Ed Miliband is atheist – so what?

An hour ago, the press association ran a piece entitled “Ed Miliband: I don’t believe in God”. This relates to an interview with Nicky Campbell on Radio 5 Live, where the question was raised, and the answer carefully noted how important it is to be tolerant of people whatever their view.

This will not stop the insults unfortunately. Nor will it help matters much that Miliband is the son of a Marxist heathen, unmarried, and the brother of an atheist who at least did his best by sending his child to a Roman Catholic school.

None of these things matter of course; and as Miliband said in his interview, his views should be a private matter, much like the atheism of our deputy Prime Minister.

But remember it is not just believers who have over-fetishised God in politics. Few may remember two years ago, when David Miliband was thought to be brewing a leadership bid, the philosopher and atheist A.C. Grayling making a plea in the Guardian for an atheist Prime Minister.

It levelled many ridiculous claims that should divide a believing PM from a non-believing one; atheists will not receive messages from beyond if going to war; they will be sceptical about giving special privileges to religious organisations; sectarianism through faith schools will be a thing of the past; neutrality between religious pressure groups will be the order of the day; and they’ll take more “down-to-earth” views.

Let’s throw this nonsense out of the water, just in case Grayling tries to write it again.

Of course, nobody can actually receive messages from beyond, but if we are dealing with stupid reasons to go to war here, suggesting this is the preserve of the religious is to forget the wars authored by such tyrants as Stalin and Mao.

This might evoke the redundant reaction given by the new atheists, usually that Communism is merely a demi-religion without supernatural Gods, and thus subject to the irrationality reserved by the religious (nb it also helps the “Ditchkins’” out in their mission to single religion out as only evil; secular reason as bringing only good).

Will an atheist be any more or less sceptical about giving privileges to religious organisation? The infection that says some religions are more evil than others strikes through even the most ardent atheist too. Christian schools have long been a feature in the UK educational system, yet Islamic schools still have the effect of discomfort for some people, whether that person is religious or not. This may be more political than theological, but then many attitudes on religion today are.

By no means am I saying that Ed Miliband will come to favour one religious institution over another, but what I will categorically suggest is that his atheism will not de facto ignore the level of favouritism or ill-feeling that is levelled at some religions, or even the level at which some secularists believe certain religions are far less compatible with secularism than others.

Furthermore, on the question of educational sectarianism, such institutions do not have a state sanction to be sectarian, but to open a school with a certain religious value system. I’ve little doubt that Ed, even as an atheist, will be happy, or even indifferent, to religious values being attached to schools. Sectarianism in schools, where it exists, is kept quiet, and is certainly not allowed as such – in fact admissions in most schools are still subject to anti-discrimination measures.

Moreover, this accusation, made by A. C. Grayling was made about David Miliband; who, as mentioned, did send his son to a Roman Catholic school.

On possible neutrality between faiths, Ed Miliband has already upset Israeli supporters by speaking at at a Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East reception. It is inevitable that a political position will eventually upset faiths when politics and faith have become so intertwined. It is quite clear, therefore, that an atheist is just as liable as a believer – a further element overlooked by Grayling.

And as for the point about Miliband being more level headed, this remains to be seen, but frankly the dividing line is not drawn between believer and non-believer, only in Grayling’s black and white mind.

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The Rushdie affair and responsibility

Kenan Malik has been on my mind lately. I recently read his book From Fatwa to Jihad and I have learnt that he will be speaking at Westminster Skeptics early next year.

Today I thought I’d search his name on YouTube and was thrown up a video of a Newsnight episode on which he appeared with Tariq Modood, Ekow Eshun and Germaine Greer.

The latter guest, Germaine Greer, is often thought to be one of those annoying feminist, liberal, middle class bastards!

She once stood accused of asking Salman Rushdie to apologise for writing his book The Satanic Verses and offending. Though on Newsnight, she denied having done this, before explaining what she meant when she used “apology”, “Rushdie” and “The Satanic Verses” in the same sentence.

Below is the video of that episode of Newsnight where Greer says:

I don’t care if people burn books, my books have been burnt, as long as they pay for them they can do whatever they like with them, but I do think that nobody should die for a book, and that if you think you can prevent anymore people dying for the book – we all know how the book was manipulated – and all you have to do is apologise, go on your knees to Mashhad or whoever, then do it to save your life, you shouldn’t die for your book either

(09.56 – 10.29)

If you have had your head buried under rocks you may also have upset Iran, the most important part of the Rushdie affair occurred on February 14, 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling on all Muslims to execute all those involved in the publication of the novel.

At the time, an Iranian religious foundation called the 15 Khordad Foundation offered a reward of $US1 million or 200 million rials for the murder of Rushdie.

Greer in the above video, recognises some necessity in Rushdie apologising to Mashhad, a very holy city in Iran, but adds an important clause: to save his life and the lives of other publishers and people involved in the publication of the book in other countries.

The question becomes harder I feel at this point: should Rushdie have apologised to people who feel it justified to kill people on the grounds that they have offended them, or, since he knows these people will stop at nothing, should he have apologised to save the lives others?

Even more tricky: because to apologise, or not to, is a choice that Rushdie had to make, at what point would he have been responsible in the event of a death (Greer notes later in the programme that “the thing was Salman was the safest person around. It was everybody else who was at risk, and nothing was done about them”).

For me the answer is simple: Rushdie should not have apologised because to do so would be to give credibility to the idea that when someone is offended by something, the obvious reaction should be to kill that person – that is all it comes down to.

But not everyone agreed at the time. Tory tabloids pictured Rushdie as someone who purposely put national security in jeopardy; mainstream politicians talked about at what stage something should no longer be protected under the banner free speech.

I think when people believe Rushdie should have apologised because other people were in danger, they themselves are in danger of not recognising that those who call for the murder, or those whose desire it is to carry out the murder, are not making a choice, and that they are acting on some uninterruptible compulsion over which we can have no intervention.

Also I often wonder what motivates this view. Many people once felt that there was a causal link between poverty and terrorism, but this does two things: first, it doesn’t take note of the facts; people who have had otherwise stable backgrounds, university educations and decent jobs have committed terror acts (such as the 7/7 bombers), while not every person who experiences poverty commits terror, so it doesn’t follow ipso facto that terrorism is a determinant of poverty. Second, it assumes people of a certain class, or I dare say race or nationality, are simply automaton not able to think for themselves and act upon the sort of compulsion that Greer assumed those who wanted to kill Rushdie did.

Drawing this back to Rushdie, by blaming him for not apologising gives credibility to the murderous bastards that wanted to kill him or anyone involved with the book he had written on the grounds that they did not like what he’d written (or they’d heard from someone else that they wouldn’t like what had been written – Malik in his aforementioned book made note that Khomeini had definitely not read the book before forming an opinion on it).

By pretending certain people cannot form opinions or carry out actions without their being some obvious symptom is to allow the opinion that people are stupid. Since Muslims were involved in the Rushdie affair, I’ve little doubt that to blame Rushdie for the desire of certain Muslims to kill Rushdie is to assume Muslims are stupid.

Christopher Hitchens and prayer

There are an extrordinary amount of articles and blogs out there by people who are bothered by what Christopher Hitchens will do now that he has cancer and, now that there is a strong chance he will die (though, as he rightly says himself we are all dying, with him it has been accelerated). 

These aren’t necessarily religious people and writers, but they are all either concerned about what Hitchens will think or re-think on God, or are surprised that he has said he won’t be praying – surely it should drive some of these people to distraction just contemplating the unlikely event that Hitchens would turn to God; how stupid a reason for believing in God than being reminded of your own mortality.

Strikes me at first glance at being even more stupider than Pascal’s Wager.

Some examples are:

Christopher Hitchens tells The Atlantic magazine that he knows he’s dying, but still views all religion as manmade and all of its claims to divine revelation as false.

WTOL in Ohio

A month ago, the conservative Catholic writer challenged readers of the American Papist website to join him in praying one Hail Mary a day on behalf of the iconoclastic atheist Christopher Hitchens, who has been stricken with esophageal cancer, a disease that leaves few survivors.

Terry Mattingly for North West Arkansas Online

Nearly two months after being diagnosed with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy, famed atheist Christopher Hitchens has lost much of his hair but his unbelief remains intact.

Nathan Black for the Christian Post

He said that as for a deathbed conversion, he would not, while lucid, do ”such a pathetic thing”, and that if there are any rumours saying otherwise, ”don’t believe it”.

Matt Buchanan and Leesha McKenny for The Sydney Morning Herald

That won’t change while he continues to undergo difficult cancer treatments nor will his belief that praying won’t help him a lick. At least he is consistent.

Paula Duffy for Huliq news

Hitchens elsewhere has noted a “lets paray for Hitchens” day which will take place on the 20th of September, though says he will not take part.

Now I’m not religious, and I’m not strident in my atheism as Hitchens, nor am I as anti-thesitic as him, which he regards more important than atheism in itself. But I would question the intergrity of someone who throughout their career has professed a deep and thought out dislike for religion, but then on finding out they have a potentially life threatening illness, decides to say “well, i’ll give that God a go now”.

Like the wager appropriated by Pascal in the 1600’s, God if he had any dignity should say “sod off, you’re only doing this in case”; either that or forgive those who don’t believe on the grounds that ockham’s razor is demonstrably an easier tool to muck around with than blind faith.

For those who think cancer is an appropriate occasion for conversion, perhaps they would prefer to concentrate their attention on President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay. For the second time a tumor has been detected in his thorax, between the lungs and the spinal column and like with Hitchens it will affect his lymph nodes.

The difference is, Lugo is the self-confessed “Bishop of the Poor”, a former Roman Catholic priest for 30 years. I don’t suppose they would want him to have a cancer conversion.

I shouldn’t like to be so strident (ever), but I will be for this reason: for those of us who don’t think religion is simply stupid, it is often quite a task to convince people who do, that religion doesn’t just pick on the vulnerable. With trying to encourage conversions for those with cancer, on their deathbed, or with any other illnesses, this doesn’t help my task out much.

So retire – and make the 20th of September just another day.

Dawkins and the “bin-liner thing”

I can’t think why Dawkins would be courting controversy and tickling pr spinners, it’s not like he has a series of documentaries coming up or has plans to arrest any popes on the horizon.

So I do wonder why he has called the burka a “bin-liner thing” in the Radio Times – the most neutralising, sobering, boring, Titchmarsh publication in all of Christendom.

The Mail had an article on it pretty sharpish. But my guess is that Seyyed Ferjani, of the Muslim Association of Britain, friends of the Stop the War coalition, the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Muslim Brotherhood – an unholy alliance – did not call the move “Islamaphobic”.

That single Mail sub editor must be off sick again…

Stop saying “atheist school”

Many individuals and organisations are persuading Richard Dawkins to open up an atheist, free school to counter the amount of applications expected from the religious.

Two moments thought will tell you that an atheist school could be one of two things: a place where atheism is taught and promoted as the truth, thus not free thinking, or a place where bias over beliefs is not tolerated, thus the closest thing to free thinking that exists.

A school set up by religious people could also be one of two things: a place where their religion is taught and promoted as the truth, thus not free thinking, or a place where bias over beliefs is not tolerated, thus the closest thing to free thinking that exists.

A bit like a normal school, which could be one of two things: a place where their religion or atheism is taught and promoted as the truth (though perhaps not officially allowed), thus not free thinking, or a place where bias over beliefs is not tolerated, thus the closest thing to free thinking that exists.

The conversation is obviously ridiculous. It’s a secular school which is needed, and able to be achieved by believer and non- alike.

A model for Christian atheism

Sigmund Freud, that ever-controversial figure, is more known for his views on the unconscious and the Oedipus complex than for his theological work, but indeed, as time spent in his house, now museum, in North West London will reveal, a lot of his efforts and interests were devoted to religious symbols, figurines, artworks and texts. From as early as childhood Freud viewed religion as merely a fantasy based entirely upon a childish wish fulfilment, this view most explicitly stated in his work of 1927 entitled The Future of an Illusion where he made clear that though many childhood wishes were unlikely, they were not impossible.

Freud held this particularly negative view of religion up until 1935 when an evident sea-change became apparent in his manner. In private correspondence Freud started to acknowledge the intellectual qualities of God on thought and enquiry, after all the speculation of an absent property had immense benefits for abstract contemplation. Freud’s understanding of the concept of God changed from illusion to promoting sapience. Rather than bogging one down with idle introspection, the concept permitted investigation.

What Freud’s more mature work suggested was that there are substantial benefits to accepting the limits of our knowledge, and having something akin to faith in a truth not necessarily interpreted by the senses. For Freud, Moses represented such an intellectual leap (PDF file), that he refused to accept a life of sun idolatry for something more intellectually cultivating, meant that religion was more than simple childishness, and that even as an atheist – as Freud persistently was throughout his life – Freud realised that there was something important to be maintained from the Judeo-Christian legacy.

Funny, then, that the new atheists – who include well-known figures such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens – all include in their anti-religious polemics appeals to the, slapdash, early Freud view that religion is illusory, a view that, as Ana-Maria Rizzuto reminds us in her excellent book Why Did Freud Reject God: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation, was born out of a rebellious reaction to his Father’s beliefs. Less is said by these bestselling authors about what is valuable about the Judeo-Christian legacy, and there is one simple reason for that, they are in denial of it. At best the so-called humanistic values to which they espouse are offshoots of elements otherwise unparalleled in Christian ethics (to be sure, if there is no God, the guidelines attributed to religion are in some ways expressions of a humanist imperative, but more than that the Golden Rule, as only one example, is a most impressive humanist guide) and at worst they represent the most foul turns of immorality imaginable, from the anti-Christian Adolf Eichmann’s part played in the Final Solution, to Sam Harris’ more recent enthusiasm for torture and the morality of collateral damage. This is not to conflate atheism with immorality, by no means, but by pretending to hold the moral high ground on the basis of non-religion alone, is a grave flaw unlike any other, an illusion.

John Gray, in his take on the phenomena of the new atheists, rightly identified that ‘zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam’. The character trait he most deplores in Dawkins et al is their insistence of a new socio-cultural shift that will emerge on the advent of decreased religious influence/tolerance. For Gray, any agenda for dramatic change on a massive scale is doomed to failure before it starts, he imagines that societal thirst and energy for grand narratives has all but dried up, and any remaining hopefuls of radical transformation are setting themselves up to fail. He holds new atheism in this esteem, subtly mocking scientific ‘consciousness raising’ – the analogy of the day – as overoptimistic bunkum.

Though for me it is not because of this hope of societal shift that I find the new atheist project to be largely detrimental, but rather because of the denial of such a transaction’s Christian heritage. Instead of avowedly viewing their conscious-raised utopia as being not too dissimilar from the Christian efforts for transformation by salvation of the existing social order, it instead chooses to caricature religion as indefinitely and unalterably evil, while upholding the folly that atheism is fully grounded on reason, humanism and a pursuit of good, morally superior as a consequence. Such is the nature of the new atheism delusion.

The shortfall of New Atheism, or Conversation with Tina Beattie

April of last year, one month before I started this blog, I had published some work I did on atheism and Christianity. I had been doing a lot of research on violence in those two particular strands, and qualifying the political and religious aspects of both, seeing me draw much inspiration from writers such as Alister McGrath, John Milbank, Tina Beattie and other writers from a religious nexus, who in turn pointed out the shortfalls of the so-called new atheist project, writers such as PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

As an atheist, it always seemed problematic to me that other atheists had to operate in such an aggressive manner to the religious, but not because I hold rather meek, freedom of diversity opinions, but rather because those of faith were just as free to scorn behaviours, ideas that damage their community as anyone. Further, new atheism seemed only to attack a cherry-picked religious history, tarring scripture literalists as operating correctly, in order for them to show religion to be inherently bad (from my own reading of the gospels, I felt that to be a literalist would mean to hold many incongruous opinions anyhow).

I came to respect a contingent of atheist writers who either utilised Christian ideas or saw themselves the trite chapters of the new atheist movement, writers such as John Gray, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, and Julian Baggini.

In my research, I was lucky enough to hold a decent sized email conversation with Tina Beattie, who is the Professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton University and author of among other books The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion. For future reference I shall print this conversation here.

5th April 2009

Hello,

My name is Carl Packman, I enjoyed reading your book The New Atheists very much, and despite being an atheist myself, found myself agreeing with most of your objections towards them, especially Christopher Hitchens, who I really cannot stick. I don’t know if you’ve read a recent article by Julian Baggini whose criticisms are much the same as your own, only he writes from an atheistic perspective.

My question is simply this, you cite a book called violence in your book, and if I remember rightly the book is about aspects of religious violence, a study in the history. But could you remind me, if possible, of the author’s name of this book, there are many books on violence and almost as many relating in some way to religious violence but I specifically wanted to read this one.

My work interest at the moment is on what aspects of the Christian legacy are worth politicising, following from considerable studies being done on whether government policies should implement religious obligations. The Golden Rule is an obviously good one, but I’m more interested in aspects of Christian attitudes to violence that might be worth embracing. Would you happen to have any spontaneous comments on this?

Kind regards,

Carl Packman

#

Dear Carl,

Thank you for this. I just read and enjoyed your New Statesman piece, ‘An Evangelical Atheist’, and was amused to see that you attracted the kind of defensive comments which seem to be a knee-jerk reaction to any criticism of Dawkins, however considered and reasoned. In fact, having attracted the ire of both the Catholic Right and the Dawkins fan club, I sometimes have trouble telling them apart as far as the quality of their arguments goes.

I’m not sure which book on violence you’re referring to in The New Atheists, but I wonder if it might be Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective (1978). He was an influential Christian pacifist thinker. Stanley Hauerwas is also worth reading on this topic – although his style can be rather bombastic. He has published numerous books, but Against the Nations might be the best to look at. Other books I refer to are:

Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God (2001), and
John Gray, Black Mass

I continue to reflect a great deal on what contribution Christianity might make to secular politics with regard to violence, its causes and prevention. Rene Girard is interesting on religion, sacrificial violence and the social order. Slavov Zizek has some interesting reflections from a Lacanian perspective and may share some of your questions about the Christian legacy and its political significance, but he’s infuriatingly convoluted to read. I thought John Gray’s Black Mass was very interesting, and written from an agnostic if not an atheist perspective as far as I know.

At the risk of over-simplification, I think there are two possibilities which Christianity offers towards a better containment of violence, at least as far as war is concerned. First, the Christian just war tradition – although now thoroughly secularised – has shaped western attitudes towards the justification and conduct of war in profound ways, and still offers important rules and restraints for holding political and military leaders accountable for what they do and why. Second, there is a radical tradition of pacifism in Christianity, rooted in an ethos of self-sacrificing love, which would not translate into politics and policies but which could perhaps become increasingly significant as a form of resistance to war by radicalised Christian minorities and those who share their pacifist vision.

With regard to the Golden Rule, my current research involves grappling with Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic problematisation of the call to love my neighbour as myself, because it risks unleashing violence rather than benevolence since love of self is rooted in the Freudian oedipal conflict. Lacan (an atheist) argues that post-Enlightenment liberalism has failed to take seriously enough the capacity of fear and desire rooted in the unconscious to destabilise progressive projects based on rationality and duty. I may want to ask if Christianity can help modern liberalism to lose some of its inherent optimism about the rationality and progressive potential of the human condition, without thereby plunging us into a Calvinist vision of total depravity. Here, Thomas Aquinas may be a neglected resource for secular thinkers, because his theology is rooted in the fundamental goodness of creation and of the human within it, and the necessity of self-love as the condition of love of other. This is all research I’m doing at the moment so it’s tentative and exploratory, but it is part of an attempt to open up more creative conversations between secular thinkers and theologians on questions of politics, society and the environment which challenge us all. (It’s for a book to be published by OUP called Nature, God and Gender after Postmodernity – more academic than The New Atheists, and will be rather heavy on footnotes)! Does any of this resonate with you, or does it seem too theologically biased to be of much use?

All best wishes, and many thanks for taking the time to contact me.
Tina

#

Dear Tina,

Your reply was fantastically helpful, I’m so glad to hear that the current direction of your work includes a Christian perspective of political groundwork. I can’t wait to read it. I, too, am very interested in how Christianity can help modern progressive politics. And in fact I’m well versed in the work of Slavoj Zizek, who is of inestimable help with where I’m going. My paper on Zizek’s theology, here, is a sort of preamble to the direction I’m heading.

As I mention in this paper, but only really in passing, if there is to be anything like a Christian progressive politics – which given how religion is being utilised at the moment by the right is kind of necessary – it has to embrace some of the more radically charged positions of Christ’s words, initially I’m thinking of ‘think not that I am come to send peace on earth…’, something that on first reading looks terrifying and brash, and a line that is very often quoted by The New Atheists, notably Sam Harris. But, after reading GK Chesterton’s interpretation of this line in his Orthodoxy I realised that it’s a lot more careful than I originally thought. That it’s more about identifying the present enemy to a working, progressive society, for Jesus, a society that is more people-based than of the autocracy of the Roman Empire.

For me, I find it kind of ironic that those belligerent atheists – I’m picking mainly on Harris and Hitchens here – use the ‘sword’ as a way of criticising some of Christianity’s attitudes, when indeed they utilise a perverted version of it in their politics, regarding the Iraq war, which I know you picked up upon in your book. It’s their belief that war will bring peace, and this is the context with which I place Jesus’ words in, identifying the enemy in order to formalise political freedom. I certainly want to avoid appearing like a crazed warmonger, I was against the war in Iraq because I didn’t believe it was a war to secure peace, nor did I think, even by chance that this would be achieved. But I guess my lefty politics has to include some appeals to at least an understanding, an appropriation of violence, in the very sense that Jesus appropriated violent knowledge and peace.

But this is just one aspect of my interest in Christianity. Humanistic ethics for example – of the present Toynbeeian (?) kind – I see as being a kind of disavowal of their Christian root, and I intend to explore this further. This is where Zizek is a great help, his Christian atheism is a rallying cry against New Age postmodernism, relativist ethics, and hands-off liberalism.

With the Lacanian problem, as far as I know, the neighbour is seen as a way of rendering formal the other as a problem, or too close. I was able to hear a lecture given by Zizek called Why only an atheist can believe which explains Lacan’s position, but he didn’t go into it too much. I think it ties in with the disdain he pours on multiculturalism, that it structures politically the existence of ‘the other’. With what started out as a means of including ‘the other’ into the fabric of mainstream society – whether a foreign person or a homosexual say – and loving them as thyself, it has worked in the opposite way, making explicit the true arrangement of cultural hegemony and so on. A kind of reversal of the Romans’ reply to Paul, do good that evil may result. He then told a joke about ex-Yugoslavia and moved right off the subject, which he is notorious for.

As for that article, I was really amazed at the reaction that it received from some; a lot of people appeared to take that rather personally, as a personal vendetta against their philosophy, when in fact the article was actually a criticism of Dawkins’ logistics. Though I think it renders the whole thing absurd, I don’t doubt that the rumours are true that Dawkins’ plight has encouraged certain people to become creationists. But, as you know, he is directing his anger in the wrong direction. Politically and philosophically unpalatable groups appear on either side of feelings towards religion. This really comes out in Dawkins’ work, especially where he tries to re-write the history of certain historical characters. Dawkins stands up and says Hitler, Stalin, Eichmann might have been atheists but of course their politics was a kind of religion replacement, they being the deities. But Einstein, Hawkings and Darwin’s God was merely an appeal to a kind of pantheism. These are obviously motivated inconsistencies. His being selective, and trying to show that atheism will right all wrongs, is not only unprofessional, but deeply sad. It’s an exercise that, even as an atheist myself, I’ve pulled myself out of. So I don’t think it’s in any way contradictory for me to be an atheist and be a critic of Dawkins, which some commentators of my article seemed to think it was. Given the same logic, you, Tina, as a believer should really embrace George Bush, and how mad is that!!

I will look over those books; luckily my local library has some copies available of the Ellul title. Essex libraries continue to astound me.

Thank you very much for your reply,

All the best, Carl.

#

Dear Carl,
This is a timely conversation indeed. After a frenetic term in which I’ve neglected my research, today is the first day of the Easter break when I have an opportunity to feel my way back into what was motivating me in my study of these theorists. The problem is, when I drift away I begin to doubt my admiration for the clothing worn by emperors Zizek and Lacan – am I simply being drawn in by the dedicated followers of academic fashion, so that I fail to notice there’s nothing there? (A question which could of course have a theological twist)! Anyway, to read your essay on Zizek was engaging and stimulating, and reminded me why I think these are questions worth pursuing.

On the question of violence, I am much persuaded by Girard’s theory that the only way to interrupt the violence of the social order is to refuse to retaliate so that one exposes and defies its deadly mimetic power – but that refusal is only fully realized at the moment of death, so it’s when Christ dies that his example of non-violent forgiveness becomes possible as a different way of forming mimetic relationships. But by its symbolic potency, the act of non-violent resistance will be perceived as an act of violence against society. This is the violence of God to which you refer, put differently – the event which cuts through history and radically interrupts everything that has gone before. (I’d put the virgin birth in the same category, in order to show that the event can be a quiet and gradually realized beginning as well as a sudden and violent ending – both are acts of non-resistance, with a Kierkegaardian inscrutability of faith at their heart. In this context, I’d want to add that not every conversion is dramatic, and in my experience coming to faith is much more like your description of struggling towards atheism than Francis Collins’ epiphany in the form of a frozen waterfall.)
Although I’m just about willing to defend just war theory as a better option than ‘shock and awe’, there’s another, less pragmatic side of me that thinks it’s not a Christian option. (Do you know the work of Dorothy Day, an American communist turned Catholic who remained pacifist and anarchist until she died? She exemplifies an alternative Christianity for me, although very much along the lines of the Chesterton quote in your footnotes). Just war theory will always justify the violence of the political status quo. Interestingly, since the 1960s it has barely featured in papal writings – the Catholic Church has become pragmatically pacifist, but what a revolution there might be if it excommunicated all those involved in the war industry and the military! That would be perceived as an act of violence indeed – even Dawkins might be left speechless. (I’m not advocating that – I don’t think communion should be used to police the church, but unfortunately it is. The doors should be flung wide open to all comers, letting them be their own judges. How subversive would that be? I suspect fewer of us would go to communion than do now, and that in itself would invite analysis re law and transgression.)
I found your explanation of the difference between subjective and objective violence very helpful – and of course, it’s interesting to reflect on ways in which the implicit, objective violence of global freemarket economics has now been partially unmasked, although not in a way that threatens its foundations. Had I not been teaching last week I might well have joined the London protests, but from a distance they epitomised all that’s dishonest about our ostensible freedoms and the ways in which individualism corrodes the possibility for effective, coordinated political action. In this case, the transgression most definitely served to uphold the law, and there can be few more potent comments on the reality of our politics and freedoms than that image of the police herding protestors in and not letting them out again.
Your anecdotal examples re understanding Zizek are also helpful. I have to keep reminding myself to hold Lacan as well as Zizek up to the scrutiny of everyday experience – where often they do make more sense than in the rather abstract esotericism of their academic interpreters. The example of the Iranian car for women resonated with another interesting example I read of recently: a fatwa was issued by an Iranian cleric permitting raped Bosnian women to have abortions, and also more recently permitting women who cannot economically afford more children to have early abortions. On the one hand, one might ask what right a male clerical regime has to make such laws anyway, but one might also argue that the absence of any need for dissimulation translates into a transparent process which may serve women better in such instances than the masquerade of apparent sexual equalities against the masked background of profound inequality in the western democracies.
By the way, the World Parliament of Religions is a fiction, since there is absolutely nothing democratic or parliamentarian about it, given that it is comprised of self-selecting representatives who make cosy agreements on behalf of the world’s religious believers, while the latter continue to damn one another to hell much of the time and sometimes for good economic and political reasons which have little to do with dogma and doctrine. Beware the depoliticized hugs of inter-religious dialogue when the real issues about violence, economics and women are banished lest they expose the discord! The Golden Rule in such situations begs a Lacanian critique.
Do you know the work of Gianni Vattimo and John Caputo? I’ve been reading a dialogue between them, After the Death of God, which might interest you. I also wonder if you’re familiar with the Radical Orthodoxy movement, spearheaded by John Milbank and including thinkers such as Conor Cunningham and Marcus Pound? I find most of them too triumphalist in their Christianity and violent in their rhetoric, but they seem to have attracted interest from some Marxist thinkers.
Lastly, although I think the secular is a necessary space for creative conversations and shared political endeavours between philosophers and theologians, atheists and theists, I don’t believe in progressive politics although I do believe in the politics of transformation. Progress is one of the post-Enlightenment myths which needs to be set aside, so that we can recognize in every era what is/was good, life-giving and contributes to human flourishing, and what was/is manipulative, life-denying and sustained by human misery. As a modern western educated woman I have good reason to thank God for the times I live in, but not if I am mindful of the reality of these times for women in other contexts and situations who have little to be thankful for about modernity and its discontents. It seems to me that Marxists and Christians find much common ground in the call to liberate the oppressed and set the captives free, but where I’d part company from a traditional and perhaps no longer viable interpretation of Marx (and Hegel) is that I don’t believe that generations build on the freedoms and advances of those who came before. Every generation will create its own forms of oppression and tyranny and have its own unique opportunities for liberaiton and justice, and therefore Christians/Marxists must always be asking who in my time is at the bottom of the human heap, knowing that, once they get to the top, they will do their best to keep somebody else at the bottom. (We went to live in Zimbabwe six months after Mugabe came to power, and we were euphoric with his apparent wisdom of leadership and policies of reconciliation)!
Anyway, now I must get on with some more mundane admin tasks.
All best wishes, and thank you again for the conversation.

Tina.

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