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Why I’d Rather Be Called a Marxist than an Atheist

February 13, 2009

Since I started blogging I began following a few popular atheist blogs. This has led me to consider more in-depth how I “brand” or “identify” myself. These are some of my reflections.

Here’s what I have in common with the atheists:

    • Insofar as I don’t believe in any gods or goddesses, I am an atheist.
    • I find debates about the existence or non-existence of gods and goddesses to be both entertaining and intellectually stimulating.
    • I’m resentful of the presence of Christian privilege in our society.
    • For better or worse, this ressentiment leads to the enjoyment of both sophisticated satires of and juvenile smart-ass comments about Christianity.
    • I think the world would be a better place if people generally made fewer decisions based on religious authorities (whether persons, stories, texts, laws, traditional practices or whatever).

      Here’s what I have in common with Marxists (and other social radicals):

        • I think societies are set up in ways that allow some groups to dominate others; I want to think about how that works and to arm the dominated with the knowledge they need to overcome domination (like I say here).

          Now these interests are obviously not mutually exclusive. However, those guys (and it is pretty much always guys) popularizing atheism seem to be privileged, white intellectuals who think of themselves as oppressed because atheism is unpopular. Wait, here’s a news flash: it turns out that privileged, male, white intellectuals are not really oppressed. I’d really rather not be associated with this blindness toward where there is real oppression.

          Here are some additional errors popularizers of atheism tend to make:

          • They wrongly tend to assume that religion is essentially ignorant, or that religious people must be inherently dumb or dupes.
          • They wrongly tend to assume that religion is essentially violent, or at least tends toward violence.
          • They seem to assume that intellectual debates about the existence of the gods or about Paschal’s wager or whatever are actually influential on others. I’m not saying these intellectual debates aren’t influential, but I think they have a lot less influence than, say, satires of religious traditions. In addition, I think that these intellectual debates often are persuasive or interesting to people only after they’ve converted to atheism and are looking for something to reinforce their new ideology. In sum, the atheist arguments tend to look a lot like intellectual masturbation.

          I have to ask myself with whom I’d rather associate with: a bunch of privileged white dudes or Marxists, radical feminists, people criticizing white privilege, progressive religious groups, and others who are pointing out how power works and, hopefully, doing something about it.

          I’ll go with the latter bunch.

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          4 Comments leave one →
          1. Jesse permalink
            February 13, 2009 7:52 pm

            So true. But at bottom, don’t you feel that the coercive force to “identify” oneself is the unifying source of ressentiment here? In that regard, isn’t submitting to the force of those identities, and their totalizing attributes, the real problem to address? Great post!

          2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
            February 14, 2009 11:24 am

            Jesse, thanks for the comment! In response to what you say, I guess I don’t see identities as necessarily bad or totalizing. In some cases they are clearly problematic–like when there are strict us/them distinctions that are related to unfair privileges (e.g., male/female, black/white)

            On the other hand, there are other identities that are rather useful and productive. For instance, I am regularly identified as a “professor” when I interact with “students.” I think those identities structure a relationship of power, but not in a bad way–sure, I get a few unfair privileges when I am identified as a professor, but for the most part what happens is that students realize that I probably know more than them about religion, and therefore they offer some level of respect and take seriously what I have to say.

            In fact, education wouldn’t work without those sorts of asymmetrical relations of power and the identities that go with them–but I think that it ultimately works for the benefit of both groups in most cases: I get paid for my expertise and my services, and they get a diploma that says they learned something about religion.

            So I’m ultimately ambivalent about identities–I think they can be both good and bad.

            What do you think? Have I misunderstood your objection?

          3. Jesse permalink
            February 14, 2009 7:09 pm

            No, that is an excellent point–useful identities. In the sense of “totallizing” identities, I should have articulated as only those which precipitate not from personal experience and disciplined inquiry, but from these very big, virtual power monopolies (new atheism and evangelical mega-Christianity alike; both of whose transactional modes are highly representative of late capitalism). I see it as a byproduct of a highly polarized society. In highly polar cultural environs, there is this force of “either/or” associations: you’re a democrat or a republican, an SUV driver or a hybrid driver, a “greenie” or some pseudo-cowboy, etc. These cognitive identity maps which are merely utilitarian and pragmatic (they make a very big, very pluralistic situation–American society–intelligible and reducible for folks), but somehow become “essential.” I’ve been rereading “The Cultural Politics of Late Capitalism” and a few primary works by Lyotard, so I know that’s influencing me here. And as you pointed out, this argument wholly ignores the possibility of positive, creative identities within such a situation–which has a greater priority than arguing the reductive nature of identity through, well, lots of reduction! Thanks.

          4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
            February 15, 2009 12:25 pm

            I completely agree–many identities ARE really polarizing. It sounds like our differences are simply a matter of emphasis. Rock on.

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