The Third International after Lenin

Thursday, August 30, 2012

New Atheist movement: is the game worth the candle?

"Atheism and Theism" is not a Class Contradiction
from M-L-M Mayhem! by JMP

Recently, EDB, comrade blogger of The Fivefold Path, wrote an insightful post about controversies within the New Atheist movement.  Her commentary on blog atheist Jen McCreight's account of chauvinism within this movement explained what so many of us leftists have known, for quite a while, about the inherent contradictions of this movement: that it is a club primarily for privileged pro-imperialist petty bourgeois males who imagine that they're subversive for rejecting God while, at the same time, accepting everything capitalist-imperialist society has socialized them into believing is holy.  EDB's article, along with the McCreight article she was referencing, got me thinking about the long-standing [non-]issue of atheism and communism.  Moreover, it made me again think through the reasons why Marx and Engels, who did not believe in God or any non-materialist account of reality, at the same time rejected atheism as a viable political project.

As many of my readers are probably aware, the communist movement has had a rather heterogeneous approach to religion and religious commitment.  Religious conservatives like to claim that communism has always endorsed some sort of "state atheism" but this is clearly an oversimplification––for even those communist-led socialisms that have declared something like this always were more concerned with pushing primarily for a secular separation of church and state, targeting proselytization rather than private religious commitment, and in some cases going after specific religious commitments rather than every religious commitment.

For example, Lenin believed that Christianity should be outlawed from the public sphere, but he also thought that it should be permitted in the private sphere––the belief was that it would whither away just like the state… this might seem tantamount to "state atheism" (evangelically minded people of all religions believe that a religion is "under attack" if it is not allowed to proselytize, after all), but it does not precisely fit the definition.  This is not some "Anti-Theocracy" that, like a Theocracy, enforces a religion even upon the private lives of citizens; it simply asks for people to stop pushing their fire and brimstone narratives upon others outside of spaces where people privately agree that this is all fine and dandy.  Another example would be the Chinese Revolution where Confucianism was targeted (since its ideology enforced semi-feudalism) but other religions were generally left alone (though, in the case of Christianity, those types of Christian missionary-ism that were connected to imperialism were also targeted).

Outside of these two world historical revolutions, however, communist history is not entirely certain on the question of religion.  The Irish revolutionary James Connolly (friend of Lenin and Luxemburg, another rebel of the Second International) argued that you could be a socialist and a Christian, and that the two commitments were not mutually exclusive.  There is also a long history of liberation theology, another way of approaching the Jesus of the Gospels and that I've blogged about before, that derives its communism from a radical understanding of Xtian doctrine.  Then there are those who argue that, while you can be a socialist and a theist, the fact that you are committed to the latter should mean that you can never be part of a revolutionary party since you lack the advanced consciousness necessary for qualification––but still, even this camp, wouldn't disqualify one from claiming a socialist outlook, or from even participating in a socialist society, only from party membership.

Where is "communism" on this sign post?  It has nothing to do with these options.

In any case, communists have never, as a whole, been atheists in form even if they have often been atheists in essence.  More specifically, while communists have often refused to believe in the existence of God––some even theorizing that such beliefs would necessarily wither away once the material grounds for these beliefs (anything that allows for religion to be the "opium of the people, the sigh of the oppressed") were annihilated––they did not treat religion and spirituality as the prime contradiction of social struggle.  Indeed, as Roland Boer has pointed out, Lenin even regularly attended church services while he was in exile because he saw these churches as places where the proletariat gathered and discussed, though in religious language, the terms of their exploitation.  [Note: Boer has also written some great books on the long-standing marxist fascination with theology.]  And though Lenin was always clear about the fact that he did not believe in any god or gods, he was not an atheist-qua-atheist in that he did not make atheism into the basis of his ideology.

So what does it mean when I say that communists can be atheists in form but not atheists in essence?  This might seem like some sort of pernicious "commie double-talk" but, as with all accusations of Orwellian "double-talk", it is merely critical dialectical thinking.  And one of my international comrades explained this distinction in a very simple way that I will paraphrase here: "we are not 'atheists' not because we believe in God but because we feel that the issue of God's existence [or non-existence] is not a class contradiction."  That is, neither the capitalist mode of production nor the capitalist world system is dependent upon the contradiction between oppressing theists and oppressed atheists: the former depends upon the contradiction between proletariat (theist or atheist) and bourgeoisie (theist or atheist); the latter depends upon the contradiction between oppressed nations and oppressor nations.  What sort of revolutionary movement can be led by atheists who define their movement simply by atheism?  Well, obviously, a movement that is more secular than the brutal theocracy their opposites would erect but not a movement by itself that can overthrow capitalism.  This is because there are many atheists who are comfortable bourgeois and/or imperialist assholes and, because of this, are not subversive but are simply people who have a different ideology but possibly the same class commitments as the religious assholes they're trying to overthrow––a palace coup, a realignment of ideology but not the material basis of oppression.

I mean, look at the New Atheist movement: pro-imperialist, eurocentric, and anti-feminist to the core.  The McCreight article cited above is a typical account of the core ideology of this movement in that it describes a woman (McCreight) who attempts to talk about her own feelings of oppression within this movement and is met with scorn, chauvinist belittlement, and rape threats.  One only needs to read the comment strings of her posts that have to do with feminism to realize that the movement she wants to save––that she still imagines is politically viable and can be reclaimed––is a movement filled with retrograde bourgeois fucks who think that atheism is tantamount to advanced consciousness.

Obviously religion can be an ideology that endorses class oppression; only a fool would think otherwise.  But we communists have more in common with a theistic proletariat who knows that capitalism has to go than an atheistic bourgeois who wants to maintain hir class position.  The former possesses an advanced consciousness, and understands more about reality than the latter who imagines that hir atheism makes hir superior.  For communists, it is not the fact of religion or non-religion that, at root, makes one more aware of reality; it is the understanding that capitalism and imperialism, rather than religion, is what primarily stands in the way of human progress.

So we must ask why people like McCreight want to waste their time trying to reform a movement that is only united on the basis of [anti-religious] ideology.  Because of rationalism?  Far better to pick the rationalism that understands that one can never be allies based on a commitment against religion, a commitment that will still be divided by class and everything that composes class.  It is not rational to assume that there can be solidarity with one's class enemies, even if you both believe there is no god or gods.  Far better to take your atheism into a different sphere and focus on the end of class rather than the end of religion.  Here, in the communist world, we already have a long history of working out these contradictions.  Here, in the communist world, we know that the atheist who is only committed to atheism might be our class enemy.  Here, in the communist world and despite our messiness, at least we understand that "atheism and theism" is not, and can never be, a class contradiction.

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