Blind Man with a Pistol

The Dawkins Delusion and the Spirit of Capitalism

Atheistic and skeptical political philosopher John Gray has published a wonderful essay in The Guardian on the extensive recent polemic against religion.

An atmosphere of moral panic surrounds religion. Viewed not so long ago as a relic of superstition whose role in society was steadily declining, it is now demonised as the cause of many of the world’s worst evils. As a result, there has been a sudden explosion in the literature of proselytising atheism. A few years ago, it was difficult to persuade commercial publishers even to think of bringing out books on religion. Today, tracts against religion can be enormous money-spinners, with Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great selling in the hundreds of thousands. For the first time in generations, scientists and philosophers, high-profile novelists and journalists are debating whether religion has a future.

Gray’s main strategy is to historicize this debate—an act he performs skillfully in rhetoric if not entirely convincingly in substance. Essentially, he argues that the debate between religious fundamentalism and secular liberalism is the precipitate of political conflicts and a descendant of Christian progressivism.

The 9/11 hijackers saw themselves as martyrs in a religious tradition, and western opinion has accepted their self-image.

Gray puts his finger on something here that has always bothered me about the way writers like Dawkins forward the unscientific assumption that much of the conflict present in the world today would disappear if religion did first. Aside from the fact that entrenched in this theory is a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature, it takes for granted that the 9/11 attacks were a religious act. There is, I believe, something terrifyingly secular about religious fundamentalism.

Religion is a language for speaking about the unspeakable. For parsing truth and creating meaning. Marx called it, not unsympathetically, “the sigh of an oppressed people.” Where is the sigh in the suicide bomb? Is the fundamentalism that inspires this kind of sacrifice not, rather, drained of any transcendence? The body is reduced to a secular image that may carry political symbolism in this world, but carries none in the next. Fundamentalism does not trade in the truth religion and metaphysics seek to uncover, it trades only in the brutal, irreducible and secular image.

Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it. This is what Nietzsche did when he developed his critique of Christianity in the late 19th century, but almost none of today’s secular missionaries have followed his example. One need not be a great fan of Nietzsche to wonder why this is so. The reason, no doubt, is that he did not assume any connection between atheism and liberal values – on the contrary, he viewed liberal values as an offspring of Christianity and condemned them partly for that reason.

Here is Gray’s best attempt to persuade atheists to abandon their faith. The only alternative to religion is metaphysics, it is not ‘science.’ The common ‘secular fundamentalist’ strategy is not to historicize religion, to demystify it, but to show that it is based on nothing, that it is all nonsense, that it is entirely useless. This, of course, requires a larger leap of faith that would make a rapturous Baptist shiver. If the object is truly to demystify religion, to show that it is part and parcel of a larger, oppressive, ideology, one needs to demonstrate the purpose and origin of religion. As Gray points out, religion is part and parcel with dominant political ideologies—progressivism, capitalism, etc. As such, it natively carries the foibles and the advantages of these systems. Why is it so hard for Dawkins et al. to admit as much?

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism provides a sombre warning to those who forget that religious belief remains firmly rooted in political desire.

The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.

Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. Today the spirit of religious asceticism – whether finally, who knows? – has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs. Where the fulfillment of the calling cannot directly be related to the highest spiritual and cultural values, or when, on the other hand, it need not be felt simply as economic compulsion, the individual generally abandons the attempt to justify it at all.

Hat-tip to contrarianna at babble

2 Comments so far
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thanks for this …. I shall print it off and read it ….

I may suggest Terry Eagleton and his essay on Dawkins in the LRB.

Comment by Anonymous

Cheers! I should have linked to that essay of Eagleton’s. It’s another fine piece.

“Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching.” LRB, 19 October 2006

Comment by Catchfire

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