 23, 2010

Is the New Atheism Left-wing?

It's a caricature that religion and religious people are always defenders of the way it is and atheists the brave challengers and visionaries of a new world. Yet I know from my own evolving spirituality that my spiritual and religious views and experience have become the bedrock of my own commitment to social change and justice. I also know that many of the proud atheists I have engaged in conversation with show themselves to be every bit as rigidly fundamentalist as the right-wing religious fundamentalists they claim to oppose. In many cases atheists in their sweeping condemnation of faith find themselves courting national chauvinism, Islamophobia and worse. Of course spirituality, or the lack thereof, is a personal experience: I neither condemn nor advocate any path of belief or the absence thereof but the one someone feels to be right for them. But it is not true that religious equals rightwing and atheist equals leftwing.

I have quoted British socialist Richard Seymour of the Lenin's Tomb blog before. He has just offered up a challenging and thought-provoking essay on this issue in the context of the protests against Pope Benedict's visit to the U.K. Entitled "Papists, secularists and capitalists," it contains ideas, from a left-wing source I find myself in frequent agreement with, I've never really seen written down before. Here's an excerpt:

"From what little I have read and seen on this subject, I suspect that on this issue the 'new atheists' are correct, and that Ratzinger is indeed every bit as indictable as they say he is - just as in general they are correct to charge religion, and not merely its institutions, with promoting patriarchy, oppression and ignorance. On the other hand, that is not all that religion does. I myself have religious friends and comrades who make far better allies of Enlightenment, and of the oppressed and exploited, than a great many of those who claim to be atheists. Religion is not only far from being the major force promoting oppression in this world - for some, it is an inspiration and an alibi in the struggle against it. The diversity of interpretations of religious doctrine, especially on social and political matters, simply does not support any narrow, literalist reading off of prescriptions from texts. I note, with some satisfaction, that for all the theological ignorance of Dawkins et al (an ignorance which, I hasten to add, I share), they are at one with the fundamentalists on the stable meaning of religion and its texts.... Dawkins' own free will still seems to be constrained by his selfish, competitive genes, however. To the imperial chauvinism mentioned above, we could add his intolerance of cultural relation to the Pope's visit, he described his Romanness as the head of the second most evil religion in the world. What, I wonder, might come first? Buddhism? Judaism? Hinduism? Jainism? Zoroastrianism? No? Ah, right - so it'll be Islam again. One form of religious intolerance informs another prejudice, one which is bound up with race-making processes across the 'white' world. Such a ranking of religions according to alleged harm is not really to do with atheism. Far from having an emancipatory, enlightened content, it precisely reinforces a hierarchical ordering of human societies and cultures at the apex of which invariably sits largely bourgeois, largely white, and largely male liberals of no faith, other than in the sanctity of the Holy Profit. For these and other reasons, the 'new atheism' is mainly a reactionary current."

Read the entire essay at Lenin's Tomb. It's a great read.

(Photo is an 18th- or 19th- century headstone in rural northeast Pennsylvania, photographed by me ca. 1992. The clasping hands image was also a socialist icon in the early days of the socialist movement.)


  1. I think while the protests could've been more focused, they weren't directed at individual Catholics so much as the church. Even if catholic publications claim that sexual abuse is a problem, they sure as hell aren't moving quick enough to remove the offending priests:

  2. I consider myself to be an atheist. This is because I see no compelling evidence for a God. Similarly, this is also why I don't believe in other gods, such as Allah, or Zeus. But evidence is not how everyone forms an opinion. Some people believe firmly in the God of Christianity. Some just refer to God as "the thing we don't know about." Stephen Hawking, for example, says that 'God' is merely the quantum-mechanical irregularity in the initial void of space which, he speculates, allowed the Big Bang. So, 'God' is a being to some, and an event or causality to others. I believe in God if the latter definition is taken. SOMETHING started things. But it may be much more simple than an omnipotent being. That being said, there are many reasons for believing/not believing in God, and I would never assert that mine is better than anyone else's. I sometimes say my religion is "live and let live." Your own religious beliefs, ish, seem to be the kind that more of the world could stand to benefit from. I do know that there IS compelling evidence for a Jewish man named Jesus of Nazareth, and that he claimed to be the son of God. This is recorded. That man taught acceptance, tolerance, trust, and love. It's a shame how often mainstream religions, seemingly most currently fringe-Islam and Christianity, forget the teachings of Jesus, whoever he was.

  3. I've tried to strike a balance in writing about religion that's not too preachy but conveys the sincerity of my own belief. There is nothing worse than coercion when it comes to things of spirit: that's ultimately so corrupting. I also hate to sound patronizing by suggesting that atheists just haven't gotten to the advanced (superior, of course!) understanding of God and spirituality that I have. I respect the sincerity and conviction of atheists, as I do of people whose religious views are at odds with my own. The world would be a lot better off if atheists and religious people acted on their own moral convictions rather than trying to punish others for the perceived error of their ways. It's kinda like that saying I've heard: "Don't like gay marriage? Don't get gay married then!"

    Religion can be very oppressive and self-serving; I get that. But that's not really its point.

    Anyway, open minds are better than closed ones.