Good thoughts from strange places

21 Jan

When it comes to the politics of the hardest left I am a dead loss, being an actual believer in "reformist pap" as the best means to deliver a greater degree of humanity and compassion in our fraught world, hard left solutions in practice having generally delivered tragic outcomes. While the hard left is ineffectual it can however be useful, as some insights I have gleaned from an oh so typical "theological" dispute around the US Revolutionary Communist Party show. This (along with its kind of like-minded critics) is a Maoist outfit. One of the like-minded critics is Kasama, a blog on WordPress. There is, I note, a struggle going on about the correct attitude towards Islamist militancy, some favouring "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", while others are, in my view, a touch more realistic about militant Islamism (as distinct from Islam, the religion of around one quarter of the world’s population). For example, Kasama: "The essential question remains the same however. Should Maoists join and try to lead a pole of resistance to imperialism that may include reactionaries? Or should they strive to create a third pole that includes neither Islamic reactionaries nor the imperialists? Who is the main enemy of the ‘Third Pole’ in Iraq? Also, who would the main enemy of this third pole be in a situation like an aggression against Iran, the Islamic reactionary government or US attackers?"

In one of his Nine Letters to Our Comrades Kasama (Mike Ely) argues on tactical as well as experiential grounds that atheists such as himself need to think more carefully on the subject of religion, even (quite relevantly) citing Marx in support. Bob Avakian is the founding leader of this band of US Maoists, with whom Mike has issues.

The RCP has given prominence to Avakian’s atheist polemics against religion. These are important topics. There needs to be a lively militant atheist-materialist pole raised among the people and in the fight against political reaction. This is after all a highly religious country, and this is a political moment when fascist forces of the Religious Right have been seizing positions of power.

However, Avakian’s analyses of religion have a distant, schematic, and reductionist quality. These works show little interest in the specific social and historic roots of people’s religious faith — and why particular religions have such power among particular communities. There is little appreciation of the complexity, sophistication and diversity of what people actually believe. And quite frankly there is little respect for the people and little real understanding of why many believe — or why some don’t…

For one thing, you can’t actually understand people and religious movements (not even “fundamentalists”) by relying so heavily on a close textual read of their holy scriptures. And a communist understanding of political fundamentalism can’t be developed by just reworking lots of secular-liberal exposés of theocratic political trends. You can’t speculate that a Christian theocratic political order is coming without studying the real historically-specific political obstacles to both centralized fascist power and the establishment of state religion.

I spent most of the 1970s among West Virginia coalminers who (as most people know) include many born-again Christians. This is personal experience, admittedly from quite a few years ago. But it was experience and it has left me with a sense of the living contradictions surrounding religion and the cultural wars.

Here is Avakian on the causes of religion:

“…religious notions don’t appear out of, or arise out of, the mist or out of nowhere, but of course have their roots, historically, in the ignorance, the lack of knowledge, of human beings in early society; but they have been carried forward, codified and institutionalized by ruling classes throughout the ages as part of enforcing their rule.”

This view attributes religion to a mix of ancient ignorance plus the later ruling class manipulations. It profoundly underestimates how deeply religious faith is rooted in the needs and desperations of people’s existence. Faith and religious community are rooted in the search for consolation and meaning…

I think back on many intense discussions with fundamentalist believers — where I would dig into the absurdity of a loving God allowing innocents to suffer, or into the scientific absurdities of Genesis. While I was thinking I had “really pinned them down,” my friends often turned to me in exasperation to say, “Look, this is really not the issue. I feel Jesus as a living, healing, guiding presence in my heart.”

In fact the attraction of born-again Christianity includes an ecstatic “personal relationship” — not just the certitude of absolute biblical truth and attraction of reactionary morality in a world of “turbocapitalism.” And getting at that personal attachment requires upholding Marx’s dialectical materialism over Avakian’s superficial rationalism.

You can undermine brittle dogmatic religions by using their inconsistencies. You can pry some individuals over toward communistic atheism that way. But you really can’t touch the potency of religion if you don’t appreciate the source of its influence.

You can’t challenge Christian morality by crudely equating it with venality — with Old Testament “horrors” or the ugliest “traditional values.” You also have to deal (in truly dialectical ways) with Jesus’ admonitions to “love your brother” and “turn the other cheek.” You have to deal with grace, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation, charity and hope for blessings — in other words, you have to all-sidedly deal (critically!) with what actually attracts people to Christian teachings.

Further: Religions are not just scientifically “wrong” world outlooks — but are also the rituals, traditions and cultures through which people identify themselves with historically constituted communities. Look at the stubborn Catholicism of many Irish people or the tenacious Judaism among dispersed Jewish people — who are often not particularly drawn to the supernatural.

There are no gods who hear our muffled cries. No one should expect divine blessings or miracles. The meek will not inherit the earth. But that doesn’t mean religion is simply self-deception or that communities of people don’t reap real benefits by organizing themselves into congregations…

Related example: Over many years of writing about elections for Revolution and the Revolutionary Worker, I was often amazed by how literally some within the RCP assumed that the stated program of bourgeois politicians represented what they actually intended to do. I sometimes thought, “This party is the only place in society where the statements of lying politicians are actually believed.” Again: the fetish of the word leads to overestimating the analytic value of close textual reading.

It is certainly true that some powerful ruling class circles have deliberately trained, financed, promoted and empowered extremely reactionary Christian fundamentalist forces. In many ways that process has reshaped these forces and even reworked their theology. It is true that the Religious Right has a common program: they generally want to “bring religion back into the public square,” erase the separation of church and state, funnel tax money into their ministries, replace state social programs with church programs, and promote vicious reactionary values in opposition to the ‘60s values, science and progressive thinking. It is true that one piece of that movement literally wants a fascist Christian theocracy. All of that is true, dangerous and quite alarming.

But it is a huge leap to claim that a Christian theocracy is literally in the works…

There is a willingness to face what is actually going on there which is in its way admirable, so while not in the slightest degree sharing in the author’s particular vision on utopia I do commend his cautionary note. This, it strikes me, is even more relevant when it comes to looking at religion in Australia because so often we see that refracted through cartoonish versions of religion in the USA, these being the ones that have most prominence (for and against) on the internet.

Another atheist site that I find actually quite useful is de-conversion. It is of interest to me to compare my own somewhat Taoist Christianity with a recent post there, 8 Reasons why I no longer believe. The eight reasons are as follows, detail omitted as you should read that on the original post, along with a very lively comment thread:

1. The Trinity doesn’t make sense

2. Clashing theologies, clashing denominations

3. Absurd Bible stories and contradictions

4. God is said to be unchanging yet he changes so much!

5. The Hell Problem

6. Eastern Religions pre-date Judaism

7. Judaism’s rejection of Yeshua (Jesus)

8. The existence of God cannot be proven

Funnily enough I go along with most of those, even more so on one or two: for example, my consciousness of my degree of Aboriginal ancestry which of course means I am an inheritor of at least 40,000 years in this country — that is many many millennia before either Abraham or the Exodus, let alone Noah — gives a special significance to #6. As for #3, you already know that my faith does not depend on God being an author… And #8: of course it can’t.

But that is where I stop this time. If you want more in the meantime, go to this post.

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Posted by on January 21, 2008 in awful warnings, challenge, Christianity, faith, interfaith, Islam, religion


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