Inept Marxist case for religion

Gene at Harry’s Place has linked to a hilarious piece in SWP journal International Socialism.

The piece is by academic John Molyneux, who explains that religious fanaticism is a fantastic thing that socialists should support. There’s a really badly formatted version on Molyneux’s blog.

His argument is one I’ve discussed before, but I have never seen it presented so hilariously as Molyneux has. I actually laughed out loud while reading his piece.

Let’s take a look.

1) Atheism is racism

Molyneux begins on a strong point – the phenomenon of Islamophobia, as expressed by the BNP, the ‘Eurabia’ conspiracy crowd and racist thugs in the general population. (Although, contrary to what he says later, governments have bent over backwards to make the point that Islamist terror is caused not by Islam but a perversion of it.)

But his analysis of the cause is not so strong:

It is because the majority of the people sitting on the world’s most important reserves of oil and natural gas happen to be Muslim and, secondarily, because, since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, much of these peoples’ resistance to imperialism has found expression in Islamist form. If the people of the Middle East and central Asia had been predominantly Buddhist or Tibet held oilfields comparable to those of Saudi Arabia or Iraq, we would now be dealing with ‘Buddhophobia’. Seeping out from the White House, the Pentagon, the CIA and Downing Street, coursing through the sewers of Fox News, CNN, the Sun and the Daily Mail would be the notion that, great religion though it undoubtedly was, there was some underlying and persistent flaw in Buddhism. ‘Intellectuals’ such as Samuel Huntington, Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis would be on hand to explain that, despite its embrace by naive hippies in the 1960s, Buddhism was an essentially reactionary creed characterised by its deepseated rejection of modernity and Western democratic values, and its fanatical commitment to feudalism, theocracy, misogyny and homophobia.

The use of ‘Buddhophobia’ here is unfortunate because Christopher Hitchens, for one, devotes an entire chapter to this faith in God is Not Great (which Molyneux claims to have read) entitled ‘There Is No Eastern Solution’. He’s highly critical of it, as you can see here. 

In fact, apart from maybe Huntington, the people Molyneux attacks in his piece as ‘Islamophobes’ are in fact theophobes – critical of all religions.

2) The amazing dialectical gymnast

Molyneux has explained the basic thesis for us – we should support Islamic fundamentalists because they are resisting the neoconservative imperial agenda:

Where would a socialist be who decided their political attitude to Malcolm X on the basis of his reactionary religious beliefs as a member of the Nation of Islam, to Bob Marley on the basis of his belief in the divinity of that old tyrant Haile Selassie or even to Hugo Chavez on the basis of his self-proclaimed Catholicism and admiration of the pope? Unfortunately some would-be socialists who have no difficulty grasping this in relation to Chavez or Marley, under the pressure of intense bourgeois propaganda are unable to apply the same approach when the religion in question is Islam. To put the matter as starkly as possible: from the standpoint of Marxism and international socialism an illiterate, conservative, superstitious Muslim Palestinian peasant who supports Hamas is more progressive than an educated liberal atheist Israeli who supports Zionism (even critically).

Read in isolation, it sounds like something Nick Cohen would say when he is exaggerating for comic effect. Yet this is what Molyneux truly believes. The thought that religious lefties like Martin Luther King did not let religion entirely dictate their politics, whereas for Hamas religion is politics, has not occurred to him.

It’s a position shared by the SWP and many left activists. Unfortunately for Molyneux, and for the SWP, their idol Karl Marx was very harsh on religion, most famously in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, which contains the classic ‘opium of the people’ line.

Because he’s doctrinaire, Molyneux cannot simply say ‘I think Marx was wrong about religion, and this is why.’ Instead he gets himself into all kinds of ideological contortions as he tries to find a way of proving that Marx didn’t mean what he said. All that hard theoretical work really pays off here as Molyneux deploys selective quotations and flights of unsupported analyses to build an approved Marxist case for religion.

It takes a long time to get there but his pro-faith Marxist case begins like this.

[Marxism] requires an analysis of the social roots of religion in general and of specific religious beliefs; an understanding of the real human needs, social and psychological, and the real historical conditions, to which such beliefs and doctrines correspond.

Put simply: religion is man-made (incidentally, this is Hitchens’s position as well).

Molyneux then quotes Marx again: ‘For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.’ He goes on to say this:

By this Marx means that the combined work of the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment (especially the French encyclopaedists) and the Bible criticism of German secular left Hegelians has demolished the claims of Christianity and the Bible to offer a factually true account of nature or history, or even an internally coherent theology.

Essentially, the Enlightenment has done all the work of disproving the actual claims of religion as regards gods, creation and the afterlife – Marxists should concentrate on the analysis of why religion exists.

And why does it exist if it has been proved wrong? Molyneux quotes Marx again, this time his classic and beautiful para:

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 circumstances. It is the opium of the people. 

To which Molyneux says this:

In fact it is the first sentence that is probably the most interesting and most important for understanding the political role of religion. Marx’s insistence that religion is both an expression of suffering and a protest against it is the key point, giving the lie to any analysis which focuses only on religion’s narcotic and soporific effects.

It took a while but we have made it at last – just because Marx said that religion is an expression of and a protest against suffering, does not mean that religion itself causes suffering. Molyneux takes this to mean that religion cannot cause suffering – it is no more than the impotent cry of the oppressed. Any bad thing that appears to have been caused by religion must have been caused by something else.

And so there is room to say that religion can be a force for good – indeed, part of the anti-imperialist struggle: ‘there have been many progressive, radical and even revolutionary movements that have either taken a religious form, had a religious coloration or been led by people of religious faith.’ Hooray!

One problem though. If it’s only the triumphs of the Enlightenment that makes this social analysis possible – then what would Marx think of fundamentalists who hate the Enlightenment and wish to turn the clock back from capitalism to feudalism?

3) Misrepresenting the ‘New Atheists’

We’ve seen a presentiment of this in point 1) – spinning the words of rationalists to make it seem like they are propagandists for Bush. Molyneux begins with Richard Dawkins and his book The God Delusion. He can dismiss Dawkins’s argument against the existence of God because it is a scientific argument based on Enlightenment philosophy: ‘theoretically there is nothing new here, indeed very little that is not at least 200 years old.’

He can also dismiss Dawkins’s moral arguments against religion because he thinks he’s established that religion doesn’t cause bad things. The idea that ‘lots of wars are caused by religion… will not stand a moment’s critical scrutiny.’ He gives the example of Northern Ireland. The conflict there was essentially not religious because ‘no Republican would have said (or believed) that they were fighting for Catholicism; they fought for an independent, united Ireland.’ The Unionists, also, had a ‘principal declared goal… a ‘national’ one, namely remaining ‘British’.’

Taking the statements of the fanatics at face value is strange because, when it comes to Islamist terror, there are lots of statements from the fundamentalists that state that the conflict is about religion – about the lost Caliph, the decadence of the West, the conspiracy of the Jews. How does Molyneux deal with this? Selectively: Al-Qaeda ‘made explicit political demands such as the removal of US troops from Saudi Arabia.’ Yes, and also: the murder of homosexuals, the oppression of women, the imposition of an imperial dictatorship…

But the real problem for Molyneux is that, as he acknowledges, Richard Dawkins ‘opposed the Iraq war, and politically he is no friend of George Bush’. But to fit his thesis, Dawkins needs to be an Islamophobic stooge. To get around this Molyneux simply invents ‘reactionary political conclusions’ in The God Delusion, that are not present in the text but ‘flow from the weak methodology.’ He can’t discredit Dawkins from his stated arguments, so he does it on the basis of arguments that haven’t been made.

Hitchens gets the same treatment:

[W]hen Hitchens says, and I quote verbatim from YouTube, ‘I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion,’ he is also saying the cause is not the material facts of capitalism, imperialism, inequality, exploitation or class conflict, just a mistaken idea people have lodged in their heads.

No doubt that capitalism, imperialism and all the rest have something to do with conflict – but is Molyneux really suggesting that faith has nothing to do with it? Aren’t the concepts of imperalism and racism, too, just ‘mistaken ideas’? Again note the game of ideological Twister Molyneux is playing to absolve faith of all agency and responsibility.

One critic Molyneux does like is Terry Eagleton, who ‘recently distinguished himself by denouncing the Islamophobia of his academic colleague Martin Amis.’ I love this: that you can ‘distinguish’ yourself by pointing at someone and going ‘You are a racist’.

4) Religion is good because the one-party state liked it

To further legitimise faith, at least from his perspective, Molyneux says that Soviet Russia ‘did not repress the main religions or churches but tolerated them and even formed alliances with them, on condition that these churches were politically compliant’. That’s okay then. Unfortunately, this didn’t last: ‘the rise of Stalin led to the adoption of increasingly top-down authoritarian policies, including an assault on the veil, which proved disastrous.’

So that’s where Stalin went wrong – he banned the veil!

5) Moral equivalence a go-go

The main argument used to justify the notion of Islam as an especially backward religion is, of course, the attitudes to women and homosexuality prevalent in Muslim countries. Those who put this argument need to be reminded that much the same attitudes were prevalent in Western societies until very recently and are still present in the teachings of many Christian churches.

Firstly: accepting that Christian churches are homophobic and misogynistic – which I do – why does this make it okay for Islamic teachings to be the same? What about is not enough.

Secondly: note that Molyneux says: ‘much the same attitudes were prevalent in Western societies until very recently’ (emphasis added). Very recently? How recently? Were women oppressed in County Durham in 1982 to the extent that they were in the Iran of the same year?

He later claims that: ‘Other societies, from Ireland to China, with similar levels of development and similar social structures but different religions, exhibit similar oppression of women and gays.’

Note: there are gay clubs in Ireland. In Iran, the options for gay people are a) a sex change or b) hanging.

6) Racism of low expectations

This is how Molyneux absolves faith from its responsibility regarding the oppression of women in Islamic societies:

It is not Muslim religious consciousness that determines the position of women in Muslim society, but the real position of women that shapes Muslim religious beliefs. Islam was born in the Arabian peninsular, spreading west across North Africa and east across Central Asia. For centuries this great belt has been largely poor, underdeveloped and rural, and to a considerable extent remains so today.

Here Molyneux slides into the racist condescension of the hated Victorian imperialists. They’re very poor, they have no culture – we can’t expect them to treat their womenfolk well or put up with the homos.

7) Tactical considerations

Now we get to the really important point for Molyneux – how do we get religious people to join the SWP?

Finally, there is the question of the relationship of the revolutionary party to religious workers. Any such party operating in a country where religion remains strong among the mass of the population, which is much of the world, must reckon with, indeed count on, the fact that the revolution will be made by workers of whom many will still be religious… In such a situation it is incumbent on the party to ensure that religious differences, or differences between the religious and the non-religious, do not obstruct the unity of working class struggle.

In other words – stop those niggling arguments about secularism, we need to recruit cadre!

Unfortunately again, this is a massive tactical misfire as religious observance – even according to religious organisations – is declining, not rising. Following Molyneux’s strategy, his type of politics is likely to stagger further into irrelevance.

But then, that’s probably for the best.

2 Responses to “Inept Marxist case for religion”

  1. More on the pro-faith left « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] is the dialectical contortion we’ve seen from John Molyneux – religion cannot be blamed for any ills because it is merely the expression of suffering and not the […]

  2. jus sayin Says:

    damn, son. jus reading through some of your old posts and this is all killer no filler! i guess some people have difficulty accepting that problems can have more than one cause.

    and slagging off dawkins for the god delusion? well ok, dawkins wasn’t dropping any heavy-duty philosophy in terms of new ideas, but then neither are old-school marxists. i’m sure john molyneux wouldn’t have any problems with a popular book called “the money delusion” just because marx had that locked down years ago would he? (we all know western capitalism has its roots in the protestant work ethic anyway.) :p


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