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.


  1. El Mono Liso · March 9, 2013

    This resonates with me, not only as a nominal unorthodox Catholic, but as an amateur religious anthropologist. Really, if you are going to counterpose “science” to religion, it is best to actually go to the root of where contemporary “scientific discourse” came from, and, horror of horrors, it came from religion and people with specifically religious inclinations: the Renaissance Neoplatonists, the High Medieval Scholastics, Aristotle and the prime mover, etc. The more skilled Christian apologists are able to put up a good argument amounting to something akin to “you got science from us, you nincompoops!”, and they are in part right. So much of the New Atheism and bourgeois Internet secularism smacks of intellectually unsophisticated, popularized drivel (mad props for the hyperlinks, by the way). There is a good argument to be had that, if it weren’t for Jesus, those New Atheists would still be worshiping trees. (Not that there is anything wrong with worshiping trees, but that is another story).

    As for your key questions, “What is religion?”, that is a damn good question. As you point out, throughout history, people didn’t really know that they were “doing religion” as opposed to just doing anything else, since what we now think of religion and daily life were so intimately linked that they didn’t know when one thing began and another ended. This is the luxury of modernity, I think. The other tendency that modern, and more specifically Protestant people, fall into is equating “official religion” with religion as people experience it. That is insinuated in this essay, but it bears drawing out. Catholicism, for example, is not exclusively what the Pope says it is, in spite of pretensions to the contrary. Parallel to “official” religion is an “unofficial” one, or folk religion, and for the most part, even at its most superstitious, this type of religion is often quite subversive. One thing that comes to mind are the various “folk canonizations” of social bandits in Latin America, such as Gauchito Gil in Argentina, intersecting with Hobsbawm’s work. None of these cults are approved by the official church, and are often condemned by it. Really, if I were to give my dime store definition of religion, or religious experience for the majority of humanity, it would be something like it being an excuse to have a party, draw cool shit, have something to turn to when things go horribly wrong, and mark the various stages of life and death. All of the ideological morality, dogmas, adherence to institutions, etc. were secondary, if they factored in at all for the “average believer”.

    The bottom line: I have to agree with the general point of the essay. If you don’t know what religion is, or your view of religion has not altered from the scholarship available c. 1917, just shut up, because you are embarrassing yourself.

  2. liam · March 9, 2013

    What i gather from reading Dawkins’ texts is that he I’d more concerned with what is true, the fact that religion has caused many ills and some good is secondary. Because religion could be the best thing on earth but that would not make it true.

    Unfortunately I think there is a lot of strawmanning of Dawkins here, the author of this post wants to ascribe many views and actions to Dawkins, but not once is there a reference to a quote, or a piece by him to confirm this.

    I get that this post is more targeted to those who enjoy reading Dawkins’ and perhaps acting on it, but I don’t think it is fair to say “Dawkins is guilty of X, Y and Z” and provide not a single piece of evidence for it. (In that spirit, here is evidence for my initial claim http://youtu.be/99UlZEflXbc).

    Dawkins’ himself is unlikely concerned with the ‘bigger fish’ that the author is talking about. This is an assumption of mine, but him being a left of centre Oxford biology professor, his battles are his own and unlikely the same as a socialist revolutionary that the Author appears to be.

    On the subject of those who read his work and follow with action. I would say that there is a certain level of truth to it. An atheist socialist should not be concerned that a comrade may ascribe to ‘liberation theology’ in so far that many of the goals are the same. And it may be a foolish wasted opportunity to avoid working together if the goals are the same but certain parts of ideology are irrelevantly different. But many of the most totalitarian, patriarchal, oppressive societies that exist today are theocracies. For the liberation of the people of Iran for example, absolutely requires the removal of the Ayatollah and the religious structure that props him up. For any society to be free, it’s institutions of control MUST be secular. Whether that is some sort of top down state socialism, mutualism, or communal anarchism, any institution that can exert power or influence over someone in any kind of coercive manner MUST be secular, and must be to serve the people, not to serve a supreme ruler of the universe.

  3. David Roden · March 9, 2013

    The argument that religion is a vague, contextually-defined, or deconstructible is as obvious as it is trivial and irrelevant. According to some functionalist accounts of religion Marxism should be accounted a religion. The urgent issue is secularism. Any soi-disant leftism that supports the collective rights to deny right of withdrawal or to impose their beliefs on others within a pluralist society is a pre-liberal regression that should be flushed down the toilet of history. And since when did name calling (“Enlightenment hold-over”) constitute an argument anyway?

  4. Pingback: Why the Left Needs to Be Agnostic about Religion: Part I | CriticAtac

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