Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Engaging Reverse

I'm not a religious chap. As an impressionable stripling I admit that I rather enjoyed religious education and readings from the Old Testament filled to the brim with tales of woe, water and wilful wanking. As I progressed through school, I found the greatest pleasure in teasing out its inconsistencies. My mid to late teens saw me finally eschew the supernatural and the illogical cobblers of The Bible and Erik Von Daniken with his caravan of alterneratii, for a solidly materialist perspective. The transition from impish ignorance to Montesquieuian maturation was an eurekan enlightenment transformational process not dissimilar to the Vulcan mating ritual of pon farr, which I assumed most people including Leonard Nimoy, went through.

In a way, I was lucky. My dad was an advocate of Marx's maxim of ruthlessly criticising everything that exists including my first pierced ear lobe. (1) Yet I recall him once telling me that he had reached a point in his life, that so dispirited was he that he'd seriously considered going into the Catholic church. I believe this was in response to the crisis of Stalinism in the USSR during the 1950s which created a series of internal crises of confidence for many communists. At the time I found it difficult to reconcile this admission with his Marxist views. It was only later that I began to understand how Stalinism had sowed political and ideological confusion widely and deeply throughout the left in the second half of the 20th century. With the international revolutionary left divided on the best organisational strategy to roll-back the juggernaut of neoliberalism currently bulldozing its way across the Mercator and through what remains of state-funded public services, it's clear that the dead weight of Stalinism still weighs heavily on the Marxist left. But it got me to thinking, which regular readers of this blog will know, is nearly always a bad thing.

An engaging chap

Jean Jacques Dessalines - kicked Napoleon's arse
and did more to end slavery than 

Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce
I recently stumbled across a 2011 article by Melvyn Bragg in the Telegraph on the King James Bible. Bragg is a great admirer of this lexicon of liturgy. Within this article, he dips a slender business finger into the sticky honey pot of common sense. Take for example, the matter of the abolition of slavery and one Mr William Wilberforce. Now I remember reading about slavery at school and Wilberforce featured in the abolitionist camp to some fine tune. And of course, only a poltroon of the highest abandon would denigrate Wilberforce's role in the wider campaign to abolish slavery. But where, I wondered, were the Quakers in Bragg's abolitionist schema? They did after all tirelessly campaign for abolition in Britain? Where was Thomas Clarkson? Clarkson did as much if not more than any other individual to raise in the wider consciousness the brutality and inhumanity of the trade in 'black skins'. He was also rather an adept organiser riding somewhere in the region of 35,000 miles on horseback, criss-crossing Britain, spreading the abolitionist word. While he was at it, he also took great pains to gather first hand testimony for the abolitionist cause whilst founding anti-slavery committees in whichever town he rested. What of Olaudah Equiano, a slave who earned his freedom and wrote a best-selling life story that was read by tens of thousands? Nor was there a nod towards the nationwide mass boycott of slave-grown sugar, which at its height was reputed to have involved around 300,000 people, being quite possibly the first PR based, mass consumer campaign.(2)

The beginning of the end

Finally, and most importantly, there is no mention of the slave uprising and the self emancipation from slavery by the slaves for the slaves, in the French slave colony of St Domingue (present day Haiti) led by Toussaint Louverture in 1791. It was the military success of Louverture (and after his capture Jean Jacques Dessalines) and the sheer bloody determination of the black slaves to free themselves and found their own free, self governing state which was to send shock waves around the pro-slavery world and bring this African holocaust to the beginning of its end. Abolition certainly wasn't brought to these oppressed by the warships of the British Royal Navy enforcing the belated will of the British Parliament nor in any of the speeches of William Wilberforce. There's a slight whiff  of a 'great men' reading of history in Bragg's view. We might also call it a common sense reading of the anti-slavery movement in Britain, and it's one I'm sure the Gove-ish right would positively endorse.

Maybe I'm being a little harsh. Lord Bragg is after all... well he's a Lord. He's a cultured chap, having curated the South Bank Show for many a year. One needs more than a modicum of intellect to wade in such culturally refined waters. But there's an overtone to this article and I can't help feeling it's ever so slightly hostile to the concept of 'reason' or more precisely what Bragg denotes as 'atheistic reason':

'I respect those who have no faith or little faith or are indifferent to it, but the current notion that atheistic reason marks the apotheosis of human intelligence, strikes me as being very doubtful. I’m as certain as I can be that there’s more to come.'

Lord Melvyn doesn't really elaborate on what this 'more to come' might be. Yet it's possible to divine from his words his real meaning and it's a word which carries with it a considerable degree of authority - it's the word 'belief'. As if to buttress his newly rekindled religious reawakening, Bragg calls up the names of Einstein, the Astronomer Royal Lord Rees and the physicist Stephen Hawking. He doesn't raise the name of one noted scientist Professor Richard Dawkins to reinforce his case for one very good reason. Dawkins' recent foray into the spume of what's been described 'militant atheism', is intrinsically hostile to Lord Braggs' personal view of faith. However Bragg is onto something when as it's reported, he 'poured scorn on the famous atheist's reliance on “reason” to destroy the Christian argument, insisting that faith was something that should be carefully examined.'

Dawkins: accepts that evolution goes only in one direction. 
What are his views on the establishment of a private
university which would appear to go in the 
other direction?

The Dawkins Delusion?

Here Bragg and I agree. I don't see there's much in the way of value in engaging in debates or long expositions with religious fanatics or leading churchtypes as a way to undermine religion and religious ideas. He might convince a largeish handful to reject their gods. However, US imperialism and its sponsorship of various Middle Eastern autocracies, the antics of it's best Zionist friend in that region and a few unmanned drones over Pakistan will inevitably create far greater numbers of radicalised religious adherents. The world's most advanced technological industrial economy is perfectly happy to co-exist, indeed encourage the rantings of the Christian fundamentalist right, a group not known for advocating progressive or liberal policies.

If Dawkins wants to see the back of religion, it aint gonna happen his way. So, if it's not Professor Dawkins militant atheism that exerts a tidal influence over serious numbers of humankinderies, what does? It's capitalism and religion - in that order. That religion can still command the loyalty of hundreds of millions of believers on the grounds of an idea, stands as a testament to the sheer flexibility of the various doctrines. To put it bluntly, if it didn't adapt, it wouldn't survive the titanic forces that it's exposed to on a daily basis by the hegemonic system of capitalism. Surely Professor Dawkins sees the immense irony in the persistence of organised religions and their concomitant religious ideologies within an inherently hostile environment, demonstrating in real time, the evolutionary theories he famously expounds?

Your eminently flexible friend

Religion is as globally relevant today as it was in the time of the First Crusade in 1096. It's inherent theological and textual flexibility allows adaptation, refinement and bespoke tailoring for the benefit of a dominant ruling class that a Saville Row suit maker would envy to the nth degree. Don't take my word. Look at the historical record which provides ample examples. Religion rarely if indeed ever, runs ahead of systemic socio-economic/political change. In fact the opposite is the case. The historical record shows us that established religious institutions and doctrines have acted like an fouled anchor chain on newly emerging systems of production and exchange. The friction created by this inertia has led to periods of intense social, economic and political contestation - they're called revolutions and their impact on society is usually profound. Take the English Revolution for example.

For God, for Queen King and for Country!

Our ancestors largely accepted the common sense that the monarch sat at the right hand of God. The pulpit and the sermon maintained and disseminated this prevailing wisdom across Europe and beyond. In consequence, European ordinary folk (usually poor and horribly exploited under an oppressive feudal system) suffered the whimsies of kings and tribulations often associated with monarchical absolutism. Between the years of 1640-60, a huge grass roots social movement developed in what we know today as Britain which attempted to dislodge this nugget of common sense with the not inconsiderable assistance of an army of russet-coated chaps and an executioner's chopping block. This process spread further with revolutions in America (1776), France (1789) and later two revolutions in Russia in 1917 which finally laid to rest the spectre of this type of absolutism in the West. It was a process which managed to remove by force of arms, God's divine fingers from of the plum duff of the political and economic sphere. These first three revolutions, although important for the promulgation of the enlightenment project, can be said to have provided the ideological and scientific foundations for capitalism to develop: they were firmly bourgeois revolutions.

Howzat: the first wicket keeper?
Cauldron of the revolution?

Despite the far-reaching consequences of these revolutions, they failed to completely eviscerate the church from the state, allowing it to re-root itself in the fertile soil of emerging bourgeois (capitalist) society. In Britain, Protestantism and later Methodism, proved eminently adaptable taking their place in the vanguard of unregulated industrialisation. Both demonstrated how religion could through a variety of twists and turns, continue to provide valuable services to capitalism particularly in the sphere of ideological control. And as Marx recognised, so often because of the propensity of capitalism to shift into overdrive in the 'race to the bottom', religion also acted as a salve on its worst excesses, providing a haven or 'a heart in a heartless world' to the impecunious individual.

Gandery sauce

Throughout history, to the oppressor and the oppressing minority class, religion provided a code by which to live (and importantly a schematic by which the majority 'others' should live). Yet for the oppressed, religion provides a common framework by which they may conceptually locate and thus interpret their own oppression. It can also provide the oppressed with a common language of resistance, and the means or an arena (the congregation or church) whereby radical or even revolutionary levelling ideas can be translated into direct actions:

" …a numberless crew of locusts have sprung out of the bottomless pit, assuming to themselves the names of Arians, Arminians, Socinians, Antinomians, Anabaptists, Familists, Antiscripturists, Antisabbatarians, Antitrinitarians, Libertines, Erastians, Levellers, Mortalists, Millenaries, Enthusiasts, Separatists, Semiseparatists, Quakers, and many more of the same brood … No country from the foundation of the world hath brought forth and brought up, so many monstrous births as it [England] hath done." (3)

Yet Bragg chooses to invert this schematic, putting the cart before the horse:

"There is much else that secularists, atheists and the indifferent choose to ignore in our history. This Bible inspired many great philanthropists, it gave purpose and support in the 19th century to the Bible Women and the Slum Sisters and the Sunday Schools, all of which took on the dispossessed and destitute in society and insisted on redemption and improvement. And there is more. But mostly we find other causes to explain these movements, and of course there were economic causes and political causes and the Enlightenment played an increasing part, but the King James Bible, the national book which fed so many of our great writers and gives us so much of our daily speech still, was the life force of much that makes the modern world."

Adapt and survive

Unlike Bragg's idealism, I see the motivations of the groups he mentions, as residing either in their guilt or self-interest, or for the more socially minded, based in their intrinsic humanity. African slaves, converted to Christianity on the plantations, hardly had need of a holy book to make them conscious of their own miserable oppression. That they framed it and their gradual but increasingly organised opposition to it in the religious language of the day, was premised upon their own interpretation of 'the Good Book' and the sermons of anti-slavery proselytes.

Yet what should we make of a body of theology that can with apparent ease, have an appeal for those at the top and bottom of society? Religion like nationalism, acts like reinforced concrete, setting hard in the interstices between contending class interests in societies. The structurated wooliness of religion presents the likes of Dawkins with an insurmountable obstacle: as long as class oppression exists, religion (in all its forms) will adapt and survive. I can provide a golden nugget of evidence straight from the horses mouth. Even in the face of the overwhelming body of scientific evidence that validates Darwin's evolutionary theories, the  Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in a 'public dialogue' with Richard Dawkins, can embrace evolution without fear of contradiction from a higher authority when he states that 'he believed that human beings had evolved from non-human ancestors but were nevertheless “in the image of God”.

Agar capitalism

The insurmountable problem Dawkins has to confront is not religion per se. It's the conditions that allow these superstitious anachronisms to persist and flourish. Simply put, in order to consign religion to the ash heap of history, one must also consign to the shitter-emptying-pit, the systemic causes of want, war, ignorance, poverty, exploitation and oppression in its multifarious guises - ie capitalism.

I'm no spring chicken. Nor is Lord Bragg. I'm nearer to the end than I am the beginning. Nor am I a churl of the first order of magnitude. I respect a person's right to 'believe' and to practice any religion or form of worship they so wish as long as they they're not trying to impose it on others, particularly when those others are me. Maybe his 'first steps back on the road to faith' provide him with some solace and warmth in realisation of his own mortality? Maybe this reverse rests on the apparent global hegemony of a liberalising capitalist system that appears to have seized the ideological high ground? I understand why it daily humiliates former left leaning intellectualites into an accommodation with the prevailing wisdom of 21st century. Yet I find it odd that the same forces should drive Lord Bragg into an apparent accommodation with the common sense of a bygone 17th century autocrat.

Notes and References

(1) Marx to Ruge Kreuznach, September 1843, sourced at
(2) Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains, Mariner Books, 2006
(3) Thomas Hall 1660 sourced at

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