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Workers Vanguard No. 1007

31 August 2012

Dialectical Materialism vs. Bourgeois Rationalism

A Marxist Critique of the “New Atheists”

Part One

Correction Appended

In recent years, atheism has gained a certain currency among liberal-minded members of the American petty bourgeoisie. Atheist and secular humanist clubs have been formed not only on college campuses but also in small towns in the South. Atheist activism is also found in rather unlikely social milieus. At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Sgt. Justin Griffith and a few cothinkers have established the Military Atheists and Secular Humanists and extended the organization to other military bases. Griffith and others objected when in the fall of 2010 the Ft. Bragg commanders sponsored an on-base event by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. In response, Griffith proposed to organize an atheist event featuring such speakers as Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion (2006), the best-known exposition of what is called the “new atheism.”

Sgt. Griffith’s views and activities highlight a seemingly contradictory situation. Adherents of the self-styled Christian right regard proponents of atheism as an abomination, a dire and insidious threat to the supposedly unique greatness of the American nation. On the other side, most atheists and other freethinkers in the U.S. today view themselves as good citizens and upholders of the American way of life and traditional political system. A 20,000-strong “rally for reason” in Washington, D.C., earlier this year was heavily promoted by Dawkins as a means to further the acceptability of “freethinkers” in political life.

What we have here is a particular manifestation of the changed political-ideological contours of the post-Soviet world. Since the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, atheism is no longer so strongly identified in popular consciousness with communism or other forms of left-wing social radicalism. The intellectual promoters of the “new atheism,” which emerged in the mid 2000s, are and have always been hostile to Marxism. Dawkins as well as Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, two other leading “new atheists,” are prominent exponents of “sociobiology,” a form of biological determinism used to justify reactionary garbage such as male dominance and black inferiority.

During the Cold War, a shared enmity toward the USSR and Communism muted the hostility of religious-minded rightists to irreligious liberal intellectuals. But especially over the last two decades, Christian fundamentalists, believing that international Communism was vanquished with the fall of the Soviet Union, have turned their fire against the secularist “enemy within” and the entire tradition of Enlightenment humanism and scientific rationality.

For evangelical preachers like Pat Robertson, it was no longer Karl Marx but rather Charles Darwin who was the main inspirer of the enemies of the “American Christian nation” (see “Hail Charles Darwin!” WV No. 854, 16 September 2005). In an essay explaining the origins of the “new atheism,” Victor Stenger, one of its leading figures, complained about “Christian attempts to force others to behave according to their beliefs; to set public policy based on faith rather [than] reason; and to transform America into a theocracy” (“What’s New About the New Atheism?” Philosophy Now, January/February 2011).

Then Came 9/11

The core canon, so to speak, of the “new atheism” consists of five works: Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004), Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2007), Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) and Stenger’s The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (2009). While the similarities among the five authors are more important than their differences, there are differences in emphasis, that is, in their main concerns and foils.

Dawkins, Dennett and Stenger were primarily responding to the political ascendancy of the Christian right under the Republican administration of George W. Bush. Reactionary religious forces received a major boost from the “faith-based” Bush regime, whose often demented policies flowed from America’s continued position, based on its overwhelming military strength, atop the world order even as its economy stagnated. Dawkins & Co. were reacting in particular to the campaign to make creationism (“intelligent design”) an officially recognized alternative to Darwinian evolution. Their books mainly polemicize against arguments that aspects of the natural world (the origin of the cosmos, the origin and diversity of living organisms, human consciousness) cannot be explained except by the existence of a transcendent supernatural power.

The main concerns of Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens were different. They were basically responding to the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September 2001 by Islamic fundamentalists. Their books would not have been written (at least in their main content) had that event not occurred. Hitchens also edited the 2007 The Portable Atheist, which for the most part consists of representative irreligious thinkers, beginning with the materialist philosophers of Greco-Roman antiquity. Four of the final six selections are specifically directed against Islam.

Harris and Hitchens represent that current of liberal intellectuals who supported the global “war on terror” on the grounds that Islamic jihadism had become a mortal threat to Western civilization. Harris was positively apocalyptic: “A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do.” The British-born Hitchens, who died last year a U.S. citizen, was notorious for slinging mud on behalf of the Bush administration during the Iraq war, captured in his trashing of the antiwar country music band Dixie Chicks as “f---ing fat slags.” Having spent some of his youth in the International Socialists (now Socialist Workers Party), Hitchens went on to wave the Union Jack during Britain’s squalid war with Argentina over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands in 1982 on his way to becoming a full-bodied pro-imperialist pig.

As Jeff Sparrow aptly put it in “The Weaponization of Atheism” (CounterPunch, 9 April), “the New Atheism was turbocharged by 9/11.” That goes for Dawkins as well as Harris and Hitchens. Dawkins, who along with numerous bourgeois liberals opposed the invasion of Iraq, has been on his home turf a voice of the Islamophobia that has been whipped up by and helped drive the “war on terror.”

Dawkins outraged Muslim groups in Britain two years ago by insultingly likening the Muslim women’s burqa to a trash-bin liner. The burqa is indeed both a symbol and instrument of women’s oppression. But Dawkins’ fulminations against Islam are those of a British chauvinist and shot through with class bias. While correctly denouncing “faith schools” for propounding anti-scientific nonsense, Dawkins reserves his main fire for Muslim schools, where children are “having their minds stuffed with alien rubbish,” not those following Church of England precepts (Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2011). Nor is the Anglican state church on the receiving end of the ridicule that Dawkins likes to dish out against Catholic dogma. As any Irishman could tell you, such ridicule is mighty common fare in the land of the bloody butcher’s apron (Union Jack).

Reading Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, one is reminded of the old watchword of British colonialism: “the white man’s burden.” These intellectuals promote the notion that the U.S. and West European states could and should use military force to bring the benefits of “secular democracy” to the benighted peoples of the Islamic world. Thus do the “new atheists,” from different points on the bourgeois political spectrum, act as apostles for Western (Christian) imperialism.

A Historical Materialist Understanding of Religion

Despite his reputation as “Darwin’s Rottweiler,” Dawkins is remarkably tolerant toward the Church of England, which has been described as “the Tory party at prayer.” In a recent televised “debate,” he told the Archbishop of Canterbury that he preferred to call himself an agnostic rather than an atheist and that he was “6.9 out of seven” sure of there being no god, evoking gasps on Twitter. Writing in the 1920s about Henry Brailsford of the Independent Labour Party, a self-described agnostic, Marxist revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky observed:

“This word is sometimes used in Britain as a polite, emasculated, drawing-room term for an atheist. Even more often, it characterizes a diffident semi-atheism—i.e., that variety of idealism which on the question of God, to use parliamentary language, abstains from voting. And so we see here the force of cant, of conventionality, of the half-truth, the half-lie, of philosophical hypocrisy.”

Combating religious obscurantism is an integral part of the struggle by the Spartacist League, U.S. section of the International Communist League, to forge a revolutionary workers party that can provide political leadership of the working class, beginning with its most advanced elements. In the words of Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin:

“The philosophical basis of Marxism, as Marx and Engels repeatedly declared, is dialectical materialism, which has fully taken over the historical traditions of eighteenth-century materialism in France and of [philosopher Ludwig] Feuerbach (first half of the nineteenth century) in Germany—a materialism which is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion.”

At the same time, we oppose all forms of religious persecution and oppression and defend the separation of church and state—a fundamental gain of the American Revolution that is increasingly honored in the breach by the U.S. capitalist ruling class. Our comrades of the Spartacist League/Britain fight for the abolition of the state churches as well as the monarchy and the House of Lords as part of their struggle for a socialist federation of the British Isles.

Karl Marx’s attitude toward religion is popularly identified with the phrase “the opium of the people.” However, the passage in which this phrase is used is rarely quoted in its entirety. And when it is, it is usually interpreted in a sense contrary to Marx’s intent:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

“To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion.” [emphases in original]

—“Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law: Introduction” (1843-44)

Marx’s aim here was not to convince the faithful to abandon their religious beliefs. He was addressing contemporary exponents of Enlightenment rationalism, in particular his fellow left Hegelians Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach. The latter maintained that belief in Christianity, since it is based on the illusion of a benevolent and omnipotent supernatural being, could be dispelled by rational argumentation. Marx understood that religious beliefs—especially divine intervention in one’s earthly life and heavenly bliss in an afterlife—served as a solace for the exploited and oppressed masses. They are responding to the privation and injustice they suffer in class-based society while feeling powerless to change their objective condition.

Religion, therefore, will not disappear unless and until these conditions are overcome in a future communist society—an egalitarian and harmonious society in which economic scarcity has been eliminated through the further progressive development of scientific knowledge and its technological application in a world planned economy. As Marx explained in Capital, Volume I:

“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.

“The life-process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan. This, however, demands for society a certain material ground-work or set of conditions of existence which in their turn are the spontaneous product of a long and painful process of development.”

For early man, religion was a response to a feeling of helplessness in the face of the often destructive forces of nature. Scientific studies of pre-class, pre-literate societies have shown a causal connection between religious beliefs and practices and the struggle to wrest a livelihood from the natural environment. One of the founding fathers of modern anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski, observed that appeals to supernatural forces take place at the point where existing techniques cease to be reliably effective:

“In a maritime community depending on the products of the sea there is never magic connected with the collecting of shellfish or with fishing by poison, weirs, and fish traps, so long as these are completely reliable. On the other hand, any dangerous, hazardous, and uncertain type of fishing is surrounded by ritual. In hunting, the simple and reliable ways of trapping and killing are controlled by knowledge and skill alone; but let there be any danger or uncertainty connected with an important supply of game and magic immediately appears.”

—“Culture,” Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (1931)

With the emergence of class-based society, religion underwent a significant change in character and function. Religious doctrine was manipulated and enforced by the dominant (property-owning) class and its priestly agents to sanctify wealth and power, while offering solace to the exploited classes. Thus, Lenin wrote with respect to the Russian Orthodox state church:

“What a profitable faith it is indeed for the governing classes! In a society so organised that an insignificant minority enjoys wealth and power, while the masses constantly suffer ‘privations’ and bear ‘severe obligations,’ it is quite natural for the exploiters to sympathise with a religion that teaches people to bear ‘uncomplainingly’ the hell on earth for the sake of an alleged celestial paradise.”

—“Political Agitation and ‘the Class Point of View’” (February 1902)

On the History of Atheism

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, all currents of thought in Europe, however antagonistic, were confined within the bounds of Christian doctrine (leaving aside the small Jewish communities and Muslim Spain). Those considered disdainful toward religious authority were condemned for “impiety,” a term that implied lack of reverence, not outright denial of a supreme being. It was in the 16th century that the term and concept of atheism (derived from ancient Greek philosophy) became a factor in the European intellectual universe. For example, in 1611 Cyril Tourneur, a playwright in Renaissance England, published a work titled The Atheist’s Tragedy, a subject that would have been inconceivable a century earlier.

The new intellectual challenge to traditional Christian belief coincided with and was conditioned by the birth of modern science. A liberal intellectual historian, Jonathan I. Israel, observed: “It was unquestionably the rise of powerful new philosophical systems, rooted in the scientific advances of the early seventeenth century and especially the mechanistic views of Galileo, which chiefly generated the vast Kulturkampf between traditional, theologically sanctioned ideas about Man, God, and the universe and secular, mechanistic conceptions which stood independently of any theological sanction” (Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 [2001]).

There has been a decades-long debate among intellectual historians as to the extent of actual atheism in the Renaissance and early Enlightenment. Underlying this debate are a number of factors. To openly profess atheism was to invite torture and execution by the state authorities that enforced Christian orthodoxy. As late as the 1690s in Scotland, a university student, Thomas Aikenhead, was hanged for the capital crime of “blasphemy.” Evidence of this “crime” was verbal discussions he reportedly had with fellow students. In some cases, the personal writings of those accused of atheism were burned at the stake along with their authors. Few clandestine or posthumous manuscripts explicitly arguing against the existence of god in any sense have been found.

The accusation of atheism was promiscuously applied to anyone who questioned or challenged the locally dominant Christian orthodoxy. In fact, Catholics and Calvinists engaged in mutual recriminations that the rival doctrine logically led to atheistic conclusions. In many (possibly most) cases, the ideas of those accused of atheism who did reject Christianity corresponded more closely to deism, pantheism, agnosticism or an eclectic amalgam thereof.

An additional complicating factor was that the term atheism was used in two different senses. “Practical” atheists, who were assumed to be very numerous, were those who lived as if there were no god. They therefore supposedly engaged in all manner of vice and crime to satisfy their worldly desires without fear of eternal damnation. “Speculative” atheists, who were assumed to be very rare, were those who denied the existence of a supreme being on intellectual grounds. When heterodox thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza emphatically repudiated the charge of atheism, they were in part denying that they were morally depraved egoists indifferent to the needs of their fellow man.

Whether a particular heterodox thinker was a self-considered and consistent atheist is not a historically important question. What is significant is that the concept of atheism became an important and integral part of intellectual discourse in early modern Europe and in Britain’s American colonies. Moreover, almost all thinkers who rejected Christianity maintained that the betterment of mankind depended on the extension of scientific knowledge, not divine revelation.

The interrelationship between philosophical materialism and the new world of scientific discovery and experimentation was exemplified by Spinoza who, whatever the ambiguities of his actual thought, was viewed as the intellectual fountainhead of atheism in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. After he was expelled from the Jewish community in Amsterdam in the 1650s as a heretic, Spinoza earned his living by making high-quality lenses for microscopes and telescopes. In that capacity, he entered into a working relation with Christian Huygens, one of the greatest physicists of the era.

Spinoza maintained that there was no supernatural being or power separate from and transcending the material world. The material world was eternal (it had no beginning) and was governed by immutable laws. There was no spiritual component in human beings and therefore no immortal soul. Some scholars, such as Jonathan Israel, have argued that Spinoza was in effect an atheist. However, most intellectual historians and philosophers categorize him as a pantheist, that is, one who identifies god with nature. Why so? Spinoza believed that the natural world was imbued with a benevolent harmony that, if understood, would lead to harmonious relations among men. He was an early and outstanding representative of Enlightenment rationalism: the view that the well-being of humanity should be based on knowledge of and conformity with the laws of nature.

Significantly, the first published work (in 1770) openly expounding atheistic materialism was titled System of Nature, or, the Laws of the Moral and Physical World by its author Baron d’Holbach (Paul Henri Thiry) and his collaborator Jacques-André Naigeon. These French philosophes believed that underlying all phenomena, including human thought and action, was matter in motion. They maintained that this matter in motion was governed by immutable laws that were in principle knowable through scientific investigation and experimentation. A present-day scholar, Alan Charles Kors, commented on the social implications of Holbach and Naigeon’s atheistic materialism:

“They believed that whatever the purposes to which theism and immaterialism had been put historically, these views ultimately arose from the natural desires of mankind to allay and deflect the helplessness that was felt in the presence of the awesome powers of the whole—nature—relative to the part—man. The tragedy of mankind, for them, lay not in those desires, but in the dysfunctional mode of their expression.”

—Michael Hunter and David Wootton, eds., Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment (1992)

Atheism and Bourgeois Society

For a century after Holbach and Naigeon’s seminal work, atheism remained the province of a small minority of the intellectual elite. Those bourgeois intellectuals who propagated atheism, such as Feuerbach in mid 19th-century Germany and Charles Bradlaugh in Victorian England, gained political notoriety precisely because of how exceptional their beliefs were.

Atheistic materialism could and did acquire a mass following among exploited workers only when industrial capitalism had developed to a point that overcoming economic scarcity became a realistic historic prospect. Although particularly in Britain religion would continue to play a significant role in the labor movement, in Europe the de-Christianization of the proletariat was an integral aspect of the development of progressive working-class consciousness and organization, at the trade-union and the political level. Beginning in the last decades of the 19th century, mass parties were formed expressing the aspiration of the most advanced elements of the working class for a socialist reconstruction of social and economic life based on material plenty for all.

In Germany, the Austro-Hungarian state and tsarist Russia, Marxism was the official doctrine of the workers movement. Not only leftist students but also politically advanced and thoughtful young workers acquired a materialist worldview by studying such works as Friedrich Engels’ Anti-Dühring and Georgi Plekhanov’s The Development of the Monist View of History. Even in countries such as France, where Marxism was not the official doctrine of the workers movement, its principal leaders (e.g., Jean Jaurès in the pre-1914 Socialist Party) were usually rational humanists who were hostile to the established churches. Conversely, right-wing bourgeois parties (e.g., the English Tories) appealed to the authority of traditional and often state-sponsored religion—and continue to do so.

The persistence and extent of religious belief and anti-materialist ideology ultimately reflect the condition of the class struggle, in particular the political consciousness of the working class. The late J.D. Bernal, a Marxist and prominent British biologist, commented in Science and History (1954):

“The very persistence of the struggle, despite the successive victories won by materialist science, shows that it is not essentially a philosophic or a scientific one, but a reflection of political struggles in scientific terms. At every stage idealist philosophy has been invoked to pretend that present discontents are illusory and to justify an existing state of affairs. At every stage materialist philosophy has relied on the practical test of reality and on the necessity of change.”

As a British intellectual, Dawkins recognizes that religiosity is much more important in American society and Christian fundamentalists are more politically influential than is the case in Europe. However, his attempts at explanation are in the main fatuous, claiming, for example, that rival denominations employ the “aggressive hard-sell techniques of the marketplace.” One of the “hypotheses” he provides in The God Delusion points in the right direction, but not for the reason he gives: “America is a nation of immigrants,” who, “uprooted from the stability and comfort of the extended family in Europe, could well have embraced a church as a kind of kin-substitute on alien soil.”

America’s capitalist rulers have long thrived by sowing ethnic, religious and racial animosities—“Anglo-Saxon” against Irish, Protestant against Catholic immigrant, and, above all, white against black—in order to divide workers, weaken their struggles and retard the understanding of their common class interest. This is a major reason why the U.S., uniquely among advanced capitalist countries, has never seen the development of a workers party, even of a reformist sort, such as the British Labour Party. The lack of independent class political organization has in turn served to reinforce religion’s hold among those exploited and oppressed by the capitalist system. Religious belief and affiliation are especially strong not only among immigrants but also in the black population, for whom the churches have been the only organizations with a continuous existence dating back to the days of slavery.



In our articles “Hail Charles Darwin!” (WV No. 854, 16 September 2005) and “A Marxist Critique of the ‘New Atheists’” Part One (WV No. 1007, 31 August) we incorrectly cited J.D. Bernal’s 1954 four-volume work as Science and History. The correct title is Science in History. (From No. 1009, 28 September 2012.)


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Dialectical Materialism vs. Bourgeois Rationalism

A Marxist Critique of the “New Atheists”

Part One