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.

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