feature | Ned Curthoys

spring 2008
ISBN 978-0-9775171-9-0

published 31 August 2008


Ned Curthoys looks at the politics of disbelief

In the past year, a prominent group of atheists, critical not merely of religious fundamentalism but of religious faith per se, has garnered plenty of media exposure by denouncing religion as an anachronism, the bane of rationality, science and modernity. The ‘new atheist’ movement has been fostered by the best-selling critiques of religion by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and given considerable air by writers such as Ian McEwen and Philip Pullman. Australian pundits, such as the late Pamela Bone and Leslie Cannold, critical of Islam’s treatment of women and worried about shifts from public to private and religious schooling, have added their voices. Even that benign patron of left-wing causes everywhere, Phillip Adams, has been emboldened, in his updated Adams versus God, to a grand polemical attack on religion, intoning that ‘almost all human morality and ethics come from logic rather than spirituality’.

What to make of these atheistic screeds? What is their political and social agenda? Are they important interventions into a world gone mad? Are they, like the anti-clerical tracts of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in Europe, a plea for tolerance of diversity, a challenge to the iniquities of institutional religion and its complicity with political absolutism? Do they heed Marx’s warning that the critique of religion is void without attention to the economic and social conditions that support clerical power and drive the need for religious consolation in the first place?

Many on the secular Left who consider religion a hindrance to social progress will find themselves in sympathy with the tenor of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007). For one thing, both books appear to resume the rational optimism of Bertrand Russell’s famous essay ‘Why I am not a Christian’ and its critique of obscurantism in matters educational, sexual and scientific.

The seductive rhetorical strategy of the new atheists involves the adopting of the mantle of post-Enlightenment humanism, with exhortations to free ourselves from the oversight of a paternal god and assume responsibility for our own destiny. Hitchens, for example, calls in his final chapter for a ‘new Enlightenment’, invoking the perennial secularist desire to transcend the divisive and distracting folly of religion to concentrate on truly human concerns, affirming that the ‘proper study of mankind is man, and woman’. Enlightenment, for him, would be a decisive step beyond religious faith, an emancipation from humanity’s prehistory, in which the study of ‘literature and poetry’ would ‘depose’ the scrutiny of sacred texts. Dawkins similarly evokes an evolutionary vision of future human autonomy and intellectual curiosity, arguing for ‘the truly adult view’ that our life is ‘as meaningful, as full and wonderful as we choose to make it’.

But the reader is soon disabused of hope that the new atheism will draw on the pluralist secularism advocated in the eighteenth century in Europe and the United States. The writer and playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a towering figure of the German Enlightenment, might have critiqued religious hubris and sectarian violence in plays such as Nathan the Wise (1779) but he also defended Jews and Muslims against their Christian critics and envisioned a society based on mutual respect between members of the different faiths. Sadly, the combative atheism of Dawkins and Hitchens, and the virulent Islamophobia of attention-seeking atheists such as Michael Onfray, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, repudiates the progressive and cosmopolitan spirit of much Enlightenment thought. Instead, the new atheism presents a crude, often hate-filled confection of caricature and prescription, contemptuous of any belief, practice or desire not conforming to Western scientific rationalism.

‘Religion’, for the new atheists, is an unfortunate vestige of humanity’s ‘prehistory’ when science, knowledge and rationality were unable to account for natural phenomena or appease our fear of death. Thus religion or ‘faith’ – which in this discourse is almost entirely transposable with monotheistic worship of a patriarchal god – is ascribable to base emotions such as fear, the need for consolation and the desire to relinquish our independence before an authoritarian power. Dawkins is a fanatical Darwinian geneticist, a monomaniacal materialist neither brooking alternatives to Darwin’s hypotheses nor willing to problematise the racist, colonialist legacy of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. When it comes to the problem of religion’s survival, Dawkins is, in fact, a naive social Darwinist, agog that religion, ‘so wasteful, so extravagant’, has survived Darwinian selection which ‘habitually targets and eliminates waste’. Translating the Darwinian hypothesis into a blunt physicalist monism that forgets the human predisposition to imagine, conceptualise and idealise, Dawkins speculates that the propensity for faith must be a residual gene or neurologically hard-wired transmissible ‘meme’, a legacy of a time when belief and certainty were prerequisites for human survival. ‘Faith’ is consistently interpolated by the new atheists into a bio-evolutionary but also ominously eugenicist semantic field where it can be reviled as a ‘disease’ or ‘mind virus’. In Hitchens’ subtle nomenclature, religion is ‘junk DNA that should have been snapped off long ago’.

Dawkins solemnly explains that he does ‘everything in [his] power’ to warn people against faith itself, not just against so-called ‘extremist’ faith. To differentiate moderate and fundamentalist religious attitudes is nonsense, he says, because religious faith discourages questioning ‘by its very nature’. Hitchens is even more strident, maintaining that there can be no reconciliation whatsoever between faith and reason, that ‘religion has run out of justifications’, since, thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Elsewhere, Hitchens concedes that religious faith belongs as much to the realm of ethical dispositions as knowledge claims – but he doesn’t pursue this, perhaps because a more encompassing interpretation of religion’s contemporary social context, its sometime role as critiquing poverty and inequality, would frustrate his desire to ‘banish’ religion from our cognitive and ethical vocabulary.

For the new atheists, faith is a heresy that must be stamped out, excommunicated. Regardless of the character of the practitioners of a given religion, ‘faith’ embodies a grievous error, an anti-scientific disposition which should not be tolerated. Hitchens broods that ‘religion’, because it claims divine exemption from secular laws and mores for its practices and beliefs, is ‘not just amoral, but immoral’.

If religion is pure negativity, prohibition and denial, then its opposite – science, reason and truth – must be proselytised in a similar vein as ultimate, self-sufficient values. What seems at first the progressive and critical attitude of a latter-day humanism becomes a language of moral absolutes, an absurd pretence to certainty, a kind of fearful scholasticism that wants to rebut, dismiss, elide and ignore the heterogeneous motivations of spirituality. As Chris Hedges points out in his I Don’t Believe in Atheists, by aggressively contrasting the cultural relativism of those sympathetic to religion with the truth of Western reason, new atheists readily lend their shrill outrage to the rhetoric of the clash of civilisations and the neoconservative denunciation of threatening non-Western others.

Reifying religion as a closed and atavistic structure of belief, immune to experience and to science, the new atheism quickly identifies its target: Islam and the Middle Eastern Semitic cultures of early monotheism. Hitchens, at times, sounds very much like the nineteenth-century French Orientalist Ernst Renan who stressed the imaginatively limited, historically retarded nature of Semitic languages and mentalities. Like Renan, he reviles the ‘arid monotheism’ of the Jews, a people who ‘might have been the carriers of philosophy’ if they hadn’t resisted Hellenistic influences. Hitchens transposes his belief in the sterility of Semitic peoples to contemporary Iran, whose ‘women are chattel and sexual prey’, and to 11 September 2001 when ‘apocalyptic nihilists’, incapable of designing anything as ‘useful or beautiful’ as a skyscraper or passenger aircraft, attacked the ‘achievements of modernism’ in an orgy of immolation and human sacrifice.

Hitchens, these days, is all about lurid performance for quick returns. Straining for a culminating flourish in the war on religion, he reaches for a classic trope of anti-Semitism: the Semite as mimic and hostile infiltrator of a superior culture. The technologically adept Islamic hijackers, he fumes, are ‘continuing [Islam’s] long history of plagiarism’ for the purposes of negation and destruction. By the end of his diatribe, Hitchens becomes a ludicrous Crusader wannabe, searching for light and right amongst atavistic barbarians. What is at stake is nothing less than the struggle to ‘transcend our prehistory’, to fight the ultimate battle against that ‘enemy’ who, with their ‘gnarled hands’, would ‘drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars’. Sounds like a case for pre-emptive war.

Compared to Hitchens’ shrill call to arms, Dawkins seems merely naive when he suggests that a world without religion would mean the end of ethnic wars and suicide bombing. He interprets religion as a static claim to a rigid identity and a doctrinal belief system, ignoring those contexts in which religious allegiance can also be an expression of political agency and resistance against oppression. The vastly increased adoption of the Muslim veil by young women in countries such as Egypt and Turkey, and in the West, although a complex issue, needs to be read in many instances as a defiance of the hegemonic ambitions of Western imperialism which often seeks to ‘rescue’ the women of supposedly benighted cultures. Hannah Arendt once made the point that Jews threatened by anti-Semitic accusations needed to respond vigorously and performatively as Jews, rather than evasively protest their humanity. An assertion of one’s Jewishness, she wrote, was not simply a withdrawal into an orthodox religious identity, but a cosmopolitan defence of cultural pluralism and a challenge to the racist claims of the majority culture to be truly and universally human. In subscribing to a developmental conception of history in which religious societies occupy a lower stage of humanity, Dawkins, like Hitchens, depoliticises contemporary geo-political struggles, focusing instead on the ritual behaviour, the supposed repetitive mindlessness and rigidity, of Muslim believers.

In the context of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, one can only be appalled by Dawkins’ description of madrassa students as ‘demented parrots’ or his exultation at how ‘Darwin seized the window of the burka and wrenched it open, letting in a flood of understanding’. The brutal, genocidal imaginary of the new atheism (the tawdry Sam Harris, for example, openly contemplates a nuclear first strike on the Arab world and praises the use of torture against terrorists), its thin bourgeois elitism, hypocritical denunciation of religious certainty and the puerility of its politics, is a consequence of a shallow rationalist optimism, a theory of human progress that ignores or evades the contribution of modern ideological utopianism, stimulated by the possibilities of technological domination and the rationally organised elimination of ‘waste’ elements, to the horrors of the twentieth century.

My feeling is that the hubris and machismo of the new atheists is merely a noisier echo of the strongly normative instincts of contemporary secularism, as espoused by prominent liberal political theorists. According to Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor and John Rawls, religious faith is a blockage to ‘public reason’ and interaction between equal citizens of the democratic nation-state. Secular rationalists want religion, as a species of anachronistic enthusiasm for the intangible, to be relegated to the margins of the public sphere, to the realm of private belief, where it will not impinge on political discussion and ethical deliberation. Habermas, arguing that any communicative act should possess transparent evidentiary or rational grounds, would go so far as to remove any religious utterance from the records of judicial decisions and parliamentary debates.

Taylor has suggested that at the heart of secularism is the precept that public spaces and institutions must be free of ‘particularist’ influences such as religious or ethnic allegiance, enabling what Habermas has called a ‘constraint-free understanding amongst individuals’. Although conceived as the indispensable basis of a constitutional state that encourages the participation of all its citizens, the secularist anxieties of recent political theory legitimise the governmentality of the nation-state and provide an ideological context for acts of secular violence, such as the anti-Islamic French edict of 2004 against the wearing of religious insignia in the classroom, as well as the recently upheld ban in Turkey on students wearing the hijab at university. These authoritarian manifestations of state-sponsored secularism suggest that the anti-religious desire to strip human beings of their historical identity and local affiliations can also work against recognition of historical injustices. More dangerously, contemporary secularists, in their hostility to cultures that do not obey rational norms, have forgotten Lessing’s insight that cosmopolitan hospitality towards plurality is the precondition for social justice and civil society.

Contemporary secularism fails to recognise that a major influence on secularist thought from the seventeenth century has been religious humanism, the recognition of the via diversa or many roads to god, including good character, sociability, pluralist hospitality to otherness and a sense of humour about the absurdity of the world. Religious humanists reject orthodox conceptions of a god who serves sectarian communities and egoistic desires. Instead, they evoke a benign god of love who encourages speculation, doubt, a virtuous life, social intercourse and the embrace of the complexity of the created world. The philosopher Ernst Cassirer has discussed the Renaissance-inspired Cambridge Platonists of seventeenth-century England, religious humanists and antagonists of the Puritans, who despised coercion and intolerance in matters of faith and held that ‘the state of religion lies in a good mind and a good life, all else is about religion’.

Jewish reformists have long looked to the great sage and religious leader Hillel who refused to countenance speculative dogmas or legalistic subtleties in his teaching of Jewish Law: ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.’

Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King helped to mobilise broad constituencies in support of their anti-colonial and anti-racist movements when they appealed, in ecumenical fashion, to a humanist vision of a ‘beloved community’ of equals, blessed by a generous, loving god.

The tradition of religious humanism is a strain of social critique and idealism that prophesies a better world. The heterodoxy of religious humanism has always coexisted with and criticised hierarchical religious institutions, as well as the more rampant manifestations of secular materialism. By religious humanism we are not necessarily talking about metaphysical conviction. Contemporary religious humanism is perhaps best represented in the edifying, sympathetic and lucid writings of the former nun Karen Armstrong, a harsh critic of religious intolerance but also its secular variants, such as Christian-inspired confidence in the West’s triumphant march. Armstrong reminds us in The Great Transformation (2006) that the history of religion contains both conservative and revolutionary impulses. Likewise, Kevin Rudd’s impressive article in the Monthly last year on the anti-Nazi German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests that dissonant forms of spiritual belief can combat state power and the fluctuating ethical norms of mass societies.

The new atheists have ignited an important debate about the moral consequences of religious prejudice and dogmatic moral codes. In debunking the more literal claims of revealed religion, they remind us of the importance of the rigorous historical and textual criticism that dates back to free-thinkers and republicans like Spinoza. However, the violent animus of the new atheists towards religion – and their reliance on a developmental narrative of human history proceeding from the mythic to the rational – is a barely camouflaged resumption of Euro-Christian hostility towards the annoying persistence of a Semite who should have disappeared long ago, making way for a modern dispensation and a newly elect people at the vanguard of history.

At issue is not the desirability of secularism but its reconfiguration as the precondition of emancipatory projects and a pluralist society. Such a reconfiguration requires a historical recognition of the contribution of spirituality to political movements, the accommodation of a variety of perspectives, the refusal of banal dichotomies between religion and modernity, and the recognition of religious interlocutors as belonging to a discordant present that cannot be simply resolved by normative impositions. The brutal hubris of the new atheists serves to remind us that the dream of reason can also produce nightmares.

Ned Curthoys is co-editor, with Debjani Ganguly, of Edward Said: The Legacy of a Public Intellectual.
© Ned Curthoys
Overland 192 – spring 2008, pp 40-43

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