Thoughts on Atheism, Religion, and Equality

In the last couple of days, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has resigned over what he felt to be a conflict between his religious beliefs and his leadership position. There’s been plenty of speculation on the precise nature of this conflict, especially in light of his previous insistence that his personal religious beliefs did not impact on his liberal principles, and anyway he din’t believe that homosexuality was a sin. I must admit that I’m inclined towards scepticism regarding Farron, but that’s not really want prompted me to write this.

Instead, what I’m concerned with here is the tone of some comments on a ‘humanist’ page on Facebook, which for me summed up a tendency within the atheist community: that of dismissing deities as ‘sky fairies’ and insisting that the most important thing is to ‘mock’ religious believers.1

The problem is, this really misses the point. The gist of the article they were commenting on was that ‘the problem is not religion itself, but the way individual politicians interpret it’. Plenty of religious people (even religious politicians) have found no conflict between their faith and support for gay rights (indeed, plenty of LGBT people are religious themselves). The problem (suggests the article) is not religion in general, but Farron’s views in particular.

However, for many atheists (including prominent names like Richard Dawkins), this level of nuance is incomprehensible. There’s no variation between religious practitioners; there’s no scope for differing beliefs within or between religions; and there’s no scope for understanding the social context in which religion exists. Dawkins, for example, has been vocally dismissive of the study of theology, purporting to believe that to even study religion is to assert the existence of God. This is nonsense, of course; to study religion no more requires belief in God than to study modern literature requires belief in Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins, and Dawkins’ opinions are undoubtably within the realms of theology. (Dawkins has since gone even further, to dismiss much of the humanities and social sciences in general; it’s hardly a stretch, at this point, to suggest that he’s simply opposed to any body of knowledge that suggests he might not be the foremost authority on all the world’s problems.)

This kind of atheism misses the wood for the trees. Dawkins and his ilk claim to be deeply concerned by the impact of religion on society, but focus instead on the truth value of the proposition that ‘God exists’, apparently assuming that all of these negative impacts will simply disappear in a puff of logic. Marx wrote in 1842 that he ‘desired there to be less trifling with the label “atheism” (which reminds one of children, assuring everyone who is ready to listen to them that they are not afraid of the bogy man)’; for him, the non-existence of God was not in doubt, but equally, asserting this didn’t address any significant social questions.

Here’s a thought experiment: if God really did unquestionably, irrefutably exist, would homophobia be justified? One would hope that most atheists would say no (and, of course, many religious people already do say no). But in that case, why precisely does the existence of God matter? Religious people are far from exclusively homophobic, and homophobic people are certainly not exclusively religious.

A while back, I wondered if Dawkins-style atheists and religious fundamentalists had in common with each other a literal interpretation of holy texts, while more mainstream religious believers are more flexible in their faith. Since then I’ve realized this is untrue; religious fundamentalists don’t have an interpretation that is somehow ‘more correct’ than others (ISIS’ attacks on civilians during Ramadan comes to mind, or Christian extremists’ tendency to ignore the ‘plank in their own eye’). These atheists (or anti-theists, perhaps) have a similar tendency, though: to find, from their position of ignorance, the most negative interpretations of the texts, and to assume that this is the only valid one, that those believers who favour other interpretations are somehow ‘doing it wrong’. One could almost believe that they’d rather all religious people were ISIS or the Westboro Baptist Church; ‘moderate’2 religious people pose too much of a challenge to their black-and-white worldview wherein all atheists are good and intelligent and all ‘theists’ are bad and stupid.

As far as Tim Farron goes: it’s hard to support a belief that Christians are discriminated against in this country. As far as I can tell, each of the Prime Ministers we’ve had in the last ten years has been quite openly Christian, while Tony Blair was less so during his time in office but famously converted to Catholicism afterwards; I can’t find out what John Major believed in, but Thatcher was certainly religious, as was (to a greater or lesser extent) almost every Prime Minister before that. What seems to have damaged Farron is not so much his openness about his faith, but his failure to convince the party and the electorate that he isn’t a homophobe (even if he really isn’t). As Labour’s Emily Thornberry said on BBC Question Time last night, “you cannot aspire to be Prime Minister of this country … and think a substantial minority of this country, by their very sexuality, are in some way immoral”; I would add that a clarification that “we are all sinners” does not do much to improve this position.

  1. Full disclosure: I used to be this kind of atheist, although I hope I’m better now.
  2. Although I’m not entirely comfortable with the implied judgement of words like ‘moderate’.

Commodity Fetishism and Technological Solutions

A common observation among my group of friends is that “you can’t apply a technological solution to a social problem”; broadly speaking, that if a problem is fundamentally caused by human behaviour, technology can provide, at best, a temporary fix, until humans modify their behaviour to bypass the solution. Technology can’t, in many (perhaps not all) cases, address the fundamental causes of problems. And yet, somehow, it’s a recurring theme; a lot of security-related technology seems to fall into this category, for example.

Completely unrelated to all this, or so I thought, I’ve been trying to get my head around Karl Marx’s concept of the commodity fetish:

As against this, the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

(Capital, vol. 1, p. 165, Penguin edition; emphasis mine.)

What I understand him to be arguing, in short, is that (in capitalist societies) people tend to see the value of a commodity as being, somehow, a property of that commodity or based on a relationship with other commodities (e.g., money), when in fact it’s a result of the relationships between the people who own commodities.

So I started to wonder if this could apply much more broadly; isn’t (for example) the Thatcherite–Reaganite refrain of There Is No Alternative rooted in the same assumptions? That is, it’s based in the assumption (or the assertion) that economic conditions are an unchangeable fact, the result of unquestionable laws of nature (a relationship between things) and not a result of decisions made by human beings who benefit from this state of affairs rather than the alternative, and who can impose this state of affairs  on others (a relationship between people).

You can see this at work in any discussion of the markets, which are (we are expected to believe) mystical forces uncontrolled by human desire, rather than some thousands of people around the world acting in their own interests; one memory of this that stands out in my mind was the days of discussion between the 2010 general election and the subsequent coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The markets are unhappy. No mention of the people behind the markets, the people who wanted the best outcome for their own investments at the expense of other possible outcomes; simply an angry god, beyond human understanding or control, that must be appeased at all costs.

That seems to me to be what we’re seeing (perhaps at a more abstract level) with the current general election. Labour is unelectable because that’s the way things are. The Conservatives (or, “Theresa May’s Team”, as I hear they’re rebranding themselves) are strong and stable leaders because that’s the way things are. These assumptions appear to be entrenched even within the Labour Party, whose right wing insists that Corbyn will be (or already is) a failure because he fails to accept this framing. They’re reflected both in governmental economic policy (which can’t consider anything but cutting taxes and reducing expenditure: there is no alternative) and the priorities of every company attempting to use new technology to ‘solve’ a problem rooted in socioeconomic conditions (AI being the latest buzzword, but not the first).

Too often I think the first problem faced by the left is simply accepting the framing of problems that’s defined for us by the right, rather than redefining it in our own terms and with our own priorities. More and more, I’m starting to realize that this framing influences more aspects of society than just politics (and, after all, it’s to be expected; the separation of ‘politics’ from society and the economy is artificial). Dozens of startups spring up with a ‘clever’ algorithm or app to ‘solve’ problems facing employers or landlords (for example); the problems are simultaneously assumed to be unavoidable facts of life that are, nevertheless, fixable with a monthly or yearly subscription. This is doubly incorrect; on the one hand, the problems exist only because of the current socioeconomic structures, as a result of human actions that shape and are shaped by those structures; on the other, they’re unsolvable as long as those structures exist.

Of course, I don’t entirely know where I’m going with this; I don’t even know if my interpretation of Marx here is at all relevant, and I certainly don’t know how socialists might be able, in practice, to push back against the illusion that right-wing economic dogma is a law of nature. But asking the correct questions might be a starting point.

Revolutionary Art

Recently the Guardian published an article about a (then-upcoming) exhibition on post-Revolution Russian art at the Royal Academy, specifically referring to it as “brutal propaganda” and worrying that our admiration of it “sentimentalises one of the most murderous chapters in human history”. Unfortunately, the author seems deeply confused not only about what the exhibition represented but about his own opinions. This may, of course, be a reflection of the hazards of reviewing something that you haven’t seen yet.

To give him his due, Jones is particularly concerned with arguing that art should be placed in its proper social and political context; I agree, especially with art that had such a political and social motivation as some Soviet art did.

And yet, after visiting the exhibition, nobody could fairly claim that it failed to give the political context of the art — nor is it possible to say that the Royal Academy understates the “brutality” of the Soviet government, not only under Stalin but (as Jones is at pains to point out) under Lenin too.

From my perspective, the exhibition goes too far to the opposite extreme; the historical background on the wall of every room misses no opportunity to criticize the Bolsheviks, but in doing so completely fails to explain why anybody might have been motivated to create art for or about them. As pointed out on Twitter, for example, it’s not difficult to figure out why the Lithuanian Jewish graphic designer El Lissitzky, several of whose works feature in the exhibition, might have found it difficult to mourn the downfall of the Russian monarchy and the deeply anti-semitic Russian Orthodox church that supported it, nor why he might have felt positively about a government that took the risk of anti-semitic violence seriously. For Jones, though, putting Lissitzky’s in historical context means identifying them as “calls to merciless violence”: a partial contextualization that is perhaps even more misleading than a total lack of context would be.

More broadly, this is a mindset that does not allow any reason to support revolution, even revolution against a cruel and arbitrary autocratic monarchy and the backwards social conditions it perpetuated. Lenin and other leaders, it is taken for granted, planned from the outset a dictatorship for their own benefit; anyone who might have supported them from outside a position of power was merely misguided, and their motivations need no further explanation. After all, how could anybody seriously have imagined, as Lissitzky did in the late 1920s, a world in which ordinary people might have modern, spacious homes?

Of course, Jones could hardly be said to be an objective reviewer; on the one hand, he claims that we should “never stop looking at the art of the Russian avant garde”; on the other, he compares it to an exhibition of Nazi-era German art, to which there would “rightly be an outcry”. And, yet, a few years back he was arguing that “brutal regimes and empires have long contributed to a legacy of eye-popping realism” in the context of the Spanish Inquisition. I wonder what changed?