Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The New Atheists

I think this is worth quoting.

"Let me try to demonstrate the difference between "Atheism Lite" and atheism proper by means of a brief analysis of what is arguably the most powerful argument ever advanced for the eradication of religion: the introduction to Karl Marx's A Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. Marx famously writes:

"The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about their condition is a demand to give up a condition that requires illusion. The criticism of religion is therefore the germ of the criticism of the valley of tears whose halo is religion."

His point is that religion acts as a veil draped across the cold severity and injustice of life, making our lives tolerable by supplying them with a kind of "illusory happiness." Hence, for Marx, religion is a palliative. But tear away the illusion, remove those narcotic fantasies to which people cling and from which they derive a sense of contentment, and they will be forced to seek out true happiness through justice and self-determination. And so he goes on:

"The criticism of religion disillusions man so that he may think, act and fashion his own reality as a disillusioned man come to his senses; so that he may revolve around himself as his real sun. Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself."

It is here that the great paradox of Marx's critique lies. The only way to effect change on earth is by waging war against heaven, that is, by abolishing religion and its every arcane form. In this way, Marx says, "the criticism of heaven is transformed into the criticism of earth."

But Marx's critique of religion has an unexpected twist, a barb in the tail that implicates the "Lites" by exposing the deeper complicity concealed by their cynicism. For, to be "dis-illusioned" in Marx's sense is not heroically to free oneself from the shackles and blinders of religious ideology and thus to gaze freely upon the world as it truly is, as Dawkins and Harris and even Hitchens would suppose.

Rather, to be "dis-illusioned" is to expose oneself to the anxiety of the bare, unadorned fact of one's existence, to live unaided beneath what Baudelaire called "the horrible burden of Time, which racks your shoulders and bows you downwards to the earth".

In Capital, Marx demonstrated that the advent of capitalism itself had the effect of denuding the world by ripping off the shroud of religion and dissolving the communal and familial ties that bind. But the mechanistic world laid bare by industrial capitalism induced madness among those that prospered from the wealth it generated and among those that found themselves dispossessed of the fruits of their labour.

Consequently, it is as if capitalism generated its own antibodies, a form of religion inherent to its processes of production, exchange and consumption that would guarantee its survival by palliating its devotees. Walter Benjamin developed this further, suggesting that "capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement ... A vast sense of guilt that is unable to find relief seizes on the cult, not to atone for this guilt but to make it universal, to hammer it into the conscious mind."

And yet even the atonement for guilt comes within the purview of capitalism. This religion now has its own acts of penance for one's economic debauchery in the form of tokenistic charity, delayed gratification and the production of "green" or "fair trade" commodities.

The great irony of capitalism is that its progress has seen the corruption and fragmentation of morality and the decimation of institutional religion, but in their place persists the menagerie of pseudo-moralities and plaintive spiritualities (often in the form of so-called Western Buddhism or what Martin Amis calls "an intensified reverence for the planet") that somehow sustain, or perhaps lubricate, its global machinations.

To paraphrase Marx, the abolition of these false moralities and neo-paganisms would constitute the demand for the rediscovery of authentic reason, integral morality and sustainable, virtuous forms of communal life. And here the "New Atheists" fall tragically short."

Scott Stephens, Religion and Ethics editor for ABC Online

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