Sunday, July 31, 2011

Atheism and Marxism: a personal view

Starting out in the morning

by Jay Rothermel

…..under no circumstances ought we to fall into the error of posing the religious question in an abstract, idealistic fashion, as an “intellectual” question unconnected with the class struggle, as is not infrequently done by the radical-democrats from among the bourgeoisie. It would be stupid to think that, in a society based on the endless oppression and coarsening of the worker masses, religious prejudices could be dispelled by purely propaganda methods. It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society. No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism. Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.

-- V. I. Lenin [1905]

I recently found an invitation to this event on my FB:

Proud to be an Atheist Day

Saturday, August 6 · 12:00am - 11:30pm

Facebook, everywhere in the world, YouTube, out in the streets, anywhere you are!

Which set me going on the following thoughts about atheism and Marxism over the last week.

* * * * *

Atheism is a fine place to begin, but no cause for celebration or ceremonial ground-breaking.

For Marx and Engels religion, religious criticism, and the conquest of atheist consciousness belonged to early adulthood, when all other political action was blocked. Over the last two centuries, atheism’s career has followed this same sociological arc: a youthful contrarianism coupled with rudimentary materialism, so memorably described by Marx himself in his 4th thesis on Feuerbach. Atheism only overcame its youthful Feuerbachianism when it became a component of working class political consciousness: scientific socialism.

Atheism today retains its adolescent shock power in an Ah Wilderness! sense. Like Free Love, it is reduced from a historically purely literary militancy to a cosmopolitan Bohemianism shared by a minority of petty bourgeois radicals, academics, public intellectuals, and readers of Libertarian sci-fi. Films like Bill Maher’s Religulous [2008] reduce real political and economic motivations behind national struggles in our time to the status of false consciousness among unreasonable non-TV-host types of people.

In the pre-1798 period it was perfectly understandable for atheists to foresee victory over Catholic and Protestant church authority as reduced to a purely ideological struggle in the sphere of natural philosophy in civil society. Jefferson could foresee his future reputation principally as an architect of secularism. And why not, if some Gospels made for uneasy conscience when a man spent his days as a polymath and his nights as a raper of his own slaves? But today this “historic program” of atheism is reduced to one more consumer choice as curious and boring to jaded shopping mall consciousness as Taoism or Sbarro. As a movement of liberation, atheism’s context has been exhausted; its rise to cozy best-seller status is simply the final confirmation of this status.

* * * * *

My own religious education was and is non-existent. In fact, Grace at the holiday table was the only time the word “Lord” passed the lips of anyone in my family. But for the fact that an ancestor had written the Grace we used, we probably would have skipped it before meals entirely. Like money, income, and politics, religion was not a topic of polite conversation.

Did becoming a Marxist make me an atheist? Is the man who walks out to his car each morning for the drive to work a pedestrian? If so, then yes. It was only when I joined the communist movement in high school that I realized my family was most horrified about it because it meant I also embraced atheism; until then, I had no idea any of them had any positive opinion of religion.

Times I did attend church did not encourage my curiosity. I was always there to flank the parents of paramours, so double-dealing did not put me in a receptive frame of mind. Pentecostal shouting and loud music and the usual focus on the big financial campaign also turned me off; I felt not contempt but embarrassment. Looking back on it now, how happy I am I did not feel obliged to correct their beliefs.

Being nearly completely ignorant of the Bible, aside from what I learned from Cecil B. DeMille, has its advantages. So many atheist acquaintances, thanks to a youth spent in mandatory church attendance, have huge chunks of the Good Book at their fingertips and huge chips on their shoulders. Knowing the Bible’s content and being able to quote chapter and verse no more makes a man or woman a theologian than knowing and reciting Wordsworth makes them a scholar. Ignorance of the Bible and all other good books reduces me to happy and grateful silence on all the major and minor theological questions comrades and coworkers sometimes enjoy chewing-over.

Whether an atheist can go tit-for-tat in Bible quotes with an opponent has not and never will advance their cause, much less the cause of dialectical and historical materialism. An atheist pointing out how mean and unfair and illogical the God of the Old and the New Testament and his earthly epigones are, or that the time lines and miracles found in these texts defy even their own internal logic, has after over 200 years brought us no closer to a utopia of Reason and Science.

Religious institutions today increasingly succeed or fail in terms of strictly economic enterprise. This is not a product of the witnessing of the atheists, but of a world-spanning capitalist market that reduces all great questions to money. The Catholic Church, kept alive for millenia by its integration with particular capitalism states and civil society, faces a terminal demographic predicament. Increasing emphasis by the Holy See on accelerating sainthoods and miracle-hunting is, like the factory farming of truffles, only a church’s version of the resort to gimmicks and illusory bubbles to generate enthusiasm, while at the same time idling physical plant in the face of reduced demand.

Every capitalist enterprise and institution, whether they are a church paying taxes per se, must face the inexorable logical of the holy of holies: EBITA.

* * * * *

Religions develop and are transformed over millenia of different types of class society. They have deep historical and prehistorical roots found in the period of the first divisions of labor and agricultural revolutions. They epitomize societies based upon private ownership and material scarcity. An empowered and self-acting majority of humanity [wage and debt slaves, urban and rural] will not mothball religion, even after the overthrow of capitalism and our first steps on the road to a socialist order of plenty. Revolutionaries in their tens of millions may not see any “religious question” raised or requiring a complete answer as they work together building a transitional bridge between today’s defensive actions and tomorrow’s revolutionary showdowns. Nor should they see them out among collaborators.

Marxists are not in the business of forcing our co-fighters and allies into personal interrogations about anything in their personal lives, whether it be religion, marriage, economic status, et cetera. We are not in the business of telling people they are fools for following this or that belief system. We are not in the business of rhetorical one-upmanship with believers, hoping to checkmate their judgment by clever maneuver, whether we conduct ourselves with civility or not. Nor are we witch-hunters within our own ranks. We judge people by their acts.

* * * * *

Atheist is not a homogeneous demographic category. Some fancy themselves Nietzschean supermen, ready to lord it over any inferiors they find. [These kinds of atheists are usually high school dropouts and socially marginalized basement or garage dwellers; typically their income is from S.S.I.]. There are also foundation and academic atheists, smug in the cell of themselves, affronted by the ignorance and theism of the laboring classes who cling to their religion and guns.

Politically, there are atheists of left and right in bourgeois politics. First and foremost, they vote for themselves.

* * * * *

To summarize, I will quote a few words written by Andy Blunden in his excellent talk, :Why Marx was not an atheist.” “Atheism was therefore not just attacking the symptom instead of the disease, but was attacking the means by which the masses bare their suffering.”

Any Marxist who has gone door to door selling their newspapers or campaigning for their candidates in working class districts and oppressed communities knows that religious beliefs among workers are not an impediment to unity of action, or willingness to mobilize. This is particularly true in Black communities, where a higher level of political consciousness usually attains, thanks in large part to resistance to the normal racist functioning of capitalism and the police.

Is pointing out the stupidities and material foundations of a coworker or fellow activist’s religion a component of Marxist mass work? Clearly, the answer is no. While membership in a communist organization demands a specific understanding of religion, collaboration does not.
And here it is incumbent upon members of a communist organization to exercise respect, sensitivity, and a little circumspection.

* * * * *

Atheists and atheism were unknown in the small Ohio town where I grew up in the 1970s. Reading Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, Mark Twain’s Letters from Earth, and Jack London’s White Fang entertained and educated me about the world. But the sarcastic adolescent skepticism and contrarianism that grew from such fertile soil was only the beginning of wisdom about the world.

The point is to change it.


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