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.

Do we want God back?

A simple message was uttered by Tony Blair this year in the staggers, we must do God. There is an element to which this is already true, and so embedded it is, that to suggest doing is pointless. But is how Blair meant it so true?

For Blair, doing God is more about globalisation than it is theology. The marketplace, a global landscape, must promote and understand different religious pratices and peculiarities, so as not to jeopardise trading with countries where religion and economics are not separated.

When we see it this way, Blair, in saying do God, did not actually mean do God in any way shape or form. He meant be sensitive to faith in order to avoid getting your fingers burnt in the economy.

But doing God generally is dificult not to do, though many have tried. John Gray for example, in his great book Black Mass argues that the bouts of militant atheism and secularism are features of the western christian tradition. Calvinism in the sixteenth century actually foregrounded the view that while theology was ‘an echo of the biblical text‘ it was not, stricto sensu, so much a commentary of the text, but an interpretive framework by which the text may be understood. As such, Calvin saw the stories of the creation and the fall as simple renditions, certainly not to be taken literally, so rather than being an obstacle to science, he was actually an obstacle to biblical literalism.

Todays new atheists tend to draw their guns at biblical literalists, though suggest that through reason all believers can be dismantled. It’s hardly observant of fact that they produce a caricature of people of faith, then attempt only to critique one portion of the religious body. Calvin didn’t see himself as part of the traditional institution, was a radical as such, and his theology is now widely regarded as a most popular strand of christianity. In fact, according to Alister McGrath, a biographer of Calvin, if Calvin’s ideas were even more popular, the structure of the religion vs. science debate would take a far different form, since for Calvin the story of creation was an illustration rather than a literal truth, room is apparent for evolution science, seen of late as the sole domain of post-religious enlightenment.

John Gray, this time in his book Straw Dogs, noted that strains of thought seen to be of the legacy of the enlightenment – the liberal philosophers for example, A.C. Grayling – tend to be progressive, and therefore, for Gray, doomed for failure since the realm of progressivism, either borrows heavily from preceding philosophies, rendering it non-progressive, or else nihilistic and destined for bankruptcy. It was because of this that Gray earned himself the reputation as a pessimist, which may be evidently true, but it cannot be forgotten his indebtedness to Isiaah Berlin and elements of Eastern philosophy – he’s not simply pessimistic, but partly unrecognisable by traditional western standards.

The so-called secular, progressive projects, according to Gray, have their own eschatology and are therefore either forever inseperable with demythologised christianity, or else inseperable to failed projects such as Nazism or Communism, which for Gray, have a religious, totemistic quality about them anyway.

This is something that atheists like A.C. Grayling would agree on, that, in his words, “Nazism and Stalinism … emulate … religions in being monolithic ideologies demanding absolute subserviance to a supposed ideal”. But this is true only insofar as religion is idolatry. Stalin of course was an atheist, Hitler in the thirties disuaded the religious from appealing to his ideology until he realised the amount of Catholic money he could get his hands on, and Eichmann even up until his death rejected the presence of a priest visit to his cell for his anti-religious sentiments were so strong.

There is the notion that Calvin works in both the Blair reference to God (Calvin and Calvinism was a product of Genevan society, an early hub of capitalism and profit) and also the way in which Gray understands it, that the secular projects of today are simply rejuvenated versions of the christian legacy. Whatever the case, and whatever your beliefs, God is still done today, both demythologised and capitalised, to change the world one must change God in these forms, not get rid of God.

What of David Miliband’s Moral Philosophising?

It might be remembered by some an article written by staunch atheist A.C. Grayling, the philosopher at Birkbeck college, who during the first time a Labour party leadership challenge against Gordon Brown was on the cards in 2008, spoke enthusiastically about the prospect of David Miliband becoming the new PM for his atheist beliefs.

The many reasons, written almost like a list of guidelines, that Grayling figured an atheist PM would be beneficial included scepticism towards publicly funded sectarian faith schools, belief in the disestablishment of the Church of England, a down-to-earth approach that dissuades the belief that paradise will be better for the poor, and the likelihood that the “Atheist leaders will not be tempted to think they are the messenger”.

Of course the 345 comments made below the article were mostly covered by criticisms of this very flawed and idealistic approach. And rightly so, for it would not be unheard of that a person of faith can feel uncomfortable with some of the peculiarities of faith schools or the notion of paradise used to justify poverty, nor is it inconceivable that a person of faith can support secularism and not think they are the messenger.

On the flipside, it is also not a given that an atheist be immune from the criticisms that are usually reserved for the religious. For example, Grayling states rather specifically;

Atheist leaders are not going to think they are getting messages from Beyond telling them to go to war. They will not cloak themselves in supernaturalistic justifications, as Blair came perilously close to doing when interviewed about the decision to invade Iraq.

Now of course Miliband is a supporter of both wars the UK is currently engaged in, and whether we like him or not Tony Blair did not use anywhere near the same level of spiel as Bush for the war, in fact in any public address regarding Iraq Blair seemed to me rather more apologetic, and less hubristic than his US counterpart (even if his private convictions tell a different story).

But recently Miliband went one further in actively (though not consciously) proving Grayling’s opinions wrong that a leading atheist politician is any better than one who believes: by justifying the use of terror in certain exceptional cases. Contrary to the opinion that Miliband is acting on a series of rational atheistic principles, structured by the enlightenment period, as no doubt Grayling assumes, his sentiment is actually the heir to some very specific Christian codes, namely that of Thomas Aquinas, the Roman Catholic scholar and father of Thomistic theology, who first posited the doctrine of double effect, or DDE, which provide specific guidelines for determining when it is morally permissible to perform an action in pursuit of a good end in full knowledge that the action will also bring about bad results.

The formulation of the doctrine is based on four principles and are as follows, firstly that the action taken is entirely a good action, secondly that the bad result is not at all intended, thirdly that the good result is not in direct consequence to the bad effect (such as is dissuaded by Paul in the Romans 3:8 “Do evil that good may result”) and then lastly that the good result be proportionate to the bad result.

So when Miliband, in reply to Matthew Paris on whether violence is justified, said

I think I’m right in saying that one of the ways in which the ANC tried to square the circle between being a movement of political change and a movement which used violence, was to target installations rather than people … there are circumstances in which it is justifiable, and yes, there are circumstances in which it is effective – but it is never effective on its own.

he was actually using arguments that conflict with the most developed philosophy to have emerged out of the enlightenment period – utilitarianism – which looks at the overall manifestation of happiness, rather than what good can come out of the ends.

Overall, what Miliband’s recent statement means is that though a person might be an atheist, it doesn’t necessarily mean to say that they are any less predisposed to the tenets of the Christian legacy, so perhaps this isn’t a good reason to support Miliband as leader after all (It is also an interesting point of note here that Grayling in his article was using Blair, who had recently converted to Roman Catholicism, in parallel with Miliband. In a philosophical paradox, can Miliband’s words imply that in a way he is just as Roman Catholic in his actions as Blair is, although perhaps not consciously acknowledged?).

Recently Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham, warned those on the left wing of what he called the “liberal drift” in the financial sector, encouraged by Ramsay MacDonald and Tony Blair who were both, as Cruddas tells us, “fatally attracted to wealth and power.” But the liberal drift does not stop here. Utilitarianism as an ethical model has dominated British left wing politics to the point that liberalism and socialism in Britain have almost become synonymous (to whom does Nick Cohen refer to as the liberal-left in his book What’s Left?? Everyone on the left, by his own admission). So why, I ask, is it disturbing that a politician should start observing moral philosophy, as it has so disturbed Chekov? I don’t think it could have arrived at a better time.


This entry is in response to Three Thousand Versts article Miliband’s terror comments were irresponsible as part of the Bloggers Circle experiment

What is Materialist Theology?

‘Materialist Theology’ – meaning that there is more than just analogical value in theology to describe human society, though it seeks no grounding in a presupposed divine figure. In other words the legacy of specifically Judeo-Christianity has meant that the world has been shaped by a philosophically materialist enhancement of Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”. But can a materialistic theology take this passage literally?

It seems it can by Žižek who elaborates on a materialistic rearticulating of the Holy Spirit, which features in his latest offering The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? co-written in debate form with the Radical Orthodox theologian John Milbank. The book is the brainchild of Creston Davis, who studied under both Žižek and Milbank, and is premised on the notion that “modern Christianity has finally met its doom”. Žižek, arguing his corner with Hegelian dialectics (thesis + antithesis = synthesis), cites Jesus as the ‘monstrous exception’, that is to say the figure who cannot be grounded in rational terms due to his part in the Trinity, but who all the same grounds the rational itself. This takes some thinking, but what Žižek is suggesting here is that the conception of the other world which Jesus is said to occupy given his Godly status, is the foundation with which reality (on Earth) has been based, in contradistinction to the beyond.

In an anti-Fregeian twist (Frege, who noted that a concept must presuppose its material referent) for a grounding of this material reality in an other world, such an other world need not actually exist, for even the concept of it, without a material referent, is enough to guide what is the real rational world and what is not. This is further backed up by Lacan’s notion of ‘non-all’, which suggests that given our ontological position,our perception of the world is partial, therefore it is not difficult for us to suppose that there is more to which we can possibly know. Zizek therefore doesn’t take the line of atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens or Grayling, who have a kind of faith in the stance that science can reach a given criteria of truth. For Zizek, as for Lacan, such truth is untenable given our ontological constitution, but he is an atheist nonetheless because to posit a God in the absence of scientific proof, would be to take the knowledge problematic to its alterior extreme (theistic certainty).