A sensible emptiness

Ever since Alexander Cockburn died in July, Counterpunch, the newsletter he founded and co-edited, has tended to let in more and more academic leftism.  Where a pungent, demotic style once prevailed, the pedantic jargon of reheated Marxism now roams wild.

Despite this sad falling-off, Counterpunch still carries news and comment worth reading.  I’d mention a piece that appeared today on Counterpunch’s website, “Atheism and the Class Problem,” by David Hoelscher.   True, it exhibits several academic vices that would never have survived Cockburn’s blue pencil, but it’s well worth reading nonetheless.

Here’s an interesting paragraph from Mr Hoelscher’s piece:

It is too often overlooked that economics is inextricably mixed up with religion. David Eller, an atheist and anthropologist, helpfully reminds us that the realistic view on this point is the holistic perspective. It sees religion as a component of culture, and as such “integrated” with and “interdependent” on all the other “aspect[s] of culture—its economic system, its kinship practices, its politics, its language, its gender roles, and so on.” It was not for nothing that Max Weber insisted that, in the words of Joel Schalit “the economic order is a reflection of the religious order.” It is no accident, then, that in the face of massive public debt and a wretchedly inadequate social safety net, various levels of ostensibly secular government in the U.S. grant 71 billion dollars in subsidies annually to religious organizations (as calculated by Professor Ryan T. Cragun and his students Stephanie Yeager and Desmond Vega.)

That sounds a bit like Irving Babbitt, who started his 1924 book Democracy and Leadership thus:

According to Mr. Lloyd George, the future will be even more exclusively taken up than is the present with the economic problem, especially with the re­lations between capital and labor. In that case, one is tempted to reply, the future will be very superficial. When studied with any degree of thorough­ness, the economic problem will be found to run into the politi­cal problem, the political prob­lem in turn into the philosophi­cal problem, and the philosophi­cal problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.

Of course, Babbitt’s point was the opposite of Mr Hoelscher’s.  For Babbitt, the most important questions were ethical questions, and the most important function of a social system was the formation of moral character.  Some virtues are best cultivated in conditions of prosperity; for that reason, Babbitt is prepared to grant that economics is worthy of some concern.  For Mr Hoelscher, however, economic inequality is the greatest of evils, and religious institutions are among the forces that sustain that evil.

I’d like to quote another bit of Mr Hoelscher’s, this one consisting of two rather long paragraphs:

Take for instance Noam Chomsky. The New Atheist message, he once told an interviewer, “is old hat, and irrelevant, at least for those whose religious affiliations are a way of finding some sort of community and mutual support in an atomized society lacking social bonds.” If “it is to be even minimally serious” he continued, “the ‘new atheism’ should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship” such as capitalism, imperialism and militarism. Shortly after the death of New Atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens in December 2011, Chomsky’s longtime friend, radical scholar Norman Finkelstein, derided Hitchens’ anti-theist provocateuring as “pissing on other people’s mostly innocuous beliefs.” (emphasis mine) Brothers and doctoral psychology students Ben and Bo Winegard, in an erudite article effusively praising Chomsky, argue that the so-called New Atheists are directing their prodigious intellectual firepower at the wrong target. They believe, correctly in my view, that today in the U.S. “The most potent mythology [“even among believers”] is neoliberal nationalism and the most powerful institution is the corporation.” The church, they assert “is no longer an inordinately powerful institution” and thus the New Atheists have “mistakenly dragged a 200 year old corpse into the modern world.”

But religion as a cultural force is not nearly as moribund as the Winegards suggest. Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released its latest survey of religious belief, which found that 80 percent of American adults “said they never doubt the existence of God.” How is that possible if religion is so weak? Diane Arellano, program coordinator for the Women’s Leadership Project in Los Angeles (and former student of Sikivu Hutchinson), writes compellingly about how most of the African American and Latina students she works with “come from highly religious backgrounds that discourage any form of questioning about gender roles” and about how it is not particularly unusual for her to learn of a pregnant teen who eschews the option of abortion “because she can’t ‘kill’ God’s creation.” On the political front, Christian “conservatives” are largely devoted to the fascist Republican Party while most liberal religionists are devoted to the plutocratic Democratic Party. In his perceptive book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank offers a convincing explanation for why large numbers of poor and working class people vote Republican and therefore against their own economic self-interest. The basic dynamic is that right-wing political leaders and spokespeople succeed in achieving a “systematic erasure of the economic” from discussions about class and replace it with messages that warn of liberal “elites” bent on undermining mid-American Christian cultural values. Frank’s argument is not a comprehensive explanation for the success of radical corporatism across a wide swath of the country—other important factors, including moral rot inside the Democratic Party, widespread anti-intellectualism (itself in large part an effect of religion), and the sophistication of state propaganda are a large part of the mix as well—but it does capture a substantial part of our political reality.

How is it possible that 80 percent of American adults claim never to doubt the existence of God if religion is so weak?  I can think of an explanation.  In the USA, participation in religious groups has been declining steadily for forty years; for much of that time, so much publicity was given to the growth of the fundamentalist Christian groups that many people seemed not to notice that the mainline Protestant churches were losing more followers than those groups were gaining.  Now the fundamentalists are declining too, and the mainline is still shrinking.  This is not because some atheist campaign has persuaded millions to deny the existence of God; if anything, larger majorities now express agreement with theistic statements than did back in the early 1970s, when over 60% of Americans attended church on a weekly basis.  There is no paradox here; it is easy to say the words that go along with an orthodox belief if you know that no one will ever expect you to adjust your behavior to exemplify that belief.  Mr Hoelscher makes much of the fact that the poor are likelier to say that they hold conservative religious beliefs than are the rich; a fact he does not mention is that the likelihood that a person will participate in a religious group generally varies in direct proportion with that person’s income.  Again, it’s easy to say that you’re orthodox if there’s no one around to hold you to it.

T. C. Frank’s phrase, “systematic erasure of the economic,” got me thinking.  It certainly is true that political discourse in the USA is strangely disengaged from economics and class realities.  I’d say it’s giving the right-wing too much credit to say that they are solely responsible for emptying politics of any direct expression of these concerns.  The various left wings that have come and gone throughout American history have succeeded in convincing virtually everyone in the USA that class divisions are a very bad thing, and that their existence is a reproach to society.  Since the liquidation of class divisions does not seem to be an imminent prospect, that leaves Americans with few options beside denialism and despair.  Among those who are interested, not so much in liquidating all class distinctions, but in countering the worst effects of them and building a sustainable social compact, there might be considerable social activism, as there was in the mid-twentieth century when organized labor was a power on the land.  But those days are past.  Unions are marginal players in American politics today, and nothing has grown up to take their place.  As Mr Hoelscher notes, the Democratic Party and other institutions that are supposed to be vehicles of the center-right are as silent about class division as are their counterparts on the right, and offer the public no means to resist the demands of the super-rich.  Where we might expect conflict, we find a strange absence.

As much as American life has emptied politics of challenges to the power of the financial oligarchy, so too has it emptied religion of challenges to individual moral character.  Theology, doctrine, and myth still waft about in people’s speech and in their minds.  These abstractions are surely the least valuable parts of any religious tradition.  Absent the human connections sustained by common worship, absent the presence of admirable people whose good examples can form the character of those around them, absent the sense of purpose that comes from the feeling that one is a participant in a vast multigenerational enterprise upon which inconceivably important matters depend, it is difficult to see what can come of theology, doctrine, and myth except conflict and needless confusion.  That’s what brought Richard Wilbur’s “A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness” to my mind; in that poem, its title a quote from mystic Thomas Traherne, Mr Wilbur rejects the idea of a placeless sanctity, of a spirit that lives in isolation from the flesh.  It is “the steam of beasts” that is “the spirit’s right oasis,” not the “land of sheer horizon” where “prosperous islands” “shimmer on the brink of absence.”  American life has become too much a matter of absences, its politics a contest of absences, its religion an organized absence, its art a proclamation of eternal, everlasting absence.  It’s high time we turn to presence again.

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