Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Liberal religion vs. the 'new atheists'

"Condescension, and thinking oneself no better, are the same. To adapt to the weakness of the oppressed is to affirm in it the pre-condition of power, and to develop in oneself the coarseness, insensibility and violence needed to exert domination . . ."

-- Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia
Should I Quit Being Christian? Some Questions for the New Atheists
Tikkun / By Be Scofield.
AlterNet, June 28, 2010

"The new atheists negate the contributions of religious people in the reforming of religion and the resisting of injustice."

A long whine about the "new atheists", with some interesting tidbits about Martin Luther King, Jr. Problem is, the historical information adduced here leads to ahistorical conclusions about the future . . . where to go now that we know what we know . . . and so the author ends up being as useless as the historically illiterate Sam Harris.

Scofield does not understand the problem with wishy-washy liberals, whether in religion or other matters. He fixates on certain statements by certain "new atheists", i.e. that moderate religionists pave the way for the extremists. He is so put out by such a blanket assertion, he seeks to disprove it with loads of historical information about the contributions of liberal religionists to progressive political action and social reform. This, I suppose, is consonant with Tikkun's soft and cuddly notion of progressive politics, a milder version of more radical liberation theology.

There is, however, a problem with this argument: the failure to distinguish between yesterday and today. Secular humanism emerged from the long and painful struggle to liberalize religion, passing through the stage of liberal religion and in the USA very much through the medium of Unitarianism. The first Humanist Manifesto of 1933, itself largely a product of social liberalism, already surpassed the level of today's whiny religious liberals. The question is not one of demanding that the past conform to the imperatives of the present and future, but of what our standards should be now.

Scofield fails to attack Dawkins and especially Harris where they are weakest: their ignorance (in the case of Harris, shameless ignorance) of history and indifference to sociological analysis. Harris is the only "new atheist" who is actually new on the scene. The others and their colleagues have been at it for decades and still show no curiosity to learn anything new about history or society. The exception to the rule is of course Christopher Hitchens, who knows more about both than the rest of the organized humanist movement combined, but who has jumped the shark and utilizes his leftist past as petty gossip.

Instead, Scofield obsesses over this one isolated idea about moderate religionists, ignoring the purport of the comment for today's world, instead escaping into the past, including the all-embracing bosom of Dr. King, to justify the squalid middle class feelgood self-indulgence in nicey-nice prettification of ugly reality.

Unfortunately, neither Scofield nor the "new atheists" seem to be aware of what's wrong with upper middle class make-nice liberal religion. What is most noteworthy here is the middle class inclination towards respectable niceness and liberal guilt. (For the panderers to liberation theology, it's radical guilt, which is liberal guilt raised to the nth power.) And characteristically disgusting is the exploitation of Dr. King, the gold standard of the social gospel. Interestingly, Scofield tells us here that the Kings seriously considered joining the Unitarian Church, but realized they could not be socially effective with black Southerners by doing so. If this is so, it's not for us to judge King in hindsight, because he was not a free agent, but what about us? Why must we be shackled with the chains of the past?

It's one thing to be Mr. Nice Humanist walking the plush grounds of the Harvard Divinity School, it's quite another to fight one's way out of the culture of poverty and struggle to transcend the abuse heaped on one by social dysfunction, bad child-rearing practices, fear-based enforcement of social conformity, and degrading assaults on psyche and intellect. Such people don't live in a nicey-nice world and know what the struggle for the human mind is worth. It's war.

Ideological obfuscation does not help anyone, and progressives reveal something about their own weak politics in so indulging. Pompous gasbags like Cornel West and Michael Lerner are quite limited in what they positively have to offer compared to the harmful nonsense they spew and their contribution to the theocratic domination of public discourse.

1 comment:

Marc Jagoe said...

Nice post Ralph. I think the author of the article is conflating belief with religious practice. I agree with Dawkins and Harris about moderate belief opening the door for extremist belief systems. I suppose I'm not so concerned about religious ritual as long as they don't infringe upon other people's human and civil rights. Extremist unalterable belief systems are dangerous and should be spoken out against.

I should say that the example used in the article in comparing the critique of liberal religion to drinking and alcoholism is just ridiculous. One is adherence to practices and ritual with an underlying dogmatic foundation, even if it is almost negligible and the other is an activity undertaken outside of any established organization. Comparing the two is like comparing apples and Ford Mustangs. The other comparisons to politics and science are just as ridiculous because the author fails to note the meaning and reasons behind the institutions and processes that he compares. The bottom line is that some things aren't comparable and to make comparisons to a practice like religion to a process like science just goes to show the sloppy thinking that went into this article. I suppose if the author compared religion to the cult of science that is on the rise then he might have a point, but he lost me as he took me down this road in his thought process.

I do view your critique of the New Atheists as valid, and I suppose that if the author had taken the time to understand what it is that people like Dawkins and Harris are proposing then this post would have made sense. They are creating a cult of science where all rational discourse is limited to adherence to the scientific method even when it can't be usefully applied in its totality with regard to many elements in the human social condition.