The Course of Reason

Atheism’s Class Problem

November 28, 2012

Atheism and the Class Problem. That's the title of a recent article written by David Hoelscher for CounterPunch. Hoelscher does a fine job of demonstrating atheism's class problem so this post isn't going to be about restating what he says. I suggest reading it, if you haven't, before continuing with this post as the commentary may make assumptions that you've read the article. My aim here is to try to offer an answer to the question, "Ok, so now what? Atheism has a class problem. What can we do about it?"

The first point is to recognize that atheism's class problem should be viewed as part of the class problem that exists within the larger society. (Note: Hoelscher does touch on this point) Class division exists within our capitalist society, atheism does not exist outside of that society so we can expect it to reflect the problems found within said society.

For those atheists that are concerned about the class problem in their movement, that truly want to see this problem done away with not only within the atheist movement, but society as a whole, need to become a part of the anti-capitalist movement. Yes, this means moving towards communism. Hoelscher speaks of a "fundamental restructuring, of the capitalist system"; I propose a dismantling of the system. The problem with Hoelscher's suggested approach, and like-minded reformist views, is that it boils down to a form of social democracy. This, however, does not eliminate the capitalist structure as social democracy is about social justice within the framework of capitalism. The problem is that capitalism carried over the class divisions that existed in the system that came before it, and shows no signs of ending those divisions. We need to move beyond the capitalist system if we want to move beyond class division. Further, the problem with reform lies in the fact that it proposes using the tools of the oppressor to end the oppression. Think about that for a moment.

(Edit: It seems I missed an important part in Hoelscher's piece, he is more for a disposal of capitalism than a restructuring. The following text is from a comment he left. My apologies for the omission -

RE: "I propose a dismantling of the system. The problem with Hoelscher's suggested approach, and like-minded reformist views, is that it boils down to a form of social democracy."

Actually, what I'm for is a combination of communitarian anarchism, cosmopolitan bioregionalism (neither of which need be an oxymoron), and ecosocialism. As you point out, social democracy is not the answer, but if political realities happen to be such that SD northern-Europe-style is the best we can ever do, it would be a substantial improvement over the neoliberal plutocratic political-economic system that currently obtains in the U.S.

You seem to have missed this part of what I wrote: "What is required is either the disposal (my considered preference), or at the very least the fundamental restructuring, of the capitalist system."

I have preferred the first option for a good long time.)

If atheists are to commit to this anti-capitalist movement, they must go outside the mainstream organizations. To be clear, I do think the mainstream organizations still have value. I have written numerous times about the important role student clubs, organizations, etc. can play in forming communities. No doubt, there are groups committed to acts of social justice either working through their organization or with another organization committed to a particular issue. However, the atheist movement is quite liberal, and supportive of social democracy, which cannot end the class divisions. Within that movement there will be much resistance to an explicitly anti-capitalist movement to the point where working from the inside out makes no sense. It may be possible, in the long run, that more atheists will move towards the anti-capitalist stance, but until that time comes the expedient route is to look outside the movement.

My own journey to this position came from the realization that the ideas put forward by the communist movement are based on an objective analysis of history, and that the common objections to communism fall apart upon examination. (Please read this before bringing up objectionsWe've heard them allSeriously). There is still plenty of debate within the communist movement itself, refining of ideas, admitting the massive failures that have occurred and how we can learn from them, but the end goal that is agreed upon is a solution that leads to the end of capitalism and the class divisions that exist within our current society.

A discussion regarding atheism and communism will inevitably bring the question of religion into the fold. While Hoelscher does build a case for the role religion can play in economic oppression, and we should focus on religion when acts of oppression occur, a case can be made that religion in a communist society is not a contradiction, despite what the religious right will tell you. For that, I'll direct readers' attention to the Marxist-Lenist-Maoist (MLM) blogger, JMP. When the issue of religion arose in communist states, it was, as JMP points out, often a matter of pushing for church state separation, and leaving private religious practice alone. Further, all religions are not targeted equally. The ones that reinforce social-structures that the communist states are trying to do away with will be targeted. We do not want to target religion where it is unwarranted, and we must recognize that for some faith is a motivating component of their drive to do away with oppression.

Let's go back to what I said about the problem of working from inside the atheist movement outwards to a communist movement. Writers, like JMP, are atheists who reject the notion of atheism as a political movement. In fact, "Marx and Engels, who did not believe in God or any non-materialist account of reality, at the same time rejected atheism as a viable political project" (JMP). There's no problem with being an atheist and rejecting the non-materialist approach, but to take this as a political movement runs into difficulty. Being an atheist is fine, but it should not be the central basis of your ideology. It boils down to the fact that whether you are an atheist or theist, you can still engage in various acts of oppression against the oppressed, and that the struggle between the two sides says nothing about, "the capitalist mode of production nor the capitalist world system" (JMP). We must also keep in mind that there are plenty of atheists who are doing just fine under capitalism, and have no interest in changing it. For those that want to see its overthrow, those atheists don't make the best bedfellows. Looking to the recent emergence of Atheism+ and the vehement reaction to it should give pause to those that think there's a chance at transforming the movement from the inside-out. The emergence of Atheism+ is an encouraging sign; don't get me wrong it's great to see atheism moving into the social justice realm. At the end of the day though, it's the resistance within the movement to this type of change that gives me little optimism that we'll see the changes the Atheism+ proponents are hoping for.

The atheist movement does not appear to be the best starting point for the budding-atheist/communist, but what can draw hir to the communist field? What appeal does it have? Communism does follow a scientific method, historical materialism. Though it should be noted that it is not identical to the sciences (Read this article by JMP for more explanation). I was drawn towards it for this reason. It is not, as some would try to argue, mindless utopianism that denies the reality of the world. It's the exact opposite. It is well aware that there have been major failures in the past, so it learns from them. If atheists are committed to critical thought, a scientific method, then they need to be careful about making arguments against communism that are devoid of either of those approaches (EBD). One example, is the use of anecdotal evidence to make a case against communism (JMP). The atheist movement will pounce on theists who try to make the case for their beliefs through the use of anecdotal evidence. So why tolerate it when it comes to history and communism? It'll be discussed below how social being can impact a person's world-view, i.e. the person has a reason to break away from critical analysis and use problematic reasoning to critique communism.

The method used was developed by Marx and Engels. While the two did manage to get a number of things wrong, it was the use of their method that allowed communists that came after to realize this. It was Marx who argued that, as JMP puts it, "social being tends to determine social consciousness" (JMP). Marx's status as a European means we'd expect him to hold a euro-centric view. Likewise with today's upper-class atheists, in the context of their social being we can expect that they will support, or at least not harshly critique, the capitalist-system that gave them their position in the first place. Hell, my own social position has probably lead me to approach communism in a way that might result in omissions that fellow communists will call me out on.

I'm reminded of a quote about Christopher Hitchens. Paraphrasing: His mother said that Christopher would be part of the upper class in Britain. Well with that idea planted in young Hitchens' mind, it's no wonder that the British Trotskyist would eventually end up mingling with, supporting, and becoming a part of America's elite. Those who benefit from the capitalist system have, from their view, a perfectly logical reason to defend the system even if it means abandoning the historical materialism method to do so. Of course, social being is not a guarantee of social consciousness. Working-class voters can support a system that is not in their interest, and those in the middle, and upper class may support a system that will likely see some of the luxuries they enjoy taken away. I've raised the issue of social being in an attempt to explain why people abandon rational arguments to make a case against communism.

The history of communism has been filled with failures, but it has had success. Further, it learns from those mistakes. Unlike capitalism, which nearly drives off a cliff every few decades, widening the rich-poor-gap, bringing about, a now close to, unsalvageable environmental crisis. Communist theory builds and learns from its past mistakes. New theories are developed to understand revolutionary movements and real-word cases of communism. Hence why we have MLM theory. The world is not static. We have not, as some capitalists, argued ‘reached the end of history'. Yes, capitalism is good at fixing itself. Our protest is that it only fixes the problem for the few at the expense of the many. Therefore, we cannot sit around and wait for capitalism to collapse in on itself. If you are committed to the end of the class-problem, and capitalism, you will seek out more information about communism, the scientific method it follows, and provide support to the movement.

This post originally appeared on AAF Waterloo's blog


About the Author: Chris Burke

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Chris Burke holds a Bachelors in Environmental Studies: Honours Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. Next he will be working towards a Masters of Environmental Studies in Sustainability Management. He's an active member of the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers of Waterloo student group. In his spare time he enjoys reading and playing music.




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