Marx and the meaning of godlessness: a radical atheist’s response to Kris Nelson

There’s a passage from Marx’s critique of Hegel that antitheists like to quote and defenders of faith like to quotemine. In a piece titled ‘3 Myths That Make Navigating the Radical Left as a Person of Faith Difficult’, Kris Nelson notes Marx calls religion the heart of a heartless world as well as the opium of the people, claiming to ‘open up . . . the full quote, and not just the snapshot used to pick at those who dare let their god(s) lead them’.

In fact, Nelson – ‘a queer trans witch [who] runs an online store . . . where they sell handcrafted wirework jewellery, crystal pendants, handsewn tarot bags and pendulums’ – is the one peddling a misrepresentation. The actually-full quote (translation mine) reads:

The discontent of religion is at once an expression of and protestation against true discontent. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, heart of a heartless world and soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. To overthrow the bogus happiness they find in it is to demand they be allowed true happiness; to demand disillusionment with a condition built on delusion is to demand its end. And so to criticise religion is, in embryo, to criticise the vale of tears of which it is but an apparition.

Such critique has not shredded the imaginary flowers on people’s chains so as to leave them chained without solace or fantasy, but so that they might cast away their chains and gather real flowers. It disillusions people so that they might think, act and shape their own reality, as does anyone brought to their senses – so that their lives might revolve around them, people being their own true suns. Religion is no more than an illusory sun, revolving around people whose lives do not revolve around them.

The point missed on all sides isn’t that religion is either a bad habit or a source of hope – nor is Marx saying it’s one in spite of being the other. The meaning of ‘Opium des Volkes’, a metaphor Nietzsche and Bernard Shaw would later recycle, is that faith is comforting and delusional, easing the pain by clouding the senses: Marx labels it the courage of a heartless world as part of his attack.

There’s a lot I could say about those lines, which never fail to move me. Unlike new atheism’s figureheads, I’ve been a believer – I could say I remember not having enough to eat, going to church with a single mother and meeting other oppressed creatures; remember the cost of the church’s help, belief spinning out of control, abuse and mental illness taking hold; remember the bogus happiness, then finding poetry in the real world.

I could say that as an apostate on the left, my skepticism serves an instinct that, in Chomsky’s words, ‘the burden of proof for anyone with a position of power and authority lies on them’ – that my atheism will never be separate from the fight for a just society – and that my antitheism will never, ever be divorced from compassion for those on the margins. I could even accept, though I think his argument survives it, that there’s room to criticise Marx – either in that his presumption to dismantle strangers’ beliefs rings paternalistic, or inasmuch as leftists can and do repurpose God for their own ends.

For now though, Nelson’s post.

Calling oneself a person of faith feels like setting light fingers on ‘person of colour’ – a move less tasteful still when apostates whose former religions have a marked ethnic dimension are among the most stigmatised, frequently smeared as race traitors. Mentioning one’s spirituality – ‘We’ve all got one!’ – likewise resembles the language of sexuality. While it’s perfectly true certain religious groups are ostracised, constructing believers in general as an oppressed class is putrescent – if Nelson finds religion a fraught topic on the left, it’s because of its role as oppressor, and it’s hard to see how conflating the ‘struggle’ of Baptists and Anglicans with those of Jews and Muslims in the west does any good.

If as Nelson stresses, the piece reflects only its author’s experiences, that’s fair enough, but however strawed up (or not) the arguments it cites, there are much better ones – the unavoidable implicature is that left radicals have no reason to eye religion with antipathy. My own view is that while faith is a widespread thing, broad parts of it will uphold or exacerbate the status quo: welcome as progressive believers are, how do you permanently revolutionise beliefs systems in which arguments can never be won conclusively? Nor can I help but think, brocialist though it sounds, that if Nelson understood Marx, they’d realise his critique doesn’t apply only to ‘the institutional western Christian church’.

‘Most radical atheists’, they claim, hate religion solely to due Christianity’s violent past; we don’t. ‘This atheist critique’, the post goes on, ‘denies that the violence it perpetrates is often against revolutionary folks of faith’ and non-Christian believers, as well as religion’s role in past revolutions; it doesn’t. ‘White-boy manarchists who romanticise the militarised, atheistic revolution of the Bolsheviks’ – a curious anarchism – are accused of ignoring how ‘spiritual revolutions historically grow from communities of colour’, but Nelson’s essentialist treatment of the same communities as hyperreligious, sprouting radical mysticism like fertile soil, brings to mind racist myths of noble savages and magical negroes – as if hierarchy and dissent were only European religious traditions.

Word games come thick and fast. As if to define the problem away, we’re told religious violence is a ‘secular distortion’ of faith’, that a ‘capitalist atheist approach’ is to blame for environmental collapse, and that church oppression is about ‘secular imperial capitalism – statements that aren’t unpacked and don’t benefit much from scrutiny. (Church relations with empire and the market state are far from one-sided, and what makes either’s influence on faith more artificial than the left’s?) Declaring the whole of ‘western science’ ‘inherently colonial, racist, transphobic, and ableist’, Nelson moves on without another word. Denying empiricism’s history would be naïve, but the subject deserves more than nine words – and is it fair to call science’s problems inherent, only to paint religion’s every fault as extrinsic?

‘My gravitation towards the more pagan aspects of my family history drove me towards a more radical explicitly anticapitalist faith,’ they state. ‘Yet I was still met with teasing, criticism and ridicule for daring to let my spirituality motivate my politics.’ It’s hard to sympathise that much when judging by the piece and where it links, Nelson believes ‘positive thinking’ creates luck because primates copy one another; that people have psychic auras because electromagnetism exists, and that that home births, herbs and ‘energy work’ are useful because healthcare is costly – plus anything they read on Cracked.com. If altmed were necessary or effective, equal to or better than hospitals, doesn’t Kris Nelson think private concerns would have patented, monopolised and exploited it, as they have HIV treatment?

In India, home of spiritual healing for fashionable white westerners, belief people generate their own luck has upheld centuries of class and caste violence, none too different from protestantism’s demand the poorest help themselves. Root-chewing, prayer and energy rituals do precious little to combat poverty or disease, while deaths from childbirth – free from the tyranny of hospitals – are the most numerous of any state. Quack doctors are raking it in – Deepak Chopra boasts an $80 million personal fortune, with transcendentalism’s biggest org worth several times as much – while genuine progressives fight for clinical medicine, some driven out of the country by churches, court cases and threats. Is spirituality here anticapitalist? And if as Nelson claims, each organism has an inviolable energy, does that include each deadly pathogen?

The fastest way to escape ridicule is to stop being ridiculous. No one, of course, ought to be hounded or harassed, but one senses Nelson either ignores atheism’s better critiques, intent on whitewashing faith as a whole, or hasn’t yet met atheists who know how to make them. (Both, to be fair, are plausible.) If radicalism is a tough scene for believers, I haven’t found it welcoming either: the mostly-atheist left, it turns out, has little time for those, apostates in particular, whose atheism is more than a rhetorical flounce – ‘I’m an atheist for God’s sake!’ – when lambasting the politics of Maher and Hitchens. Like activist Natalie Reed, I’ve often felt obliged not to bring up my atheism there. Here’s what she told me earlier this year:

Religion is a big deal, y’know? And it really does have very significant social impact. But I think most social progressives have ended up scared to allow it to matter to them because they’ve never even seen a version of strong atheism that wasn’t this ugly, aggressive, patronising white-cishet-bro thing. And it’s next to impossible for those of us who aren’t that to be able to successfully model such an atheism. For most people, there’s no framework for allowing their atheism to be meaningful at the same time as remaining conscientious about issues of imperialism, relative cultural power or the role of religion for marginalised groups.

It is possible to believe religion is a dangerous thing, and that theist-literalists are indeed wrong, while also acknowledging that religion can be a positive thing, not wanting to go around trying to forcefully ‘educate’ or convert people, being mindful of the nuanced relationship between science, enlightenment and colonialism, not thinking theists are ‘stupid’ or somehow intellectually lesser, not thinking religion is the sole locus of oppression and not thinking being an atheist makes you a less oppressive, more enlightened, smarter or otherwise better class of person. But such possibilities just don’t exist in the discourse as is.

Soulless conditions, then and now.

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4 thoughts on “Marx and the meaning of godlessness: a radical atheist’s response to Kris Nelson

  1. 1

    Good article. I’m involved with a grassroots-level climate activist group, in a progressive college town. When a group like that looks around for allies, they notice the town’s progressive churches, and they see:

    – the churches are often well-funded, with access to generous and often wealthy donors
    – there are big buildings that are ripe for solar panels
    – that many such churches already have various “green teams,” and are at least philosophically committed (if somewhat vague) about protecting the earth
    – many of the churches have outreach teams with good contacts among the poor and minority communities — groups who tend to be overlooked when it comes to greening a city, but where just access to better insulation in the winter could lead to huge community energy savings
    -are often open to LBTQ groups and liberal causes more generally

    Alternatively, if they wanted to look for help from local atheist groups, I don’t even know where they’d look. About all they might see would be a few white guys meeting in a bar and a rack of Dawkins best sellers in the bookstore. So where is the best place for them to look for allies?

  2. 4

    And there’s my main problem with that kind of thinking. “Spirituality.”
    I don’t really have any “spirituality,” especially since I’m also an abstinent. I do have a sense of wonder for the mystery and beauty of the universe. That’s all. I don’t even have any kind of community to belong to, but even if I did, I wouldn’t call for the use of such a nebulous, pre-scientific concept that’s almost entirely co-opted by religions in our times.
    I know, that I’m just a redneck non-believer from a country that could as well be called “third world” when it comes to culture at times. And I find this more than a little bit disturbing.

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