18 July 2013

Ni Dieux Si Maîtres, or Athiests and Why There Dicks

Ok, we all know about how Atheists are the easiest religion to troll. We all know how easy it is to wind them up with bad spelling and punctuation. But this isn't a post about why it's easy, it's about why it's necessary. Unless they get it and explain it very reasonably and succinctly, which they can be capable of, this is how the New Militant #TeamRational AtheistRollCall Atheists tend to respond to Marx's "opium/opiate of the masses/people" idea: Now, I've brought Dawkins's and more serious racists' brand of solidarity up before, the kind where they hold long-suffering Muslim women in utter contempt for being Muslims. The bit here is the straw man about comfort. They'll find various reasons to throw the Marxist position out, my favourite being ad hominems about Marxism being a political religion with history as its god, but in general, they think it means "religion is comfort". A painkiller for a sad world. Well, tell that to whatever bad religious thing I'm angry at now! So let's look at the rest of the passage. Read it slowly a couple of times, because it's really good and really well written and a more productive use of your time than the rest of this blogpost.
The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower
It's a complex and contradictory way of looking at it, but it's basic Marx I think: religion is ideology, ideology stems from the sociopolitical set-up of human life, it's a stupid set-up so you get stupid ideology, let's make the world actually good. It's a very useful way of understanding religion, as a symptom not a cause. But that tends not to be a priority for this lot. They're very keen to skip to the cure and actually get quite huffy if you bring up a diagnosis. Actually understanding religion is beneath them. One of the main problems with dismissing theology offhand is it tends to make you a terrible theologist. So if you then inadvertently end up trying to talk about theology, you end up with something like Johann Hari's car-crash of a hatchet-job on Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu
When he says repeatedly “rebuild the Temple,” anybody who has been to the Settlements in Israel/Palestine will know what he means – demolish the Muslim Dome of the Rock and rebuild the Third Temple. Calls for World War Three are not my idea of a sweet melody.
Now, aside from that time Johann Hari spent 2003-6 excitably calling for World War Three, and aside from his predictable How-dare-you-call-me-a-racist-I-rage-impotently-at-all-religions-equally-furthermore-I'm-offended-that-you're-offended shtick when he got pulled up for it, look at this: In the album he was plugging around then, Matisyahu says things like
Don't you see, it's not about the land or the sea
Not the country but the dwelling of His Majesty
Now, I'm sure the angry letter-writer does pray for a literal rebuilding of a literal temple if that's what he says, but it would take a very, very fucking convoluted reading of that song to say the same for Matisyahu. This is why you need theology: because if you write a sentence about what a religious person believes, you are engaging in theology. Try not to be shit at it.

Hari/Matisyahu is cack-handed amateur theology at its funniest. At its nastiest, it involves the sort of thing this Anti-Defamation League piece describes – taking quotes from a religious text, and using them to show the disgusting beliefs of the people who live by it. It's a fool's errand, for a start – try explaining from Bible quotes alone why Catholic priests don't fuck. But more importantly, it's dishonest. It doesn't just rely on fabricating quotes, mistranslating them and taking them out of context, it also involves taking a centuries-old text, one that's been read and discussed and reread and annotated and reexamined constantly for its entire history, ignoring its history of interpretation completely, and extrapolating from a few sections what people living now believe. Especially interesting is how similar some of the slurs involving the Talmud look to the kind of bollocks you hear about what it says in the Quran: paedophilia, hatred and murder of non-believers, and permission to lie to them whenever it suits you. This antisemitism/Islamophobia crossover, by the way is nothing new.

So, anyway, have these tossers also got the opiate idea wrong? Let's ask Paramore
Well you built up a world of magic
Because your real life is tragic
Now, I bring Paramore into this for three reasons: firstly, I like her voice and the chord stabs and guitar countermelodies, and this bit has a really good stabby guitar rhythm under a nice descending lead part. Secondly, Hayley Williams is a Christian home-schooled emo-teen-pop singer, who changes her hair colour every week-and-a-half and voluntarily took part in the Twilight films. She has, seemingly without any real effort, understood Marx's materialist critique of religion far better than the Oxford professor held up as the leading fucking light of modern Atheism. The exact sort of person atheists most love to scoff at has grasped something that constantly, angrily and embarrassingly baffles these smug chucklefucks. Thirdly, I've got a pointless bee in my bonnet about this song, and it's basically a Dawkins bee. Williams is spot on that fantasy escapism originates in a real-world base of suffering. But the song isn't about maybe trying to set right this poor girl's tragic life, it's about her giving up her fantasies – burying a castle when she should by rights be burying the piss-soaked, bullet-ridden carcasses of the property-owning bourgeoisie.

Anyway, I digress. The thing is, the magic/tragic thing isn't just a bit of a shoddy lyric, it's also exactly what's wrong with these God-Delusion-thumpers. Radical anticlericalism has a long history of radical commitment to positive change on the actual earth – Marx followed the "opium of the people" line up by declaring war on conditions in Germany (as in like, his exact words: "Krieg den deutschen Zuständen"). Blanqui's slogan was "no gods, no masters", adapted by anarcha-feminists to "no god, no boss, no husband". Jean Meslier and Denis Diderot's idea of victory was the last king strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

The kind of middle-of-the-road let's-not-get-carried-away-here-now ineffectual liberal atheists manage to be intensely and passionately radical in their fight for godlessness – a fight against an oppressor they recognise doesn't even exist, but the other half of the equation tends to be a bit, I dunno, lacklustre. Radical atheists now seem to be satisfied just being radical about atheism, and simply refusing to believe in god without hard evidence is treated as all the anti-establishment, progressive credentials you need. If you're an affluent and educated white, western man, God is the only thing on this earth big enough to oppress you, so like Paramore, they happily acknowledge that the poor girl's real life is tragic, but aim every ounce of anger in their heart at the fact she thinks too much about fairies, without even the excuse of an easy rhyme. They're tough on religion, yeah, but they can be pretty bloody soft on the vale of tears of which religion is the halo. Now here's another terrfying thought: somewhere in this sick sad world, a confirmed member of Team Rational has used the opium of the people quote to mean "religion is bad" and, for their day job, works as an anaesthetist or in social outreach for heroin addicts. No gods, but we're intensely relaxed about masters. No god, a boss is an unfortunate necessity, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater as far as husbands are concerned. The last priest strangled with the entrails of the second-to-last priest.

Erratum please read the previous sentence as "the last imam strangled with the entrails of the second-to-last imam". Let's be realistic about this lot's priorities. You see, the other problem with this pack of bell-ends is – at the risk of a barrage of indignant, wounded squeaking – racism and colonialism. Now, obviously, you'll never see Sam Harris getting out his calipers to measure the brachiocephalic theist skull for signs of savagery, or Ricky Gervais on horseback, bouncing into the Orient in a pith helmet to build their railways and oversee the odd massacre (well, maybe ironically lol). But when atheists Criticise All Religions Equally, they don't do it in a vacuum, and their "equally" tends to be quantitative, rather than qualitative – that is, they Criticise All Religions an Equal amount. They don't criticise them in equal ways or for equal things.

Case in point for the Reasoned Debate on religion is Moses Mendelssohn. Being a major Haskalah and German Enlightenment figurehead, he was a fairly smart bloke. So he flat out refused to take part in the kind of public Judaism vs. Christianity debates that had been going on since the Middle Ages, despite basically every Christian and his dog trying to persuade him. Firstly, the stakes were different. As you might have guessed, these were not debates about whether Christians should convert to Judaism or not. If Christianity won the day, this was proof the Jews should convert. If Judaism won the day, this was proof that maybe they could stay Jews if they wanted, I suppose. Secondly, politics. Mendelssohn was a fierce campaigner for the movement for Jewish emancipation in what is now Germany, which was only just getting started at the time. Debates about Jewish theology weren't just for fun or understanding of the divine, but fed into debates about Jews' basic rights to be members of society.

Now, while the Pat Condells of the world might criticise all religions equally but some more every fucking time than others, a lot of atheists do try and balance out their opinions on Islam by having opinions on other religions – Christianity is usually nearest. It's also worth pointing out that American atheists often end up in direct conflict with a much more powerful and aggressive Christianity than we get in largely-not-bothered-with-Jesus Europe. In Europe and the Americas, at its weakest Christianity is one of the main cultural hangovers we still have left from when we believed in all that, and at its strongest it's an extremely powerful electoral force with aggressive ambitions to impose itself through state power. Islam, at its strongest, maybe forms a few enclaves and sometimes gets to use third-party arbitration laws to settle civic and family cases along religious lines. At its weakest, Islam in the West is fighting a very real existential battle. Criticisms of Islam, like with Mendelssohn's conundrum, swerve off very easily into debates on whether or not Muslims with particular opinions on Islam should be allowed to move here or stay here, whether or or not Muslims can ever be truly British, or whether "the West" is or ought to be at war with Islam.

Obviously, there are places where another religion is in Christianity's place, and Christianity and Atheism are among the ones in Islam's – and you probably just pictured whatever you imagine Saudi Arabia looks like. But these countries tend to have much less money, much smaller, less well-equipped armies, a smaller nuclear arsenal if any and no NATO membership or permanent seat on the UN security council. There is basically no Muslim country that could mount a successful land invasion and occupation of the United States of America. (Israel, flexing topless in the mirror, probably thinks it could some days but it's basically the size of Wales and Atheists usually forget Judaism exists anyway). Yeah, so nobody is trying to run an empire that's clearly labelled "EMPIRE", but there might be a slight power dynamic at play, and Team Western Society might be holding most of the diplomatic, conventional and nuclear aces in the Clash of Civilisations that it likes to think it's involved in.

Basically, if you agreed to criticise each of the three main Abrahamic religions exactly five times a day, you'd still be doing this within a massive asymmetrical power structure where, on the local scale Christianity fights to justify its ambition to run the country, while Muslims end up on the back foot with their ambition to live in it and occasionally build things. You'd still be working in a geopolitical context where Christendom just worries about immigrant invaders cleaning our toilets while the Muslim world gets actually invaded by actual real invaders armed with flying robots and high explosives. You'd still be debating whether Christianity has the right to block legislation that's too nice to gays and picket abortion clinics one minute, and the next, whether Islam is a "Religion of Peace" and if they can ever be trusted not to do a taqiyya and lie to us. The other side of this is that being anti-religion gives a group of people that are mostly white, western and fairly well educated a handy reason to dismiss huge numbers of people in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East as superstitious, irrational and in need of our clever, guiding, Enlightened hands. It's not that they want to alternately shout at and talk down to non-Westerners or that they use it as an excuse. It's that atheism, like every idea, is a manifestation of ideology, a product of existing power structures and lends itself far better to reinforcing than to overturning them. If I was the sort of person that used the word 'privilege' a lot, I'd probably call this 'privilege'. As it stands, I'm the sort of person that prefers to talk around concepts, so I'll call it comfortable, white westerners, blissfully oblivious as their theoretical debates on metaphysics and comparative theology actually have a real-world impact on other people's lives.

But of course, these never are really debates on metaphysics and theology. In fact, metaphysics is basically the one thing Dawkins, Gervais, Condell, Harris and all those other tosswipes have got right: There's nobody up there. It's a stupidly implausible idea as is the idea he'd have a magic kid or dictate a book or hold particularly strong opinions on whether you went into work over the weekend. But atheists don't limit their claims about religion to the realm of the metaphysical. They also make the claim that religion is a damaging force in the world, that it's regressive, divisive and drives much of the war and suffering in the world. This isn't a belief about god, its a theory about politics. It's not theology – for all his dismissiveness the one thing Dawkins has ever been a hundred per cent right about. No, this is an even worse field, even more of a non-knowledge, even more of a PoMo-ridden sinkhole of worse-than-Islam – this is sociology, and if your name is on the Atheist Roll Call then sociology is probably your hobby as well as theology.

And, of course, like with theology, they take to this hobby like a tone-deaf neighbour with a flea-market trombone – loudly, obnoxiously, at 2am and really, really fucking badly. Case in point, have you ever accused an Internet Atheist of racism because of their opinions on Muslims? Well, it turns out you're WRONG because Islam is a RELIGION and NOT a race. The internet is full of this arsewash and I think they genuinely believe they've won the argument with it. Trouble is, this argument goes very weird, and very stupid, very quickly The argument that you can't be racist to a religion because it's a religion not a race is initially pretty compelling, but it does paint Dawkins into a pretty awkward corner where he implies antisemitism – a word coined specifically by anti-Jewish racists to assert themselves as racists – can't be racist. And because these atheists tend to put such little effort into sociology, this argument goes very nasty very quickly. It imagines race as some kind of pre-existing biological thing that causes irrational people (of which they are definitely not one) to dislike and be mean to certain groups. They write off the idea that racism could be a political process, which, in order to exclude, exploit or exterminate whichever groups of people it's necessary to shit on at whatever moment in time, creates a system of categories to slot humanity into (it is). They write off the idea that racism might shuffle the categories around a bit or come up with a new set of rules and theories when the need arises (it does). They write off the idea that a rigid distinction between religion and race/ethnicity/nationality might have been an administrative Enlightenment-era invention (it was). German scientific racism, from the late 1800s onwards, was obsessed with how a religious group worked and deciding if it liked them or not – and these bell-ends think they understand race better than the people who helped invent it.

This is part of a fairly broad tendency to argue LOOK THIS IS/ISN'T A FACT as part of an argument about the sociopolitical effects of that idea. Dawkins himself seems pretty preoccupied with whether or not things are TRUE or the TRUTH, and seems fairly consistent with the idea that the truth of a belief is more important than its effects on the real world: But when it comes to Mehdi Hasan believing Mohammed ascended to heaven on a winged horse, Dawkins doesn't give a moments thought to whether the horse thing is TRUE, but focuses immediately on the real-world effects of this belief: This basically sums up my main reason to be wary about the Dawkins set: flitting erratically from firm insistence about whether a belief is true, to firm insistence that it makes such and such a bad thing happen in society. See for example, The Amazing Atheist's inaugural racist tantrum where he opens the main racism with
I don't believe in God, I don't believe in Jesus or Buddha or Allah…especially Allah
before going off on one about the "Islamic people". Essentially, he's doing one of the things Rational Atheists claim to object to the most – choosing/ranking beliefs not by the evidence available for them, but for their perceived moral content. Incidentally he's also implying that he believes in Jesus and Buddha a little bit, which I suppose is fair enough given that they're historical figures who could well have existed. This thing of believing in mean bad gods less, by no means unique to banana-bum here, is basically the equivalent of turning to faith in the hope of becoming a better person, just a lot stupider and without the bit where you become a better person. But when they treat race as a biological reality to duck the political implications of their racist ideas about Islam, this is especially nasty.

I think I must have a different attitude to the conclusion that there's no god in the heavens and we are a miniscule blip in a vast, uncaring and purposeless void. For me, the only rational reaction to that is indifference. Starting from the premise that there's no truth behind religion, I wondered to myself, why do people believe it then, and started to think maybe bad things in society were causing mean and nasty beliefs and not the other way around, and maybe it's them we should be worrying about. I also thought well, if there's no god there's no rational point in getting all worked up about him. Apparently that's not how Team Rational see it though. Did you know, for example, that Atheism Plus is actually fucking controversial? Like, really controversial? That's right: when some woman comes along and says "hey maybe we should care slightly about things other than the fact a big wizard doesn't exist", people actually get upset about it. Atheists aren't dicks because they don't believe in god. There dicks because they have dick priorities. There dicks because they don't realise or don't care that dickish things atheists say about certain religions get used by racists and imperialists to be dicks to their adherents. And there dicks for pretending simplistic political prejudices about how people work are nothing but rational observations about deities.

To paraphrase the side of a bus:
We get it, there's no god. Now give it a fucking rest and go worry about something important.

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