Blog Archives

Why the Left Needs to Be Agnostic about Religion: Part I

In an essay recently re-blogged here, the author lays out a case for why he believes a rapprochement between socialism and religion is ill-advised or even impossible, depending on how you interpret his claims about the incompatibility between them. It would be tempting to argue back that he is characterizing religion incorrectly, or that he fails to account for positive religious involvement in struggles for liberation around the globe. But to make such arguments would be to compound the primary error, and reinforce the dysfunction of the understanding which produced the author’s arguments in the first place. What we must do, if we care about the future success of leftist endeavors, is to question the idea of religion as a meaningful category in the first place. That is, not to argue over whether religion is good or bad, or whether it is compatible with socialism, but to deconstruct the idea of religion as a cultural category.

Over the last couple centuries, social scientists have been studying religion, and have created a succession of different definitions of religion in the process. Unlike the study of, say, geology, the study of religion presents the challenge that it has no concrete referent. When one studies geology, one does not have a great difficulty in identifying the object: rocks are rocks. When one studies religion, however, one does have the difficulty of first creating a definition that allows us to call one thing (set of beliefs, actions, symbols, institutional arrangements, etc) religion, and yet exclude another thing as not religious. (See Arnal 2000 here for a thorough discussion.) Long story short is that none of these definitions have been able to simultaneously include all those things which we consider religious and exclude those things which we consider non-religious. Not, that is, without recourse to theological notions that are unsupportable within a scientific context. Whether it is Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans, or Mircea Eliade’s “orientation to the sacred,” these substantivist definitions only work if one assumes that religion is a sui generis category which exists in relation to an actual God or Divine Reality. That transcendent reality may exist, but it is beyond the ability of science to speak to it, and therefore can not be the basis for a scientific definition. The problem of definition here is the problem of the actual existence of the category. Anthropologists came to the same conclusion about “race” in the 20th century, and we should detect here a useful pattern: when the thing you’re trying to define eludes all attempts at useful definition, the thing just might not exist except as a cultural construct. (See also Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions.)

Arnal suggests, following Talal Assad’s reasoning in Genealogies of Religion, that the task for the social-scientific study of religion therefore must be to deconstruct the idea of religion in order to uncover not what religion “is,” but rather in what cultural contexts the concept of religion is evoked to separate some human phenomena from others. And it is in this task that the importance of understanding what we are talking about is made clear for the success of the left’s intellectual projects. Give Arnal a listen:

 The very concept of religion as such—as an entity with any distinction whatsoever from other human phenomena—is a function of [the] same processes and historical moments that generate an individualistic concept of it. The concept of religion is a way of demarcating a certain socio-political reality that is only problematized with the advent of modernity in which the state at least claims to eschew culture per se. Further, one of the current political effects of this separation—one of the political ends served currently by it—is the evisceration of substance, that is, collective aims, from the state. That is to say, the simple positing of religion is a covert justification for the modern tendency of the state to frame itself in increasingly negative terms: the secular state is the institutional apparatus by which the social body prevents the incursion by others into the personal and various other goals of individuals, rather than being the means of achievement for common projects and the collective good (pp. 32).

Which is why it would be dysfunctional to argue against Cancovic’s claims about the incompatibility between religion and socialism: it reinforces the category we should be exposing as a tool of the state. When you see a self-professed leftist talking like Richard Dawkins, it should give you pause. An academic like myself would be inclined to use one of the many functionalist definitions of religion popular in social science still, despite their fundamental inability to effectively circumscribe a real phenomena; but here we have no attempt at definition whatsoever. “Religion” seems to be, for Cancovic as with Dawkins, “whatever people I don’t like believe.” That essentially anti-pornographic definition (I can’t define it but I know it when I see it) might suffice for casual conversation or beer-fueled debate among college sophomores, but it most certainly does not suffice for a discussion of leftist organizational tactics in which religion is problematized as the main subject.  It is in Dawkins’ interest to discourage the study of religion as a serious topic, because if his audience understood anything about religion from a social-scientific standpoint he wouldn’t have an audience.  One can’t make a career selling books blaming religion for everything bad that ever happened if people know that “religion” is whatever thing you want to call it willy nilly. But the concern of the left is, at least ostensibly, to make real changes in the material conditions of human beings.  We can not do this if we are hampered by belief in categories which exist only to subjugate people to regimes of thought facile to state control. It should be an item of concern that leftists are borrowing rhetoric from modern supporters of right-wing state policies (Hitchens, Sam Harris, et al) which spread war and terror around the globe in the name of combating “religious extremism.”

Volumes could be written about this, and very well likely will be, but time constraints at the moment prevent me from anything more than this short first draft at a reflection. Suffice to say for the moment that claims about how religion “does” this or “says” that must rely on a refusal to study religion scientifically, or else such claims could not be made. Not least because religion is a made-up category. Religion is dying? Somebody should talk to Peter Berger. One of the ironies of the piece is the call to “always preach the scientific worldview.” Which scientific worldview is that, exactly? The one that refuses to study religion scientifically but feels specially entitled to denounce religion? Again, hello Christopher Hitchens. Preaching is the correct word here.

Rather, what we need to do, how we need to be, is agnostic about religion. The obsession with the beliefs in other people’s heads is an Enlightenment hold-over natural to fundamentalist Protestantism and its sibling New Atheism, but it is not useful to the cause of social emancipation. Cancovic’s essay amounts to “I don’t want to play with those kids I don’t like.” Okay, maybe they were mean to you; but guess what? They’re the majority of people on the planet for all of human history (by any of the definitions of religion or religious out there). If you want to build a movement, you should probably not be looking at the comrade next to you digging that ditch, and tell him he can’t help because he worships an Octopus. Or, worships himself for not worshiping an Octopus. Instead of telling people they’re not allowed to have symbolic culture you don’t approve of, just try explaining political economy to them.

“Socialism and Religion, Redux,” by Dario Cancovic

IMAGE: 1923 exhibition at a Museum of Atheism,
in German and Russian: “The struggle against
religion is the struggle for socialism!”

Originally posted on The North Star.

Marxists once saw themselves as  the vanguard not only of the proletariat but of science and progress, as the bulwark against superstition and reaction. In our postmodern age, we’ve  retreated from this,  questioned these values and notions, and abandoned the aegis of “science” and “progress” to the bourgeoisie. Our doubts about science and progress were not entirely unjustified, for in the hands of the bourgeoisie they are robbed of their liberatory potential. In its relentless pursuit of profit, the bourgeoisie has revolutionized the means of production and communication time and again. Rather than freeing us from want and widening and deepening democracy, as these advances can, it has instead brought us to the brink of environmental catastrophe, overseen the concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands through the immiseration of billions, and strengthened the state surveillance apparatus beyond the wildest dreams of the Stasi.

It is no surprise, then, that at a time such as this, when socialists are struggling to cast off the traditions of one dead generation, there are those who would burden us with the traditions of another. Those who would have us exchange the costumes and battle slogans of the Bolsheviks for the robes and psalms of the Apostles. Their rallying cry might well be “One step forward, a thousand steps back! To the Communist message of Christ!”

Both the legacy of Soviet-style state-sanctioned atheism and the neoconservative politics of the so-called New Atheists — whose militant bourgeois atheism is nothing new — have turned off many socialists. Their resulting distaste for militant atheism, combined with pessimism about mobilizing the working class behind the banner of atheism, has led some to call for a reconciliation of socialism and religion.

There are two types of “socialists” who seek such a reconciliation: fools and knaves. Fools genuinely believes that socialism is ordained by scripture, that their conservative co-religionists are unfaithful to their religion by not joining the progressive cause. Just like their conservative counterparts, progressives find what they want to find in scripture and ignore the inconvenient rest. Knaves, on the other hand, are atheist but  either cynically see the working class as hopelessly enthralled by superstition or  have a soft spot for spirituality, for those few poetic phrases in scripture that might be spun for socialism. They declare: “If Mohammed will not come to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammed”; if the religious will not come to socialism, socialists must come to religion.

The capitalist (upper left) manipulates an Islamic mullah (lowest right), an Orthodox priest (lower right), a Catholic friar (upper right), and a Jewish kabbalist (uppermost right) to divert the masses

The capitalist uses an Islamic mullah, an Orthodox priest, a Catholic friar, and a Jewish kabbalist to divert the masses

These socialists have misjudged the nature of religion, the degree to which the working class is enthralled by religion, and the possibility and desirability of a reconciliation between socialism and religion.

It is understandable that, in a world plagued by suffering, people would turn to spiritual means to alleviate their suffering in the absence of material means. “Religious suffering,” as Marx put it, “is the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.” It is in this expression of protest against real suffering that we find some socialist-sounding phrases in scripture, but this in no way makes scripture a sound basis for socialism. Religion is not just an analgesic — it isn’t just “the opium of the people.” While it provides consolation to the exploited and oppressed, it also justifies exploitation and oppression. It is a product of suffering, one which reinforces and reproduces suffering.

Religion, at one and the same time, consoles sufferers and justifies suffering here-and-now by the promise of salvation hereafter. It consoles the exploited and oppressed and justifies exploitation and oppression here-and-now with the promise of retribution and justice for exploiters and oppressors hereafter. It justifies suffering on the basis of sin. The material roots of suffering are hidden behind a spiritual facade. Suffering is presented not as an alterable product of this world, but as unalterable punishment by God or karma for our moral transgressions. Just as the bourgeoisie declares that “there is no alternative” to capitalism, religion declares that there is no alternative to suffering, to exploitation and oppression, to class society. We humans are presented as so morally depraved as to be incapable of liberating ourselves — we can only hope for salvation through the grace of God.

Religion commands that the few, the privileged, ameliorate the lot of the many — the exploited, oppressed, poor, propertyless, suffering masses — through charity. Charity serves to ease suffering while leaving unaddressed the roots of suffering. It renders the condition of the exploited and oppressed slightly less intolerable, and eases the conscience of the ruling class. It gives the poor a few scraps from the tables of the rich to keep the poor from demanding a seat at the table. A few scraps do not make for socialism.

Religion is partly a product, as Engels observed, of “the world historical defeat of the female sex.” It is produced by, reinforces, and reproduces a perverse patriarchy in the household, where each man is promised mastery, if not over himself, then at least over his wife and hischildren. It is created by and re-creates the division of labour between the sexes. In doing so it divides the working class, setting up hierarchies within the exploited and oppressed. It gives some of the exploited and oppressed a taste of mastery, of domination, and thus attempts to give them a stake in maintaining the system of exploitation and oppression.

Socialists cannot compromise over sexism. To be a socialist is to be a feminist, because the working class’s struggle for its self-emancipation cannot be separated from women’s  struggle for self-emancipation. After all, as even Mao realized, “Women hold up half the sky!” Women are half, if not more than half, of the working class. We must let go of the antiquated image of the male industrial worker and the female peasant, especially since there has been an unprecedented feminization of the manual labour force. We cannot struggle for the emancipation of the whole working class while embracing an ideology that would see half of society remain enslaved.

Members of the Union of the Militant Godless crowd around a statue of Lenin for a photograph, 1929

Members of the Union of the Militant Godless crowd around a statue of Lenin for a photograph, 1929

We cannot claim to be working toward the self-emancipation of the working class — and through this the emancipation of the whole of humanity — if we appeal to authoritarian, homophobic, misogynistic, and generally misanthropic texts and institutions for aid and inspiration. There cannot be a reconciliation of socialism and religion; to call for such a reconciliation is to call for a reconciliation of emancipation and slavery. For every fine-sounding phrase in scripture or out of the mouth of a priest, there are countless more vile words. Religiously inspired deeds of cruelty far outnumber acts of charity.

The bourgeoisie has managed to cast off the shackles of religion, by elevating itself from the squalid conditions that give rise to religion. It has already turned its back on religion, in deed if not in word. For all its public professions of piety, behind closed doors it is as atheist as any of us. What Cicero said of the ruling class of his day, of which he was a member, is no less true of the ruling class of today: “It is difficult to deny that the gods exist, in public, but in private it is perfectly easy to do so.” Appearances must be maintained. “A tyrant,” as Aristotle remarks in the Politics, “must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. They less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side.” It is profit that dictates policy, not piety. The bourgeoisie bows before Mammon, not Yahweh. Read the rest of this entry

Marginalia on Radical Thinking: A Second Dialogue with Charley Earp, part 2

Continued from here. This turns from an interview to a pressing and respectful debate towards the end about the nature of secularism and on absolute ontological claims.

Skepoet: Are these emergent church types actually popular as most of the dominations in Protestant Christianity to show growth are fairly conservative theologically and politically?

Charley Earp: I don’t think it’s their popularity that makes them important. It’s their role as “in-house” critics of Evangelicalism. They are lightning rods for issues often considered closed topics. For example, ex-Pentecostal Emergent theologian Tony Jones was invited to give a plenary address to the Society for Pentecostal Studies annual conference in 2010. SPS is an association of confessional Pentecostals who hold academic positions. It tends to be conservative, but it does have a left-wing element, which is represented via the “Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace and Justice” organization. Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, an assistant professor at Azusa Pacific University Graduate School of Theology and member of PCPJ, was organizing the annual meeting and invited Tony Jones. When word of that got back to denominational leadership in the Assemblies of God – the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world – a fight broke out as these leaders tried to get Tony banned from the conference. Tony openly advocates for same-sex marriage and theological liberalization. He’s quite a fan of Jurgen Moltmann who was inspired by Ernst Bloch to create the “Theology of Hope.”

I’m not saying that emergent Christian leaders are going to entirely turn Evangelicalism to the left, but they are dividing significant sectors of the younger generation against elements of the New Christian Right.

S.: What do you think of Christianity’s movement politically on the world stage?

C.E. Christianity is a multifarious mass. Christians inhabit all social classes and cultural niches. It is the most successful human organization in history, outside the nuclear family. It has united people across cultural divides, as well as built brand new ones out of its own doctrines.

There will be Christians on all sides of any future revolution. There are forces inside and outside Christianity that will remold it and overcome its conservative tendencies. Liberation Theology seems to me to be the only viable interpretation of the faith that can persist after the collapse of capitalism, whether that collapse comes sooner or later.

I also hold that Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Atheism, and all other metaphysical subcultures will be forced to deal with each other and rethink their absolutist claims in light of intensifying cross-cultural interactions. This is already happening in many arenas and will only accelerate.

S.: I am more skeptical about this as intercultural exchange is not unique to capitalist modernity. Also what elements of Christianity are a successful social forms? It seems hard to see what social relationships are consistent in all strands of Christianity. However, there are pretty consistent trends in Protestantism in Asia and Africa where Christianity tends to act as a liberalizing force in its early encounters with native culture, but in also all such societies is now socially and increasingly economically conservative: although the latter seems very context dependent. For example, in South Korea and Japan a Protestant Christian socialism was the dominant strain of thought, but the churches have increasingly mirrored American Protestantism and have become politically entangled with the right. Protestantism in Latin America still seems to be predominantly a slightly left-economic force, but it’s harder to place socially. So while I recognize Christian tendencies on all sides of the question: there does seem to be definite trends that can be sorted out.

C.E.: Intercultural interaction didn’t originate in capitalist modernity, but it will reach its climax and denouement in a similar fashion as capitalist modernity will run its course. Ken Wilber emphasizes that never before in history have the greatest religious and cultural traditions across human history become so widely accessible around the world. It isn’t complete, but it will only accelerate. In Chicago I have my choice of more than a dozen different Buddhist centers from Tibetan to Vietnamese to Japanese to Korean to Westernized practice. That has occurred entirely in my lifetime, it wasn’t true when I was born. In my Quaker denomination, I’ve participated in various interfaith meetings and this dynamic is even being theorized in Evangelical and Pentecostal seminaries as we speak, not always with conventional orthodox results.

My children attended Chicago public schools and were exposed to dozens of different ethnicities and religions. My daughter is actually very attracted to Korean Protestantism, for some reason. My son is a Quaker, too, but he’s still figuring out what that means, since Quakers don’t use a catechism or enforce creeds.

S.: Islam and Christianity has seen massive retrenchment in Christianity as the there is a real decline in the mainline denominations to both left and right variants of theology. Why do think this is and what do you think the relationship is to secularization?

C.E.: Secularization seems to me to be one of the responses to pluralism, to the way modern communications and immigration patterns have forced world religions into new levels of interaction. Modern secularism arose in Europe as a response to the “wars of religion” in the aftermath of the Reformation. Today secularism in the global context as a product of primarily Western Europe and American expansion is viewed by significant parts of the world outside those spheres as both anti-religious and Christian imperialist incursions. How it is perceived depends on whether a given situation elicits a retrenchment of religious identity to resist imperialism – such as in Muslim nations – or for opportunistic economic development – Asian Capitalist “Tigers”.

American Christian fundamentalism is an important historical development in the interaction with secularizing trends. This fundamentalism was originally a reaction to the rise of unorthodox theologies that originated in Europe, as well as to the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species.” Some fundamentalists did try to harmonize evolution and creationism, but that viewpoint was often rejected in favor of more rigid views. A key element of fundamentalism was an apocalyptic pessimism. This interpretation of the Bible predicted a great Anti-Christ One World Government arising after the Secret Rapture of Christians. This issued in a nearly complete passivity and social disengagement. Evangelism and World Missions to non-Christian cultures took on an urgency and politics became unimportant. The engagement with other religions took the form of strategizing the most effective evangelistic techniques to penetrate non-Christian societies with Americanized versions of the gospel. This gospel was not the original message of Jesus about a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, but a purely apolitical personal salvation focused on the afterlife and coming apocalypse. This apoliticism was quite useful in inculcating docility in the face of capitalist and imperialist exploitations of these societies.

After World War I, the fundamentalist agenda began to emphasize other aspects, such as Zionism and Anti-Communism. After the defeat of Fascism, fundamentalism again assumed a fairly apolitiical quiescent role. This was ended when the Civil Rights movement arose using a fairly orthodox Christianity against racial segregation. The “social gospel” that had been targeted as apostasy by fundamentalists came back with a new compelling moral critique. The “New Christian Right” arose in significant measure from the old-line segregationist preachers like Jerry Falwell. The new targets were feminism, homosexuality, drug war, abortion, and the welfare system.

The decline in secularization in the latter 20th century was a result of the way a segment of the business class partnered with the New Christian Right to attain political power. Today, we are seeing a new wave of departures from Christianity and repressive religions in the U.S. though it is far from a tidal wave. The “New Atheism” was a reaction to 9/11 as an assertion that that tragedy flowed directly from religion. This argument is compelling if not analyzed very carefully, so lots of energy has flowed into that movement.

Add to this the inability of the Christian Right to win the presidential nomination, losing it to Romney, who they nearly all reject as a Christian. Some of the more pragmatic voices on the Right will try to persuade Christians to still vote for Romney, but it’s amazing to me that the choice for evangelical Christians is between a liberal Christian like Obama and a “cultist” like Romney. My family are mostly conservative Pentecostals and we were taught very young how evil Mormons were. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

I’d say secularism and pluralism are back on the agenda and in the ascendancy. If Romney wins, there will be ascendancy. Theologically strict Christians will have to work through their cognitive dissonance with Romney. They either embrace him and pragmatically elevate their politics over their doctrines, or they reject him and he’s weaker than nearly any Republican candidate since Gerald Ford. Reagan himself had weaknesses such as his divorce to contend with. Mormon heresy will seem much worse than divorce to many Christian Rightists.

S.: Do you think Christianity could completely schism over these tendencies?

C.E. I’d say the schism between regressive and progressive religion is permanent and fatal and the progressives will win, unless the Apocalypse of human self-extinction occurs. Unpragmatic walled-garden Fundamentalism (Christian or Islamic) cannot survive for long as a political movement. Even Jerry Falwell was viewed by the apolitical camp as a compromiser for working with different groups of Christians and even neo-conservative Jews! Even the Plymouth Brethren (the original source of apocalyptic fundamentalism) have regrouped and reconciled many of their dozens of schisms. Now, Romney pushes that pragmatic necessity to new heights. Before long, you might even see a politically potent New Atheist Right, followers of Ayn Rand who favor traditional marriage and banning abortion. In a weird way Ron Paul is already in that vein, though he’s still a Christian.

Christianity has been around for so long and is disseminated in the Derridean sense of producing multiple incommensurable discourses, of which one cannot choose the “correct interpretation.” This is why I, who doubts if Jesus was an actual historical person, still consider the Communist threads in the Biblical texts as powerfully useful in creating a new post-Marxist communism, which Badiou and Zizek have confirmed for me. As I’ve said before, Christian Communism isn’t a new idea for many of us, I’ve just hesitated to articulate it while Marxism still seemed to have more life within it. Latin American theologies like Jose Miranda’s 1982 book “Communism in the Bible” were here before me. Here the Zizekian story from “Looking Awry” about the man who leaves his wife and children and then turns up a decade later with a new wife and children seems to exactly characterize the possibility of Communism being reborn as a post-supernaturalist pluralist religious discourse.

Zizek’s point here was that perceiving your life as if you were moving forward to something entirely new is always deceptive, because if you look backward retrospectively, you see that you are really just going where you’ve already been. I left Christianity over 15 years ago, but I keep going back to it in new ways. I don’t think there’s nothing new in this repetition, after all, perhaps your new spouse isn’t as verbally abusive as the old one, and so on. Quakerism is much healthier for me than Pentecostalism. In fact, an argument can be made that Pentecostalism was a variant on Quakerism. Old wife same as the new wife.

As for the left and religion, I see my continuing passion to be advocating radical ideas among religious people. Atheists generally find me annoying, since I keep insisting that they are missing out on a potentially enormous mass audience. If both Christian and Islamic forms of Communist vision can be articulated, as well as other post-Marxist religious and atheist Communisms, we have a message to the world that can resonate in the present. Rather than fighting for early modern secularism of the liberal or Leninist types, a new post-postmodern political pluralism seems to be urgently needed that creates avenues of mutual understanding between Atheists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Neo-Pagans, and others. I have even less knowledge of Hindu traditions than Muslim, though this past weekend I re-watched the film “Gandhi” and know that there’s fertile soil there as well.

I also think we can mine the traditions of Anarcho-communism here as well. In fact, some of the hard but necessary work seems to me to revolve around how to split the differences between statist and anti-statist communisms. Anarcho-communism hasn’t really had a political program for a long time (not since Catalonia, I’d say) and if they care to create one, it will have to face hard into the fact that State power isn’t going to disappear, so a new “via media” will have to be found between doctrinaire anti-Statism and engaging state power. Here I sit in an odd relation to Badiou and Critchley who both advocate “politics at a distance from the State.” This makes sense if one is talking to Marxists, not so much when talking to Anarchists. Meeting in the middle ground seems unexplored territory, yet Noam Chomsky has been there for decades advocating saving the welfare systems while maintaining his generally anarchist critique of most State actions.

All of these post-Marxist developments impinge on the possibility of multiple religious revolutionary movements that are progressive in an authentic sense, not regressive like 1978 Iran. Even Hugo Chavez has something to offer this moment, as confused as he is about Iran.

S.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

C.E. I hope it’s alright with you if I take the opportunity to address a topic that came up between you and I outside the context of this interview on a Facebook thread. In particular, whether my approach takes religious beliefs seriously enough? You and I have disagreed over in what sense absolutism and religious beliefs are connected. I won’t assume that I really understand your take on it, since our discussion has been so informal.

I was a believing Christian almost from the time I could form the sentence, “Jesus is my savior.” However, as I’ve studied theories of cognitive formation such as Piaget and James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith” research, I can now look back and see that my religious beliefs evolved without my conscious control of them. My cognitive and emotional grasp of ideas of God, heaven, infinity, absolute morality, and so on took place within my growth from a schoolboy to adolescent to young adult to older adult and, as Fowler documents, our “faith” “evolves,” even if a person never really goes beyond what he calls a “conventional” religious stance.

Beyond Fowler’s individual psychology, there are the social systemic orders to consider. I believe that each of us living today have been born into societies that are complexly structured by systems of domination, oppression, repression, and exploitation. Most religious believers of any known society anywhere are on one side or another – usually the disempowered side – of multiple binaries of dominated or dominating, exploitated or exploiting, and so on. A white working-class male can simultaneously be a leader in his church, a patriarchal husband, a racist, and yet be a minimum wage worker in capitalism, which leads to a subjective amalgam of both dominator/exploiter and dominated/exploited attitude formation. The facticity of being a worker under capital has been believed somewhat vulgarly by some Marxists as automatically endowing them with a revolutionary potential. However, these forms of Marxism see the process of consciousness formation in far too mechanical terms.

What has come to engage a significant amount of my thought is trying to understand the hierarchical mind that seems to take pleasure in being a subordinate. I chafe under male domination so badly that I never held a job for more than a couple years from the age of 17 to 39, when I began working for a travel company that was managed almost exclusively by women. I’ve been with them for over 9 years. My immediate supervisors have been women for that entire time and I’m generally a model employee. Apparently, I only take pleasure in being exploited by women! Apparently, many workers take pleasure in being subordinated to capitalism and that messes with simple Marxist notions of revolutionary agency.

My general observation about the complexity of consciousness and its reference to religious beliefs is that using my eightfold framework of gender, sex, class, race, religion/irreligion, politics, ecology, and aggression/violence I understand each person is embedded in these systemic dynamics which make holding a single consistent set of cognitive religious ideas nearly impossible. When I was an active participant in Christian churches as an adult for over two decades, I discussed theology at every opportunity and in nearly every single conversation I’d find some unorthodoxy in every person, many of whom were members in good standing and even leaders in confessional denominations that had fairly specific tenets. Many had a hard time accepting the Trinity, or the incarnation, or hell, or whatever. These private conversations revealed that almost no one bothered to work through their cognitive dissonances about their beliefs with much seriousness.

Even theologians and the discipline of theology are themselves built upon the need to try and resolve cognitive dissonance and it is largely unsuccessful, though one might ask is any academic pursuit ever successful in the sense of resolving all cognitive dissonances about a topic? Imagine the enormity of the task of creating the “One True Orthodox Faith” that is entirely self-consistent and coherent! It has been the agenda of certain religious elites since at least the first Nicean Council of 325 C.E. and of course, even further back. Have they succeeded? Of course not, look at the thousands of churches that the heretics, apostates, gnostics, and ostensibly orthodox have formed.

So, religious belief is a shifting protean mass, much like the various Marxisms. This is why I insist radicals and revolutionaries do not have the luxury of treating religious beliefs in isolation from the complexities of social dynamics. We can’t try to both convert people to revolution and to atheism in the manner of Lenin, Trotsky, or worse, Stalin. Our organizations should be consciously pluralist.

Just as the ruling classes manipulate religion and atheism for their ends, so should the revolutionaries. I don’t mean the term “manipulate” in a baldly cynical manner, either. There are revolutionary theologies out there, notably Latin American liberation theologies but many more, that can be inserted into the religious cultures of any society as a productive intervention against ruling class religion. Atheism has limited success because it, too, is severely shaped by the elitisms within the matrix of domination. The necessary response to religious and irreligious dominator ideologies from above is to encourage a flourishing pluralism of religious and irreligious revolutionary visions from below.

Will there ever be a society that has the luxury to create a wholly consistent metaphysical system that everyone can believe? Not in my or your lifetime. Can we acheive revolutionary unity that can win the fight against capitalism, racism, sexism, tyranny, religious supremacism, and ecocide? Consider how capitalism and representative democracy came to rule the planet. Is it consistent, coherent, and lacking in cognitive dissonance? No, yet it rules effectively. A revolutionary pluralism can also come to rule in the name of a emancipated humanity and flourishing ecology.

S.: My disagreement with you is not just about seriousness because we believe in the same basic set of facts:

1) The secular and religious have been co-defining each other by various levels of cultural dominance over time, so even those concepts are inter-dependent in ways that are to break down, but if that it is the conceptual case, then the matter becomes solely about truth claims.

2) Religion is a historically development both it is beliefs and its social forms. The very idea of religion has an incoherence at it’s core that makes sense only when you look at the Pre-Christian and non-Christian categories. The way Stoics and Platonists talked about their beliefs were similar terms to the way Confucians and Buddhists talked about theirs, and yet we label one a religion and the other a philosophy. But anyone with any historically aware categorical sense
will tell you that neither of the categories really holds in the way we believe them now. Furthermore, the ideas of within a religion are similarly historically confused and that is actually a good thing: some may call this historical contingency, moral progress, or the dominance of the zeitgeist. I suppose we can take our pick on which one we mean. But this means that values that would be considered secular, as in values outside of the purview internal to religious ideology, drive the manifestation and justification of religious ideas.

3) The suppression of religion backfires if it is actively pursued. Both in the case of extremely conservative variants of Russian Orthodoxy and of “radical” (reactionary) Islamism develop out of the state suppression of religion in the various secular Pan-Arabist movements as well as in colonial periods. Often leftists lazily conflate the two reasons for suppressing religion because the outcome was the same, but that brings me to where we differ.

4) Even the most die-hard atheists has points of ethical and ontological commitments that are not empirically or rationally justified, or even justifiable. Therefore, everyone has a political “theology” in the sense that Carl Schmitt used to the term.

But our disagreement is profound and based on three key differences:

1) Historically, religious ideologies that make universal claims do so not on pluralist grounds–Abrahamic religions especially, but it is misleading to see it as unique to them because such developments can be seen in Buddhist nationalism in Japan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Thailand. All countries where Buddhism became dominant by interpolating or syncretizing prior beliefs and then actively suppressing them when they achieved state dominance and the support of a court or Imperial power. The versions of these religions that “remained” radical avoided or even anathematized state power, or have developed in context with other prior strong traditions would they could not entirely incorporate and had separate identities. The examples you give of the liberating versions of Christianity, for
example, have never been socially predominant in their home countries at a political level, so we do not know what they would do with state power. We have a good idea though given that even proto-Orthodox, proto-Catholic Christianity immediately became tied to schisms and violent purges the moment it had any favor from the state. The first Nicean council is a perfect example of that.

2) You’re completely correct about the parallel to Marxism on one level: that as “Marxist” thinkers interpreted the texts they developed readings that were universal, but in application and faces with the realities of the state form, more excluding forms began to dominate and could only be maintained by active purging of prior forms. In fact, as one can see in say, the Maoist cultural revolutions: forms of a hypothetical function that were “deviant” were seen as more
dangerous than completely separate religions. Oddly, something that Islam seems to have foreseen as a problem in its holy texts and over its historical development tried to enshine a protection against in the idea of Ummah and dhimmi as opposed to the infidels. Yet even in that case, the religion to which Islam most resembles is Judaism, not Christianity, and the prime tension it has after dealing with the imperialism directed against the peoples under its ideological forms.

3) The reason for this is a concept that I think applies to human cognition nearly universally: dialectical scission. A totality always divides into pluralities, or particulars, in other to be comprehensible, but the moment one links the particularities in order to classify and understand them, a second-order totality re-emerges, which then has to be demarcated. If you want to claim universal-ism without pluralism implicit within it: then you must try to render the
particular universal by stopping the demarcation and eliminating the other. This always fails in some sense even in successful genocides because the elimination or removal changes parts of the totality, this starting a comprehensible demarcation, and so the process continue. This is why the events I described in my second point seem to happen whenever an ideology, in the sense of idea, starts to dominate.

This leads me to an ultimate break with your line of thinking:

Any attempt to accommodate an claim about the ultimate into pluralism in which that absolute is given primacy will necessitate a political exclusion of some kind. Religion is not comprehensible without either a rupture of orthopraxy (“sin,” “miasma,”) or a rupture of orthodoxy (“heresy,” “wrongful speech,” etc). The pluralism necessarily undoes itself in the same way universal-ism does. While religious believers can be included in a plural universal, the moment you give privilege to that particularity, it will the process of scission will work itself out in history as groups seek to end exposed “cognitive dissonance.” The move to reduce cognitive dissonance and to end process of dialectical scission will happen in all most societies and when it is incorporated and privileged into a political praxis, it can only maintain it by using the states monopoly on the legitimization of violence. This is why I am a secularist in the sense that I do not wish to privilege any particularity to a universal status: I value the pluralism within the totality and want to learn to live with dialectical scission and the uncertainty it can create. In that sense, I agree with you on some of this but don’t think you take religion’s claim to WANT the absolute “seriously” enough. Just because people can’t come up with a coherent explanation: doesn’t mean they aren’t going to try. In history, that drive is one of the few constants.

Lastly, there is a way in which I think you are fundamentally misunderstanding capitalism and overstating on representative democracy:

1. Capitalism as a productive form exists nearly universally now in human cultures because it’s efficiency (and imperial impetus to it in the early states), but ideologies of capitalism are plural. All ideologues of capitalism, however, try to make their ideological justification for it universal. (Just like the religions do). It’s success is not predicated on that: it’s predicated on the fact that it is initially more efficient than most prior forms of organization. The list of reifications (sexism, racism, ecocide, etc) are abstractions of human relations–they are not real, you cannot fight them in that sense. Some of epiphenomenal to capitalist culture: racism and sexism are not dependent on capitalism, but existed prior and were easily incorporated into it as a means of
assigning class. Reductionistic Marxists who claim that racism is just a class development completely miss the boat on this, but so to are the non-Marxist leftists who see a litany of oppression(s) that are somehow necessarily conflated into one whole. We can see scission at work here, can’t we? Until we can offer a productive form that can answer capitalism, we aren’t going to transcend all of it, or perhaps, any of it. Conversely, until we can offer a political praxis and narrative (myth) that can lead us to a “value” system that could produce said productive form, we are essentially doing eschatology. We don’t defeat capitalism just by trying to develop a pluralist ideology to combat it, even if I think that is necessary.

2. Just as a matter of empirical fact: representative democracy is the fastest growing state form, but it does not rule the world. At least 1/6 to 1/3 of the world’s populations do not live in representative democracies and the democracies of both the US and EU have most of their state functions in undemocratic or only
semi-democratic institutions. Representative democracy is incoherent at its core: in fact, it has a contradiction in it’s very conception and has since far before capitalist modernity. That does not, however, end the drive to make it coherent. That drive to make it coherent has been a liberating feature in the past, but as economic and geo-political conditions change, then this becomes harder to maintain and something that was liberating is now oppressive.

I think that draws out my disagreement with you, but I hope you see that while the disagreement is profound so are the points of agreement. I will let you have the last word as it is my interview of you, and I don’t want to be uncharitable by responding with a highly philosophical and long form of my polemical engagement with you. Anyway, you do give me hope that religious thinkers can come to right conclusions and should be seriously listened to, and not shut out or oppressed out of existence, but I do think ultimately “irreligion and religion” from below will predicated on secular pluralism in any political or social form “the left” (whatever that actually means now) advocates.

C.E.: On your first point of “our disagreement”, I think I see one disagreement and one apparent misunderstanding in this topic. I do *not* advocate any religion or atheism holding state power. As a communist of universal love (I should coin a term like “agapestic communism” maybe? Naah, too Christian.) with anarchist tendencies, if there is some transitional state apparatus constructed after the revolution, I see it as very limited, with most power being exercised in direct democratic councils that are specifically constructed to be pluralistic in matters of religion. I envision ecumenical and interfaith consultations being conducted that work out specifically religious conflicts, in contrast to directly economic and political ones. Of course, most religious conflicts will overlap with these other sorts, but disentangling the overlaps is still a substantive religious task. Interactions between religious and irreligious groups will be conducted in keeping with democratic, libertarian, and egalitarian forms.

Before the revolution, I advocate socialist, anarchist, and other left organizations partnering with religious leftists to highlight the diversity of ways that revolutionary goals and values can be justified and propagated by a plethora of atheist and religious “political theologies.” Christian, Islamic, Buddhist and atheist “theologies” of religious pluralism have already been developed in academic forms, these need to be taken on explicitly by revolutionaries and advocated in the public square.

So, the revolution will be pluralistic and no religion or atheism will lead it. In a majority Christian society like the U.S. this means we need to work to change the politics of the churches, mosques, and synagogues more than their theologies, which will subtly or overtly change their theologies, but the horse of political goals needs to lead the cart of religious reformation. This means convincing those in the religious and irreligious camps to come to political agreements that are justifiable from diverse theological and atheological premises.

On the second point of our disagreement, I am not sure where we actually disagree there. I would probably emphasize even more the horrendous effects of State-sponsored atheism on civil liberties and social freedoms. The massacres, imprisonments, and repression of priests, monks, and lay religious adherents by some Communist powers are simply staggering and appalling. Atheism is no guarantee of fair jurisprudence or policing.

The mutual hostility between Christians, Muslims, and Jews cannot be solved by a purely secular approach. These groups need to engage in a decades-long reconciliation process. This has been initiated by various bodies on all sides and the work of disentangling genuinely religious issues from non-religious ones is in part a theological work that cannot be carried out by atheists, though they should be brought into the dialogues as well. There is actually a movement for “interfaith humanism” being formed by younger folks who are getting involved in ecumenical and interfaith organizations to work out how to contribute to better understanding across the secular/religious divides. The blog nonprophetstatus.com is dedicated to this work.

You’re dialectical points in third section are little bit abstract. I am less than fully comprehending your totality/scission construct here. I don’t doubt that there’s valuable ideas in there, but it’d take some work on the background assumptions you employ to grasp some of this. If I can really vulgarize it, you seem to be saying that the quest for absolutism cannot be tamed within a pluralist framework, that a more robust secularism needs to be enforced so that absolutists can’t find the means to re-assert their dominance. My objection to that is, who the hell decides who enforces secularism? It’s democratic turtles all the way up and down the revolutionary social structure, to infinity.

Is absolutism a constant drive? Well, your darling Hegel was certainly an absolutist and Marx learned quite well from him. Not to be harsh on either of them, but I am inclined to believe that absolutism is actually a neurosis, sometimes a psychosis. It certainly was in my case. Is the very concept of an infinite creator an absolutism that has to be restrained by a secular functional atheism? There are grounds within the classic monotheisms for pluralism such as the notion of universal sinfulness, the critique of hypocritical religion, mercy & forgiveness, the very fact that this infinite creator doesn’t itself wipe out unbelievers wholesale, mystical incomprehensibility of the nature of G-d, the Golden rule, etc.

On the first point of my “misunderstanding,” I think we’re talking around similar issues, but you come at the problem of e.g. religious, male, white supremacy from the assumptions of Marxism, yet see Marxism’s limits so you move away slowly from Marxist ones towards a more complex formulation. I come from a religious supremacist viewpoint initially, moving away somewhat rapidly, but often not rapid enough, towards a pluralistic revolutionary viewpoint. Neither of us are reductionists, but we do think some things like capitalism have to remain close to the top of our revolutionary priorities, so we approach incorporating anti-capitalism with political theology from different directions. Maybe we’ll meet in the middle somewhere, but maybe our initial starting-points are on different planes, so we always just miss each other.

I conceptualize the multiple systems of domination not in terms of capitalism, racism, sexism, etc. at the most fundamental level, but as power inequalities between agents moving through collectively constructed relational networks situated within the ecosphere of planet earth. Capitalism, racism, religious/irreligious supremacism, ecocide, and sexism are constructed by (mostly) white ruling class males (with some female and non-white collaborators) to deploy multiple power dynamics, with some dominators spending more energy on maintaining gender inequities, and others more focused on economic ones, etc. In the end, they are all constructs of the ruling classes. The subordinate collectives (who are often already the construct of the matrix of domination) construct their counter-systems in opposition to some of the ruling classes’ powers, but these have historically been much weaker than the power of the ruling classes. The revolutionary break will occur when a progressive convergence of key oppositional constructs focuses enough social power to actually permanently undermine the stability of the ruling classes’ hegemonies.

On the second part of that, representative democracy is the public form that legitimizes the governments and, by tacit implication, the ruling classes of the US and Europe, which from there rule the world. I didn’t mean to suggest that every government on the planet is a representative democracy, nor that this form is the actual dominant power. Representative democracy and capitalism as paired terms functions as a sort of syndecoche for the current forms of the matrix of domination.

I’ve been dismissive of secularism in part because both its Communist and Liberal Democratic forms have only aggravated religious tensions and hostilities worldwide, which are embedded within the economic, racial, and political systems of domination. The working-classes, women, people of color, and ignorant masses of the world are predominately religious. Their absolutisms aren’t the absolutism of the powerful, but of the excluded and dominated. They absolutely believe that G-d or Buddha or whatever Final Judge may exist will exonerate them as innocent victims of unjust suffering. Just as science needs immutable natural laws to reach useful knowledge, humans needs a kind of moral certainty to demand justice in this world. Religion is far more capable of this than is atheism. In a world where the poor are finally emancipated then, maybe, religion will wither away like the Communist State.

S.: My last word is this: when the absolutism of below has power, what will tame it? There seems be a essentialization of people in there some where that assumes that having power won’t cah be the characters of the oppressed. My own Jewish roots make me skeptical of that given the history of Zionism and orthodoxy when the diaspora is ended. In a strange way, you talk more Hegelian than I do when it comes to religious progress: I don’t think there is an end to history nor do I think that religious moral certainty is actually all that certain in some key way atheistic frameworks aren’t. I don’t think you believe that either, but the language creeps back in. That’s the leap I don’t see since as we have both agreed that religious thinking change from things outside itself and internal to believers in a non-religious way, the moral certainty of individuals will come from somewhere. It may have been born of the church or innate to our biology, I suspect it’s somewhere in between. I think absolutism in second order logic is unavoidable as even the claim of epistemic relativism is an absolute claim in the second order. Those formal tensions to the way we structure thought have politically implications, but I definitely see the issue with enforced irreligion. That will turn most of those on that opium into raging addicts in withdrawal. No better way to make reactionaries than to make martyrs, and no better hypocrisy than that either.

C.E.: I don’t worry about some of these things, because I do see most political actions as practice that justifies its behavior retrospectively. I don’t think there is a way to give everyone a set of correct political opinions, nor a complete philosophical framework. You and I and many of our interlocutors do try and create philosophical frameworks to reach correct political opinions, but invariably, we are quite imperfect at this task. The Christians, left or right, are often victims of the Reformation’s insistence on correct “faith” which gets reduced to holding a correct set of propositional beliefs. Catholic ideas of orthopraxy mattering more than orthodoxy is quite in keeping with a late modern post-Marxist political situation in which we don’t have the luxury of believing in revolutionary inevitability.

So, we intervene where we can, imperfectly. For me, Christians are the people with whom I am most likely to discuss politics, whether it’s my conservative Republican mother, brother, and sister, or my Green Party wife (who I think voted from Obama in 2008), or the various young theologians I have the pleasure to know, or various Christian Quakers. My perception that there simply are not enough atheists to carry out a revolution in the U.S. leads me to think that I have to continue to work within that reality.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,417 other followers