With's Chomsky's appearance on a 'skeptic' podcast and in light of the recent comments by Dawkins and the reaction to them, including JK's blog post, it got me thinking about the relationship, or lack thereof, between 'scepticism', 'new atheism' and radical politics. Here's some garbled thoughts.
I've been listening to this podcast a few years as it covers a lot of interesting science. I'd noticed that the host, Desiree Schell has some sort of lefty/radical slant but never looked into it. She'd interviewed the guitarist from UK Subs, tackled gender and science with Cordelia Fine, and done an episode on Kropotkin. Turns out she's a member of the IWW and works for a public sector union in Canada. She's discussed Joe Hill, the IWW, Emma Goldman and Kropotkin to audiences or 'sceptics'.
Normally 'freethought', 'scepticism', 'rationalism', particularly in its most vocal form as typified by the 'new atheists' has little to say about capitalism, class, or organised labour, and when it does, it's usually in the service of existing social relations (eg, Steven Pinker, EO Wilson, Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer).
It's hard to read much into one skeptic's 2 commentary on labour history, but it would be interesting to see if the until recently very fashionable 'bourgeois rationalist' criticisms of religion will actually evolve into something more. Richard Dawkins' recent verbal flatulence about muslims does seem to be causing a split in the 'skeptic'/rationalist movement. and it certainly is viewed as a movement in the US; see publications like The Skeptic, Skeptical Enquirer, podcasts like Skeptically Speaking, Skeptic's Guides to the Universe, Skepticality, Rationally Speaking, organisations like 'THE BRIGHTS'.... and so on
Science writers and rationalists/skeptics/humanists are increasingly distancing themselves from his public pronouncements. Martin Robbins described Dawkins' twitter account as 'the increasingly erratic comedy creation of a bored Oxford Professor', and Dawkins himself as 'a man who knows the definition of everything and the meaning of nothing.'
New Humanist's new editor has written what I think is a bold first contribution to that site essentially saying that humanism must move 'Beyond Dawkins', and it's arguable that this implies moving 'Beyond New Atheism' and the smug, simplistic take on religion.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were told that the triumph of capitalism would lead inexorably to the spread of liberal, democratic and secular values. Yet as globalisation has brought down barriers between nation-states, new forms of exclusive, aggressive identity politics have thrived. Sometimes, these are founded on religious belief; other times on culture or ethnicity; others still on twisting the language of tolerance and equal rights so that it can be used to oppress others. One of the most pressing questions of our time is how we negotiate complex ethical and political issues while remaining true to secular values.
Currently, Richard Dawkins is providing a case study in how not to do it.
This apparent split makes some sense. If indeed 'the foundation of all criticism is the criticism of religion', then it does follow that, unless you want to continue preaching to the choir of smug atheists (which apparently Dawkins does, and he does very well out of it), you have to move beyond the basic materialist premise that 'God doesn't exist'. Ok, we get it, you don't believe in gods. Clap clap. The mere fact that someone is or isn't religious isn't interesting in and of itself. WHY they are or aren't certainly is. And more interesting than that still, whether politically or purely as an academic question, is at a different level of analysis altogether; namely that of the social and political function that religion can serve in the here and now, for those that follow it.
Fuck it, sceptics/rationalists really could do a lot worse than read Marx as a starting point on religion, rather than Dawkins, Harris or Hitchens.
The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
That's always struck me as a much better point at which to begin discussion of religion. Although I lumped Hitchens, Dawkins and Sam Harris together, there are some important differences. It's arguable that Harris knows more about Islam than Dawkins, but that his pronouncements on terrorism and profiling muslims are even worse. Harris is one of New Atheism's 'Four Horsemen' - Dawkins, philosopher Daniel C Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Harris himself.
They all have a slightly different emphasis when it comes to religion.
- Dawkins' is usually that IT'S WRONG (with some evolutionary specualtion thrown in.
- Dennett extends the evolutionary explanation and I'd say has a more genuine interest in it and doesn't make the same blanket generalisations.
- Hitchens did take on the fawning reverence for the oh-so-sacred cow of Mother Theresa, which as an irish catholic (catholic atheist, mind, catholic atheist) still makes me chuckle, but, and I'll paraphrase myself here, "his cheerleading of the invasion of Iraq, his status as a figurehead for the 'new atheism' and its associated attacks on Islam by what Terry Eagleton calls the liberal literati, or the "academic wing of the 'war on terror'", means that under the guise of 'criticism of religion' he's defended the indefensible.
- While Dawkins does make sweeping racist generalisations, Harris advocates racial profiling of muslims, and also looks forward to the day when we have brain-scanning to look for neural correlates of 'criminal behaviour'.
What they all lack is any sort of attempt to engage with the failure of capitalism to provide for the basic needs of the many. They lack any sort of 'sociological imagination' when it comes to religion - that is definitely the case for Dawkins, Harris and Dennett.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Perhaps criticism of Dawkins by vocal atheists might give those seriously interested in informed criticism of religion a kick up the arse. Perhaps it will entrench the views of smug liberal 'Brights', rationalists, skeptics, humanists, new atheists, whatever. Perhaps I'm over-analyising it. I'll keep an eye on it.
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.