Thursday, 25 October 2007

Marx and Hitchens among the theologians?

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

For all of the claims that Christopher Hitchens has abandoned his earlier Leftist proclivities, there is at least one point at which he remains an orthodox Marxist. His recent book, God Is Not Great, is a straightforward reiteration of Marx’s own critique of religion, albeit in the most splendidly bombastic fashion:

“God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization.… Thus the mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most devastating one. Religion is man-made.”

Hitchens here evokes one of philosophy’s most defiant veins: the reduction of the religious impulse to the product of our basest human instincts. He thus places himself within an intellectual tradition that stretches from Kant (“we cannot conceive God otherwise than by attributing to him without limit all the real qualities which we find in ourselves”) through Feuerbach (“man – this is the mystery of religion – projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself”), until it finally reaches Marx himself (“the foundation of irreligious criticism is this: man makes religion, religion does not make man”).

But, as one might expect, Hitchens gives this tradition his own contemptuous twist. He is not content just to strip religion of its nobility, to dislodge it from its pride of place as the founding gesture of civilization – the moment when Homo sapiens, driven by its emerging thirst for transcendence, takes the first step out of the domain of primates by investing certain ritualized practices with meaning. He goes further, and dismisses religion as little more than the invention of hucksters and frauds who, at every occasion, aim to exploit our innate fears and profit from our listless servitude.

Here, again, Hitchens invokes Marx’s authority, citing his famous anti-Darwinian quip that “human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape” (though he misattributes it to Engels). His point is that, even as the later manifestations of a process disclose the true nature of its origin, so too the most notorious historical examples of religious fabrication and plagiarism – from Muhammadanism and Mormonism to the preposterous “cargo cults” of Melanesia – provide a window onto religion’s murky beginnings. For Hitchens, the history of religion remains a sordid tale of outright fraudulence preying on a fearful species still trying to master the use of its opposable thumbs. Both sides are thus implicated in the sweeping verdict, “Religion is man-made.”

The basic problem with this depiction is not that it is unnecessarily pessimistic, reducing religion to a quasi-Darwinian universe of predators and prey, but that it is not pessimistic enough. It fails to go to the heart of the matter, quite literally, and identify the full reach of the religious impulse. And it is at this point that Richard Dawkins is at his best. The great (and perhaps only enduring) achievement of The God Delusion is to have radicalized the definition of “man-made,” by transferring the driver behind the religious impulse from those vulgar, primitive instincts – say, fear or predation – to the solipsism of the meme itself. In this book, Dawkins gives his fullest, though by no means best, account of the operations of the “God-meme”, which he first proposed in the final chapter of The Selfish Gene.

The meme, according to Dawkins, is a kind of replicating unit of cultural evolution, capable of adapting and spreading from one brain to another. Its logic is its own and its aim is its own survival, even at the expense of its host. Much like a virus, the meme “parasitizes” the brain, “turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation.” This is indeed a strangely speculative notion – which Daniel Dennett describes as properly “philosophical” – to find developed by so hard-shelled an empiricist. For, in effect, Dawkins is ascribing to religion a life of its own, transforming it from mere fiction to malignant idolatry. The meme is, as Marx put it, “full of theological subtleties and metaphysical niceties.”

In fact, it was Marx who first identified the enigmatic operations of the meme within economic and social life. In that most bizarre passage which concludes the first chapter of his Capital, Marx insists that in order to understand the existence and function of the commodity-form, “we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race.”

An uncharacteristically intelligent amalgamation of Dawkins and Marx occurs in Michael Bay’s otherwise terrible film, The Island. Hundreds of survivors of an apparent nuclear holocaust are housed in a sterile, asexual, infinitely regulated environment – part fitness-centre, part preschool, part prison. Nevertheless, a desire grows within these innocents, a spontaneous genetic mutation which craves the corrupting excesses of Western life: the trademark vices of capitalism, from the five strips of bacon at the beginning of the film, to the “lots and lots of sex” which causes a character’s liver failure at the end. The innate lust after these vices drives the inmates to break out of their prison and discover their own garden of earthly delights on the streets of Los Angeles.

It is this idolatry – which courses like poison through our veins, accentuating the egotism of the life-instinct and parasitizing our mammalian drives – that is the real object of Marx’s and Dawkins’ attack on religion. Theirs is a powerful demonstration of the truth of Marx’s dictum, “the criticism of heaven becomes the criticism of earth”: the fight against evil in our time must begin with the opposition to every idolatry, whether religious or economic. And this is the task to which Christian theology must devote itself today.


philq said...

Rowan Williams recently gave a lecture responding to Dawkins. It's really good. The transcript is here:

And a video of the full lecture is here:


These days public discourse is just shrill whining on every side. It's necessary to find people like Rowan Williams who present clear arguments humbly and respetfully.

JKnott said...

I discovered the "meme" idea through Dennett's _Breaking the Spell_, and find it interesting if only as a way of challenging the common assumption (even among so many theologians) that one's religious ideas, practices, etc., always inevitably are calculated to serve the material interests of one's individual self, family, race, class, etc. What I call "the tyranny of the cui bono question."

Unfortunately, if perhaps inevitably, I found that Dennett could not sustain his own insight and wound up assuming that we MUST learn to evaluate religion based on what it gets us, without apparently noticing that that would mean undermining the very meme characteristics he had ascribed to it.

a. steward said...

After reading the reviews of Eagleton and McCarraher on Dawkins and Hitchens, respectively, I had pretty well completely written off either of the two pop-atheists as having anything substantive to say. Have you read either reviews, and if so could you respond to their criticisms? Have Dawkins and Hitchens actually writtne good books, or are they just convenient points of departure for talking about Marx and Darwin?

Geoff Smith said...

I'm just an undergrad theology student but I cannot seem to find any atheists that my co-workers read that even understand Christianity. I haven't even found one of these writers that does any real interaction with contemporary Christian thinkers, of any kind really, like Hart, Wright, or Plantinga even. I work at Barnes and Noble by the way.

Most of them [the writers and my co-workers] aren't even objecting, intellectually anyway, to the God of the gospel they just criticize stuff they've imagined up. The imagining of false things about God to hate is just as much of a meme as the imagining of false things about God to worship.

Anyhow, this was an interesting take on Hitchens, memes, and Marx. I wanted to read him, but none of my co-workers read him because he isn't leftist enough, "he betrayed the left" according to them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Scott - an excellent post. I sometimes wonder if theologians stopped criticizing "religion" when Theology departments were absorbed into Religion departments, making theologians just a species of professional religionists.

j. k. said...

Well said, Scott. Nicholas Lash has also joined the fray with a critique of Dawkins.

Geoff said...

I would be interested to know if any scholarly work has been done regarding the idea that Dawkins' theory of memes may be ultimately self-defeating for atheism... after all, if religion is a "virus", and atheism is the "antidote", what makes Dawkins, et al, so sure that they will not ultimately be responsible for creating a new religious "super-virus" of sorts? Just my random thoughts... a somewhat related article can be found here:

Anonymous said...

Speaking of powerful potentially all conquering memes you might like to check out The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom via:


Scott Stephens said...

If I can join briefly in the conversation, while reserving the right to post a fuller response a bit later, I feel I need to point out just how unbelievably boring and tedious are the responses to Hitchens and Dawkins that run like: 'Other people reviewed them harshly and so I needn't wrestle with them myself', or, 'They are arrogantly trying to classify a diverse and complex phenomena', and so on. Worse than being tedious, such responses are expected in advance! What has Christian thinking come to when it has become entirely predicable?

This is where Marx, as usual, lights our path. By devastatingly criticizing D.F. Strauss by means of Feuerbach ("Shame on you Christians ... that it took an anti-Christian to show you the true essence of Christianity in its pure and unveiled form"), he provided Christian theology with one of its most vital weapons: the capacity to re-tool even the most divergent, heterodox, seemingly anti-Christian source as an expression of the radicality of Christianity's own ruthless critique of religion and its constitutive idolatry.

Nance said...

The last sentence and a half of this post deserve an "amen".


George said...

Interesting post.

What concerns me most about critiques of the 'new atheists' by the likes of Eagleton is that almost without exception they attempt to belittle Dawkins et al for failing to measure up to the demands of scholarly theology. The assumption is that unless they've spent decades studying theology they simply don't have the required depth of understanding and therefore their criticisms need not be taken seriously.

Superficially this is a fair point. However, if the new atheists are expected to acquire this depth of understanding in order that their criticisms be taken seriously, shouldn't the same expectations be placed upon believers in order that their professions of belief to be taken seriously?

If this is fair, might it be more intellectually honest to accept that for 90+ per cent of believers, Dawkins et al hit the nail on the head?

Anonymous said...

This post is pure ad hominem. Nothing has been stated here the disproves the 'new atheists'.

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