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. Continue reading “Marx and the meaning of godlessness: a radical atheist’s response to Kris Nelson”

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

Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you.

 Explicit racial slurs and similar nastiness follow.

This will be the last thing I ever say to you.

Recently grandmother, you tried to find out where I live. That I don’t want you to contact me should already be clear: in four years at university a bus ride from your home, despite repeated invitations, I never visited; when we’ve been together with relatives, I’ve avoided you; when you’ve tried to converse, I haven’t reciprocated. You’ve given me cash and I’ve donated it, sent me cheques and I’ve recycled them. It seems that you now want to send me more in spite of being told not to, and all the evidence I don’t want a relationship with you.

If you’re getting this message, it’s been relayed to you. Online, where what I write is published, thousands of people are reading it. None know who you are or anything about you, so nothing will come of this; I’ve hesitated to write it even so, but it’s obvious you’ll keep harassing me unless I go on public record telling you to stop.

You strike me as a bully, grandmother – snobby, controlling and contemptuous of everything apart from what you assume to hold status. You show particular contempt for foreigners and anyone ‘coloured’ or ‘nigger brown’ enough for you to deem them foreign, complaining ‘masses of Japanese’ (discernible, you insist, by their eyes) can be found in your nearest city, refusing continental food because of non-existent allergies; for ethnic Jews, warning me once that someone’s name was Goldstein, and for ‘gippos’ even though your mother was a Romany.

You show contempt for any woman not thin, youthful, white and femme enough – including, as it happens, most women I’m into – and for the children in your family born out of wedlock. As for the men I’m into, you call queer people ‘peculiar’. You show contempt for my whole generation and most born since the 1960s, describing us as ill-mannered, our clothing as scruffy and our English, since you’re not familiar with it, as meaningless. (As a graduate in literature, your mourning ‘the language of Shakespeare’ tells me you know little about him or it.) You show contempt for people claiming benefits, as your daughter and I did when she raised me, accusing them of ‘putting their hands out’ while you live off yours in old age.

Worst, you’re contemptuous of anyone who disagrees with you, laughing at, patronising or ignoring them. When you heard I wrote for a living, you commented I never seemed to say much; I don’t talk to you because I don’t waste words. You epitomise the figure of the senior bigot, obsessed with manners but oblivious to your own spite, and unlike some I’m not amused by it. Nor will I insult people your age, many of whom have inspired me, by putting your toxic outlook down to being 93.

Being the only one who won’t oblige you has made me a villain. Family members caught in what they see as the crossfire of two warring relatives have called me heartless for trying to indicate passively that I want you to leave me alone. This message might be heartless, but if so you’ve left me no other option, aggressively dismissing every signal I sent that I didn’t want to know you. The only reason others have been caught amid anything is that like a possessive ex, you’ve refused to let go.

This isn’t a warning or an ultimatum. I’ve quit Britain for central Europe and don’t expect to return while you’re alive. If I do you won’t get my address, and I’m now self-reliant enough to avoid staying with relatives at the same time as you. We won’t meet again, and I’m not interested in hearing from you.

If this is upsetting, you should have considered that people you insult, attack and treat with broad derision don’t have to accept it. If it’s only registering now that keeping a relationship with an adult might involve respecting them, too bad. You’ve had too many chances as it is.

Goodbye, grandmother. Enjoy your remaining years.

Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you.

How filesharing in Germany cost me $3000

At my new address, the scientist – passive-aggressively polite – told me I had to sign a retroactive rental contract. This could easily have been done by email — when he asked to meet, I should have smelled a rat, but obliged outside a supermarket in November, not stopping to wonder why both ex-flatmates turned up. ‘While you were here,’ he said once papers were filled out, ‘you used BitTorrent?’

I had, I said, like almost all my friends. Filesharing was in my eyes like speeding on the motorway, an illegality most practised and few cared about. ‘We all do it’, the Barcelonian said, who seemed to have come reluctantly.

The scientist produced a further wad of fine-print forms. ‘We got sued’, he told me, ‘by the music industry.’

* * *

Above is an extract from my piece today at Index on Censorship. Read the rest there.

How filesharing in Germany cost me $3000

Class dismissed: how I went from homelessness to Oxford, and what Richard Dawkins has nightmares about

Say this city has ten million souls
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes

* * *

A letter in a too-large envelope came five years ago this week. The paper had shifted in the excess space so the plastic window meant for the address showed its initial lines of text instead. I am pleased on behalf of Wadham College, it began, to offer you a place. Oxford’s 2013 interviewees sit, as I write, in hope of such a letter.

Legends abound about the Oxbridge interview, referred to always with a definite article as in ‘the Eucharist’ – an arcane, unalterable rite shrouded in mystery. Oxford and Cambridge hopefuls have stories thrust on them of rugby balls, bananas and trick questions, and access workers’ first task (I was one once) is to dispel these myths. Interviews in reality amount most of the time to cordial, relaxed if mentally rigorous exchanges – nothing worse. Oxford’s bizarrenesses are many, but kick in for the most part only once successful candidates take up their spots. You might imagine by my fourth year there, I’d have acclimatised, but you’d be wrong: few ever wholly do. Memories of finals, now eight months ago, are among my most surreal.

Oxford’s exam dress – gown, mortarboard and suit or skirt-and-jumper – looks centuries out of date because it is. Amendments made to rules in 2012 eliminated reference to gender, making my year the first whose men could wear ordinary black ties rather than ivory bows, an aesthetic and practical step up that nonetheless resembled funeral garb. (Appropriate, I felt, for long dead academic prospects’ burial.) Tradition, though I’d no time for it, dictates white carnations be worn on top for first exams, pink ones thereafter and red for the final one, a colour scheme it’s always seemed to me suggests loss of virginity. Finalists in most subjects file thus dressed into Examination Schools – venue, incidentally, of next year’s World Humanist Congress – to sit exams between ornate wood-panelled walls, observed by ancient portraits, gazing periodically up at giant clocks that may or may not be as Victorian as they appear. The whole ritual feels close to religious; I can tell you, since he once told me, that Richard Dawkins has nightmares about it.

Being, unlike him, an academic slacker, I never felt much strain during my finals. I didn’t expect a very good degree, nor feel in need of one. (Upper second, as it turned out, English and Modern Languages.) One memory persists, though. Returning to college down Queen’s Lane from a twentieth century English paper (I managed a first there), three stocky, plum-voiced undergrads fell boorishly about ahead of me, red carnations near-invisible through baked beans, flour and confetti. ‘Trashing’, as it’s known, is another Oxford custom, inflicted on students finishing exams. I’m thankful I escaped it. Stumbling on down the road, the boy on the right shook vigorously and then uncorked a bottle of champagne, dousing the middle one in the resulting spray of foam. His accomplice on the left, still guffawing, restrained their target as he tried to flee, and the boy with the bottle upturned it over him, releasing every drop till none remained.

More than half Oxford’s students are state-schooled. Few attended England’s ancient public schools, as alarmingly many did in Britain’s cabinet, and it’s lazy to equate the two: Oxford is no costlier than any major university, and the ten percent of students with parents on less than £16,000 a year pay fees of three thousand instead of nine. It’s true though that an air of privilege pervades. Trashing is harmless fun for students in historically male garb well off enough to dry-clean it. It wouldn’t have been for me. My stomach turns recalling that champagne, but only since it spoke to the whole practice’s louche insensitivity. I saw this often at Oxford – in colleagues who wore designer clothes to bed and insisted a time passed when their parents ‘only’ made £250,000 a year; in those who casually forked hundreds out to replace a blemished croquet set; in the drunken braying outside pubs of boys in tailcoats who thought they owned the place. (Perhaps they did.)

The day I arrived, hauling luggage from a taxi to my first year room, a woman in her fifties with a warm Oxfordshire accent greeted me whose name was June, and whose role my fresher’s pack had told me was to clean my room, make the bed and change the sheets. Her job description, like the figure she earned, should have been longer: when it turned out I’d no duvet of my own, June snuck me a college owned one reserved for conference guests; when I spent my first week bedridden with swine flu, she brought food to my door; when I failed to lock it, she chided me good-naturedly. A surrogate mum a hundred miles from home, I loved June as I’ve read England’s public schoolboys love their domestic matrons – but flinched inwardly at how clearly this seemed the basis of her role. Early on, she referred in passing to wealthy parents funding my degree – the truth, I told her immediately, was that I belonged to that poorest tenth of students, reliant on a student loan and grants. A bedmaker who cleaned my floor felt as embarrassingly alien as meals served in the college hall by staff in black bow ties. (Their supervisor held the telling title of Head Butler.) When possible, I ducked these to eat privately or in the cafeteria.

My appetite – in one sitting, I can polish off whole cakes or quiches – was a subject of fun now and again in my tutorial group. They discovered it as time went on, but never why. I’m able to do this for the same reason I’m able, more or less, to function normally for two or three days without food: I know how it feels to be hungry for years.

It wouldn’t be true to say my mother and I starved at any point, but nor were cupboards ever adequately full. The two of us were homeless before I turned a year old; fleeing her then-husband, a man who broke her heart and numerous other parts of both of us, it took officials the best of two years to house us properly. The benefits on which we spent the next few years allowed, after expenses, a household budget of £70 a week or so, meaning that on my mum’s trips to the shops, counting the pennies wasn’t a metaphor. From the staples of our diet, bread, cheese, pasta and potatoes, she fashioned an uncanny range of meals, many of them my comfort foods today, but supply was limited. I still recall her voice, frustration masking despair, telling me when circumstances bit that there was ‘no food in the house’. Free school lunches, such as they were in the nineties, meant I rarely went without for longer than 24 hours, but if it was a weekend when this happened and no neighbours, church members or friends were forthcoming with help, nothing could be done about it. If I overeat at times, it’s because the concept still feels new.

Mum was 42 when she had me, but lived for the following years as students are imagined to. Our furniture, food itself if still vacuum-packed, came out of skips. Even the fridge in which the latter sat, she got by swapping the inferior original with another single mum’s named Shirley; the washing machine next to it, her first husband bought us. Almost all my clothes were second hand, donated by parents from church or the school gates, though always in good nick. It’s hard to get across just how poor we were, except that it shows in subtler ways too. Some nights, Mum taught keep fit at the local primary school, unpaid monetarily (a stipulation of her benefits) but provided in exchange with household goods – among them, a stereo. CDs from Woolworths being an unthinkable expense, I grew up with her cassette tape collection from the sixties, seventies and eighties, and my childhood’s songs as a consequence were by Dusty Springfield, the Pointer Sisters and Diana Ross. I was seven before I listened intently to contemporary music (a copy of Cher’s ‘Believe’ bought in a fit of decadence), and half way through my teens before I paid real attention. A gap of fifteen years or so in my musical knowledge, despite attempts to close it, has resulted.

The cost of a bottle of champagne, even from the cheap end of the shelf, would for us have meant an extra two or three days’ food. The hatred stirred in me by seeing one used as a water pistol is as incommunicable as our thriftiness back then, but prompts even now a hot, breathless nausea and impulse to lash out. I felt it at Oxford many times, though never more acutely than then – when a friend schooled for a six figure price complained a degree unfunded by his parents would saddle him with debts; when alumni of such places, 7 percent of Britain’s populace in total, mentioned their attendance as casually as if discussing where to buy socks; when I heard it said my feeling in response, called class hatred by those who’ve never had it, was the last accepted prejudice (a stupid phrase if ever there was one).

Pointing to class in any personal context is considered impolite. Praised by the Daily Mail last year, actor Tom Hiddleston – a product of the prep-school-Eton-Cambridge assembly line – complained the ‘artistic, political or intellectual has to be refracted through [a] prism of class consciousness’. Even a left wing, feminist friend opposed politically to fee-paying education shot me down for saying I wouldn’t date Eddie Redmayne of Les Mis fame since he went to boarding school with Hiddleston. Analogies in these areas are treacherous, but it’s tempting to think class, like gender or race, is something a friendly liberal politics encourages us not to see from day to day – dismissing and disregarding it as academic or off-limits, concerned as we might be in principle for that elusive thing, ‘equality’, in case the marginalised should make the privileged uncomfortable. Doing so prompts frequent accusations of bigotry, spreading the politics of envy and having a chip on one’s shoulder – canards, surely, that feminists and progressives like my alma mater’s ought to recognise.

If this post was unexpected, I know why. With my tweedy prose, unfashionable vowels (the ‘a’ amuses friends and enemies alike) and Latin postnominals, I’m something of a caricature – but ‘caricature’ is the word. Look closely for the giveaways: teeth affluent parents would have set in braces, hair only recently cut by professionals, voice without the real upper crust’s affected twang. I spot signs like these from a mile away: a partner of Hiddleston’s or Redmayne’s ilk, like the boys on Queen’s Lane who used champagne like water, would mean a barrage of emotional slaps in the face, a reminder in Wystan Auden’s words that they lived in mansions while I lived empty-stomached in a hole.

Try telling me I oughtn’t resent that. Try.

Class dismissed: how I went from homelessness to Oxford, and what Richard Dawkins has nightmares about