Beyond godlessness, the fight for social justice
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.
~ Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I
In early October, I received an email from author Richard Carrier. He heard that I was writing an article—this one, as it turns out—lamenting the general neglect of class issues among atheist writers. Among other things, Carrier wanted me to know about the new movement—which, actually, I had been watching since its inception—called “Atheism Plus” (a.k.a. “Atheism +” or “A+”). It is, he wrote, an entire movement “dedicated to including … problems of poverty, income inequality … and other issues of social justice.” (Note: there is no breach of confidence here—on his blog Carrier has promoted A+ and elaborated at considerable length on what he takes to be the core concerns of the movement.) At about the same time, Adam Lee, writing in Salon on 06 October, averred that one of the aims of A+ is to “call for equality of opportunity and economic fairness.”
On the face of it, Carrier’s recommendation of Atheism Plus might seem reasonable. On 18 August of this year, when blogger Jen McCreight called for a “third wave” of atheism that would go beyond New Atheism (i.e. the second wave, according to her), her list of social issues to which skepticism should be applied did include poverty. And a couple days later, after McCreight’s readers had christened the new wave “A+”, and with the voluminous response to the idea having lit up the atheist blogosphere, she listed “classism” as one of the problems she wants the new secular movement to address. It’s true, too, that a few A+ supporters, including writer Amanda Marcotte and blogger Ian Cromwell, have placed something of a heavy emphasis on the problem of economic injustice.
Take for instance Noam Chomsky. The New Atheist message, he once told an interviewer, “is old hat, and irrelevant, at least for those whose religious affiliations are a way of finding some sort of community and mutual support in an atomized society lacking social bonds.” If “it is to be even minimally serious” he continued, “the ‘new atheism’ should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship” such as capitalism, imperialism and militarism.
Take for instance Noam Chomsky. The New Atheist message, he once told an interviewer, “is old hat, and irrelevant, at least for those whose religious affiliations are a way of finding some sort of community and mutual support in an atomized society lacking social bonds.” If “it is to be even minimally serious” he continued, “the ‘new atheism’ should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship” such as capitalism, imperialism and militarism.
Still, Carrier and Lee are mostly wrong. Whether they misunderstand the situation or unwittingly misrepresent the truth, the reality is that Atheism Plus and concerns about poverty and economic inequality have very little to do with each other. This has been apparent from the very beginning of the A+ movement. The writing was on the wall in the very title of McCreight’s initial call for a “third wave” of atheism: “How I Unwittingly Infiltrated the Boy’s Club & Why It’s Time for a New Wave of Atheism.” It could be seen in her post the next day, when she embraced the A+ label and articulated the core values of the new movement thusly:
“We are … Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.”
One week later, in a blog post on sexism, Greta Christina wrote that “it’s important to make it clear exactly why Atheism Plus is happening. There are far too many people who want to ignore the reality of sexism and misogyny in the atheist community: who want to pretend that it doesn’t exist, or that it’s not really that bad, or that it doesn’t really happen that often.” At about the same time, Carrier penned two enthusiastic blog posts about A+ in which, over the course of more than 7600 words, the entirety of his commentary on economic justice amounts to a partial sentence in which he writes that “it is important to have empathy for … poor people” and to the assertion that, while he himself does not identify as an economic libertarian, some libertarians “are on board with the core values of Atheism+.” Why Carrier fails to recognize that libertarian economic justice is a ludicrous oxymoron I cannot say, but I do know that the words “poverty” and “classism” and the terms “income inequality” and “wealth inequality” never appear in those two essays. On 06 November, a search of the Atheism + website, which at the time had 2189 members and more than 44,000 posts, revealed 34 total matches for the terms “wealth inequality” and “income inequality,” some of them duplicated results, others irrelevant for other reasons.
Considering the Atheism Plus movement as a whole, then, the topic of economic justice is more or less an afterthought. In this sense, unfortunately, A+ reflects the wider and rapidly expanding atheist movement. In 2011, Sikivu Hutchinson published her valuable and groundbreaking book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, wherein she correctly observed that “There is little analysis of the relationship between economic disenfranchisement, race, gender, and religiosity in New Atheist or secular humanist critiques of organized religion.” One and a half years later, most writers and intellectuals associated with the movement still have little to say about the class problem. Rare exceptions, such as Professor Ronald Aronson, and author Michael Parenti, are mostly ignored by their godless confreres. In a way, this state of affairs ought not to surprise us. After all, the problem of widespread systemic economic oppression almost always gets short shrift in America.
I want to be clear: I am not bemoaning the fact that Atheism Plus focuses on feminism (though, for the record, I object to some of the ways A+ supporters have gone about it as well as to some of the values they apparently hold). I am suggesting that, given that the abbreviation A+ stands for “atheism plus social justice,” the movement is woefully misnamed. Although that dissonance is, in the large scheme of things, of little import, it still merits concern.
That is because Atheism Plus mirrors the general lack of attention paid to the problem of economic inequality within the wider atheist movement and among large numbers of unbelieving non-movement intellectuals. And that failure is important. How can it not be? Although economists’ numbers range widely, we know that globally the poor number at least 2-3 billion. Please think about that word “billion” for a minute. If one person living in poverty is an ongoing human tragedy, what words shall we use to capture the reality of billions doing so? Personally, I haven’t the slightest idea. Reliable findings from the United Nations show that the wealthiest 10 percent of adults and the poorest 50 percent possess 85 percent and 01 percent of the world’s total wealth respectively. As the World Bank reported last year, women own just 01 percent of the world’s wealth. No, that is not a typo—hard as it is to fathom, “01” is the correct figure. Meanwhile, in the United States, 400 Americans have more wealth than the bottom half of the population. According to the 2010 Census, 46.2 million Americans, including nearly one-quarter of the nation’s children, were living below the official poverty line—figures that, due to the federal government’s corrupt and unrealistic assessment criteria, are considerably lower than the actual numbers.
It is too often overlooked that economics is inextricably mixed up with religion. David Eller, an atheist and anthropologist, helpfully reminds us that the realistic view on this point is the holistic perspective. It sees religion as a component of culture, and as such “integrated” with and “interdependent” on all the other “aspect[s] of culture—its economic system, its kinship practices, its politics, its language, its gender roles, and so on.” It was not for nothing that Max Weber insisted that, in the words of Joel Schalit “the economic order is a reflection of the religious order.” It is no accident, then, that in the face of massive public debt and a wretchedly inadequate social safety net, various levels of ostensibly secular government in the U.S. grant 71 billion dollars in subsidies annually to religious organizations (as calculated by Professor Ryan T. Cragun and his students Stephanie Yeager and Desmond Vega).
Although they are generally overlooked, the unjust and deleterious products of the intersectionality of political economy and religion are, with a little effort, not so hard to notice. In 2009, Gallup Polls measured religiosity in 143 countries. They showed that in nations “where average annual incomes are $2,000 or less,” 92 percent of residents “say religion is an important part of their daily lives.” By contrast, among the wealthiest countries surveyed, “those where average annual incomes are $25,000 or more” the percentage was 44 percent. In his well-researched and edifying book God and his Demons, Parenti observes that in the Middle East “Sharia is put forth as the one source of social justice for both the very poor and “the ruffled professionals.” “As with Islam,” he goes on “so with the Christianist Pentacostals: church membership surged as poverty deepened in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere.” In Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, nearly every nation, Parenti writes:
has had a secular political movement with economic democracy as its goal. Almost all were destroyed or short-circuited by Western counterinsurgency and economic strangulation. Denied a material means of betterment, many people turn to the “spiritual.” The Christianist missionaries—or the mullahs and the imams—explain to victims why bad things happen to good people: They were not that good; they believed in false gods and evil material solutions such as leftist social revolution. Their suffering on earth is punishment for their sins.
Once their worldly struggles against colonizers and rulers are thwarted, the people [Parenti quotes David S. Pena] “lapse into obscurantism and misdirected otherworldly supplications” that make “oppression more bearable and the ruling class more secure.”
In the U.S., religiosity closely correlates with income inequality (Tomas Rees, Journal of Religion and Society, 2009). Nine of the ten poorest states are located in the Bible Belt (the tenth one, New Mexico, is partially in the Belt). Hutchinson has written that “For urban communities of color, the lifeblood of organized religion is economic injustice.” In correspondence with me earlier this month, Hutchinson added: “The domino effect of de facto segregation, job discrimination, unemployment, foreclosure, mass incarceration, and educational apartheid has bolstered the influence of religious institutions in many black and Latino neighborhoods where storefront churches line every block.” Thus, Emma Goldman’s words from 1916 would seem to be as much forecast as observation: “The burden of all song and praise, ‘unto the highest’ has been that God stands for justice and mercy. Yet injustice among men is ever on the increase; the outrages committed against the masses in this country alone [i.e. the U.S.] would seem to overflow the very heavens.”
To see just how oblivious a high profile atheist can be to the connectedness of religion and economic hardship consider the case of Greg Epstein. Epstein, who according to McCreight is “super supportive of the mission of A+,” holds the odd and unfortunate title of “Humanist Chaplain” at Harvard University. His 2009 book Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe was a New York Times bestseller. Therein, Epstein discusses women’s equality and gay rights. He discusses, among many other things, meditation, marriage, holidays, funerals, and festivals. He does a fair amount of introspective navel gazing. He even discusses baby naming ceremonies. One thing he does not do, however, is discuss poverty or economic oppression.
This omission is sort of stunning. Here we have a book about what it means to be “good,” published in the context of a nation where one in seven Americans was (and is) on food stamps, a milieu in which, solely because of their socioeconomic circumstances, tens of millions of high school students can never seriously imagine that they might one day be able to go to Epstein’s Harvard, and across 250 pages there is no discussion of the need to alleviate the human miseries or to undo the severe opportunity limits brought on by economic injustice. Epstein does mention in passing that he’s against Social Darwinism (a rather low bar for qualification as a social justice advocate), and he devotes one paragraph to arguing for a Marshall Plan for the Middle East—motivated not by compassion for the region’s poor but rather by the desire to reduce the number of potential anti-American terrorists.
The most noteworthy thing Epstein has to say related to economics is his erroneous claim that the “secularization thesis” (ST) has been decisively refuted. Basically, ST says that as societies modernize and develop they become secular. But if Epstein were your only introduction to ST, you would have no idea that economic change is an architectonic part of the equation. Here’s his definition of ST: the view that “the world … [is] becoming progressively less religious.” This is rather like defining Young-Earth creationism as the view that “not so long ago, the world came into being.” But of course, such a definition, lacking any mention of the causal factor, in this case God (or an intelligent designer), would be not only severely truncated but useless. While this is an amazing and quite serious expository error, conceivably it can be explained in such a way that reasonable people would refrain from charging Epstein with intellectual malpractice.
But the same cannot be said of his decision to base his claim about ST’s decline on the writings of Alister McGrath and Rodney Stark. McGrath is a theist whose writings on atheism are incessantly sophistical. He flat out lacks any credibility as a commentator on the future prospects of secularism. As for Stark, the article of his that Epstein cites was published in1999, three years prior to the appearance of Steve Bruce’s God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), and five years prior to the publication of Pippa Norris’s and Ronald Inglehart’s Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (1st edition, Cambridge University Press, 2004). Norris and Inglehart, whose book appeared five years before Epstein’s, make a powerful argument for a variant of ST they call the “existential security hypothesis,” according to which religion declines as the people within a society come to feel more secure about their economic, health and educational circumstances.
So what’s going on here? Why does the urgent problem of economic injustice get so little attention, relatively speaking, within the atheist movement and amongst many godless members of the intelligentsia? How can it be that, within a demographic whose members pride themselves on their embrace of reason, and who vehemently object to charges that atheists are inherently less moral than Christians, the problems of poverty and inequality have such a low profile?
The answer, I think, if we could pin it down in all its multifariousness, would look very much like the answer to the question of why economic injustice receives such a dearth of attention across the wider society. In general, though, what some of the various elements of a full explanation would add up to can be summed up in the word “classism.” Our problem, then, is a classist mindset (in varying degrees) on the part of many atheists themselves. In other words, the relative paucity of class themes in atheist discourse, the barrenness of atheist literature in terms of discussions about economic injustice, are the product of, as Wikipedia aptly defines classism “individual attitudes and behaviors, systems of policies and practices that are set up to benefit the upper classes at the expense of the lower classes.”
We may assume, or at least hope, that most of the classist prejudice and discrimination ascribable to atheist writers and secular intellectuals is inadvertent, by which I mean that in most cases they are not consciously or deliberately setting out to unduly safeguard their privileged positions or endeavoring to stick it to those less fortunate than them. But in a sense people’s intentions don’t really matter here. Whenever anything happens that contributes to economic injustice, the damage is done whatever the cause of it in any given instance. If the cause is distraction-based indifference, or myopic failure to notice the epistemological connections between godlessness and economic status or between religiosity and the lower levels of educational and class hierarchies, or ignorance, or the mistaken belief that God is dead and thus irrelevant, or psychological denial of the power religion wields and/or of the harm it does, or the failure to see—despite the fact that the linkage is utterly central to religion as a cultural and political force—the nexus between religion and class inequality, the effects are the same as when injustice occurs due to an elitist sensibility, or a penchant for right-wing politics and economic policy, or simply callous insensitivity. Although the victims are large numbers of socially disadvantaged people, and therefore the scale of the problem is huge, classist attitudes are often subtle and unbeknownst to those who exhibit them. And sometimes classism shows up in seemingly unlikely places.
Take for instance Noam Chomsky. The New Atheist message, he once told an interviewer, “is old hat, and irrelevant, at least for those whose religious affiliations are a way of finding some sort of community and mutual support in an atomized society lacking social bonds.” If “it is to be even minimally serious” he continued, “the ‘new atheism’ should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship” such as capitalism, imperialism and militarism. Shortly after the death of New Atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens in December 2011, Chomsky’s longtime friend, radical scholar Norman Finkelstein, derided Hitchens’s anti-theist provocateuring as “pissing on other people’s mostly innocuous beliefs.” (emphasis mine) Brothers and doctoral psychology students Ben and Bo Winegard, in an erudite article effusively praising Chomsky, argue that the so-called New Atheists are directing their prodigious intellectual firepower at the wrong target. They believe, correctly in my view, that today in the U.S. “The most potent mythology [“even among believers”] is neoliberal nationalismand the most powerful institution is the corporation.” The church, they assert “is no longer an inordinately powerful institution” and thus the New Atheists have “mistakenly dragged a 200 year old corpse into the modern world.”
But religion as a cultural force is not nearly as moribund as the Winegards suggest. Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released its latest survey of religious belief, which found that 80 percent of American adults “said they never doubt the existence of God.” How is that possible if religion is so weak? Diane Arellano, program coordinator for the Women’s Leadership Project in Los Angeles (and former student of Sikivu Hutchinson), writes compellingly about how most of the African American and Latina students she works with “come from highly religious backgrounds that discourage any form of questioning about gender roles” and about how it is not particularly unusual for her to learn of a pregnant teen who eschews the option of abortion “because she can’t ‘kill’ God’s creation.” On the political front, Christian “conservatives” are largely devoted to the fascist Republican Party while most liberal religionists are devoted to the plutocratic Democratic Party. In his perceptive book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank offers a convincing explanation for why large numbers of poor and working class people vote Republican and therefore against their own economic self-interest. The basic dynamic is that right-wing political leaders and spokespeople succeed in achieving a “systematic erasure of the economic” from discussions about class and replace it with messages that warn of liberal “elites” bent on undermining mid-American Christian cultural values. Frank’s argument is not a comprehensive explanation for the success of radical corporatism across a wide swath of the country—other important factors, including moral rot inside the Democratic Party, widespread anti-intellectualism (itself in large part an effect of religion), and the sophistication of state propaganda are a large part of the mix as well—but it does capture a substantial part of our political reality.
Sometimes it pays to take special note of the obvious, so let us not overlook the fact that the neoliberalism the Winegards are so rightly disturbed by is a capitalist thing. And while it’s not too hard to see why capitalism could be seen as, in Chomsky’s words, a “secular religion,” as Joel Schalit has argued it is actually a henotheistic one, and as such more theistic than is implied by the term “secular religion.” Its ascendency owes largely to the ubiquitous anti-intellectualism for which religion is in large part responsible. Chomsky’s bona fides as a champion of economic justice are, of course, unquestionable. I have greatly respected him for many years. But, being human, every now and then he gets something wrong. In this case he fails to see that, if religion can be shown to play a significant role in the oppression of anything like a substantial number of people, straightforward deduction indicates that critical discussion of the linkages between the two is essential. And we can hardly link religion to economic injustice if we eschew criticism of religious thought and practice.
In making the comment quoted above, Finkelstein has simply escaped the gravitational pull of reality. It is hard to avoid the inference that, in his zeal to skewer Hitchens, Finkelstein failed to think through what he was actually saying. Would a thoughtful consideration of the matter enable us to justify the claim that people’s religious beliefs are mostly innocuous? Shall we apply those words to the thinking of, say, Catholic clergy who pontificate against the use of condoms in south Saharan Africa? Or to the mindset of President George W. Bush, who, while gearing up in 2003 for the coming invasion of Iraq, said that “This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins?” Or to the views of Newt Gingrich, during the 2012 Republican Presidential primaries recipient of 2.4 million votes, who declared during the campaign that an atheist is ipso facto morally unfit to be President? How about the beliefs of the Taliban, one of whom recently shot 14 year old Malala Yousafzai in response to her activism aimed at ensuring the right of girls to go to school? Or those held by the largely religious opponents of gay marriage? Or those that underlie patriarchy in much of the Islamic and Hindu parts of the world? Would it be difficult to cite countless other examples of the sort I have just given? There are many things wrong with the views of the New Atheists, but their conviction that religious thought ought to be vigorously confronted at many points is not one of them.
Chomskyites are far from alone among atheists who ought to know better than to be complacent about religion. There is a second group of classist atheist writers, diffuse but like-minded, that for lack of a better term I’ll call “sideline atheists.” By this I mean that, while most or all of them do valuable work in their respective fields, they take little interest in atheism as a movement or an intellectual subject or, for those who do, the tendency is to downplay or discount the idea that religion ought to be actively opposed. According to Professor Jacques Berlinerblau “the secularist fulminating about all that is irrational in religion is a doleful cliché—about as enlightening and spontaneous as a member of the Soviet Politburo flogging the Italian fashion industry.” Not to be outdone in the colorful and witty sarcasm department, literary critic Terry Eagleton writes, concerning Hitchens’s literalist Biblical criticism that “This is rather like someone vehemently trying to convince you, with fastidious attention to architectural and zoological detail, that King Kong could not possibly have scaled the Empire State Building because it would have collapsed under his weight.” For philosopher Alain de Botton “The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true – in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets and supernaturally governed by prophets and celestial beings.” Science journalist and philosophy Ph.D. student Tim Dean, writing in defense of de Botton, says that since the question of God’s existence “was answered decades ago” it is utterly futile for atheists to keep on talking about it. Commenting on Hitchens shortly after the latter’s death, the now-late radical left-wing journalist and Counterpunch coeditor Alexander Cockburn breezily reflected: “Attacking God? The big battles on that issue were fought one, two, even five hundred years ago when they burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in the Campo de’ Fiore.” Nowadays, he continued “a contrarian…would be someone who staunchly argued for the existence of a Supreme Being.” A few days later, author and liberal intellectual Michael Lind averred that Hitchens “was affirming rather than challenging an elite consensus when, on behalf of atheism, he mocked religious believers.” According to Lind “The religious are despised and dreaded by upscale Americans, and their British court jester could say what they dare not say themselves.”
At this point a number of questions plead with us for a fair hearing. Is the notion that critical opposition to biblical literalism is anachronistic really a sound one in light of the fact that one-half of the American people reject the theory of evolution? Is it sound in light of scripture-based claims circumscribing the autonomy of women or the rights of gays to marry? Is it sound in light of certainties expressed by some of my own family members, including the beliefs that slavery is acceptable because sanctioned by the Bible, that homosexuality is immoral because disallowed by Scripture, and that every Catholic will surely burn in Hell? Were I to speculate that the reason de Botton’s social view of religion is colored in shades that block a good deal of the epistemic light from shining through is that he grew up in one of England’s richest families, would I be guilty of committing a post hoc fallacy? Should we be surprised at the news that de Botton has proposed a “religion for atheists,” about which author Jules Evans complained that it seems tailored solely for the haute bourgeoisie? Would the idea that the question of God’s existence is irrelevant make any sense to the many American Christians, most of them positioned on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, who harbor doubts about the wisdom of their faith? Would it be unreasonable to infer that, for Lind, so long as religion does no direct damage to the elite, whatever harm it causes to scores of millions of common people is a non issue? OK, so after a few moments of reflection one finds these questions answer themselves. But how about this one?: Which of the following statements is more disturbing?: (a) The mental functioning of a large chunk of the American population remains stunted by medieval modes of supernatural thinking, or (b) For many eminent atheists, the preceding fact is a matter unworthy of our attention.
Then again, why not embrace a morally resigned complacency? From the perspective of the privileged, implicit acceptance of the adage “reason for the few, magic for the many” seems to work well enough in practice. In general things are going quite nicely, and in many respects swimmingly, for the elite, a condition which, come to think of it, and when we gaze at the heart of the matter, is more or less why they qualify as elite in the first place. The efficacy of this state of affairs is as apparent as the truth of philosopher Michael Ruse’s recent affirmation that God is most surely and indubitably dead. These things can hardly be doubted. After all, they are part of an elite consensus!
Interestingly, the etymology of the word “elite” can help us put into perspective just what we’re talking about here. “Elite” derives ultimately from the Latin eligere, “to pick out,” hence the French noun élite, “selection” or “choice.” To be part of an elite group, then, is a matter of having been (often unsystematically) chosen from a pool of people, with the selection being, in the full context of things (i.e. keeping in mind that even the state of being deserving usually springs, at least in part, from having unearned advantages), arbitrary. From this factual basis come two interesting ironies. First, “elite” is closely related to the word “elect,” which originates with the same Latin root. To be among the elect, of course, is to be one of “those chosen by God.” Second, to be among the socioeconomic elite is to be privileged. Because atheists come disproportionately from the ranks of the upper middle class and the rich, among our ranks there are a good many privileged people. Yet, while many atheists who focus on concerns about sexism rightly charge those who would sexually harass women with having a perverse sense of gender privilege, we hear very little from most of them about the injustice involved in the economic privileging of some people over an exponentially greater number of others.
One might be inclined, prima facie, to suppose that the New Atheists have a wiser perspective on economic justice than that of the Chomskyites or the sideliners. After all, they obviously approve of, and indeed often relish, the pointed criticism of religion. We have no trouble imagining them nodding in agreement with atheist philosopher Michael Onfray, who writes that the death of God “was an ontological gimmick, a conjuror’s trick.”
Unfortunately, at least where many of the luminaries are concerned, the supposition that New Atheism is any kind of ally of the economically disenfranchised would be way off the mark. That biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett have made spirited arguments for replacing “atheist” with the word “bright” should make us smell trouble right away and cause us to ask ourselves whether what we have here is yet another kind of secular elitism. Author Robert Wright has written perceptively about the right-wing foreign policy views of Harris and Hitchens, concerning the two of whom historian Jackson Lears writes: “Since 9/11, both men have made careers of posing as heroic outsiders while serving the interests of the powerful.” As the Marxist Terry Eagleton observes, there is something egregiously amiss when “[atheist] avatars of liberal Enlightenment like Hitchens, Dawkins, Martin Amis, Salmon Rushdie, and Ian McEwan have much less to say about the evils of global capitalism as opposed to the evils of radical Islam” and “most of them hardly mention the word ‘capitalism’ at all.” This “imperial atheism,” as author Jeff Sparrow calls it, is a quite pernicious phenomenon. As he has persuasively argued, the right-wing foreign policy and civil liberties positions of many within New Atheism’s core coterie are antithetical to the building of a leftist movement culture aimed at advancing social and economic justice.
Some readers will want to object and say I’m being unfair to Sam Harris. They could correctly point out that, in his book The Moral Landscape, Harris takes issue with the view held by many public intellectuals that “Because there are no easy remedies for social inequality … the great masses of humanity are best kept sedated by pious delusions.” Many of these thinkers, he goes on, maintain that “while they can get along just fine without an imaginary friend, most human beings will always need to believe in god.”
But these remarks are morally equivocal. Harris’s published oeuvre is bereft of any substantial analysis of the class dimensions of religious oppression, includes little or no discussion of the economic and social plight of poor and middle class people, and is void of any calls for atheists to turn a good part of their energies to social justice activism. His speaking fee, I think it wholly fair to mention, was reportedly $25,000 as of 2007 (updated figures are hard to come by), an amount he reportedly refuses to reduce even for college audiences. Given all this, and in light of Harris’s establishment-friendly foreign policy views, his rhetorical populism smacks of being just another anti-religion weapon in his sizable intellectual armamentarium.
Harris does deserve credit, though, for two essays about the problem of wealth inequality he has posted on his website (“A New Year’s Resolution for the Rich,” December 2010; “How Rich is Too Rich?” August 2011). In them, Harris does several admirable things. He writes knowledgably and with sincere concern about the problem of gross wealth disparities in the U.S. He shows an appropriately humble awareness of his own lifelong upper class privilege. He takes the rich to task for their general anti-tax stinginess. He briefly touches on the ugliness of poverty. He contemplates the possibility, which he correctly links to widespread anti-intellectualism, that inequality may very well lead us to economic collapse. He even turns briefly radical by floating the possibility of the federal government imposing “a one-time wealth tax (perhaps 10 percent for estates above $10 million, rising to 50 percent for estates above $1 billion)” and using the monies collected thereby to finance an infrastructure bank.
Trouble is, as a response to the problem of wealth inequality, implementation of Harris’s two main remedial proposals, the infrastructure bank and a big increase in voluntary philanthropy, would be analogous to putting a couple of band aids on a sucking chest wound. What is required is either the disposal (my considered preference), or at the very least the fundamental restructuring, of the capitalist system. If we choose the latter, and the goal is economic fairness, all kinds of systemic changes would become imperative by both logic and necessity. Here are two dozen such changes, listed (in no particular order) for the purpose of showing anyone who may be impressed by Harris’s essays a far more realistic picture of what bringing about economic justice would actually entail: elimination of the private banking industry; complete public financing of political campaigns; doubling of the minimum wage; a reasonable maximum wage; a limit on the ratio between what the top and bottom workers in any organization can earn at ten to one; repeal of NAFTA; return of both corporate and personal income tax rates to the levels that obtained during the second Eisenhower administration; withdrawal from the WTO; a Constitutional amendment prohibiting both any privatization of Social Security and any “borrowing” by Congress against the SS trust fund; a European-style national health care system; large budget increases for those federal agencies charged with catching white collar criminals; reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act; national socialization of student tuition costs at public colleges and universities; immediate forgiveness of all student loan debts and extirpation of the entire private student loan business; two-thirds reduction of the military budget; repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act; reduction of the federal estate tax exclusion amount from five million dollars to one million; elimination of every form of corporate welfare; the ending of all government subsidies of religion; a 5 percent federal sales tax on all securities transactions (distinct from taxes on capital gains); end the expensive War on Drugs and legalize and put a sales tax on marijuana; a “Domestic Marshall Plan” (as proposed by Ralph Nader) to eliminate poverty; a government program guaranteeing “unconditional universal basic income” (as argued for by scholars Bruce Ackerman, Anne Alstott, Philippe van Parijs and others); and, finally, adoption of Harris’s wealth tax, except instead of a one-time deal we do it every 25 years or once per generation. All of which is to say, that if we’re ever going to make the American economy humane and fair, we have to think in terms far, far bolder than Sam Harris has done hitherto.
One more point about Harris needs to be made here. It is a fair guess, I think, that most people reading his inequality essays will get the impression that in arguing for a degree of wealth redistribution Harris is taking a noble moral stand. However, that is not at all clear. Read him carefully. Notice his use of language. The normative term “wrong” is never applied to inequality and the words “injustice,” “oppression,” and “unfair” never appear at all. His concerns are mostly pragmatic ones aimed at reversing or preventing certain destructive social and economic trends. While such concerns are certainly laudable, for the most part they seem to emerge from a sense of noblesse oblige rather than from any process of applied ethical deliberation. In general, when Sam Harris scans the American sociopolitical economic landscape he does not see injustice; he sees danger. A rather strange case of moral insensitivity, is it not, given that the man is a talented intellectual who published a whole book about morality just two years ago? What we seem to have here is an instructive lesson in just how insidiously privilege can wreak havoc on human moral sensibilities.
A more troubling example of a classist New Atheist is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, best-selling author and the world’s most famous woman atheist. Hirsi Ali belongs to an economically conservative Dutch political party and is a visiting fellow at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute (AEI). In 2008, an interviewer asked her the question “Is the free market responsible for class warfare?” Her answer was grotesque:
I will give you the example of the man who murdered Theo van Gogh, who [i.e. the murderer] was on welfare. Based on that principle, a 26-year-old, healthy young man, and what I took from that and I think what many Dutch people learned from that is he had the time to plot a murder, which in the United States he would not be. He would be busy trying to feed himself and find a roof over his head.
From her perch at the AEI, Hirsi Ali spouts nonsense such as that the free market both “establishes a meritocracy” and “strengthens moral character.” She confidently asserts that the U.S., where market fundamentalism reigns, is superior to the welfare states of Europe. Apparently, she is unaware of the results of periodic studies, conducted by various organizations, that rank the world’s countries according to quality of life measures (distinct from, and superior to, “standard of living” indicators). They typically show that around 15 European countries rank higher than the U.S.
Let us conclude our consideration of the New Atheists with a look at Richard Carrier, the man with whom we began this essay. Carrier is an accomplished scholar and, as he is in the habit of frequently reminding his readers, an expert on the early history of Christianity with a Ph.D in ancient Greek and Roman intellectual history. While Carrier makes many valuable contributions to the atheist movement, his skills and talents absolutely do not include an ability to comment wisely on matters of contemporary social justice. His deep incompetence in this area can be seen in everything from his support for the indefinite detention provisions of Barack Obama’s National Defense Authorization Act (thankfully, they were struck down as unconstitutional by a federal judge in September); to his scientistic and philosophically instrumentalist enthusiasm for dams (which, apparently unbeknownst to Carrier, are both ecologically disastrous and, because often built on lands inhabited by indigenous people or by poor and lower-middle class people, productive of a huge amount of social injustice; for these reasons they, i.e. dams, are thoroughly despised by radical environmentalists); to his support for widespread American military aggression (another example of “imperial atheism”); to his early sophomoric rallying cries for A+ (which, perhaps more than any other single factor, ensured that the new movement would be both controversial and widely unpopular within the atheist community).
Carrier’s classist tendencies can be effectively proven by way of one single observation: he approves of Barack Obama’s presidential job performance. Last year, Carrier wrote that he would give Obama a grade of B minus. Apparently, like New Atheist comedian Bill Maher, who recently donated one million dollars to Obama’s reelection effort, Carrier thinks President Obama has done a pretty swell job. I propose that an excellent way of determining whether Obama really deserves that grade is to make use of the list of 24 proposed economic changes I offered above. Please reread those ideas for bringing about economic justice. Do you see a single one that Obama has fought for? Can you identify a single one for which he has voiced any support at all? I didn’t think so. This is, after all, a neoliberal corporate Democrat we’re talking about.
At this point, a skeptic’s best move is to wonder just how President Obama, whose domestic policy positions are to the right of those of Richard Nixon, earned the respectable grade Carrier has given him. Was it by appointing Wall Street plutocrats Larry Summers and Tim Geithner to oversee economic policy? By vastly expanding the Wall Street bailouts begun by George W. Bush? By doing nothing to effectuate the obviously needed breakup of the too-big-to-fail banks? By hiring the warmongering congressman/investment banker Rahm Emanuel to be his chief of staff? By not prosecuting any of the high level Wall Street executives whose fraud crimes so badly damaged the economy? By his betrayal of Elizabeth Warren, who should have been appointed to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau? By lending no support to the much needed student loan-forgiveness bill, H.R. 4170, introduced by Congressman Hansen Clarke of Michigan? By failing to deliver on his campaign promise to create a ten billion dollar foreclosure prevention fund?
Was it by implementing the completely irresponsible two-percent cut in the Social Security payroll tax? By proposing to reduce the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security? By publicly agreeing on the need to lift the payroll tax cap and then failing to work for it?
Was it by implementing the pro-corporate, anti-union “race to the top” education program? By abandoning the struggle, which he had previously (rhetorically) supported, for the Employee Free Choice Act? By opting to provide no meaningful assistance to the effort to recall union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker? By breaking his campaign promise to work toward banning the permanent replacement of striking workers? By promptly forgetting his campaign promise to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour? By pushing for the Trans Pacific Free Trade Agreement, which The Guardian (UK) aptly dubbed “NAFTA on Steroids?” By his implementation of a truly Draconian policy of deporting illegal immigrants, a good number of them poor precisely because of NAFTA, which candidate Obama deceitfully promised to renegotiate?
Was it by reauthorizing Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy? By doing absolutely nothing to decrease the obscene and outrageous military budget? By continuing the expensive and ridiculous war on drugs? By doing nothing to fulfill his campaign promise to fight the pernicious influence of the giant agribusiness corporations? By reneging on his 2008 campaign promise to eliminate all income taxation for senior citizens making less than $50,000 per year? By devoting almost no attention to the problem of poverty, the rate of which has increased on his watch? By pursuing public policies that contributed substantially both to increasing the number of millionaires by over one million and to record corporate profits during what has been, for most Americans, a time of declining financial security?
Was it by proposing to increase the eligibility age for Medicare? By abandoning single payer national health insurance, an idea that for years he had claimed to support, then as President neglecting to fight for a public option after having campaigned in support of the idea in 2008? By signing into law an essentially Republican health care bill, not merely in its genealogy but in its provisions, the main effects of which are, or will be, to increase the power, profits, and customer base of the parasitical health insurance companies?
Was it by not lifting a finger to oppose the special interests that stand in the way of any meaningful campaign finance reform? By choosing to hold his Party’s 2012 national convention at the Bank of America Arena in a “right-to-work” state? By giving the prime speaking slot at the convention to Bill Clinton, who, in the words of author Peter S. Goodman, “allowed Wall Street to turn itself into Las Vegas-on-the-Hudson?”
If you think this interrogatory indictment of Obama represents powerful evidence that our current president could hardly care less about social justice unless he were a full-fledged sociopath, imagine what the picture would look like if we added questions pertaining to foreign relations, war, civil liberties, and the environment.
When it comes to dealing with matters of social justice, then, Richard Carrier simply does not know what he is doing. He calls Obama a liberal, even though the president, while liberal on a few social issues, is in fact a highly conservative and right-wing manager of the military-industrial-financial complex. Carrier refers to himself as a moderate, apparently oblivious to the fact that, in today’s political culture, a moderate is by definition a right-winger.
“The idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty.” So wrote Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian left-wing radical and philosopher. This may be about as good a succinct account of why God is a problematic notion as anyone has ever offered. Most people familiar with the atheist movement would probably agree that, concerning the advance of human reason, skeptics are making some good headway. On the justice front, however, can there be any doubt that something is terribly amiss? When we look at our thoughts and our actions related to poverty and economic oppression do they not mostly reflect the values of the wider society rather than courageously challenge them?
I want to briefly address two complaints that have already formed in the minds of some readers. The first is that, because atheism is technically nothing more than the lack of belief in any gods, it entails no particular moral or political orientation. Thus, from the standpoint of atheism or the atheist movement, the classist bent of much of the godless intelligentsia is not really a problem.
But there is no good reason why we should confine our conception of atheism to its dictionary definition. Atheist bloggers who have written about this issue include philosophy professor Daniel Fincke, author Hank Fox, scientist PZ Myers, and author Greta Christina. The common gist of their responses is that, as Christina writes “conclusions don’t stand in a vacuum. They have implications.” Because religious beliefs are a force to be reckoned with on the epistemological landscape, Fincke is right to see atheism as “a philosophical position” which “rationally has other philosophical implications and/or stems from other beliefs, values, or implicitly accepted norms which themselves have important philosophical implications.” “The exact nature of those philosophical implications,” as Fincke says “are matters for vigorous ongoing philosophical clarification and development.” Christina goes so far as to say that, for reasons both self interested (better economic conditions in a society lead to greater secularity) and moral (the thoroughgoing naturalism of human existence and suffering obliges us to help those in need) “being an atheist demands that we work for social justice.”
Ultimately, though, our obligation to embrace and promote progressive social justice values comes not from our atheism but rather from our status as moral agents. This is a claim I can neither prove nor elaborate on here, but it will be readily accepted, I think, by most people familiar with the richness of moral philosophy. The best theories of normative ethics, after all, emphasize values such as fairness, justice, nonmaleficence, the greatest good for the greatest number of people, equality, and beneficence (as well as solicitude for the interests of both nonhuman animals and future generations).
The second complaint some readers have already formulated is that I’m trying to impose an ideology on atheism. Actually I’m doing no such thing. Basically what I am arguing for is a massive, socially transformative increase in reflective compassion. But I’m also voicing my agreement with Jeff Sparrow, who, on this site in late October, wrote that “It’s high time that the atheist Left asserted itself against the atheist Right – an Occupy Skepticism, if you will.” As I conceive of it, the Left we are in dire need of reviving emphasizes some profoundly conservative values, such as the importance of community (in America, of course, we’ll have to actually establish some community before we can endeavor to keep it), and the preservation and restoration of nature.
In 1999, the great class warrior Barbara Ehrenreich was given the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s annual Freethought Heroine Award at an event in San Antonio. In her acceptance speech she said:
I learned through my research that there is a vast and largely forgotten tradition of blue collar atheism in America, usually called freethought, in the nineteenth century … The freethought movement was very much connected to movements for social change of different kinds. In the Northeast, the freethought movement was linked to the working men’s movement of the early 1800s, which was a progenitor of the trade union movement. In the West it flourished among miners and other low-paid working people who were drawn to the Wobblies and other unions at the early part of this century.
Everywhere you found freethinkers, you also found people were getting involved in women’s suffrage, in abolition, who were in involved in things like unions and other struggles. These were by and large poor people whose distrust of priests and ministers was part and parcel of their hatred of bosses and bankers. Their ethos was, put very briefly: think for yourself, because those who offer to do your thinking for you are usually planning to get hold of your wallet. That is a very clear- headed kind of skepticism.
If those passages seem fresh and new to you, it’s probably precisely because there is little in the way of old fashioned progressive economic populism in atheistic circles today and the appearance of atheist writings that discuss class issues are rather infrequent occurrences.
Finally, let us pay heed to two latter-day atheist writers for whom the class problem is a genuine concern. The first is intellectual historian Ronald Aronson. In his book Living without God (2008), Aronson writes that the personal fallout that results from ignoring economic inequality includes “moral hardness” and “demoralization.” He goes on: while “we may have no intentional relationship” to inequality, “by our failing to name it and confront it and do something about it, we wind up living by it. We make it ours. To condone and benefit from injustice is to become implicated in it.”
The second writer is philosopher Paul Kurtz, who died on 20 October. In numerous places in his writings on secular humanism Kurtz emphasized the need to combat poverty and to reduce inequality. He also made a special point of these issues in Humanist Manifesto II (coauthored with Edwin H. Wilson in 1973). The document articulated 17 “common principles that can serve as a basis for united action.” Number ten reads:
Humane societies should evaluate economic systems not by rhetoric or ideology, but by whether or not they increase economic well-being for all individuals and groups, minimize poverty and hardship, increase the sum of human satisfaction, and enhance the quality of life. Hence the door is open to alternative economic systems. We need to democratize the economy and judge it by its responsiveness to human needs, testing results in terms of the common good.
Number 15 ends this way: “World poverty must cease. Hence extreme disproportions in wealth, income, and economic growth should be reduced on a worldwide basis.”
Naturalism, writes philosopher Erik Wielenberg (Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, 2005) “implies that there are no … divinely imposed limits” on the degree to which human beings can realize happiness and justice. This is in sharp contrast with Christianity, which in general is “much less optimistic about what can be achieved in this world than is naturalism.” While the absence of God means we have no celestial uber-guardian, we are also free of any divine oppressor. So, as Wielenberg writes “The upper limits of justice and happiness remain to be discovered.” But, I want to suggest, so long as eliminating the problems of poverty and inequality remain a low priority for us, those limits will never extend very far.
David Hoelscher has taught philosophy and history at various colleges in the U.S. and Sri Lanka. His essay “Religion, Atheism, and Class: A Personal Reflection,” will appear in the forthcoming book Atheists in America: Narratives from an Invisible Minority (Columbia University Press). He can be reached at email@example.com