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 difference...in 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.)