On Atheism and the Left

I have long been meaning to write about atheism and the Left. The Q&A with Dawkins and Pell, and Jeff Sparrow’s long and thoughtful essay are as good an opportunity as any.

There is much in what Sparrow wrote with which I agree, and much of it needed to be said. I am for public advocacy of atheism, and I relish the mockery of all religions, which they all deserve. However, this is because I am a rationalist.

Bertrand Russell once outlined what he considered crucial intellectual virtues:

The pursuit of philosophy is founded on the belief that knowledge is good, even if what is known is painful. A man imbued with the philosophic spirit, whether a professional philosopher or not, will wish his beliefs to be as true as he can make them, and will, in equal measure, love to know and hate to be in error. This principle has a wider scope than may be apparent at first sight. Our beliefs spring from a great variety of causes: what we were told in youth by parents and school-teachers, what Powerful organizations tell us in order to make us act as they wish, what either embodies or allays our fears, what ministers to our self-esteem, and so on. Any one of these causes may happen to lead us to true beliefs, but is more likely to lead us in the opposite direction. Intellectual sobriety, therefore, will lead us to scrutinize our beliefs closely, with a view to discovering which of them there is any reason to believe true. If we are wise, we shall apply solvent criticism especially to the beliefs that we find it most painful to doubt, and to those most likely to involve us in violent conflict with men who hold opposite but equally groundless beliefs. If this attitude could become common…

Well … just imagine all of the good that might follow.

Immanuel Kant once wrote an essay on the Enlightenment, where he basically explained that the Enlightenment was learning to think for oneself. As recognised by Russell, if we don’t use our reason to think for ourselves, our beliefs will simply come from elsewhere. Beliefs that satisfy our base emotional urges are likely to be more easily accepted. Such beliefs come from somewhere – whether they’re told to us by powerful institutions that can spread their messages when we grow up, or the educational and religious institutions that shape most of us as children. Spreading rationalism as a goal – the use of reason to think for yourself – is liberating. People who do not or cannot use their own reason will be either suggestible or intellectually obedient.

WK Clifford wrote, in his Ethics of Belief, that

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it – the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

It is degrading to simply believe what you were told as a child. And I think, for those who did not grow up in a religious environment, it is very easy to miss the sense in which religion is repressive.

I attended a modern orthodox Jewish school. Putting aside Zionism, which also serves as a secular religion – and is far more fanatically held and more pervasively believed in – the school officially believed in and promoted the type of Judaism which most Jews in Australia don’t practice, but with which they are affiliated. I could never in my life believe in a God – an all-powerful, all-knowing, totally moral being – who cared whether I used electricity on Shabbat. I could not believe in a God who thought it of all-consuming importance that I not eat certain types of food.

And that’s to put aside the morally dubious nature of the Torah – which I read in the holidays after I finished high school, together with the commentary (a rather hefty task). Like where God says that a man who lies with another man is an abomination and should be put to death. Or where God ordered Moses to kill all the male Midianites, but only kill the women who aren’t virgins. The Jewish god is monumentally petty.

When I had finished school, I visited a church, and spoke to my first Christian minister. I was quite surprised to find out the basics of Christian theology. I was informed that we were all sinners. I asked why, and was told – well, have you ever told a lie? Or looked at a woman with lust?

Not being Christian, I did not realise that these were considered grave wrongs. Indeed, in Judaism, I never encountered anything like the idea that lust was wrong. I encountered plenty of the stuff that John Safran has been talking about on his TV program – that I’m not meant to be with gentile women (called derogatorily shikses), because to make a non-Jewish baby would be ‘continuing Hitler’s work’. However, within the Jewish community, things like sex and lust were never treated as sinful or in any way bad.

This may be worth extended reflection, but for the purpose of this essay, I just wanted to note: having spoken to Christians and people who were brought up as Christian, I learned how repressive Christianity is. I think there is a lot to be said for encouraging people to think for themselves, to become intellectually independent, and to help create an intellectual atmosphere where, at the very least, people know that they have choices.

One of the things I liked about Jeff’s essay was that he showed how stridently anti-religion the Left used to proudly be. Many other examples could be given. Paul Avrich wrote about how Jewish anarchists used to hold balls on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year. Even today, many otherwise non-religious Jews follow the stricture that they are supposed to fast from sunset to sunset, and are not allowed any food at all. For many, it is the one day of the year they go to synagogue. The calculated joyous defiance of such blasphemy is a pleasure to contemplate for the offence it would have caused (they also reportedly ate pig meat).

Today, most writers on the radical left seem to be atheists or at the very least very secular. Yet they are not the ones who write about atheism so much. In a way, I think this makes sense. Mostly, they have greater political priorities. In places where it matters, there are harsh critics of religious institutions and their practices. In Australia, most people are not religious. Or, as Peter Slezak pointed out in his essay, published in Overland, there are secular religions that are more prevalent. There is worship of the state, patriotism and nationalism. And of course, the ‘religion’ that ‘markets know best’. This is the kind of thing people on the Left tend to be more concerned about.

For a rationalist, it makes sense to focus energies on such thing. The important thing is not that one particular form of irrationalism be challenged: it is to advocate against all forms of irrationalism. And if one particular type possesses particular moral weight, it is important to focus on that issue before more trivial sorts.

To give an example, Bertrand Russell was one of the great critics of religion of the twentieth century. He publicly identified as an agnostic, though in his autobiography he seems closer to atheism. Russell was one of the most passionate advocates of Enlightenment values one would ever find. When the First World War came around, he opposed it. The rest of England – and indeed, much of the world – was gripped in the passionate throes of patriotic fervour. It was one of the most challenging periods of his life, as he felt himself completely isolated in a wave of jingoism. So, Russell threw himself into challenging his society, boldly using (and losing) his respectability in an utterly futile bid to oppose the cruel, senseless slaughter. Russell lost his job and was thrown into prison. Yet, whilst he was free, Russell worked against the war with the handful of sane people left in his society – many of them Quakers.

Almost a hundred years ago, a front with the religious against societal irrationalism was made by a man I doubt anyone would accuse of pandering to irrationalism, or of being soft on religion. And, in a sense, this is a real problem with what are called the New Atheists. Slezak’s essay notes the Socratic tradition – how Socrates would confront people, and tell them how ignorant they were, how little they knew, and why they need to examine themselves. The atheist triumphalism, where they all congratulate each other on how rational they are, is simply embarrassing. Someone can be right about this or that religion, and still be an idiot or utterly irrational. As Orwell once said, ‘the enemy is the gramophone mind’, regardless of whether one agrees with the record that is being played.

The easiest example of this, I think, is the case of Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens supported the genocide of the Native Americans as ‘the way that history is made’, and would celebrate it with ‘vim and gusto’. He believed – and faithfully recited – all of the Bush administration’s lies about the invasion of Iraq. The man became a vulgar state propagandist, a purveyor of nonsense in service of the state. And Dawkins – who opposed the war on Iraq – still celebrated him, declaring Hitchens’ ‘very character became an outstanding and unmistakable symbol of the honesty and dignity of atheism, as well as of the worth and dignity of the human being when not debased by the infantile babblings of religion.’

To criticise one set of ‘infantile babblings’ whilst endorsing or remaining silent about a different type is not to be a rationalist. It is to set up a self-congratulatory society. Look at us, we’re so smart, we don’t believe in irrational nonsense. Well, perhaps you do. The challenge for rationalists ought to be the one Socrates set for us: to constantly question our beliefs, knowing that we, too, could be wrong.

Years ago, I watched a debate on religion where the atheist side was represented by Dawkins, Hitchens, and the lesser known British atheist AC Grayling. I had a softer spot for Grayling, an old-school British liberal. Besides his harsh critique of religion, he has opposed the erosion of civil liberties in the name of the so-called war on terrorism. In the debate, he charmingly challenged religion on what I regard as perhaps its greatest weak point: how it advises us to live.

And then, the disillusionment. In the New York Times, Grayling offered advice to the army occupying Iraq about how it could effectively fight the insurgency. He thinks one suggestion may be to ‘cordon off the most toxic part of the Sunni Triangle, letting nobody in or out except under stringent controls at the perimeter, across which only food and medicine could move’ ¬– a British liberal advising an occupying army how it can effectively fight a war!

Compare that to Eqbal Ahmad, who described himself as a ‘harsh secularist’ in a country where it actually mattered, Pakistan. He wrote analysis of how an insurgency could effectively win. In short, he was on the other side.

Surprisingly, Grayling once had a chance to actually say something about religion in a forum where it may have mattered. He took part in what was called an ‘Intercivilisational Dialogue’. The other people in the dialogue were Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former military dictator, and Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal al Saud.

An opportunity of a lifetime for a harsh atheist, no? Listen to how polite and timid he was. I vainly tried to find a word of criticism for Pakistan or Saudi Arabia (or both) for their role in pushing, promoting and institutionalising the most hideous, reactionary and oppressive forms of Islam on the planet. If you don’t have an hour and a half to listen, I will spare you the search: it’s not there.

This is the Prince Turki, who thought Osama Bin Laden was ‘generally a do-gooder’.

Take, on the other hand, As’ad AbuKhalil. He wrote possibly the most scholarly and trenchant denunciation of the House of Saud in The Battle for Saudi Arabia. Watch him on youtube, whenever he gets the chance, denouncing the Kingdom in the most withering terms.

As I fear for the length of my writings, I will conclude. The point I would like to make is that I still regard atheism as an important and worthy thing to advocate for. However, I do not think the cause of atheism is well served when atheists agree to overlook forms of irrationalism, in favour of making some kind of united front, as though religion is the one great and worthy form of silly belief that should be challenged.

I also share Jeff’s concern that atheism sometimes just serves as a vehicle for the denunciation of Muslims as primitive and bloodthirsty savages who can’t be reasoned with. It is interesting to note, Maxime Rodinson wrote extensively about Islam, and wrote one of the most respected biographies of Mohammed there is today. Yet his tone is respectful and cautious, not one of shrill ridicule. His goal was to advance understanding, not to posture as uniquely intelligent and reasonable. I think the project of challenging religion is worthwhile. But if those who do so end their project at religion, they are performing a disservice to the cause of the very Enlightenment values they claim to champion.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

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  1. Thanks for the kind words about my article. Without wanting to seem churlish, though, I must say I don’t think you’ve understood my argument, which, in many ways, is pretty much the exact opposite of the case you’ve put here.
    That is, the atheism expounded above is not fundamentally different from that of the New Atheists — or, rather, the differences are purely political, a question of strategic orientation rather than methodology.
    What you call the Rationalist tradition, with its focus on religion as an intellectually inadequate system of thought, has a deeply conservative dynamic, with, IMO, the New Atheists drawing the logical conclusion from an approach that sees believers as simply deluded.
    Against that, I argue for a broadly Marxist analysis that understands religion in social terms, an inevitable outgrowth of a society based on exploitation and alienation. Rather than stressing the enlightened individual’s triumph over backwardness, the Marxist argument begins with religion as the product of specific material conditions, and thus orients inevitably in the direction of collective social change, rather than individual enlightenment. As Marx says, it recognises that the struggle against religion is the ‘struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion’.
    That’s why these arguments matter — they have obvious consequences in debates around Islam, etc.

  2. Hi Jeff. My intention wasn’t really to praise what you wrote, as much as to talk about religion and the left, preferring to think about it broadly in response to your writings, than those of Dawkins v Pell. I did disagree with at least some of what you wrote – but when I hit around 2000 words, I thought I should start wrapping up. I don’t regard as universally satisfactory the approach to religion as “opiate of the masses”, sigh of the oppressed, decorating their chains or whatever. I mean, in Gaza, people may support Hamas because it provides social services. But even in Gaza, this doesn’t mean there are no secular alternatives, or that there aren’t people in Gaza who struggle both against the occupation, and for secularism etc. But more obviously, I’m not sure of the Marxist analysis in a place like Australia. We’re mostly secular. If there’s less exploitation and alienation here, wouldn’t that mean, if one subscribed to the Marxist analysis, that it’s the perfect time to advocate atheism? Wouldn’t that mean people are more susceptible to it in the West, where conditions are better (and where in the richer, more social democratic countries, people are more likely to be non-religious)? But regardless – I’m not sure what you wrote is actually inconsistent with what’s above. Someone who holds a belief about the empirical world, which is factually incorrect, is deluded. That those delusions serve certain desires and needs doesn’t make them true, or the beliefs valid. It may mean that the only way to effectively challenge them is to challenge the cruel world that produces them – but that’s what I don’t accept, and argue against above. I think, firstly, people who belong to any group are perfectly capable of free thought. And it is within religious societies that one can often find the harshest critics of religion. As’ad AbuKhalil, Eqbal Ahmad, Malalai Joya (and on and on). I think there is such a thing as individual enlightenment, and it matters. Religion is one form in which people can be mentally enslaved, but is not the only one. I don’t think it’s adequate to regard the struggle against religion as a collective struggle, as though if religion is overcome, people will never have to learn to think for themselves. Now, the manner of the struggle may vary, and people may say this or that form of belief can be challenged collectively or individually – but every single individual person, if they are to be free, has to learn to think for him or herself, and religion is but one example of this. I don’t think that’s conservative. It is, in my view, the epitomy of libertarianism (left or right), to begin with freedom by situating it in the individual.

    I think I’ve rambled a bit. I guess as I thought it through more, we do disagree. But I did think we disagree, I just didn’t write out why in my original essay.

  3. I think there is a far too excessive reliance on Marx’s early writings when people talk about a ‘Marxist’ analysis of religion; significantly they draw on work that was prior to his own materialism.

    I think that what Marx wrote ought to be located within a much longer process. For example, Spinoza is really the first modern critic of religion, but the way he presents it isn’t about religion: it is about superstition. The problem with religious practices (in essence, the various particular issues aside) is that obscure a genuine connection with the world. I think Spinoza gets something of this from Hobbes, though also from his reading of both Arab and Jewish conceptions of God. Hobbes was someone who very early on ‘placed’ religion within a materialist analysis of the formation of society. He opposed those anthropocentric accounts of God as a person with volition, &c. He locates God as the point where our search for the causes of effects is exhausted. Anyway, I think that what Hobbes and Spinoza kick-off is a movement against superstition, rather than religion per se: it is anachronistic to call either an atheist.

    I think Marx takes this up in his Dissertation and continues to develop it. But I do think his whole idea of alienation needs to be taken with great circumspection: it tends to be itself part of a superstitious and mystified conception of life, as Marxism itself has historically been rather non-secular. (there are so many account of great Marxist intellectuals, include those I respect, reporting that they really never understood some aspect of Marxism, but taught it anyway, in a sort of Pascalian way)

    Rather than alienation, I think notion of ideology that Marx develops is fundamentally to do with an opposition to superstition, and part of that line of thought that began with Hobbes and Spinoza. What is needed isn’t an account of religion as alienation, but as ideology. (And ideology here simply refers to, say, the first level of knowledge in Plato – which of course isn’t knowledge at all.)

    In this way I think that the supposed rationalism of those philosophy’s that model themselves on science, like Russell’s, can themselves be exposed as closer to religion than they would like to be. Any practice involves ideological conceptions which form that basis from which other things develop. Science and religion share this. For example no on can prove that the objects of a huge amount of theoretical physics exist, (aprés Planck) they are objects of faith.

  4. Well, that’s worth clarifying. IMO, the passage above provides an almost perfect illustration of my point about the political dynamic of that particular methodology, since in the space of a few paragraphs, you’ve moved, seemingly without realising it, from an attack on the New Atheists to a de facto defence of them (since there’s little you say above with which either Dawkins or Hitchens would disagree, including the strange mischaracterisation of Marx). Flat out at work now but will try to respond in length later, though I must say, I am getting quite tired of debating atheism. 🙁

  5. Oops. Just crossed over with the last comment. My remarks are a response to Michael, not Wrong Arithmetic.

  6. Yeah, well I largely agree with the critique of religion, so that’s not a point of divergence between me and them (or between many leftist atheists and them either).

  7. For mine, and without saying any more, Eagleton on religion is more interesting and pertinent than those cited in the main blog.

  8. Not certain what a rationalist is, but if it discounts the worth of nonsense then it’s not for me. I am an aetheist, but, godammit, some of us can go on and on about it. For instance, Dawkins can be as pompous as any pope, and surely no one could beat de Botton in a being pious competition. From now on I think I’ll just call myself a non-believer and leave it at that.

  9. I find this argument patronisingly colonial – the idea that people who subscribe to an ideology are incapable of independent or intelligent thought; that others have achieved ‘individual enlightenment’ and are here to lead the enslaved out of their fog.

    Reducing religion and its role in society to adults consoling themselves with fairytales (or superstitions) while privileging ‘Rationality’ – as if it in itself is not an ideology – makes no sense.

    There are lots of things that people believe – that climate change is a myth, that capitalism is a functioning system – which tell us nothing about that belief or the role it plays in society.

    1. Interesting point re: patrionising colonial. Watching Dawkins last week and his self-importance reminded me of an old colonial who thought his way was the only way.

      As an atheist myself my problem with the New Atheists is their self-rightouesness tone of them. Maybe there is a need to be more aggressive in a country like the States but I’m not really sure.

      Also surprised in that Hitchens atheism never thoroughly critiqued Bus for the way he tied up his Christianity with the War on Iraq and Afgahnistan. It seems a gapping hole in his belief. We’ll attack one religious belief whilst not attacking another.

      In some sense it shows that his atheism doesn’t go far enough in critiquing the links between religion and politics in the west.

  10. I feel like I’ve written this a million times now but once more into the breach, I guess.
    One of the difficulties of Michael’s New Atheist approach is that it reduces religion merely to ideas. In the real world, that’s self-evidently inadequate, since religion doesn’t manifest simply through ideas but is rather an inexhaustibly protean phenomenon that offers believers many different (and sometimes contradictory) satisfactions. People in Gaza might support Hamas because of its provision of services. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t simultaneously see Islam as providing a sense of historical continuity, a feeling of solidarity, a way of thinking about politics, a familiar cultural referent, an answer to existential angst, or any number of other things. To say they are ‘deluded’ about these (‘deluded’ about feeling solidarity?) is obviously inadequate, almost a category error.
    When you put the problem in this way, you can see how politically problematic it is to say, as Michael does, that we should relish ‘the mockery of all religions, which they all deserve’. There’s nothing remotely progressive about mocking, say, a sense of togetherness or a loyalty to a community, both of which are central to what many ordinary people take from their religion.
    Michael says he doesn’t understand the Marxist argument about religion in the context of Australia where there’s ‘less exploitation and alienation’. (Of course, in Marx’s sense, there’s actually more exploitation and alienation in Australia than in Palestine but let’s leave that aside.) Well, precisely because religion isn’t simply a set of ideas, secular modernity can foster religiousity just as much or even more than economic backwardness – neoliberalism, for instance, simultaneously disenchants the world and creates the yearning for its reenchantment, a tendency best expressed through movements like Hillsong, whose supporters are not harking back to old traditions so much as forging an acutely modern and high-tech church.
    But part of the problem with vulgar atheism is that it doesn’t have a notion of ideology, and so instead expresses itself through simple dichotomies between ‘truth’, on the one hand, and ‘delusion’, on the other. Ideology doesn’t work like that. It’s neither true nor false, so much as partial – an inversion of genuine insight.
    By way of explanation, let’s think about the ALP. Now Michael presumably agrees that Laborism will not deliver progressive change. But millions of ordinary people disagree with him, and continue to vote Labor at each election. Why? Are they deluded?
    Well, yes and no. Actually, Laborism persists precisely because it fits most people’s experiences of the world, most of the time – their sense that change can only come gradually, is usually delivered from above, requires ‘clever people’ to work within the system, etc, etc.
    What follows from that? Should we simply mock Labor supporters? Should we point out to them that, unlike clever Leftists, they are ‘mentally enslaved’?
    Actually, that’s one traditional approach to Laborism. Not surprisingly, it’s always yielded disastrous results.
    In reality, the people who join the ALP are not stupid. Indeed, many of the most serious working class activists end up in the Labor Party, precisely because it seems like a much more serious commitment than any fringe left group or philosophy.
    Rather than simply berating them, it’s much more useful to work alongside them on joint campaigns, on the basis that a common experience is more persuasive than mere argumentation, while simultaneously recognizing that mass disillusionment with Labor (on a progressive basis, anyway) is only likely when the world itself changes so that political options that once seemed foreclosed suddenly seem realistic.
    Now the analogy is not exact, at least in part because breaking with Laborism is far more important (and difficult) than breaking with religion. But you can see the comparison. Yes, there is an argument against Labor ideas. Yes, it is one that the Left should make, sometimes forcefully. But to think that Laborism will be overcome simply by argumentation, well, that’s the real delusion.
    ‘I largely agree with the critique of religion,’ says Michael in his last comment, ‘so that’s not a point of divergence between me and [the New Atheists]’).
    Given that the New Atheists define themselves by their critique of religion (they don’t, for instance, have a shared political platform), I must say I no longer really understand the point of his intervention. Yes, he disagrees politically with Hitchens, Harris, etc. But given how right-wing they are, surely that goes without saying — it’s not something he needs to share.
    The real question is rather to do with the connection between their atheism and the obnoxious politics they represent. Unfortunately, if anything, I think Michael’s become more muddled on that in the comments then in his initial argument.
    Let’s try to be specific.
    In the Australian context, one way to address these questions concretely relates to the Left’s attitude to Indigenous spirituality. As I said, Michael announces he is for the ‘mockery of all religions, which they all deserve’. In practice, though, one imagines he does not employ this particular methodology in discussions about Indigenous culture, just as, presumably, he doesn’t tell people seeking to defend a sacred site that they’re ‘mentally enslaved’. Why? Because, in context, it’s simply obvious that Indigenous culture (including Indigenous spirituality) cannot be subsumed under the heading of ‘irrationalism’. Indigenous people who articulate a spirituality are declaring their pride in their culture, their background, their opposition to oppression and many other things as well. Though I’m an atheist and thus do not share their spiritual ideas (any more than I share those of a Muslim), I do not think they are silly or delusional (or whatever else) to hold them. And that, I think, illustrates a general methodology, which is fundamentally incompatible with the childish ‘I’m not afraid of the boogeyman’ approach of the New Atheists and their apologists.

  11. I think Jeff and I are both tired of the issue, so I’ll try to be brief. I believe that there is a left-wing atheist space, which would in some ways be similar to that of Dawkins et al – with some reservations. For example, Dawkins argues against belief in god. I think it is probably more important to critique the role of religion, and advocate secularism.

    Jeff, I think, conflates religion with culture to some extent, then wonders how religion in its cultural aspects can be empirically false. I think that this is either a failure of mine to communicate above, or a failure to understand what I meant when I wrote “Someone who holds a belief about the empirical world, which is factually incorrect, is deluded.” It is an entirely separate question as to how it is best to address when someone has a mistaken belief. But I mean, I’ve always considered myself Jewish – I know perfectly well religion has cultural aspects and so on. I am still not an admirer of the religion, I think the sense of community it provides is very insular, and xenophobic. There’s a wonderful exchange between Edward Said and Michael Walzer about a lousy book by Walzer, where Said says – well, you’ve excluded the Canaanite from your world of moral concern. I think that’s perfectly right. Does this mean the rationalist should condemn, sight unseen, religions that she or he doesn’t know about, and when such condemnation won’t actually help anyone? When it’s unlikely to be received positively? Well, I don’t think the answers are hard to reach, or that they’re inconsistent with what I’ve written above. If I say that I’ve read and greatly enjoyed Mark Twain mocking Christianity, or Israel Shahak’s wonderful book on what he calls classical Judaism, I don’t see how it follows that I should investigate each and every Indigenous culture (note the shift from *religion*) (and note also – not just one) and make fun of them. To make it more concrete (and less favourable to my side, I think), Henry Reynolds wrote in Other Side of the Frontier that there were Aboriginal peoples who resisted colonisers with magic. Were these beliefs accurate in their own way?

    Or take Marcia Langton, who furiously condemned Larissa Behrendt, writing that Aboriginal people should treat older women with respect. Supposing Langton’s rendering was accurate: I don’t respect such a POV. There are factors which influence how an atheist should respond to religious beleifs – and I’ve outlined some I think are significant above. But the general principle – that we should try to think for ourselves – I think is basic. And much of the rest misses the point. If religion is overcome, that doesn’t mean people will suddenly start thinking for themselves.

    I’m happy to end the argument here, but will read any replies.

  12. Michael, you write that “Someone who holds a belief about the empirical world, which is factually incorrect, is deluded.” This doesn’t help us explain the fact that through most of human history most people have held many empirically false beliefs, some of which have been “religious” in character.

    In employing a quasi-psychiatric category you then don’t have to seriously deal with why and how people deploy systems of belief and meaning in order to understand (and inform) our practical activity in the world. Nor how systems of explanation must necessarily include falsehoods when there are gaps in empirical knowledge, and what causes those gaps to occur (not just a lack of scientific instrumentation but the social structures and underdeveloped conceptualisations which we bring to their interrogation).

    Was Newton “deluded” because his theory of gravity was partial and rested on assumptions about the world that we now know are not true? Of course not.

    Conceptions of the world have to be tested and retested in the course of practical activity, which is always socially bound. So there may be a “material world” outside human activity and social relations, but it can only accessed and its elements verified “empirically” through social activity (e.g. the practice of physics) carried out by real human beings in particular historical times.

    Therefore I’d suggest that the idea of “thinking for ourselves” is a misleading abstraction, implying that we can somehow rise above these determinate social and historical circumstances and our own position in them, in order to obtain some greater truth simply through a process of thought (rather than collective social activity).

    I’m not suggesting there is no difference between science and religion, but without recognising the ideological aspects of both we end up in a crude counterposition favoured by the New Atheist cabal. It also ends up being an elitist way of seeing things, in which an enlightened minority gets to scoff at its lessers without having to consider how social relations have not only created such hierarchies, but how they shape the ideas people have to explain those hierarchies.

    I think your way of looking at this question is inimical to how Left atheists should deal with these issues, because (quite opposed to your intentions) your approach leads in a deeply elitist direction.

  13. Tad: I’ll just take up: “It also ends up being an elitist way of seeing things, in which an enlightened minority gets to scoff at its lessers”

    No it’s not. Because anyone who takes rationalist values seriously would be very wary about thinking that they are rational unlike other people. The attitude is much more like the Socratic challenge – everyone is an idiot, no one knows anything, and Socrates wisdom was in his scepticism.

  14. Um. People decide for themselves. “deluded” is just a pejorative word for mistaken. Saying someone is mistaken about their religious beliefs is not radical. It’s like saying person x is mistaken about the ALP/Marxism/gender issues etc. Do you think it’s elitist to disagree with someone about something?

  15. I think what Tad means is that you havent articulated ant critique of the New Atheists’ theory (the existence of which makes it meaningful to group them as ‘the New atheusts’.) Indeed, while the piece above seemed to begin as a critique, it in fact evolved into a defense of their theory, with the critique purely leveled at their more extreme political positions. What you haven’t done is explain where those positions come from — why, for instance, even the ‘left’ of the New Atgeists join in eulogies for Hitchens or give Ali standing ovations. References to ‘arrogance’ aren’t sufficient: as Tad says, it’s a psychological description not a political one and it doesn’t explain why that arrogance is an identifiable trait across the tendency.
    Nor is the appeal to the Socratic scepticism that allegedly defines the Rationalism you defend adequate. Actually, that scepticism, the celebration of ‘thinking for yourself’, was central to the conference. The conference web page features somewhere a quote from Hitchens urging people to do precisely that.
    That’s my real problem with what you’ve argued here — there’s little in it (as a method) with which extreme right wingers like Hitchens would disagree.
    (excuse phone typing)

  16. I think Jeff is right.

    But also, Michael, if “deluded” is actually a proxy word for “mistaken”, then why use it and confuse matters? My guess is that it fits better with the type of mistake you think that believers are making – not just that they get it wrong on this or that aspect of empirical reality, but that there is a systematic aspect to the mistake. That is what “deluded” implies to most people.

    Otherwise, why counterpose atheists to non-atheists when in fact various different kinds of sets of mistaken beliefs, more or less reactionary in character, occur in the minds of both atheists and non-atheists?

    That’s why I asked who gets to decide who is deluded, because by writing extensively on and defending the New Atheist movement (even while attacking its worst aspects) you are effectively arguing that all those who aren’t atheists are not just making a mistake of fact, but are systematically problematic in their thinking. That they cannot think for themselves in the way you would want everyone to think.

    Yet it is hard to credit this dividing line as protecting New Atheists from engaging in the most sickening errors of fact or theory to defend pro-imperialist or Islamophobic convictions, which of course you find as repellent as I do.

    I think Jeff and I would argue that there is a problem with New Atheist theory that leads systematically towards such conclusions. But because you’ve effectively drawn the line between “thinking for ourselves” and failing to do so elsewhere (between atheists and non-atheists), you find it hard to see the right-wing pronouncements of the Four Horsemen as being anything more significant than isolated mistakes among fellow independent thinkers.

    1. Without wanting to completely beat the subject to death, it’s worth noting that there’s been prolonged degeneration of the Left’s treatment on religion.
      This is from Lenin in 1905, written in a context where the church was more or less entirely integrated with Tsarism.

      ‘ …under no circumstances ought we to fall into the error of posing the religious question in an abstract, idealistic fashion, as an “intellectual” question unconnected with the class struggle, as is not infrequently done by the radical-democrats from among the bourgeoisie.

      ‘It would be stupid to think that, in a society based on the endless oppression and coarsening of the worker masses, religious prejudices could be dispelled by purely propaganda methods. It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society.

      ‘No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism. Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.’

      I’m not quoting this to suggest taht Lenin was necessarily that great on religion but just to illustrate that the distinction between the New Atheist approach and a Left position was pretty well established early in the twentieth century.

  17. Excellent exchange. Being a muslim myself I advocate for atheism just because I think people need to be able to not believe. In Pakistan being an atheist is tough but sadly the strain of atheism you see most prominently catching on is of the Dawkins/Hitchens variety- the New Atheism. I personally see the four horsemen no different to the Mullah’s in my country who constantly tell us all that we are all deluded because we don’t have the same understanding of Islam as they would like for us to. This doesn’t just stem from blind faith but certitude, self-righteousness and arrogance. To blanketly declare the other person incapable of exercising their own agency I think is the very elitist as Dr. Tad has stated. Why is it that its automatically assumed that people of faith can’t be rational. Irrationality isn’t just specific to religious ideology but all of them. Because any ideology is just a vehicle to drive our outlook and narrative formed by our experiences. New Atheism in Pakistan has become anti-Islam by default, where mockery of the religion seems to be the prime objective. Still I vehemently support their right to do so. Jeff is right in saying that the New Atheist don’t understand ideology but rather talk in binaries of “truth” and “delusion”. I don’t think I can add more to what’s already been said by Jeff, Tad and others. Thank you Michael for sparking up the debate.

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