Sunday, February 15, 2009

Ye of bad faith

Max Dunbar is not a commentator I take all that seriously, but this kind of stupidity deserves to be pointed at. He says:

blogger Richard Seymour (currently valiantly struggling to contort his anti-imperialist narrative around the Obama era) declared faith ‘an enabling narrative for liberation struggles’ and atheism ‘an ideological accessory to empire’.

The first quote comes from this:

Religion can be used as a tool for control, but to reduce it to that function without qualification is both erroneous and, if it matters, profoundly anti-marxist. Religion is a work of labour, a performance by people working in different contexts, deriving meanings that appear to be apt for their circumstances. That means that, while it is open to highly reactionary, patriarchal and authoritarian readings - indeed, it may even have a sort of elective affinity with political authoritarianism - it is also open to democratising, emancipatory impulses. It can, even as it engages people in fictions, also furnish people with a means to obtaining lucid insights about human beings.

To avoid caricature, I should point out that I am not inviting anyone to believe in the scriptures or the Qu'ran or the Torah or the complete works of Deepak Chopra. Nor am I saying that there is no potential harm in religion. What I am saying is that far more important than what is written in religious texts - which are indeterminate - is the way in which people receive, interpret and operate on those texts. Religion does not, on the whole, drive war or exploitation or any of the major evils that the world is experiencing. At most, it is an enabling factor, just as it is also an enabling narrative for liberation struggles.

The second quote comes from this:

The 'war on terror' and the Israel-Palestine conflict are seen as being driven by 'religious extremism' in this purview. Naturally, when discussed in those terms, people like Sam Harris conclude that Islam is the worst religion, the most menacing kind that exists on the planet, mandating all sorts of extreme measures including torture and bombing. Naturally, Amis concludes that the 'extremists' (Muslim extremists, he means) have a 'monopoly on self-righteousness and violence' and produces all kinds of fulminations about Islam and Muslims to accompany this. This is the quite logical result of a culturalist reading of a dense mesh of geopolitical struggles. To this extent, the 'new atheism', where it is not just naive and bossy, is an ideological accessory to empire.

I think I can safely say that in both cases I have been misrepresented. And, weirdly, this is not the first time that comments of mine written for haloscan have been miscited by critics. Johann Hari and Marko Atilla Hoare are both guilty of this. One assumes that these people don't credit their audience with the desire or ability to check their references. As a subsidiary point, Dunbar goes on to cite the conspiracy theorist 'feminist' Caroline Fourest, who remarks that colonists "rarely modified the habits of the occupied countries". Now, this is not strictly germane to the argument that the 'new atheism' (not atheism in toto) operates as an ideological accessory to empire. After all, we are talking of this phase of empire, not any previous one. And secondly, the issue is how such doctrines mobilise opinion in the imperial 'metropole', not whether such doctrines are translated into practise in the 'periphery'. However, I would just like to point out that colonists did indeed go to great efforts to modify the habits of occupied countries. Need I really essay on the 'humanitarian' imperialism of the British in the Pacific, and the prolonged British missionary position? The tirades of Cardinal Lavigerie and the clerical colonialism of the French empire? The Christianising efforts of the Spanish in Latin America and the Philippines? (And while we're on the subject of religion in the Spanish empire, it would be remiss of me not to credit the religious humanism of Bartolomé de las Casas). I have hardly exhausted the list of available examples. Why do these people make it so easy? And why do they give the impression of sniffing around my bins, and listening in on conversations for 'evidence' to submit to imaginary tribunals?