Another response to Kris Nelson – guest post by Amber Adamson

Every so often an article so Lovecraftian wanders across my path that I am inspired to engage. At Everyday Feminism, usually a site I enjoy, blogger Kris Nelson discusses ‘3 Myths That Make Navigating the Radical Left as a Person of Faith Difficult’. I’d like to note upfront here that I emailed Kris about their piece and what I saw as its problems, or at least a few of them. I was actually rather tame. I refrained from even questioning what is arguably the worst aspect of their piece – its deference to pseudo-science – and stuck to questioning its rather absurd binary of the western Christian church versus all other religions – united, one presumes, in some kind of care bear struggle against evil, with the western Christian church the root of it all.

I’m not going to repost my email here, but over-gentle as I tried to be, Kris’s reaction was juvenile in the extreme – I suppose I was too optimistic in thinking they might reconsider some of their stranger assumptions. I am going to mention some quotes from their email, because it shows how narrow and warped their perspective is. Honestly, a part of me can’t help but feel I’m being a bully here – when an author is this clueless, isn’t it a bit unfair to even scrutinize them? But this post has 3.3 thousand shares on Facebook. And it’s typical of a very seedy, apolitical ecumenicalism, which has infested leftist discourse and which I’m sick of. My writing against Kris is also my writing against everything writers like Kris represent.

* * *

‘Person of faith’ is a riff on ‘person of color’, a term no one needs me to explain – but while PoC makes sense as a political organizing term for people in a white supremacist society, ‘person of faith’ has no clear political weight. The United States is a majority-Christian country, and non-Christian religious minorities face struggles which, contextually speaking, are different. (White pagans don’t face any sort of institutional hurdles.)

Kris begins with an author’s note that their piece is about their struggle as a white pagan – in it, they proclaim Natives, Jews and Muslims ‘non-white spiritual folks’. Natives, obviously, aren’t white, given that Native is a pan-tribal racial category (although they also aren’t, as I imagine Kris assumes, of a single religion). Ethnic Jews are racialized to varying degrees throughout the world, though Jewish-American Ashkenazim largely have assimilated into whiteness. Muslims by and large are most certainly racialized in the US and many other western countries – even white Muslims like the Tsarnaevs – though it would be simplistic to say they’re all categorically non-white. By that definition, converting to Islam would mean converting away from being a white person.

You might say I’m nitpicking unnecessarily  – they didn’t say all Jews or Muslims, after all – but when I criticized Kris in an email, well, they did quite literally say ‘all’.

Although Jewish and Muslim folks come from different ethnic backgrounds, all of them are deemed non-white under white supremacy and are systematically oppressed because of it.

All of them. So there you have it.

Kris goes on to instruct white pagans not to appropriate Native symbols or pagan ones with non-white origins. This raises a conundrum which I’m sure a person like Kris can’t and won’t answer: if Native symbols hold some kind of power or Native beliefs are true, what in the world would or should stop someone adopting them?

In a strange sense, this almost seems like Kris is admitting none of this spiritual content reflects reality. Of course, the suspicious side of me thinks when Kris mentions ‘Native symbols’, Kris means Kris’s idea of Native symbols, which are probably more neo-shamanistic than anything, or which probably reflect symbols belonging to one tribe more than another. In my email I pointed out, for instance, that dreamcatchers – just as an example of something now very commodified – are originally Ojibwe in origin: only during the 1970s pan-Indian movement did they become a pan-Native symbol.

Symbols can be meaningful – I cringe from confederate flags and Nazi insignia for obvious reasons. Abstaining from touching pan-Indian symbols because you see them in the purely secular light of a movement against white supremacism – well, that’s at least a decision motivated by a coherent politics, whether or not everyone will agree. A perspective like Kris’s, though – a sort of free-floating spirituality and fetish for the ethnic kind – is rooted in viewing religiosity as cultural authenticity, which is itself as fake and superficial as it comes.

* * *

We get to the meat of Kris’s piece, in which a couple of ‘comrades’ tell them they can’t be a radical because of their spiritual views. The rather awkward thing about Kris’s entire article is that, while this might have been an unfair and pre-emptive judgment, Kris is about as radical as cottage cheese – pre-emptive judgments suck, but Kris doesn’t do much to dispel the impression – and one begins to wonder whether their ‘comrades’ also noticed this and were taking it into account.

First, as Alex Gabriel has covered, Kris misrepresents Marx, claiming ‘heart of a heartless world’ as some kind of ‘Gotcha’ in which our eyes are opened to Marx’s pro-religion spirit. In actuality, the line changes nothing: Marx’s point – read the even fuller quote – is obviously not pro-religion. Kris doesn’t have to agree, I suppose, but why misrepresent him so dishonestly?

Here’s where we get into the real fail:

I ask you: why discredit faith – and the love and community that it brings – in such a heartless world? Now, I’m aware of what most radical atheist cite as their hatred for religion: that it is rooted in the violence and imperialism of the western Christian church…

What? What radical atheist says this shit? That all ills associated with religion(s) emanate from one obvious, non-controversial target like the western Christian church is the least radical goddamn thing I’ve read in a long time – but this is Kris’s strawman in a nutshell. Having established it, they set it against another strawman.

And I will never deny the hatred and violence that has come out of the institutional western Christian church. However, where some see it as an indication of the ‘inherent’ harmful nature of religion itself, I see it as a secular distortion of the power a religious community can have that is used as a tool against non-western, non-Christian people of faith.

Kris’s entire MO is to write off anything bad or inconvenient in religion as a secular distortion – a bug in the system. Kris Takes it for granted that the communal aspect of religion is a universal positive and not (as it often is) a sort of in-group-out-group exclusion. While no one is going to deny community and love can make people happy, Kris blithely ignores the possibility of groupthink and intolerance – laughable when one views the historical contexts out of which many faiths arose and through which many have persisted.

Ancient Jews were an exclusionary group who established themselves against Canaanite polytheists, spending most of the time writing polemics against them; ditto for Muslims in Arabia. Christians, for their part, began persecuting Jews basically as soon as they entered existence as a group. None of this intolerance was a bug in the system – it was the system. Each of these religions was designed to form communities and to stand in opposition to all those outside them. That’s not one way of looking at history, let alone a distorted one. It’s a goddamned fact.

I acknowledge, absolutely, that plenty of modern people have adapted their religions to the modern status quo of let’s-all-get-along. But the nature of religious codes as sacred and thus untouchable continues to legitimate all manner of restrictions, bigotry and vile appeals to tradition. A child dealing with homophobic religious parents is not dealing with Kris’s ever-looming, distant, institutional western Christian church, but something more immediate and personal.

This atheist critique of the western Christian church denies that the violence it perpetrates is often against revolutionary folks of faith, against indigenous spiritualities, against Jewish folks, Muslim folks – against non-Christian folks of faith.

And Kris’s simplifications deny or omit the violence that people in these communities have perpetrated, including against one another. Muslim-Jewish conflicts are particularly terrible for me: I sat, shocked and appalled, when i read Yochanan Gordon’s ‘When Genocide is Permissible’ piece concerning Palestinians. And I weep at the image of Haj Amin al-Husseini sitting with Adolf Hitler.

My point is not that these can be boiled down merely to religion – both examples I give concern territory more than anything, and antisemitism and Islamophobia are bound up in complex geopolitics – but that Kris lives in an obviously sheltered world where Muslims, Jews and indigenous people would all get along were it not for the bogeyman of the western Christian church. Whatever that view is, it ain’t radical – it’s status quo as fuck, taking potshots at an imagined form of the least controversial opponent ever.

* * *

Which brings us to Kris’s ‘myths’. Myth one isn’t really worth remarking upon. Myth two, however, is probably the most odious aspect of the article, which is saying a lot.

This brings me to another issue: the one that says that folks of faith are irrational, deny science, and ignore the facts of life while leaving things to higher beings.

How does Kris prove that they’re not irrational or science-denying?

This always strikes me as ironic considering that it’s the capitalist atheist approach to our environment that has led to its destruction.

Here’s a nice bit of slimy propaganda for you, which shows just how dishonest Kris is in this piece. The shitty aspects of religions, you see, are just secular misuses of religion, but Kris either implies or outright says, repeatedly, that various evil forces are atheistic in nature. When religion is shitty, it’s because it’s secular; when capitalism is shitty, it’s because it’s secular too. Except capitalism isn’t a person – it’s a system. It works in tandem with white supremacy, heteropariarchy and, often, Christianity, but it works with these forces because of their own power even as it empowers them. It’s not an atheistic or even Christian approach, or any such damned thing.

This also applies to other spiritual forms of healing that, in their practice, are explicitly anti-capitalist. In many cultures, including the Italian Old Ways (La Vecchia Religione), things like herbal healing, energy work, and midwifery are both spiritual and medicinal.

We’re getting to the money shot now. This is where it becomes clear that Kris, so-called anticapitalist radical, doesn’t understand capitalism – because, you see, the thing about capitalism is that it commodifies. It commodifies absolutely anything that could possibly turn a profit. It doesn’t stop and say hey, this medicine or ideology is alternative enough – it’s safe. Capitalism even commodifies resistance: feminist counterculture was repackaged by the media as the Spice Girls, ‘girl power’ and Sex and the City. And there’s nothing anticapitalist about the alternative medicine industry. The term ‘snake oil salesman’, lest we forget, exists for a reason.

In western society, we’ve demonized the use of healing herbs in favor of the Pharmaceutical Industrial Complex, taken midwifery from its practitioners so that hospitals may make thousands of dollars off of birthing techniques that actually do more harm to the pregnant person. Within this context, reconnecting to these spiritual ways of healing is an act of anti-capitalism as well as an act of spirituality.

It’s actually very frequently bourgeois as fuck. Tell me again how midwifery is outside of capitalism?

Not to mention that obstetricians are trained and licensed, as the article says, to perform high-risk surgeries, so the pregnant people most able to use midwives are likely to be privileged in various ways. At the very least, there’s some ableism implicit here, as well as in Kris’s absurd trumping up of herbs over pharmaceuticals – pharmaceuticals which, you know, make an enormous difference in the functionality of a great many people and allow them livelihoods. But who cares about that?

* * *

I could criticize a million more aspects of this piece, which is impressive, because it’s pretty short and my post is already enormous – but let’s move on to the last section and leave it at that.

Myth #3: Being Spiritual Means You’re Against Science

If this is an unfair assumption, Kris has done a terrible job proving it to be so – but it gets worse.

This not only ignores the ways in which science and spirituality can and do overlap, but ignores the fact that western science is inherently colonial, racist, transphobic, and ableist.

Science and spirituality don’t overlap. Saying so doesn’t make it true. Secondly: no, western science is not inherently any of those things. Imperialism is; colonialism is, and – here is an uncomfortable truth of history I will freely admit – scientific and other advancements frequently do occur and have occurred alongside imperialism. Not just western imperialism, but most forms of imperialism throughout human history. In fact, in an ironic twist, the same postcolonial theorists who, in well-meaning relativism and cultural-religious pluralism, are fond of bringing up the Islamic Golden Age of al-Andalus as evidence of Islam’s Enlightenment principles – something tells me Kris, too, would be all up on this shit – frequently ignore how much its art, poetry and learning owed to Arab imperialism.

I can’t believe I even need to spell this out: science has advanced because of imperial endeavors and colonial enterprises, but not because the scientific method or the teachings of science are ‘inherently’ colonial. Science has advanced through such means because imperialism exploited raw capital and raw labor to create, to varying degrees, leisure classes and people with sufficient privileges, comforts and access to the time and material for serious scholarship and research.

Kris also makes weird assumptions about what atheists do and don’t believe. I fully acknowledge prayer can be beneficial insofar as the power of suggestion makes it so, and that positive thinking and meditation can have benefits. I just don’t see them as magical. Also, not to point out the obvious, but what do science’s failure to explain everything or the fact there’s more to the world than we perceive – which, by the way, no reasonable atheist would deny – have to do with legitimizing mysticism?

* * *

Kris can believe as they wish, but their post is, perhaps ironically, a perfect specimen of why the let’s-all-get-along ecumenicalism of much of the left is neither radical nor politically coherent, and something more people actually should be taking notice of – because it’s fucking dishonest.

If Kris was trying to prove ‘spiritual’ people are harmless compared with organised religion, they did a terrible job. I remind you: I emailed Kris noting abuses done in the names of religions all throughout the world – I gave a large list, present and historical, in fact, and most were not about the oppression of atheists. Kris’s response? That those things constituted ‘extremism’ extrinsic to religion, and that this benefitted the secular world – insinuating the latter, whatever it is, to be a privileged domain. That’s not fucking radical.

If you don’t have a word against India’s caste system – or the treatment of Saudi atheists, branded ‘terrorists’ under current laws – or the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar; if you believe science is ‘inherently imperialistic’, and thus believe, implicitly, that pushes for secular enlightenment values throughout the world, by people in their own countries, are the movements of race traitors – no dewey-eyed white leftist might say this, but they will imply it a thousand ways – or if you suggest such emancipation is a side topic, then no, comrade, I don’t consider you a radical ally in the fight for global liberation.

I’m not swinging at Kris, who seems merely unaware of how broad the world is. (Not actually a crime, and quite fixable.) I’m swinging at the virulent ecunumenical wooish relativistic non-knowledge of the left they represent. I’m sick of it.

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Another response to Kris Nelson – guest post by Amber Adamson

3 thoughts on “Another response to Kris Nelson – guest post by Amber Adamson

  1. Pen

    The original article seems to be one hell of a mess and very long, but I’m randomly commenting on one aspect of it that’s in my field of interest.

    Kris goes on to instruct white pagans not to appropriate Native symbols or pagan ones with non-white origins.

    I think Kris is cute in warning against appropriating Native symbols if they also think it’s okay for an American to freely appropriate European ones, most of which are just like Native American ones in that they’re bound to specific localities, ethnicities and purposes. They seem to have decided it’s okay to treat the cultures of people with roughly the same skin color as themselves as a pick-and-mix to be re-purposed as they please, despite the fact that skin color was not traditionally recognized by those cultures as an important distinguishing feature, and other details very much were. I suspect Kris doesn’t know this, but then again, what is Kris, as an American pagan, supposed to do?

    And as you say, if magical technology works, it works in an inherently cross-cultural way. Actually, once you start acting as though people’s spiritual beliefs correspond to reality, you’re forced into some very knotty questions regarding cultural property. If you suddenly find yourself in contact with the ‘spirit’ of a particular river/rock, etc – remember, we’re assuming they exist for now – is it more or less appropriative to name it (and a name is a symbol, usually linked to other symbols) as people who preceded you in the area did for centuries, or should you give it a whole new name imported from another continent? In theory, you can ask it (remember, we’re assuming it exists), and then, who is to argue with the answer it gives you, right? These kinds of questions have received more attention in the context of naming geographical landmarks – since we all agree on their objective existence. A common argument there is that it’s the renaming that’s appropriative, as opposed to the adoption of Native names. The post-colonial discourse is strangely inconsistent here…

    The idea of cultural property in symbols really only works when they’re seen as a purely arbitrary, stylistic system, rather than as a representation and interaction with the real world, in which case, they’re basically only good for tribal/ancestral markers. Some symbols were always meant as ‘membership badges’ anyway, but many others have been reduced to that status. That’s really how the discourse around cultural appropriation of spiritual symbols works these days, though it often naively imposes a contemporary American race-based system of tribal belonging, while insisting on ignoring the pre-existing tribal boundaries of other people. If you accept the sanctity of cultural property at all, it would mean of course that it is appropriative for a Lakota to use Makah symbols (an idea probably accepted by the Navaho and Lakota to a large extent) – though it doesn’t matter one bit if the Lakota or Makah in question has blond hair and blue eyes (not as uncommon as some might imagine), and equally appropriative for Kris to draw on Italian traditions unless they happen to be Italian (and from the right bit of Italy, no less).

  2. 3

    This is actually something I brought up to Kris in our initial email exchange, Pen.

    I noted that pre-Christian pagans were not, historically speaking, white people. White people as a class didn’t exist until European race “science” created that category. So categorizing all early people in the European regions under that modern definition is a throwback, an anachronism. It’s ahistorical and rather absurd: As a white American woman, I’m not somehow connected to ancient Celts simply because my ancestors possibly had some blood in common with them (though possibly not). My ancestors very possibly had just as much in common with many groups from outside of Europe. If you go that far back, it’s just as possible I had plenty of ancestry from India or Africa or wherever else.
    I didn’t go into this much in my piece because it would be going off topic, but I’m rather torn on the whole issue of cultural appropriation, or at least how I see this concept being deployed in much Leftist framework these days.

    On the one hand, there’s certainly some political utility in describing the phenomenon of capitalism turning different symbols into kitsch, or reducing people to costumes, or vaunting white bodies who perform certain acts, while disparaging PoC who do the same.

    On the other hand, the terminology of appropriation is thrown around in such a loose and broad way nowadays that it creates a sort of cultural absolutism and a sort of ahistorical lens that people can’t really answer for (or don’t necessarily try to answer for). Especially on issues like religions, because the “authentic” forms of every religion on earth involve some pre-existing cultural cross-pollination. Just look at Judaism/Islam/Christianity. Where, exactly, do people think they came from?

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