Some thoughts on religion, politics and the New Atheism

It’s a judge’s job to interpret the law. In America, the appointment of judges is an incredibly political act. It can change the ruling on hugely important issues like a woman’s right to control her own body, the death penalty and the legal constitution of the entire state. Rightly, judges are seen as political actors – they fit into the political spectrum and are labelled “Liberal” or “Conservative” according to the interpretation of the law they endorse (notably, there are no “socialist” high court judges…). Zizek has argued that when we talk about the law, the most important thing to examine is not necessarily the laws themselves, but how those laws are interpreted and the ways in which people relate to them. Law is one arena in which political battles are fought.

The parallels between law and religion are striking. Within the religious community, there are conservative, liberal and – indeed – socialist interpretations of scripture. Both the legal statutes and religious scriptures provide the terrain for what are effectively political battles. Although rhetorically theological, religious debates are in substance political. Theology is the ideological expression of politics within the domain of religion, just as legality is the ideological expression of politics within the judiciary.

It is for this reason that the New Atheism’s attacks on religion are simplistic. They label religion – or the faith-based argument – as inherently reactionary. It is religion that is at fault for persecuting gay men and women and for the subjugation of women throughout history. But to see religion in this way is to ignore the fundamentally political nature of religious institutions. It is to ignore the living, breathing dynamism of theological ideologies and resort to arid, abstract formalisms of the type “Leviticus says…”, or “this Hadith says…”. In short, it is to substitute for reality – that is, how religions are actually practiced by the plurality of their followers – for scholarly abstraction – that is, how the New Atheist believes the scripture should be interpreted.

Therein is the perversity in the New Atheist’s argument. It is an analytical contradiction. On the one hand they condemn the reactionary content of some scripture, whilst on the other condemning those who “cherry-pick” only its liberal or socialist interpretations (or those who ignore that section of scripture completely, believing them not to be the voice of God for whatever reason). Religious conservatives are taken to task for their doctrinarism, whereas the liberals and socialists are taken to task for not being doctrinaire enough.

If all interpretations of scripture are deficient, whatever their political motivation, then, to the New Atheists (like all good liberals…) it is the process by which these interpretations are reached that must be at fault. Faith is, to them, the key problem. But could anyone with any intellectual honesty say that they came to a particular set of values or beliefs rationally, in the sense of reasoning inductively or deductively?

Che Guevara once said that it is great love which motivates the revolutionary. It is passion – “the optimism of the will” balancing “the pessimism of the intellect” as Antonio Gramsci formulated it – which drives many secular progressives (like myself) to dedicate the time and energy to political activity. Before anyone ever read Capital – Marx’s rational, reasoned analysis of the inevitable decline of capitalism – some had faith that the world could change for the better.

Given the centrality of secular faith and emotion to the everyday experience of political life of the progressive activist, how could any of us criticise the deep well of religious faith motivating the political actions of believers? To say that faith is the problem is to say that the civil rights activists were mistaken; that the liberation theologians of Latin America were mistaken; that the Irish republicans were mistaken; and that the Palestinian resistance is mistaken in drawing strength and conviction from faith (to name only a few liberation movements). It is to ignore their concrete political achievements, and fetishise their psychological motivations.

In all this, it’s not the motivation that matters, but the politics – for what, concretely, do believers stand and whose interests do they articulate?

In his famous statement containing the immortal words ‘religion is the opium of the people’, Marx also wrote that ‘to call on [the oppressed] to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions’. Paradoxically, it may be that to reach the point at which faith is surplus to ideological requirement requires the faith of some of us who fight to get us there.