Saturday, January 24, 2009

Stephen Ferguson on Katrina, race, class, theodicy, & atheism

Written 18 January 2009

Ferguson, Stephen C., II. "Teaching Hurricane Katrina: Understanding Divine Racism and Theodicy," Newsletter on Philosophy and the Black Experience, volume 7, number 1, Fall 2007.

Ferguson outlines how he teaches his students a Marxist-Leninist perspective on religion, combined with the fundamental issue of theodicy inspired by black religious humanist William R. Jones, Jr., author of Is God a White Racist?.

Given the paucity of public expression of black atheism (although it is increasingly visible on blogs), and the noxious saturation of black public intellectual life by religiosity, it is always refreshing to see an alternative view expressed.

Ferguson prefaces his essay by quoting three figures on the Katrina catastrophe as a case of divine retribution: Farrakhan, the mayor of New Orleans, and some rabbi I never heard of. Then he outlines his course on African-American philosophy, including the subtopic of philosophy of religion, noting that there is a neglected secular humanist strain in black thought that can be counterpoised to religious idealism. This strain includes such figures as Richard B. Moore, Hubert Harrison, J. A. Rogers, George S. Schulyer, Walter Everette Hawkins, A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, Eugene C. Holmes, and C. L. R. James. I'm not familiar with Hawkins, and I only just learned of Moore's atheism, so I have more work to do.

Ferguson introduces atheism by way of Marxism-Leninism. Citing Lenin, Ferguson emphasizes that "Unlike some traditions within the philosophy of religion, Marxism-Leninism (or scientific atheism) does not dismiss religion as metaphysical nonsense." I'm not aware of anyone outside the Soviet bloc that has used the term "scientific atheism," and I'm not certain how that differs from unscientific atheism or bourgeois scientific atheism, going by the terminology. Ferguson lists six criteria for scientific atheism, the first of which is that it "is necessarily grounded on dialectical materialism." This is surely true of Soviet Marxism-Leninism, but it begs the question of just what dialectical materialism is, since even those who accept the concept have disputed its content. I don't think this is a wise way to begin, but following this strategy, I would contrast the dialectical historical materialist notion of society and history with the biological reductionism of Dawkins, Wilson and all the proponents of evolutionary psychology.

Anyway, from there Ferguson proceeds to the logic of theodicy and the contradiction between God's alleged goodness and the existence of evil. Katrina is taken as a paradigmatic case. Then Ferguson deploys Jones's work on divine racism to explore the problem, adding the caveat that at bottom the issue may be more of class than of race. Then Ferguson contrasts theological explanations with social explanations of U.S. governmental institutions' unpreparedness and indifference in the face of natural disasters, comparing the U.S.'s track record with Cuba's.

Ferguson appends one quote from Marx, two from Lenin, and one from Kwame Nkrumah. It's been decades since I read Nkrumah's Consciencism, and I don't recall the apropos quote on religion cited.

I hope that Ferguson's actual course is less rigidly schematic than his abbreviated outline presented here. I also don't think, based on what I've seen, that the Marxist analysis of religion tends to be as sophisticated as it needs to be. Historically, it proceeded out of the liberalizing demythologization of Christianity practiced by Strauss, Bauer, and Feuerbach, and taken up by Marx and Engels individually. However, even their legacy is not always fully utilized. (See for example Trevor Ling’s Karl Marx on Religion in Europe and India.)

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