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.