Posts Tagged ‘God’

Karl Marx on Religion

November 24, 2015


Karl  MarxMarx a photo


Dr Nasir Khan, November 24, 2015

Note: I am reproducing one section of Chapter 4 (pp. 146-153) from my book, Development of the Concept and Theory of Alienation in Marx’s Writings (1995). My aim is to present Marx’s ideas on religion in the context of his theory of alienation for a wider audience. For complete abbreviations and references, see the book (link provided at the end of this paper).

For Marx religion is primordially an active form of ideological alienation, where inverted world-consciousness and mystification become the essential elements of the alienative process. Marx’s writings show that he hardly ever thought it worthwhile to discuss theological formulations or religious dogmas. The question of religious consciousness for Marx was a matter of little interest. Karl Löwith writes: ‘By advancing towards the criticism of man’s material conditions, Marx does not simply leave behind the criticism of religion but rather assumes it on a new level; for though, on the basis of the social-political world, religion is but a false consciousness, the question has still to be answered: Why did this real world at all develop an inadequate consciousness?

If we assume with Feuerbach that the religious world is only a self-projection of the human world, one has to ask: Why do the latter project the first and create a religious superstructure? . . . It is not enough to state with Feuerbach that religion is a creation of man; this statement has to be qualified by the further insight that religion is the consciousness of that man who has not yet returned from his self-alienation and found himself at home in his worldly conditions’ (Löwith 1949, 48, 49).

Marx’s approach to religion in his early thinking can be seen in his letter of November 1842 to Arnold Ruge, where he says that ‘religion should be criticised in the framework of criticism of political conditions rather than that political conditions should be criticised in the framework of religion … for religion in itself is without content, it owes its being not to heaven but to the earth, and with the abolition of distorted reality, of which it is the theory, it will collapse of itself’ (CW1, 394-95). If religion is without any content, then the whole problematic of religion can be reduced to a particular mode of products and as such it is always a reflection of the material historical developments. In Anti-Dühring, Engels writes: ‘All religion, however, is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men’s minds of those external forces which control their daily life, a reflection in which the terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces. In the beginnings of history, it was the forces of nature which were so reflected and which in the course of further evolution underwent the most manifold and varied personifications among the various peoples . . . But it is not long before, side by side with the forces of nature, social forces begin to be active — forces which confront man as equally alien and at first equally inexplicable, dominating him with the same apparent natural necessity as the forces of nature themselves’ (Engels 1978, 382-83). In this lucid exposition, Engels points to the roots of religion in the early phase of historical development of mankind. At this stage, the primitive man comes to the realisation of his helplessness when he is face to face with the gigantic and mighty forces of nature. His effort to appease these, leads to primitive nature worship. But at a later stage under the antagonistic class society, the exploited classes of society face to face with the social oppression, and in their helplessness give birth to and foster religion, the belief in a better life hereafter, the alleged reward for suffering on earth (see Foreword to Marx & Engels 1972, 8).

In this connection, Kostas Axelos, the French Marxist of Arguments group, sums up the Marxian position: ‘Being the expression of impotence and alienation, religion in turn, in its own modality, alienates man from his life and from his essential forces. Far from being some kind of index of the strength of human being, religion comes about only owing to man’s weakness, his frustrations, his dissatisfactions, his alienation. An abstraction from concrete conditions, religion is a product of the alienation of man on the level of both practice and theory. Mystery, far from implying a truth of its own, veils the truth of reality and masks its own mystification’ (Axelos 1976, 160). Within the sphere of developed productive forces under the institutionalized private ownership, ‘religion begins to express the alienation of man in relation to the products of his labour as the imaginary satisfaction of unsatisfied real drives. The non-development of productive forces determines the genesis of religion, and this later development determines its subsequent “evolution” ‘ (ibid. 159-160).

At the time of writing the Introduction, Marx’s conversion to the standpoint of theoretical communism takes place. In the beginning of the essay, he excellently summarises his views on religion. Marx is referring to the philosophical critique of religion and the religious alienation accomplished by the Young Hegelians from Strauss to Feuerbach when he says: ‘For Germany, the criticism of religion is in the main complete, and criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism’ (CW3, 175). There are possibly two main reasons for Marx’s viewing of religious criticism as the premise of all criticism. First, religion stood in the way of any political change in Germany by its adamant support of the Prussian state. It meant that any change in the political sphere was possible when the powerful support of religion to the status quo was removed. Secondly, religion per se represented the most extreme form of alienation, and it was at this point that secularisation had to start; religion was the pivotal point for the criticism of other forms of alienation (see McLellan 1972, 185).

Marx succinctly summarises the accomplishment of Feuerbach’s religious philosophy: ‘The profane existence of error is discredited after its heavenly oratio pro aris et focis [speech for the altars and hearths] has been disproved. Man, who looked for a superhuman being in the fantastic reality of heaven and found nothing there but the reflection of himself, will no longer be disposed to find out but the semblance of himself, only an inhuman being, where he seeks and must seek his true reality’ (CW3, 175). Religion, in Marx’s view, was ‘the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again’ (CW3, 175). The intellectual climate in which the young Marx lived was dominated by the Young Hegelians’ atheistic critique of religion. In the beginning, he shared their viewpoint, but ‘he became disenchanted with their war of words. What eventually turned Marx against philosophical forms of atheism, as he understood them, was their failure to grasp the fact that religion has a justificatory function which resists philosophical critique’ (Myers 1981, 317).

A recurrent theme in Marx’s criticism is the transformational characteristic of religion. The social structure in the first place provides the basis for the inverted world of religion because it is in itself an inverted world. In this, he differs from Feuerbach. Marx does not simply reduce religious elements to any more fundamental elements: ‘The basis of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man . . . But man is no abstract being encamped outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world’ (CW3, 175).

Marx in his evaluation of religion uses a series of illuminating metaphors to show the place of religion in an inverted world: ‘Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn compliment, its universal source of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality’ (CW3, 175). Religion, on the one hand, expresses the real social distress, and on the other, it seeks to justify the social oppression. ‘The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma. 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’ (CW3, 175). Presumably, Marx thought that taking drugs like opium helped to bring about a condition of illusions and hallucinations; it also proved as a palliative, a consolatory refuge from the heartlessness and hardships of the real world. Religion for Marx is a medium of social illusions. An alienated and alienating human existence calls for these illusions. The need for these illusions is not illusory; it is real. Marx in his much later work, Capital, describes religious world as ‘a reflex of the real world’ (Marx 1977, 83).

Marx’s description of religion in the Introduction has sometimes been seen to contain a positive evaluation of religion. However, this view can be attributed to a perfunctory understanding of Marx’s ideas. McLellan in his book, Marxism and Religion, rightly says that if it was so, then it was an extremely backhanded compliment: ‘Religion may well represent humanity’s feeble aspirations under adverse circumstances, but the whole tenor of the passage is that religion is metaphysically and sociologically misguided and that its disappearance is the pre-condition for any radical amelioration of social conditions’ (McLellan 1987, 13).

The way to overcome religious consciousness is therefore through the changing of the conditions, which provide a material base to inverted consciousness in society. ‘A strictly materialistic critique of religion consists neither in pure and simple rejection (Bauer) nor in mere humanisation (Feuerbach) but in the positive postulate to create conditions which deprive religion of all its source and motivation. The practical criticism of the existing society can alone supersede religious criticism’ (Löwith 1949, 49). Religious persecution and coercion as a political tool only serve to strengthen the chains of religion. The critique of religion, accordingly, addresses itself to the issues in the world that produce and keep religion.

The editors of Marx and Engels: On Religion point out that ‘Marx and Engels most resolutely denounced the attempts of the anarchists and Blanquists, Dühring and others to use coercive methods against religion. . . . They proved that the prohibition and persecution of religion can only intensify religious feeling. On the other hand, Marxism, contrary to bourgeois atheism with its abstract ideological propaganda and its narrow culturalism, shows that religion cannot be eliminated until the social and political conditions which foster it are abolished’ (Marx & Engels 1972, 9). The illusory consolation of religion cannot be remedied by the removal of religion: ‘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 vale of tears, the halo of which is religion’ (CW3, 176).

Marx in the Introduction makes it abundantly clear that the criticism of religion is not a goal in itself. The criticism of religion is only a premise for every other kind of criticism; it is not more than that. The real aim in the exposure of religion is not that it tears up the imaginary flowers camouflaging the alienated life of the people, but rather that the people ‘shake off the chain and pluck the living flower’ (CW3, 176). It is essential, therefore, that the criticism of religion becomes a criticism of politics: ‘The task of history, therefore, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world. The immediate task of philosophy, which is at the service of history, once the holy form of human self-alienation has been unmasked, is to unmask self-alienation in its unholy forms. Thus, the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics’ (CW3, 176).

In these formulations, Marx went beyond the Young Hegelians like D.F. Strauss, Bruno Bauer, Max Stirner, and Feuerbach, who criticised everything by making everything a matter of religious representation. ‘The total domination,’ writes Axelos, ‘was presupposed, and religious concepts dominated all realities and all ideas; so that, after first interpreting everything in a religious and theological way, these critical critics would attack that very domination as a usurpation of the true and natural life of man. They wanted to free man from their religious bonds. And yet, since they are the ones who viewed everything through religion, their negation of what held man in chains remained ideologically critical, abstract, theological in an anti-theological form, and simply long-winded’ (Axelos 1976, 161).

Marx’s critique of religion, on the other hand, focuses on the world from which it takes shape, and it is this malaise of alienation, which needs to be extirpated. He gives a materialist explanation to the religious consciousness. ‘Marx undertakes a critique of reality as it is and of the ideology that corresponds to it, a critique that would end by compelling the practical and revolutionary transformation of everything in existence. The battle is engaged not in the name of “philosophic truth” but in order to supersede alienation on a practical level and free both productive forces and men’ (ibid. 161).

Marx, in his early theory of alienation, views religion as a fantasy of the alienated man. ‘Religion rests on a want, a defect, a limitation. Its truth resides in practice, though religion itself, as religion, possesses no practice, just as it does not have a history of its own. Since practice, of which religion is always the sublimation, did not contain real truth, religion has been only the alienated expression of a real alienation and, of course, has contributed to the continuance of that alienation. Marx does not recognise any formative and basic role for religion . . . There is not even any question of the “divine” or the “sacred”; these are but products of the alienation of religious imagination, which is itself a by-product of alienated material production’ (ibid. 165). In Marx’s estimation, religion being a phenomenon of secondary importance merited no independent criticism. In his later works, the element of class ideology becomes his major concern.

Some writers have characterised Marxism as a religion, and have also questioned Marx’s atheism. Robert Tucker, for instance, writes: ‘The religious essence of Marxism is superficially obscured by Marx’s rejection of the traditional religions. This took the form of a repudiation of “religion” as such and espousal of “atheism”. Marx’s atheism, however, meant only a negation of the trans-mundane God of traditional Western religion. It did not mean the denial of a supreme being . . . Thus his atheism was a positive religious proposition. It rules out considerations of Marxism as a religious system of thought only if, with Marx, we equate the traditional religions with religion as such’ (Tucker 1972, 22; see also Reding 1961, 160). According to this approach, Marxism is to be analysed as a religious system within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and as such it can be assimilated in theology. Eberhard Jüngel in his book God as the Mystery of the World advocates this: ‘The Marxist critique of religion could much more easily be accepted by theology than that of Feuerbach, if the latter were not presupposed by the former. Certainly one can integrate critically the specific interest of Marx’s critique of religion into theology — and in some ways it must be done. But that is the current fashion anyway, so that there is scarcely too little being done along these lines theologically’ (Jüngel 1983, 341, footnote 43).

The positions taken by Tucker and Jüngel concerning Marx’s atheism in fact confuse the issue. Our point of departure in this matter is that Marx viewed religion, without any reservations, as a medium of social illusions, and that all the religious belief claims were false. Marx was a thoroughgoing atheist. In his writings from the earliest to the latest, there is no indication, explicit or implicit, admitting the existence of God. Marx absolutely rejects any idea of a transcendent God or a personal God (i.e. God in the human form); therefore, any religious belief claims like God becoming a human being or a human being becoming God, etc. are false and nonsensical linguistic aberrations and they are nothing more than that. Marx’s atheism cannot be reconciled with religious and theological presuppositions. The loud exclamations about God from the authoritarian pulpits cannot bring into being which is a non-being. Turner rightly suggests:

‘It simply will not do, as some Christian apologists maintain, that Marx was only a relative atheist, that he rejected only the God espoused by the Christians of his day, that this God (primarily the God of the nineteenth-century orthodox Lutheran establishments) is not the God of contemporary Christianity, or that as others suggest, his hostility to theism may have no purchase on that contemporary Christianity. Marx rejected not only particular forms of theism but also any reference whatever to a transcendent reality’ (Turner 1991, 322; see also Lobkowicz 1967, 303-35).

According to Marx, the history of the world is the creation of man through his labour, which is explicable solely with reference to man without the mediation of a divine being. In the EPM, for instance, Marx writes: ‘But since for the socialist man the entire so-called history of the world is nothing but the creation of man through human labour, nothing but the emergence of nature for man, so he has the visible, irrefutable proof of his birth through himself, of his genesis. Since the real existence of man and nature — since man has become for man as the being of nature, and nature for man as the being of man has become practical, sensuous, perceptible — the question about an alien being, about a being above nature and man — a question which implies the admission of the unreality of nature and of man — has become impossible in practice’ (EPM 100). This pronouncement leaves little room for any other interpretation of Marx except that there is no room for God in this world or anywhere else outside it.

Marx’s discussion of religion in the Introduction, shows that he was well acquainted with the Western religions and their various traditions. In OJQ and the Introduction, Marx, no doubt, has the contemporary dogmatic Lutheranism in Germany in his view, but he writes about religion in general and therein his rejection of it is absolute. For him atheism, as a negation of God was inseparable from humanism which postulates the existence of man through this negation.


Abbreviations used:

Introduction      ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
OJQ                      ‘On the Jewish Question’
EPM                   Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
CW 3                  Marx/Engels, Collected Works, Volume 3, Moscow, 1975


For downloading the book, click on the following:

Dr. Nasir Khan. Development of the Concept and Theory of Alienation in Marx’s Writings March 1843 to August 1844 (1995)

Christian Soldiers in Afghanistan

May 30, 2009

by Valerie Elverton Dixon |, May 30, 2009

William Faulkner once said: “The past is not dead.  In fact, it’s not even past.”  We often think about time and history as a straight line leading from the past, running through the present, heading into the future. With this conceptualization, the past is past and gone.  However, there is another way to think about time.  Tree time.  When we cut down a tree, the rings of the stump are concentric circles of time. The first year exists at the center and each succeeding year surrounds it.

So it is with the meeting of Christianity and Islam on the battle fields of Afghanistan and Iraq.  The historical center of the present conflict is the history of the Crusades.  Many in the Muslim world consider the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan as another Crusade.  The Crusades were wars between Christians and Muslims, Christians and Pagans, Christians and Christians over four centuries.  It was a tragic time when armies of the state fought to promote a religious cause.  Crusaders travelled far from home as warriors and pilgrims, warriors and penitents, warriors as walls to stall the spread of Islam.  They won and lost battles.  They destroyed and plundered and raped. They were sometimes brutally massacred when the Muslims won on a particular day.

This historical core has not passed from the consciousness of some observers.  Enter the U.S. military.  The military is full of Christians.  Many of these men and women consider themselves as fundamentalist and evangelical.  An important part of their religious commitment is to witness to Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior and to win souls to Christ.  At the same time, the U.S. military has a strict rule against proselytizing.  And so the warriors must walk a fine line between obligations to faith and country.

However, in my opinion, at least one soldier has been unfairly characterized in this discussion.  From what I can tell from the four minute video of a group of Christian soldiers in Afghanistan, army chaplain Captain Emmitt Furner gave them sound advice.  He reminded them of the army regulation and he reminded them that to witness to and for Jesus was more a walk than a talk. It is what we as Christians do that is important.  He said:  “You share the word in a smart manner: love, respect, consideration for their culture and their religion.  That’s what a Christian does is appreciation for other human beings.”  Another soldier in the group spoke of love and respect for the people they meet.

Some observers see Captain Furner’s advice as a sly way to spread the gospel, an element of a 21st century Crusade.  In my opinion, this interpretation is incorrect.  He gave his fellow soldiers the instruction to be living epistles that can be known and read by all (2 Corinthians 3:2).  It is an instruction that we who are not on the front lines in Afghanistan and in Iraq can use.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

Religion and money, the way to complete power – or not?

March 2, 2009

By Siv O’Neall | Axis of Logic, Feb 28, 2009, 12:10

Religion and money have always been the sacred pillars of American civilization, ever since the time when it was a British colony, ever since the Puritans in New England branded the philosophy of the new country as a god-fearing and materialistic new world. Thus it was and thus it still is. Today’s merciless invasions and bombings of various foreign countries is simply a continuation of the century-old U.S. expansionist strategy that has from the very beginning been the trade mark of the self-righteous and the most powerful country in the New World.

Expansionism is part of their religion

Long before Hollywood, television and Disney World surfaced on the horizon of the entertainment-hungry masses, the worship of money and the mostly innocent belief that the one and only God created the world in seven days were the solid corner stones of their society. From there came the convenient belief that the colonists and later the Unites States government had the moral right to decimate the native Americans, to wipe out their culture and to take over their healthy lands in exchange for barren desert land where their souls were stifled, even in those whose bodies survived.

The endless ‘Westering’ was later followed by cruel wars of conquest and the moral rights of the governments seemed never to be questioned by the people. After the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, which added vast new territories west of the Mississippi in what is now the enormous center of the country, the appetite for new lands was only whetted for further forays in the surrounding areas. The remaining areas of what is today the United States of America were added in various wars during the course of the 19th century, mainly the Mexican-American war and later the Spanish-American war. The U.S. governments grabbed huge new territories from Mexico and from the Spanish conquistadores to add to their own country as if it were their god-given right to kill and rob and plunder.

Greed, religion and patriotism

Human beings have always looked for approval from their fellowmen. We all need to feel that we belong somewhere, to some group or community. Religion and wealth both serve the purpose of making us feel accepted and, at the same time, making us escape from the barrenness and the drudgery of our everyday existence. There is hardly any escape more powerful than religion, but in the United States it is also a way of gaining a high standing in our communities

On the other hand, crass profiteering serves both as a goal in itself and as a way of getting accepted in society. It’s the sure path to power. There is hardly any country in the world where greed and religion have combined in such perfect harmony as in the United States of America.

‘Greed is good’ has become the national anthem. God rewards those who work hard and thus it is a mark of honor to be among the wealthy few who are chosen to govern the communities and the nation. It is the old Puritan way of seeing wealth as the proof that God is with you. The arms manufacturers and the corporate chieftains are the Elect who will be saved on the day of the Rapture and we, the poor sinners, are doomed to a life in hell.

If it had not been for the worship of money which underlies all other values in the United States of America, it would have been impossible for Wall Street to act with such total impunity in their shameless scheme to con the U.S. citizens out of their savings and modest wealth.

Add to this poisonous brew of intolerant, fundamentalist religion and the puritan worship of money, the unrestricted faith in the country’s superiority over all other countries, that is their unquestioning patriotism, their second religion, the die-hard belief that their country can do no wrong, and you get to where the country is today.

Deregulation and the silencing of the opposition

The superficiality of the U.S. citizens in accepting a man like George W. Bush as the President of the country seems perfectly unbelievable to most people outside the U.S. We know now how this was brought about, however, and it was not achieved from the superficial image of Bush as a man you’d like to have a beer with, the man with the friendly smirk, the popular appeal. No, it was much more carefully planned. And the sine qua non was to get a harmless president ‘elected’, that is get him parachuted into the White House so speedily that people wouldn’t have time to react.  We know how the neo-conservatives were all maneuvering to grab total power ever since the 1980s. The two essential preconditions for getting their scheme to succeed were the complete submission of the media and the buying up of the Congress via the lobbies. They succeeded in both enterprises beyond belief.

The deregulation movement got started under Ronald Reagan who instigated laws in favor of Big Business, which made it possible for this psychopathic set of neocons to scheme their way to power. This continuous trend in economic policies towards the Milton Friedmanesque [1] free market as the gospel for ‘progress’ killed off all the humanitarian laws that had been instituted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt with the New Deal after the Great Depression; now we are regressing towards tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation of the savings and loan industry. Opening the floodgates for increased media consolidation and the war on Labor were also some of the major features pointing towards the radical take-over of the wealthy elite during the Reagan presidency. These deregulating trends were followed up faithfully by the succeeding administrations. This very much includes Bill Clinton who signed the horrendous NAFTA agreement declaring that “NAFTA means jobs, American jobs, and good-paying American jobs.” (It is also pure nonsense that Reagan should be in any way credited with bringing down the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War, but that is the subject for another essay.)

The neocon gospel

This more or less underground neocon set of power-hungry lunatics was determined to achieve complete domination over all aspects of the United States, have total command over the three branches of government and, finally, most likely install a police state where elections and a government would not be needed any more. Democracy had become an empty word and unfettered capitalism was going to rule the world. The multinationals with their financial center in the United States were going to have complete economic control over the world and they managed very well with the major Asian economies during the Asian financial crisis, beginning in 1997. This severe crisis that threatened to bring about a global systemic financial meltdown was enhanced or, as some claim, even brought about by the “fast-track capitalism” methods of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. [2]

And what about the working people and the middle class who were going to see their comfortable living conditions disappear? Don’t worry, said the neocons. They won’t know what happened until it’s too late. All the money goes to the clique that runs the corporations and the little people will be left with their religion. Drive up the hysteria and the coming of Armageddon to the boiling point and the fundamentalists will be so convinced that they are the ones who will be saved on the Day of Judgment they won’t even worry about their money and their good lives trickling away. They are the ones who will go to Heaven, they and the good men and women in the government who believe, the way they themselves do, that God is with them, the people who pray for the country, for victory in the morally right wars and for all those who are convinced that the United States will always be the unrivaled leader of the world.

An important part of the neocon gospel consisted of depriving the poor of valid education and cutting down on entitlements that could serve to create more livable conditions for the poor and the middle class. Starving the beast was their motto. By the use of relentless propaganda and making sure they are kept in profound ignorance of the greed and corruption that are the true leaders of the country, the poor people who are the principal victims of this ‘disaster capitalism’ [3] are still the blind believers in this absurd system of government. There is no way you can make them believe that democracy is dead and that nobody in Washington cares a whit for their being totally left behind. [4]

What about the rest of the world? The neocons say ‘We’ll buy them up’. We’ll get so much influence over the Middle East, India, China, Russia that nobody will have enough power to fight us. We’ll hit them so fast they won’t even have the time to put their pants on. The nukes the other countries have are firecrackers next to ours. If one country gets unruly, we’ll take out its nukes in one big blow. Their arsenals are antiquated or they have just one or two tiny bombs for show. Africa and Latin America are powerless and if they ever go against the system we have set up, we will show them who has the muscles. Muscles, spelled B-O-M-B-S.

Has anything changed?

Now, fortunately, this infantile attitude to anything the government does as being unquestionably right, has of late been watered down. The missteps and the disasters have become so numerous and so glaring that even an intellectually challenged and half-blind American might begin to see through the lies and the fear-and-theft tactics of their criminal leaders. The country has gradually been brought to the edge of disaster over the past eight years of misrule, and the financial global meltdown which is now progressing might well change the world so drastically that we can’t even guess at what is lying ahead.

However, the neocons have not given up on their free-for-all-to-see fight for global power. They are all set on destroying Barack Obama and the Democratic party and finally getting the complete power they were so close to achieving under the misrule of Bush/Cheney, the project they had insanely been working on for almost thirty years. [5] It might seem as if the Republicans wouldn’t really have to destroy the Democrats, since they are all so indebted to Big Money that they could easily melt into one party, but the neocons want more than that. They are aiming at dictatorial power without any form of intrusion from the few humanitarian-minded Democrats who are still left in the House and the Senate.

One thing is certain. The raving lunatics will be back. Nothing can stand in their way, not even self-destruction.


[1] See Siv O’Neall: ‘The Big Con Game’, among multiple other sources on Milton Friedman, the father of the Chicago School of economics and the Free Market power-for-the-rich ideology.

[2] Source: ‘IMF’s Role in the Asian Financial Crisis’ by Walden Bello

[3] Term used by Naomi Klein in her latest book ‘The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism’

[4] See for excellent background on Middle America: ‘Deer Hunting With Jesus’ by Joe Bageant

[5] PNAC – the Project for the New American Century See also Wikipedia

Toynbee: My Christmas message? There’s probably no God

December 24, 2008

It is neither emotionally nor spiritually deficient to reject religions that seek to infantilise us with impossible beliefs

Antidisestablishmentarianism is on the march. Which is odd, considering there is only the faintest whiff of disestablishmentarianism to fight. The Archbishop of Canterbury set this hare running with his usual confused mumbling into his beard. To disestablish the church would be “by no means the end of the world”, he said bravely. He hastened to add that he did not want the church sundered from the state right now. And he would oppose “secularists [boo, hiss] trying to push religion into the private sphere”. This sent the Telegraph and Mail into a spin, claiming a devilish distestablishment plot on the Labour backbenches – though they could find only three usual suspects. These MPs say the likely move to end the 1701 Act of Settlement that bars Catholics from the throne will make an established church impossible.

How likely is this? Look at how Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have promoted faith and religiosity as “community”, and ask yourself if there is the faintest chance that Labour spends untold parliamentary time unpicking the cat’s cradle of a relationship between church, Lords and crown? Frankly, if Labour had the inclination for constitutional reform, first priority should be ending our disastrous first-past-the-post voting system.

True, it is embarrassing to be the only western democracy that has theocracy built into its legislature. The 26 bishops in the Lords interfere regularly: they are a threat on abortion, and their campaign sank the Joffe bill, giving the terminally ill the right to die in dignity. Of course they should not be there, when only 16% of people will grace the pews on Christmas Day, and Christian Research forecasts church attendance falling by 90%. But a dying faith clings hard to its inexplicable influence on public life.

Labour has encouraged the power of the religions to a remarkable degree, consulting them on endless committees. To be an atheist is now unacceptable in a political leader: when Nick Clegg confessed his non-belief, he had to recant and re-define himself as an “agnostic”. The BBC is increasing religious broadcasting; Radio 4 already does 200 hours. Is this by popular demand? No. An Ofcom survey put religion last in the public’s interests. Expect a worsening clash in the new Equality Commission between religious rights and gay and women’s rights. The Islington registrar who refused to conduct civil partnerships for religious reasons was an ominous landmark case.

This has been the year of religion’s fightback against secularism – a word made almost synonymous with the spiritual and moral decadence of materialism. Angered by the runaway success of anti-God books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, AC Grayling and others, the different faiths – though each believes it has the one and only divinely revealed truth and often fights to the death to prove it – combine in curious harmony against secularists.

They blame us for all the evils of modernity, as if they could point to some morally better time when people feared God and sinned less. There is, of course, no evidence that God-fearers ever behaved better than the ungodly. One of the great mysteries of religion is why, even when people believed that heaven awaited the virtuous and everlasting torment was the destiny of sinners, there is no sign it made them any less prone to all the sins flesh is heir to. Yet they turn on atheists for lacking any moral base without a God.

I could say we are mortally offended and demand protection from such insult. But it is the prerogative of religions to be protected from feeling offended. Priests, imams and rabbis reserve for their beliefs a special respect, ringfenced from normal public argument. It is abusive and insulting to suggest that belief in gods and miracles is delusional, or that religions are inherently anti-women and anti-gay. Meanwhile, non-believers suffer the far worse insult that we inhabit a moral vacuum. But we will live with the insult if we are free to reply that there is no inherent virtue in being religious either: it does not make people behave better.

The unctuous claim there is a special religious ethos that can be poured like a sauce over schools and public services to improve them morally has been bought, to a depressing extent, by Labour, and over a third of all state schools are now religious institutions – despite overwhelming evidence that their only unique quality is selection of better pupils, storing up trouble with ever more cultural segregation.

Here is an enjoyably impudent piece of research from Innsbruck University. People were observed buying newspapers, using an honesty box to pay. They were interviewed later – so the person with the clipboard seemed unconnected with the newspaper purchase – and asked about age, occupation and attitudes. Men cheated more than women; people over 50 cheated more than the young; higher education made no difference; and by a long chalk churchgoers cheated most. This may be a statistical anomaly. But we all know one thing: religion no more makes people good than lack of it makes the rest of us bad.

Secularists take offence too at the way the religious paint unbelievers as poor desiccated rationalists, not only without values, but joyless, lacking a sense of mystery, devoid of awe. Yet, earthbound, there is enough wonder in the infinite capacity of the human imagination, in a magical world of thought, dream, hope, memory and fantasy. To be human is not to be particularly rational, the senses often overwhelming common sense. There is no emotional or spiritual deficiency in rejecting religions that infantilise the imagination with impossible beliefs.

In January many more atheist buses – an advertising campaign launched on Comment is Free – will roll on to the street than expected. The British Humanist Association is astonished at the response – a target of £5,500 has swelled to £130,000, most in small donations. The buses will bear as good a message as any this Christmas: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”.

• Polly Toynbee is president of the British Humanist Association and honorary associate of the National Secular Society

Riding the atheist bus

December 13, 2008

Thanks to the inspiration of our friends in Britain, we’ve started our own atheist bus ad campaign in Washington DC

American Humanist Association)

An advertisement from the American Humanist Association on a bus in Washington DC. (Photograph: American Humanist Association)

It’s a simple question: “Why not try Jesus?” Equally simple is an opposite: “Why believe in a god?” Yet in the United States the first question is widely viewed as positive, or at least ordinary, while the second can be perceived as offensive and even hate speech.

This difference in reaction can’t result from the structure of the statements. They’re the same. Nor can it be the tone. Nope, it’s just the message. Americans think it’s good to believe in a god and bad not to. Furthermore, it’s good to tell everyone about your belief but bad to be just as open about nonbelief or doubt – especially during the winter holiday season.

Clearly, American nontheists can’t get a break.

We in the American Humanist Association found this out first hand when we launched our Washington DC advertising campaign on November 11 with the slogan “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” The venue was the sides, rears and insides of 230 of the city’s buses. News coverage of the campaign generated an outpouring of phone calls and e-mails, mostly negative. The largest number came directly to us but hundreds of complaints also came to Metro, the government entity that handles the city’s buses and subways. One of the complainers expressed a wish (or perhaps a prayer): “May all your atheist buses break down!”

The sudden high volume of visitors to our special campaign website crashed our server twice. Soon, the conservative talkshow hosts were clamouring to give us air time so they could argue against us and further rouse their audience. And conservative Christian organisations not only denounced our efforts but encouraged their flocks to come bleat in our ears. All this before our bus ads actually started to appear one week later. By the beginning of December we’d received 37,742 hits on our campaign website, logged 638 new members and received over $6,000 in new contributions.

American Humanist Association) An ad from the American Humanist Association inside a bus in Washington DC. (Photograph: American Humanist Association) Now, it seems, we have a couple of competitors. The primary one, a local Catholic stay-at-home mother of four, decided to launch a counter campaign: same types of bus advertisements, same number of buses, same topic. Her slogan? “Why believe? Because I created you and I love you, for goodness’ sake.” The sentiment is signed, “God”. The second competitor, Pennsylvania Friends of Christ, announced an ad on 10 buses that will read, “Believe in God. Christ is Christmas for goodness sake.”

This led to more newspaper stories and interviews on radio and television. So much so that the company that handles bus advertising for Metro asked us this week if we would be so kind as to quantify all our results for them so they can inform would-be clients just how effective bus ads can be!

If all this buzz sounds a little familiar, it’s because it is. Back in October a story in the Guardian went global about the Atheist Bus Campaign in London. The planned adverts, written by comedy writer and Guardian contributor Ariane Sherine, were designed to read: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” This was in reaction to a widely run Christian campaign threatening unbelievers with hellfire. The British Humanist Association agreed to handle the financial contributions for this effort and was able to raise a whopping £120,402 in the first month. Yet none of the adverts have actually appeared on buses, being slated to hit the streets in January.

Naturally, this excitement affected those of us planning promotional efforts for the American Humanist Association. We’d been trying to work up a splashy advertising campaign for Washington DC buses since July but hadn’t figured out an ad slogan we really liked. So, when the news hit about the London plans, it became for us like an inspiration, a revelation – dare I say, a miracle?

We accelerated our work, experimenting with a range of slogans, until finally settling on the one. Then we contracted for the ad space, designed and printed the signs, bought display ads in the New York Times and Washington Post, and the rest followed.

The media is still heated up. There’s more to come. But we pause amid the flurry and fury to reach our hands across the pond in gratitude and solidarity with our likeminded friends in the UK. The work of each enhances that of the other as we both let millions of atheists, agnostics and humanists know there are others like them and organisations to serve their needs and advance their ideals.

On Intelligent Design and the Left

November 16, 2008

Cats, Dogs and Creationism

By JEAN BRICMONT | Counterpunch, Nov 14 / 16, 2008

“The criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.”

–Karl Marx (Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right).

With all due respect to cats and dogs, I don’t expect them to ever understand the laws that govern planetary motion. Does this prove the existence of God? Of course not! What a silly question! Yet, if you replace cats and dogs by humans and the problem of planetary motion by the question of the origin of life, or of the universe, or why a number of physical constants take certain precise values, then the “yes” answer summarizes the entire content of the so-called Intelligent Design movement.

Why devote a whole book to that argument, as John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York do in their recent Critique of Intelligent Design (Monthly Review, 2008)? Well, one reason is that the argument is unfortunately extremely popular, especially in the United States. Besides, the book is not about only that, but it also reviews brilliantly the eternal struggle between materialism and spiritualism or idealism, going through the works of Epicurus, Lucretius, Hume, Feuerbach, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Lewontin and Gould and their adversaries. Materialism can be defined as the attempt to explain the world in terms of itself, an idea that goes back to the Greeks. Of course, to avoid tautologies, one has to know what one means by “itself”. For religious people, God is part of the world and therefore explaining the world in terms of God is part of explaining the world in terms of itself.

Here is where modern science and British empiricism (which can be characterized as the working philosophy of most scientists) enter. Science explains the visible world, let’s say the structure of matter, by appealing to the invisible one, the properties of atoms. So, why can’t science postulate an invisible Intelligent Design to account for the origin of the Universe or its unexplained properties? The difference is that we do not use merely the word “atom” in our explanations, but also their many quantitative and testable properties. On the other hand, the Design of the ID movement is just a word — nobody has ever proposed that it possesses any given properties, nor how, if such properties were proposed, one could test them. The postulated Design has just whichever properties were needed to make the world as it is and not otherwise. But then why was the ID not intelligent enough to create a world without birth defects, tsunamis or American imperialism ? The only thing that the defenders of ID are able to establish is that there are certain things we don’t know  — and with that, of course, all scientists agree.

Because of the specificity and testability of its explanations, modern science has introduced a new factor into the spiritualism/materialism debate that was absent among the classical materialist philosophers. The latter had their hearts in the right place but, because of lack of experiments, their physics was fanciful and open to the objection that it was not any more credible than religious stories. Since then, modern science has turned the tables decisively in favor of materialism.

More to the point, this postulated Design has nothing whatsoever to do with the Gods of the traditional religions. Theologians constantly try to present such “arguments” as ID in favor of a deity as if they supported their favorite belief systems. But those belief systems are all based on some kind of revelations and “sacred” scriptures. Even if the ID arguments were valid, they would tell us nothing about particular revelations. The God of ID is a philosopher’s God, like the one whose existence St Thomas Aquinas or Descartes thought to have proven. But the God of the traditional religions is entirely different. It is a being that defines what is good and evil, answers our prayers, and punishes us in the afterlife. Those belief systems are even more radically undermined by modern science than ID. Indeed, whenever one looks at the facts in an undogmatic way, the sacred books turn out to be essentially wrong. Not only about evolution  but about almost everything. There is no independent evidence for the story told in the Gospels, the Bible is mythological, and even the Jewish people is, as Shlomo Sand puts it, “an invention” .

Given that, there are two routes open to the believer. There is that of Sarah Palin, clinging literally to the belief system, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. That school of Christians enter into direct conflict with science. Or one can choose the metaphorical route, which most liberal and European Christians (including even the Pope, at times) follow — declare that, whenever the Scriptures conflict with science, they have to be “interpreted” in a non-literal way. That leads to total defeat for religious belief, because, if the parts of the Scriptures that can be checked with the facts are not to be taken seriously, why pay any attention to the parts that cannot be checked (notably concerning Heaven and Hell or God himself )? The whole of liberal Christianity is the result of a double standard: follow the Scriptures whenever they are “metaphysical” or ethical and cannot be checked independently, and  discard them when they can. Since God is not good enough to tell us what he really meant in his “revelations”, and which parts have to be taken seriously and which parts not, we are left with total arbitrariness.

People who call themselves agnostics are often confused about these two notions of God. What they claim to be agnostic about is the philosopher’s god not, say, the Gods of Homer. With respect to the latter, they are atheist, just as all religious people are atheist with respect to all gods except their own.

It is also a pity that some secular leftists, like Stephen Jay Gould, support liberal Christianity with the idea of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA): science deals with facts, religion deals with values. But if you really remove all statements of facts from religion, including those about the existence of God or of Heaven and Hell, then why should one care about what religion says about values ? (That is why the NOMA argument adds to the confusion on the secular side, but is rarely accepted by the religious one).

John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York have to be commended for writing such a book while having a leftist perspective, because the left, specially in the United States, but also nowadays in Europe, has often shied away from any critique of religion, either because it would be too unpopular or because of the supposedly progressive aspects of religion. It is easy to complain that the critique of religion is mainly done nowadays by relatively apolitical liberals like Dawkins or Dennett or by neo-conservatives like Hitchens, but if the left abandons such a critique, why complain if others take it up ?

The left should not aim at some sort of official atheism, of course, but it should demand that religion be a private matter, namely that it be totally kept out of public life, in particular of political discourse. Indeed, even assuming that some god exists, we have no way to know what he thinks one should do about global warming or the financial crisis.

This form of secularism is far from being achieved in the United States. It existed in France before Sarkozy, the most « American » of French presidents, who speaks of God as much as he can. If the most secular of Western countries, France, became victim of the « Americanization », i.e. of « religization » of political discourse, then modern secularism is dead.

Concerning the progressive aspects of religion, it is true that there are nice priests, harmless believers and a few liberation theologians. But, what about the global picture? Aren’t those more or less progressive people far outnumbered by the Sarah Palins of this world (including of course the Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, or Jewish versions of her)? For them, it is very difficult to keep religion out of politics, because religion is so important to them. After all, if you believe that God defines what is right and wrong and punishes you in the afterlife for what you did, why on earth would you want to keep Him out of the affairs of the city? It is true that liberal Christians are more prone to accepting a genuine secularism, i.e. keeping religion out of politics, but it should not be forgotten that liberal Christianity did not exist in, say, the 18th century. It is entirely the result of the way segments of the Church reacted to the  advances of science and materialism in the 19th and 20th century. So, it is hard to see how, without any scientific critique of religion, we would have even the mild form of secularism that exists nowadays in the United States.

Sometimes people defend religion on the grounds that it helps us to act in a moral or even a progressive way. What progressive Christians will tell you is that Jesus helps them to take a “preferential option for the poor”. But the logic of that argument is very odd. Suppose somebody advocates land reform, in order to help the poor. If he is a Christian, he has to show that God exists, that Jesus is His son, that the Gospel adequately reflects His words and, finally, that a suitable interpretation of those words lead to support for a land reform. Nothing in the Gospel tells you how to distribute the land, whether to compensate the owners or not, which acreage should be affected, etc. These issues all have to be settled without the help of God. And, after all, not even neoliberal economists claim to be against the poor — in fact, they usually claim that their policies will help the poor more than anyone else. So, all the substantive  issues have to be solved without the help of religion and the latter only provides “motivation”. But it seems to me that the detour through God and Jesus is so long and unprovable that, if people who claim to find their motivations there didn’t have them anyway, they wouldn’t acquire them because of that detour.

It is often remarked that the attacks on Sarah Palin have an unpleasant class character. That is true, but the deeper question is: why should the “masses” be so religious ? In Europe, they are not (apart from recent immigrants). And the reason is probably that, in Europe, especially in France, but unlike the United States, there has been, within the Republican, Socialist and Communist movements, a centuries-long battle against religion itself and against its intrusion into politics. The problem for the American left is that, if nobody ever does anything to combat religious ideas, then, a century from now, any conceivable left will still be stuck with tens of millions of “fundamentalist” Christians who will vote “with their faith” against any rational or progressive policy and even against their own economic interests. It is true that it is an unpopular  struggle — but so was it in France in the 18th century. It is also true that the effects will only be felt in the long run — but if nobody ever starts doing anything, nothing will ever change. The catastrophic impact of the Christian fundamentalists (without them, the world would probably not have had to suffer Reagan or Bush) is largely the result of the past indifference of the American progressives towards religion.

The deep reason why progressives should oppose religion is that it is irrational and arbitrary. A better world is necessarily a more rational world, a world where people search for solutions to human problems based on the facts of the world and with the help of reason. The Critique of Intelligent Design gives us an enjoyable and enlightening introduction to the philosophical underpinnings of such an attitude.

Jean Bricmont teaches physics in Belgium and is  a member of the Brussels Tribunal. His new book, Humanitarian  Imperialism, is published by Monthly Review Press. He can  be reached at

Shlomo Sand, When and How was the Jewish People Invented?, Tel Aviv, Resling, 2008 (in Hebrew) — also as Comment le peuple juif fut inventé – De la Bible au sionisme, Paris, Fayard, 2008

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