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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 50NOVEMBER 2009

The New Old Atheists

by Roland Boer

The “New Atheists”, or “New Old Atheists” as I prefer to call them, have been at the forefront of a very public and polemical recovery in the West of arguments against religion. They comprise a loose group of quite different thinkers who have all of late attacked religion as a fiction that is detrimental for us all — in short, religion is bad for us and no haste in its banishment would be unseemly. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian and God Is Not Great, Daniel Dennet’s Breaking the Spell and Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, as well as a run of lesser lights, have all presented variations on the same basic line. Having provided the diagnosis of our social ills, their prognosis is simple: dump religion as quickly as possible. As a result of their works, the small bands of what until now were frail, grey and dispirited secularist, humanist, atheist and whatnot societies have been given adrenalin injections and are organising conferences, political campaigns and actually welcoming new members under sixty.

Before I proceed, let me briefly define how I understand religion, which is really an elaboration on Marx. Even though believers and many non-believers understand the primary definition as belief in one or more superhuman entities — muscled fairies, if you like — this has the whole situation standing on its head. It is also a curious legacy of Christianity, which has for historical reasons set the definition of “religion”: when European explorers first encountered in the fifteenth and later centuries myriad other peoples with vastly different economic, social and ideological structures, they applied their own understanding of “religion” in order to define what they saw. So various Christian categories were applied, such as gods, rituals and church, and the status of these “other religions” was assessed in terms of Christianity — with which they did not compare so well.1

For better or worse, the term “religion” has stuck, so it is more useful to redefine it. Briefly, I suggest religion should be seen as a social function, generated as an ideological structure of distinct social formations, which I take, following Louis Althusser (and now used widely in sociological and historical analysis), as the combination of the forces and relations of production and their attendant ideological forms. In other words, religion is not purely a collection of ideas and beliefs, but it is enmeshed with institutional forms, economics, politics and society. As we will see, one of the problems with the “New Old Atheists” is that they attribute powers to the ideas of religion without considering their inextricable connections with economics and politics.

At this point, it is necessary to apply to religion the well-oiled distinction in Marxist ideological analysis between “critical” and “descriptive” approaches, between the critique of ideology as false consciousness (mistaken beliefs about the world which require debunking and correction) and the understanding of ideology as a necessary and inescapable feature of human existence.2

As far as descriptive analysis is concerned, if religion is the product of distinct social formations, then it is no different from philosophy, culture, legal structures, music, literature, languages and so on. They are products of human social interaction and the effort to make sense of that society and world around it. But religion may also be false consciousness, as Marx argued so well. The longing expressed in religion, the hope for a better world in heaven, is actually a sign of alienated conditions here and now. Religion becomes a futile and misdirected protest. It is not the source of our misery, but a sign of it. The real task is to identify the source — economic and social relations — and rectify those problems. For Marx, that is a far more radical task.3

Now we can return to the neo-atheists. While they might all agree on the basic point that religion is in many ways bad for human society, the way they go about the task varies. Dawkins, the award-winning evolutionary biologist, proudly wears the label “atheist” and calls on like-minded people to be out and proud (the gay pride allusions are quite deliberate).4 For Harris, the public intellectual, atheism really means the destruction of bad ideas, of which religion tops the list. And for privately-schooled Hitchens, who was once a Marxist and for whom Johnny Walker Black is the “breakfast of champions”, atheism is too mild a term, so he prefers “anti-theist” to describe his militant efforts to debunk religions, especially the “Abrahamic” ones. But they all share three basic assumptions: the primary role of Enlightenment reason, progress and a reverse theodicy. Let me say a little more on each.

Evidence, experience, science, independent and free minds — these catchwords appear again and again in their works. And before them religion simply doesn’t stack up. Given a stark choice between religion and science, there is not even a contest. Religion misrepresents the origins of humanity and the cosmos, it suppresses human nature, is inimical to free inquiry, and above all postulates the existence of a being for which there is simply no proof, which the evidence suggests does not exist.

A number of objections may be marshalled against these arguments, although a whole new sub-genre has sprouted seeking to refute their arguments. I will run through the objections as I see them, but the more interesting question is why these arguments are being made now and in the West. I do not include the objection — entirely predictable and expected from those within the churches, synagogues and (less so) the mosques — that these neo-atheists have simply misunderstood the rich complexity of theology, or that they have failed to discern its liberating possibilities alongside its tendency to alienation and oppression. There is of course some truth in this objection, especially since the neo-atheists take fundamentalist version of religions — most notably Islam, Christianity and Judaism — as the central and defining form of those religions.5 Yet, while this approach has been a standard line from defenders of faith, particularly in the Christian churches, it also characterises the response of Mark C. Taylor6 and even Terry Eagleton as he increasingly recovers his role as a somewhat amateur theologian of the Catholic Left and defender of the faith.7

More substantially, however, the arguments against religion are not new. The “New Atheists” should really be called the “New Old Atheists”, for there is nothing new in their arguments, which go back at least to the Enlightenment philosophes in France (Voltaire et al), as well as the radical theologians — although atheologians may be a better description — like Ludwig Feuerbach, David Strauss, Max Stirner and Bruno Bauer in early nineteenth century Germany.8 It could be argued that the situation we have now, in which religion has once again become a vital factor of public life, is analogous to those earlier situations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And as with those earlier situations, it seems to some that the most radical line is to attack religion itself. Here Marx’s old point remains pertinent: religion is not the cause of our problems, but a symptom of them. The source of those problems lies elsewhere, in the social and economic formations that give rise to ideologies like religion.

Further, they are guilty of naïve materialism, arguing that the scientific weighs so heavily against God that he can’t possibly exist. Dawkins (and Dennett following him) makes use of an earlier idea, first elaborated in his The Selfish Gene, called the “meme”, the cultural equivalent of the gene. In what is really a sophisticated version of socio-biologism, the meme seeks to explain in Darwinian terms how ideas and cultural phenomena are maintained and spread from generation to generation. More specifically, a meme is a replicating cultural entity, passed on by human beings, who have become quite efficient at preserving, copying and passing on behaviour and beliefs. These memes change over time, being combined, refined, transformed, and at times producing new memes. But the result is a theory of cultural evolution, comparable to biological evolution based on genes. Little imagination is required to see how such a theory applies to religion, which becomes a cultural meme, passed on from one generation to the next, modified and reshaped, but remarkably persistent. This religious meme is perhaps slightly more sophisticated than the so-called “God gene” proposed by the geneticist Gene Harmer, who argues that some of us are genetically and psychological predisposed to religious belief and others not.9 But the difference is one of degree, for the arguments are strikingly similar. Scientific certainty is one thing, however; what can stand up in a court of law is another. When it came to arguments that could stand up in a court of law, Dawkins and others involved in the famous London bus poster saga had to agree to change the poster from “There is no God” to “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” — just in case those Christians might object to false advertising.

But this naïve materialism carries within it a pernicious assumption of evolutionary superiority, especially by the likes of Dawkins. As scientific atheists, they are already at the next evolutionary stage, one that has passed beyond this dreadful meme. In short, one assumes a rosy picture of human progress in which science and reason are gradually leading us all to a higher and better stage. Religion becomes a barbaric meme, an impediment to an enlightened approach to the world. The occasional slips, such as world wars, concentration camps, genocide, global capitalism, widespread economic exploitation, chronic poverty and disease, are merely temporary setbacks, slight pauses in the march of progress. Nothing quite like such blinkered optimism has been seen since perhaps the nineteenth century.

Further, the “New Old Atheists” ultimately hold to an unreconstructed idealist position that is really a reverse theodicy. They argue that religion, as a collection of ideas, is the cause of all that is bad in the world — wars, suffering, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia and what have you. If traditional theodicy sought to reconcile God’s power and love with the existence of evil, this new theodicy argues that evil militates not merely against God’s power and love, but against God as such. The catch is that they believe as much in the power of religion as its strongest proponents, arguing that religion has a power within itself to do the greatest harm. They are dazzled, as Engels put it with his characteristic clarity, with the power of ideas:

It is above all this appearance of an independent history of state constitutions, of systems of law, of ideological conceptions in every separate domain, which dazzles most people. If Luther and Calvin “overcome” the official Catholic religion, or Hegel “overcomes” Fichte and Kant, or if the constitutional Montesquieu is indirectly “overcome” by Rousseau with his “Social Contract”, each of these events remains within the sphere of theology, philosophy or political science, represents a stage in the history of these particular spheres of thought and never passes outside the sphere of thought.d10

But it should be unnecessary in this day and age to make the simple point that ideas don’t do anything on their own; they make nothing, produce nothing, and cause nothing. People do. People use ideas to justify action, to frame attitudes, and even to develop an overarching framework to make sense of life, but ideas don’t act on their own. More importantly, such idealism misses entirely the crucial role of social and economic factors in any event, however great or small. To say that religion is the cause of all that is wrong with the world, is the cause of oppression, war, suffering and hardship, simply misses the vital role of an economics based on exploitation and the drive for profit.

Let me give one example: the supposed struggle between a Christian West and a Muslim East.11 Is this struggle due to irreconcilable differences between two religions, which are actually quite close to one another? Of course not, for Muslim opposition arises from a long history of capitalist imperialism. Although I should add a caveat, for even though Muslim culture and religion offers an alternative paradigm to the liberal ideology that goes hand-in-hand with capitalism, Muslim-majority countries are thoroughly immersed and indeed are aggressive players within global capitalist economics. What we really have is competition within a capitalist framework — all of which makes sense of the apparent struggles between a “Muslim East” and a “Christian West”. Let me take the example of that cheap energy source known as oil: since Muslim-majority countries happen to be located where most of the world’s oil happens to be, and since the overdeveloped West needs that oil, conflict is bound to arise. The potential for massive profits from oil-rich countries puts them in an enviable position within the global economy. However, if those areas had happened to be Buddhist, for instance, then any concerted opposition to capitalist exploitation would be viewed as a hostile response by an evil and militant Buddhism. A number of counts against the “New Old Atheism”: it is unoriginal, committed to a rusty old belief in the superiority of reason, naïvely materialist, given to a belief in evolutionary progress in which they are at the peak, and distressingly idealist. Yet a more dialectical reading would want to argue at least two points: religion does not escape entirely from their charges; and the more interesting question to ask is why this movement is happening now.

On the first point, the charges against religion need to be entirely recast. Quite simply, religion does not cause oppression and exploitation — economic, social, gendered, sexual, environmental and so on — but it may act as a justification for those acts. In this light, religion may well be guilty of the odd crime against humanity, and if so, it must not be let off the hook. Further, I would invoke my earlier definition of religion as an ideological product of social formations. Religion is not merely a collection of ideas, but it is enmeshed with social, economic and institutional elements. In this respect, religion is not guilty on its own of some of the most brutal acts in human history, for it is the whole social system of which religion is a part that is guilty. As Marx pointed out, religion is a symptom of the brutality of social systems for which it acts as ideological glue. But in order to make that argument, the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens would need to rewrite their books from scratch.

Yet I am even more interested in asking why the ‘New Old Atheism’ has taken off at all. Obviously it has much to do with the well-publicised return of religion to the geopolitical stage. Just when it seemed as though reason had won the day, when secularisation was deeply entrenched, religion has roared back onto centre stage. For a good number of people it seems as though superstition has returned and needs to be dealt with. The spate of books, television programs, conferences, media events and commentary may be seen as a response to this changing religious scene.

But at a deeper level I suggest that religion is not necessarily the problem, but that its apparent return and the response of the neo-atheists are actually symptoms of much deeper changes under way: a global shift on political and economic levels. They are aware that something is happening, mistakenly identify religion as the cause and direct their attention accordingly. In this respect, they are similar to other manifestations of the perception of change. For example, there is the fear of Islamic extremists and the threat to Western “Christian” values; or the building up of walls of immigration, culture and politics by Western countries against what they feel are threats from the masses of poor immigrants from elsewhere in the world; or the obsession with Chinese history, culture and power, especially in the United States. All of these manifest a sense of change, but they are misdirected, focused on symptoms of the shift rather than the actual shift itself.

What is that shift? It is nothing less than a troubled move of economic and political gravity away from the West. The United States, the recognised leader of the West, has become more and more bogged down in wars it cannot win — Iraq and Afghanistan — and it staggers from one lame-duck president to another. Many commentators in the USA argue that Obama’s presidency has come down to earth as he struggles with wars overseas, health reforms and unpopular company bailouts at home. But the problem runs much deeper, for the system itself struggles to function in a way that will deliver the hope and recovery Obama promised during his election campaign. Some simple statistics paint the picture. 16% of GDP is spent on health care (more than any other ‘advanced’ country); 20% of its energy needs come from Middle Eastern oil; the economy is contracting at 0.7% per year; unemployment runs at 9.8% (since 2007, the number of unemployed has doubled from 7.6 million to 15.1 million); the pay for production workers (80% of the workforce) has been in constant decline. By contrast, in the last year company bailouts, which protect the big capitalists, are staggering: Bear Sterns at $US30 billion; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac $US 400 billion; AIG $US180 billion; the car industry $US25 billion; the Troubled Asset Relief Program $US700 billion; Citigroup $US280 billion; Bank of America $US142 billion. Meanwhile, mortgages are being foreclosed, layoffs continue, Detroit, the centre of US industrial power, is collapsing, and retirement funds dissolve.

While the political and economic leader of the West stumbles ever more noticeably, those of the “East”, especially China and India, race ahead. One way of reading the economic crisis of 2008-9 is in terms of an earthquake as the economic tectonic plates shift yet again: China emerges with a dip in economic growth, surpassing Germany in the process to find itself in third place behind Japan and the USA. Further, analysts argue that Western economies will recover slowly and painfully from this latest crash in capitalist cycles, scrabbling back to some semblance of growth, while those of China, India and others will power ahead.

I would suggest that the “New Old Atheists” sense that something is shifting, but they are mistaken in laying the blame on religion and its return. In their response, which focuses on religion, they themselves become part of that symptom. How so? These neo-atheists believe that the return of religion is the real problem, so they try to recover those old and dusty nineteenth century values of reason, science and progress, the hallmarks of a once-dominant West. It is comparable to the sense one gets in parts of Western Europe and the United States that the golden age is either under threat or actually in the past. What is left must be protected or the golden age needs to be restored. The catch is that once you take that attitude, the game is already up. Similarly, not only have the neo-atheists misread the situation and misdirected their polemic, but they act like cultural warriors manning the crumbling battlements.

Endnotes

  1. See Mack 2008.
  2. Marx favoured the critical function of ideological analysis, but there is enough in his writings that begin to move in a descriptive direction, an approach that was picked up and developed much further by many others, including Lenin, Althusser and Gramsci. On this whole debate, see Barrett 1991, pp. 18-34; Kiernan 1983; Dupré 1983, pp. 238-44 and McLellan 1995, p. 16.
  3. See Marx 1976 [1924], pp. 4-5. Marx 1975 [1844], p. 175. See also my detailed study on Marxism and religion, Boer in press.
  4. Dawkins 2006; Hitchens 2001, 2007; Dennett 2007; Harris 2005, 2006.
  5. Indeed, in an effort to forestall objections from moderates, they argue that moderates act as pernicious covers for the extremists.
  6. Taylor 2007.
  7. Eagleton 2006, 2009. As for his theological re-turn, compare Eagleton 2001, 2003b, 2003c, 2003a, 2007, with Eagleton 1966b, 1966a, 1967a, 1967b, 1968a, 1968c, 1968b, 1969, 1970. For a detailed study of Eagleton, see Boer 2007, pp. 275-333.
  8. Feuerbach 1989 [1841]; Feuerbach 1986 [1841]; Strauss 1902; Strauss 1835; Stirner 2005 [1845]; Stirner 1845; Bauer 1838; Bauer 1840; Bauer 1841; Bauer 1842; Bauer 1843; Bauer 2002.
  9. Harmer 2005.
  10. Engels 2004 [1946], pp. 164-5.
  11. I take and adapt this example from Molyneux 2008.

References

Bauer, Bruno 1838, Kritik der Geschichte der Offenbarung: Die Religion des alten Testaments in der geschichtlichen Entwicklung ihrer Prinzipien dargestellt, Berlin: Ferdinand Dümmler.

Bauer, Bruno 1840, Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte des Johannes, Bremen: Karl Schünemann.

Bauer, Bruno 1841, Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte der Synoptiker, 2 vols, Leipzig: Otto Wigand.

Bauer, Bruno 1842, Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte der Synoptiker und des Johannes, Dritter und letzter Band, Braunschweig: Fr. Otto.

Bauer, Bruno 1843, Das entdeckte Christenthum. Eine Erinnerung an das 18. Jahrhundert und ein Beitrag zur Krisis des 19. Jahrhundert, Zürich und Winterthur: Verlag des literarischen Comptoirs.

Bauer, Bruno 2002, Christianity Exposed: A Recollection of the Eighteenth Century and a Contribution to the Crisis of the Nineteenth Century, translated by Esther Ziegler and Jutta Hamm, Lewiston: Edwin Mellen. Boer, Roland 2007, Criticism of Heaven: On Marxism and Theology, Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Dawkins, Richard 2006, The God Delusion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Dennett, Daniel C. 2007, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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Taylor, Mark C. 2007, After God, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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