Monday, April 16, 2007

Freedom from Religion: An Interview with Alexander Saxton

Written 5 January 2007:

Freedom from Religion: An Interview with Alexander Saxton by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, MR Zine, 9 Nov 06

This interview is overall quite good, and provides a welcome alternative to the asociological, ahistorical liberal crap that dominates the anti-religion best seller list now—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and above all, Sam Harris. If only Saxton could get their kind of publicity with his new book Religion and the Human Prospect.

I must call attention to my one quibble, with Saxton’s conception of ideology.
Mannheim expressed precisely this view in the title of his famous book, Ideology and Utopia. Ideology, for Mannheim, was the manipulation of ideas, including religious ideas, by which exploiters maintained their dominance. Utopia, in Mannheim’s terms, was the yearning of the oppressed to overthrow or transcend their oppressors. Marx and Engels, focusing on class as the dynamic of historical change, argued that clerical hierarchies —priesthoods —because religion gives them access to social power and wealth, tend to align ideologically with the ruling class.
To identify Mannheim’s view with Marx’ and Engels’ is all wrong. Ideology is not just the manipulation of ideas to maintain class dominance, though that is part of it. Ideology is the necessary mystification of the nature of the world and social structure on the part of dominated, dominators, and the intellectual mediators of society (whatever their conscious loyalties), defined originally by Marx as “inverted” consciousness.
Marxists identified religion as ruling-class ideology.
Saxton should be careful with his language. What is implied here? “Identified” suggests identity or equivalence, though it could merely mean attribution in a functional sense. “Identified” does not necessarily mean “defined”. And I think this is not necessarily true that Marxists have always thought this way, whatever Saxton’s statement means. Of course, in popular agitation, religion can be easily attacked as a device to pull the wool over people’s eyes, as institutionally, it is so demonstrably harmful, and cognitively, an obstacle to a scientific analysis of society and the world. But it is not at all self-evident that Marxists, however anti-religious, simply equated religion with priestcraft.
But anti-clericalism falls short of examining belief itself. Even Marx’s celebrated description of religion as “the opium of the people” remains relatively useless for explanatory purposes. Ruling classes of course use religion to their own advantage but where does the religion come from? Did they invent it? How? When? Marxists say (and this certainly is accurate) that religion generates priesthoods which, because they wield great social power, tend to merge into the ruling class and bestow tokens of divine approval on ruling-class strategies. Whence comes the social power of religious hierarchies?
This is all true as far as it goes, but it may create a distorted impression. “Opium of the people” in actuality is the least revealing and productive, though most provocative, phrase in the passage in which Marx states it. Marx did not in fact define religion thus, though he did sum religion up as a popular epistemology, ending with this functional attribution.
Yes, it is important to know that religion often performs the star role in ruling-class ideology. Yet, to understand anything about religion itself as a historical phenomenon, one needs to dig deeper psychologically, and further back in evolutionary time. This poses a conceptual problem, especially for Marxist-oriented historians and anthropologists. To identify religion with ideology shuts off access to this sort of deeper research. Why? Because the concept of ideology is linked to that of class —it forms part of the apparatus of class conflict —and class is generally thought to have entered history at the same time as division of labor. But the division of labor could only have occurred after thousands of years of cultural evolution, somewhere near the end of the hunter/gatherer stage. By this reckoning, human societies would have had to wait a long, long time before ruling-class ideology finally introduced them to religion.
This is all dandy except that Saxton introduces a false premise: that ideology is completely encapsulated in the notion of class distinction and hence domination. I don’t have the textual evidence handy, but I don’t think even Marx and Engels limited themselves in this way, but even if they did, it’s just plain wrong. ‘Ideology’ with or without religion couldn’t make any sense if it arises only out of class domination, which didn’t just pop out by magic, either, if you’ll excuse the expression.

Therefore, an analysis of where Marxists have gone wrong, if they have, should not be distracted in this fashion. From what I have seen, the mainstream atheist propaganda of liberal democracies tends to be rather simple-minded, whereas at least Marxist perspectives analyze how ideological phenomena operate both conceptually and institutionally. I don’t know where Saxton got his information, but it is just not so that Marxists simply operate with a dichotomy of religion as either bad (deception) or good (popular movements, liberation theology). At their worst they tend to do whatever it takes to pander, or in the case of Stalinist regimes, to legitimate their own rule. Liberation theology is the worst form of pandering, dishonest in the extreme, and in Latin America, the product of an historically specific pathology. This kind of thinking betrays an excessively instrumentalist approach to ideas: whose ass to I have to kiss in order to get people’s attention, or how do I have to manipulate them to get them to kiss mine?

Oddly, Saxton talks here like a mainstream liberal, though he is obviously much smarter.

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