Thursday, July 3, 2014

Social class & the atheist movement (2)

My previous post was heavy on the abstract and conceptual. More needs to be said about David Hoelscher's essay Atheism and the Class Problem (Counterpunch, November 07, 2012). Hoelscher explodes the pretensions of 'social justice' atheists in a more thorough fashion than I have seen anywhere else.

Hoelscher prefaces his essay with a quote from Marx's Capital, which expresses the essence of the Marxian view:
The religious reflex of the real world can, in any case, only then finally vanish, when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature. 
For more, see my web page Karl Marx on Religion: Sources & Quotations.

Hoelscher convincingly demonstrates that the Atheist Plus "movement" and Richard Carrier specifically have not the slightest understanding of class inequality and include the issue of poverty at most as an afterthought. On the other hand, atheists who do emphasize the class issue, like Michael Parenti, are ignored. Hoelscher makes light of Greg Epstein, who "holds the odd and unfortunate title of “Humanist Chaplain” at Harvard University"and whose book Good Without God curiously omits the issue of poverty and class oppression.Yet religion and economics are inseparable, and a staggering percentage of the world's population is condemned to poverty.

Hoelscher also refutes the notion that the “secularization thesis” has been decisively refuted by the likes of Rodney Stark and Alister McGrath .

Hoelscher wants to account for this flagrant blindness. He attributes it to classism. But he doesn't limit his criticism to atheists lacking in class consciousness. He also indicts leftists who dismiss religion as being a problem at all, for example Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, the Marxist literary theorist and apologist for religion Terry Eagleton, and left-wing journalist Alexander Cockburn. The popular philosopher-mediocrity Alain de Botton also gets a comeuppance. Sam Harris gets the analytical thrashing he deserves. Ayaan Hirsi Ali's reactionary politics are also noted.

Richard Carrier gets taken apart a second time, this time for his praise of Obama, whose anti-working class presidency is treated at length. 

Hoelscher reminds us via a speech by Barbara Ehrenreich, "that there is a vast and largely forgotten tradition of blue collar atheism in America, usually called freethought, in the nineteenth century . . . " There is no such talk about the working class today. Haven't I been saying this for years? Thank you.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Social class & the atheist movement (1)

As I do not regularly follow the blogosphere, I missed out on this article, which I was informed of only last week:

Counterpunched: We Have No Theory of Power by James Croft, Temple of the Future, December 20, 2012

Since I make a weak effort at best at publicizing my podcasts, I am surprised to find this:
The freethought movement has recently come in for a barrage of criticism, but not from the usual sources: in the past few months we’ve been battered from the left. It’s one thing to be attacked by right-wing fundamentalists and Fox News pundits – I expect that - but when columnists in the leftist political newsletter Counterpunch and radical Marxists like Ralph Dumain start throwing punches, I’m caught off-guard.

Perhaps this is why so many of their blows land: the movement does have a problem with sexism (as Jeff Sparrow contends), it does tend to overlook issues of economic justice (as David Hoelscher avers, twice - and I’m as guilty of this as anyone, something I’ll address in future posts), and it hasn’t grappled sufficiently with critical theory (as Ralph Dumain argues).
Apparently, one of my punches thrown in a vacuum landed somewhere, and is part of a barrage of criticism. Odd, given how peripheral I am to the entire atheist/humanist/skeptics movement. I suspect that David Hoelscher is hardly a household word, either, though I may have read his insightful essay Atheism and the Class Problem when it appeared.

Croft admits that the humanist movement is "ill-equipped to fend-off challenges from the left" and that "we have no theory of power". This is an odd way of formulating the problem. But then he addresses the basis of my ideological critique:
Dumain thinks similarly [to someone named Sparrow], arguing that “the atheist – humanist – skeptical movement, particularly in the USA…addresses only one half of the cognitive sources of irrationality of the modern world, and is ill-equipped to grapple with the secular forms of unreason, which can be denoted by the term “ideology”.” 
Similarly, the atheist/humanist movement has failed to address the structural critique that Hoelscher emphasizes.

To his credit, Croft addresses the intellectual deficiencies of celebrated humanist intellectuals like Corliss Lamont, Paul Kurtz, and Richard Norman. Lamont was involved in a number of progressive causes, reflecting the left-liberal orientation of leading humanists who publicly coalesced in the 1930s. In terms of general principles, humanism offered a strategic point of departure, but as a total world view has always been anemic. (Roy Wood Sellars, principal author of the first Humanist Manifesto, is in my opinion the most outstanding figure of classic American philosophy, but he developed his "critical realism" entirely separately from organized Humanism.)  I was a student of Kurtz 40 years ago: to me he was a mediocre representative of Cold War liberalism rendered irrelevant by the political radicalism (however deficient) of the time, including that of the student movement. His version of social liberalism is now as dead and forgotten as American liberalism itself. But Kurtz, coming from his generational perspective, having grown up in more radical times, possessed the intellectual frame of reference to concede, as not a single public advocate of "social justice" atheism would today, that "Marx was no doubt the greatest humanist thinker of the nineteenth century".

Croft is also laudably aware of the critique of irrationality in a social/historical vacuum.
The major New Atheist authors tend to criticize religion (rightly) as a sort of cognitive error or collective mistake – a “delusion” or a “spell” which must be broken – whilst mainly avoiding the ways in which religion is reinforced and propagated by societal institutions and social practices. Perhaps predictably, when they bring their intellectual backgrounds to bear on the topic, what you get are evolutionary, philosophical and, to some extent, political explorations of religion, none of which fully address its sociological aspects.
This freethought tendency, I argue, is linked to another: the tendency to focus our critical gaze on the individual, rather than the group or community. When racism, sexism, homophobia and other systematic forms of oppression are discussed, it is often in service of the reform of individuals rather than the melioration of social conditions and institutions which shape individuals in the first place.
One manifestation of this phenomenon is the omnipresence of the noxious abuse of the notion of "privilege," a concept originated decades ago by hard core Marxists who saw structural racism as key to ruling class power and who sought to intervene practically in the labor movement to the benefit of all concerned, now reduced to manipulative personalization and guilt-tripping of one group of middle class professionals by other middle class professionals who represent nobody.

Add to this the general atmosphere of superficial branding and self-promotion that permeates the age of cyber-mediated social interactivity. The ahistorical, shallow sloganeering embodied in the pseudo-concept of Atheism Plus is emblematic of our time. Richard Carrier's vicious rant, The New Atheism +, is characteristic. Following complaints that he lumped in Marxists with "Neonazis and anarchists and UFO cults and churches and right wing think tanks", Carrier removed Marxists from this grouping. Elsewhere he dismisses Marx and thus renders himself dismissible in return. Here his rant has a twofold character: one is a rejection of unacceptable behavior within atheist groupings (such as the unconscionable harassment, threats, and defamation of women), the other is drawing a line in the sand between social justice atheists and the rest of the atheist community. Several people have protested both the branding (what's wrong with "humanism"?) and the rigid us-vs.-them mentality. The shallow posturing of Atheism Plus may suit those accustomed to internecine blog/Twitter/YouTube/Facebook wars, but it succeeds only in supplementing one turn-off with another. There is certain behavior that is intolerable within any contemporary formal or even informal organization. Atheism Plus fails, though, to address intelligently the relationship between advocates of various causes and the core basis of secularist/atheist/etc. organizations.

Croft promises to follow up in future posts. I shall have to look into this. This post was well crafted.

As I am apparently a batterer from the left, it might be expected that I am a crusader for the reform of atheist organizations. But I have limited myself to a critique of the ideological parameters of the movement. It makes perfect sense for those with more encompassing political agendas to form their own institutions. In fact, since black atheists began to spring up en masse seemingly out of nowhere a few years ago, several enterprising individuals have formed their own networks, radio shows, social service programs, organizations, etc. Some have cordial or even productive relationships with mainstream organizations, others go their own way, one insists on demagogically race-baiting the whole movement in the most public way possible. But however legitimate one's dissatisfactions may be, there remains the question of what one should legitimately and realistically expect from the mainstream umbrella organizations, or from any single-issue movement, as all movements in the U.S. political context are constrained to be.

One must first acknowledge that atheism is a bourgeois movement, and will remain so no matter how one attempts to combine it with some other perspective. This is not necessarily meant as a pejorative: it's an ineluctable objective fact. One can operate outside this purview only intellectually; the most effect one can practically hope to have is to alter the intellectual culture of the movement, and even then one moves within constraints. Combining atheism with a feminist or black perspective may broaden the referential base and maybe even the practical activity of the movement, but intellectually it does not advance beyond the ideological perspective of a bourgeois movement. No number of pluses can do this. And there's nothing wrong with being an honest delimited reform movement that doesn't pretend to be something it cannot be.

Aside from issues of unethical behavior, and the more obvious issues of inclusion and tokenism, one can expect only so much from a national organization unless its mission statement encompasses or implies something it is failing to do. The central issues would be the allocation of resources and the governance of specific organizations. As an outsider I am liable to misfire intervening in public controversies, let alone in commenting on the governance and use of resources. Any complaints I have heard are technically hearsay and I cannot competently comment on them. (Because of the people I know, all such complaints I have heard have come from black atheists, but they do not in every case involve specifically black issues.) Presumably the mainstream organizations, even without noticeably altering their missions, could improve the intelligent direction of their efforts.

There remain constraints here as there are in any single-issue movement. The dictionary definitions of "atheism", "humanism" etc. notwithstanding, there is a spread of political opinion in every grouping. Imagine what would happen to the financial base of any of these organizations if the libertarians--who are the greatest enemies of progressive politics--were ejected. And, as obnoxious and lopsided as celebrity atheism is, well-connected celebrities are poles of attraction and presumably generate revenue as well as spread the message of atheist/etc. organizations to large numbers of people.

Any group maneuvering within the strict limitations of the American public sphere can only do so much, given the severity of the constraints. And it may be too much to demand the movement broaden its scope of instrumental action to encompass what only a different political movement can really address. (Prior to the McCarthy era, working class freethinkers had their own institutions, apart from any national umbrella institution--a historical fact forgotten along with the working class itself.)

For these reasons I have confined myself to an ideological critique. Involving oneself in the strategic social/political space of "atheist", "humanist", or "skeptic" is one thing, but making a total intellectual or political identity out of any of these, even combined with some other sectoral identity (feminist atheist, black skeptic, etc.) ends up at best formulating a more refined form of ideological self-deception.