On the assassination in Woolwich

Given the significant impact of the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich by two British converts to Islam, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, I’m moved to make a brief comment on what I consider its implications. The ethics of the attack itself can be debated until the cows come home; as ethics are essentially subjective and arbitrary, they cannot really be argued out, and nobody will convince anyone else of the ethical merits or demerits of such an action if they do not already share that view. I will therefore not say much about that, though this is not to say I have no ethical concerns about it. But the political and strategic consequences are real and should be debated widely. The first point is that an attack of this kind cannot simply be considered a blow against British imperialism, even if it is – as voiced by the assassins themselves – clearly a response to British foreign policy, not least the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Continue reading “On the assassination in Woolwich”

Richard Dawkins and the Contradictions of Enlightenment

I used to be rather a fan of Richard Dawkins. Not so much because of his most famous work, his spirited and systematic defense of atheism known as The God Delusion, but rather because of the inspired, eloquent, and sometimes brilliant way in which he has popularized natural science. Being a biologist, he has naturally made defending and explaining the achievements of that discipline a major topic, working up a complex and many-layered theory like evolution by means of natural selection into an intelligent but fairly straightforward narrative. But not just that: he has also emphasized – as must be done by anyone concerned with questions of the relationship between religion and science – the real aesthetic and sublime that can be had from a materialistic understanding of the world, in the philosophical sense. Dawkins famously cited Darwin about evolution that “there is grandeur in this view of life”, and in works such as Unweaving the Rainbow and A Devil’s Chaplain he has rather gone out of his way, unusually so for an Anglo-trained natural scientist, to engage with the sublime of religion and also of literature and art. He has also, not unimportantly for the purposes of this article, taken his time to examine the ways in which people have (rightly in the former case, wrongly in the latter) felt naturalistic philosophy and theory to undermine the experience of this sublime. Although from academia there is often much contempt and sneering to be heard behind closed doors about the colleagues engaged in ‘the public understanding of science’, it is an essential, invaluable, and by no means effortless task. Richard Dawkins has proven particularly adept at it, and has rightly been included not just in the Royal Society for his efforts, but also in the Royal Society of Literature. (In fact, as far as I can tell, he is currently the only living person to carry both the titles FRS and FRSL.)

For this reason, it has been a disturbing and disappointing trend to notice Dawkins’ increasing indulgence of lazy, narrow-minded, and often outright racist and imperialist thought, fitting the worst traditions of Oxford contempt. On his Twitter account, he has made numerous absurd statements, often (as many people have pointed out) following a pattern of purposefully insulting and ridiculous rhetorical questions, in order to respond to the ensuing outrage and irritation with a smug dismissal of the public’s inability to understand the rhetorical uses of analogy. Such Oxford debating tactics are elitist and unproductive enough in their own sphere, but with the considerable public audience and scientific prestige Dawkins commands, they are all the more unacceptable. Suggesting (be it rhetorically) that one support Christian missionary activity in Africa because “Islam is such an unmitigated evil” compared to it is not only endorsing imperialism, but also totally inconsistent. His repeated inability to understand the significance of sexism, including within atheist debate and campaigning organizations, is disturbing. He makes profoundly silly comments on abortion and women’s bodies, purposely choosing annoying analogies in the Oxonian style thereby further obfuscating a point intended to discuss late-term abortions in moralistic terms. He continuously engages in equivocation about Islam and Muslims which can serve no useful or scientific purpose. He associates himself systematically with figures like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, who share not just a desire to put atheism forward as a political subject, but also immediately integrate this idea into a greater project of ‘reasoned’ Western imperialism. Similar is his coalition with neo-sociobiologists such as the Viscount Ridley, a former director of the failed Northern Rock bank who now pontificates on social darwinist views of the natural liberty of the market, and so forth. All this serves but to reinforce, as many of his political comments generally do, what James Blaut has called ‘the colonizers’ model of the world’. Continue reading “Richard Dawkins and the Contradictions of Enlightenment”

The Politics of Masculinity in the Afghan war

In the discussions on the question of anti-imperialism versus the necessity of intervention in the wake of the ‘War on Terror’, the gender dimension has been a much undertheorized one. While I am by no means a scholar of gender studies and barely qualified to speak at length on the topic, it has struck me that in the political dynamic around the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan this dynamic presents itself at least in part in the form of a politics of masculinity. This is true, it seems to me, of many of the major participants in the political and military conflict regardless of which ‘side’ they were on, and with an underlying drive not as dissimilar as has often been suggested. I can do no more than to vaguely sketch out my impression of this politics of masculinity, in the hope that some greater specialist can perhaps correct or elaborate upon this hunch. Nonetheless, I think it is a point worth making, because the interaction between gender and the ideology of politics is a potent one and has been throughout history, and it may serve to deflate somewhat the arrogance and pretensions of the different parties concerned with regard to their own significance and motives. Continue reading “The Politics of Masculinity in the Afghan war”

Excursus on Marxism and Religion II: On Liberation Theology

In my previous article on Marxism and religion, I argued the general theoretical case Marxism makes both for understanding religion as a social phenomenon and for arguing against it. In a sense, this could rightly be accused of ‘kicking in an open door’ (as we say in the Netherlands), as it expresses a view widely spread among the radical left today. As secularization has progressed, not even just in Western countries, left and liberal forces have by and large in their theoretical writings cut down reference to religion and spiritual revelation to negligible amounts, and practically it becomes a question of political mobilization more than one of the practice of belief. However, the counterexample often cited by those on the radical left inclined to a more sympathetic stance towards religion (organized or otherwise) is the case of ‘liberation theology’, the explicitly socio-economically radical, pro-poor interpretation of (Catholic) Christianity that established a strong ideological foothold in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s. The concerted efforts of the Vatican to stamp it out and the fall of the Soviet Union – threatening to relegate Central and South America once more to the United States’ unruly back garden – have seriously reduced its ideological and political power, but as a phenomenon it is worth exploring more systematically from the point of view of Marxism. After all, it is not often one finds pro-religious sentiment and radicalism combined in such a theoretically reflective manner, and it has done much to affect the traditionally strongly secularist tendencies among Marxists in both the First and Third Worlds. Continue reading “Excursus on Marxism and Religion II: On Liberation Theology”

Excursus on Marxism and Religion

The rise of a movement known as the ‘New Atheism’ has given cause to much controversy among the left on the right attitude to develop towards religion. For a long time, the secularization of Western societies and the decline in active religious participation seemed to have made the question altogether redundant, but the open theoretical confrontation with theology initiated by the New Atheism has created an equal counter-reaction. Neither side has shown necessarily impressive motives here – there is little doubt that much of the anxious fervor of some of the New Atheist writers, such as Sam Harris, has been influenced by the perceived growing threat of Islam in Europe and elsewhere; a threat to secularism, freedom, equality, and perhaps even modernity itself, as the school of ‘Eurabia’ would have it. Equally, much of the response by religious figures has shown the same venal dishonesty, banality, and special pleading that has characterized ‘sophisticated’ apologetics for most of human history. Continue reading “Excursus on Marxism and Religion”