Saturday, February 1, 2014

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

"Spiritual Snake Oil – Fads and Fallacies in Pop Culture,” by Chris Edwards, 2011

This book is by an atheist who trashes various new age ‘philosophers.’ If you are interested in this kind of thing, then his targets are useless pop morons like Dinesh D’Souza, Deepak Chopra, Michael Crichton and popcorn books like “The Secret” and “The Celestine Prophecy.”  Even Robert Pirsag of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” comes in for a shot.  I barely pay attention to these people, except Pirsag, and while Pirsag’s book seemed to be about ‘motorcycle maintenance’ it slipped an idealist mickey into that oily drink. 

My real issue is with pure and narrow atheism.  So, now, a Marxist v. ‘narrow’ atheist smack-down.  How could that be?  After all, both are atheist.  Yes, well. Edwards doesn’t like Marxism, as do most other run-of-the-mill American atheists, so he asked for it. 

Edwards thinks Marxism is a ‘millennial’ fantasy (at least Marx’s ‘prescription’ of what to do about capitalism), much like Christianity.  Dialectics is some kind of confusing ‘determinism’ to him.  He is an advocate of ‘reason,’ atheism and skepticism.  Now ‘reason,’ while commendable as an idea, is not limited to oppressed people.  Capitalists are also very reasonable – about how they run their businesses, how they prevent unions, how they buy politicians, how they discipline their workforces.  All using ‘reason.’  Reason is a method that can be used by anyone, in any class.  Even criminals use reason, even hit men.  So even if you made all the religious loons in the world adhere to ‘reason’ you’d still have some devious ‘reasonable’ exploiters and military bastards to deal with. 

Capitalists even use ‘science’ all the time.  They may sprinkle the bullshit dust sometimes, but to make money, technology is still king.  So anyone who merely has an ideology promoting ‘science and reason’ is not beyond a forward-thinking capitalist. 

Any look at who has become an atheist shows that just being an atheist proves little beyond your distaste for religious fundamentalism.   That is all to the good, of course.  Edwards himself seems to be a progressive fellow.  He dislikes the extermination of the Indians and the enslavement of black people.  Yet Christopher Hitchens let his atheism lead him to supporting the Iraq invasion.  Most well known atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger and Michael Onfray are ordinary liberals.  Many rightist libertarians are also atheists.  These same libertarians are in the Republican Party with theocratic Dominionsits and neo-Confederates.  Most famously of all, our beloved Ayn Rand was an atheist, as are other “Objectivists.’  Anyone who has participated in an anti-religious pile-on on the internet knows that many of the commentators are libertarians.  Need we remind anyone that Stalin was an atheist.  Stalin is the prime bogey that the religious right uses when slamming atheism, so I only bring him up to show that just being an atheist is not sufficient.

Marx actually didn’t think that socialism was inevitable.  It was only a possible outcome of the class struggle.  The emphasis is on ‘struggle.’   Trotsky famously said, “Socialism or barbarism?” which indicates a somewhat less than sanguine attitude towards the future.  Dialectics is a form of ‘reason in motion’ – i.e. it is a method that explains the development or motion of society and even matter itself.  It is actually a higher logic than ‘reason’ and has nothing to do with determinism, as the 'destination' is never inevitable.  Capitalists play with ‘dialectics’ at their peril, because it infers that their system is not eternal, and that change - even fast change - is built into existence.  Which is why they disparage it so. 

Now one slightly amusing aspect of these essays is that nearly every pop spiritualist and New Age guru makes use of aspects of ‘quantum mechanics’ or 'relativity' to justify their idealism. Some, echoing the Catholic Church, refer to the ‘big bang’ as further proof of God and idealism.  Edwards should wonder why these same issues keep popping up again and again.  Instead of looking into these theories a bit more deeply, and wondering if there is fire behind the smoke, he just defends them.  He should wonder if perhaps they DO reflect idealist thinking.  I submit that the Marxists are far more dedicated to materialism and science than this particular atheist.  Most who have thought about these topics notice the idealist or anti-materialist slant of factually thin theories like the ‘big bang’ and parts of ‘relativity’ and quantum mechanics.   

Edwards explains one of Einstein’s propositions just so: “the position and speed of the observer actually changes the way in which the observer experiences time.”  And then he wonders why pop spiritualists line up with Einstein, alleging that the ‘observer’ is key, not material reality.  You see, time changes based on the ‘eye of the beholder.’  Time is subjective!  Edwards also quotes Stephen Hawking about seeking a unified field theory: “that would allow (us to see,) to use Hawking’s unfortunate phrase from ‘A Brief History of Time,’ the mind of God.”    Hawking didn’t use this phrase lightly.  In fact a ‘theory of everything’ can be nothing but a ‘god theory.’  Where is Descartes ‘radical doubt’ that Edwards is always prattling about?   No actual atheist writes an ‘unfortunate’ phrase like that. 

The biggest problem with the atheists, bless them, is that they think debates, arguments and logic alone are sufficient.  The more socially-oriented ones propose ending tax subsidies to churches – something most Marxists support.  They also all believe in the ‘separation of church and state’ – which Marxists support too.  However, EVEN if you won these two reforms, you would not be able to end the oppressive capitalist state or remove the wealth of the capitalist class from its pockets.  The capitalist class in almost every single country relies on organized religion and idealist ideas to protect itself.  Yet that is only one of its bulwarks.  Nationalism, racism, sexism, greed, brute intimidation, the laws, monopoly and money all play their roles too.  Marxists understand that capitalism actually promotes religion, and as long as capitalism exists, religion will exist in its present form.  The Marxists are actually more materialist than the ‘scientific atheists’ because Marxists think that these objective conditions have to change to really undermine idealism.  Debates alone will not bring down this religious monstrosity. The material reality of society predominates over ideas.  So whose the real materialist here? 

Secondly, some religious people oppose the right things, though sometimes for the wrong reasons.  While narrow atheists are not interested in building mass social movements against the foundations of religion, which in this period is capitalism, Marxists are.  Marxists understand that you sometimes block with religious people in action.  Religious pacifists oppose aggressive wars, and Marxists still work with them.  Fundamentalist pacifism may be an inane theory that only satisfies its supporters emotionally, and actually promotes the war makers in the long run, but in the short run, they are allies.  In the period of liberation theology (now over) Marxists all over Latin American worked with the proponents of liberation theology in struggles against dictatorships.  During the early twentieth century in the U.S., socialists blocked with ‘millennial Christians’ who believed that Christ favored the poor.  The text of “The Jungle” makes very clear the close connection between socialism and some forms of religious advocacy.  (“The Jungle,” reviewed below.)

Religious movements also have class components and they have to be carefully looked at from this angle to see what is actually motivating them. They are not always purely obscurantist. 

Narrow atheists don’t have a perspective of overturning the economic and social structures which support religion, hence they will never defeat religion as it is.  In a way, narrow atheism is as idealist as its opponents – thinking these reforms and discussions are all it takes.

Books on more materialist views of modern science – “Ten Assumptions of Science,” “Reason and Revolt,” and “Dialectical Materialism v. the New Physics,” are reviewed below.   Books about religion reviewed below: "The DaVinci Code," "God is Not Great," "The God Market," "American Theocracy," "To Serve God and Wal-Mart," "The Dark Side of Christian History," and "Bright-Sided.

Super-Bowl Fun Fact:  50% of all Super Bowl viewers call on "God" to help their team win.   

P.S. - The head of the American Atheists, David Silverman, was upset that he was rejected for a booth at the Republican right-wing meeting, CPAC.   Silverman believes in 'limited government' and a 'strong military.' He wants to convince them that 'conservatism' and Christianity are not inextricably linked. Ha ha ha.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
February 1, 2014

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