Smoking the Opiate of the People

4:26 pm - March 28th 2008

by Unity    

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There has been a somewhat curious development in the ongoing trial of ‘Dawkins vs God’, which is currently in its 77th week (or something) and still going strong, with the defence having called a number of unexpected witnesses, the latest of which being Seumas Milne:

Just as the French republican tradition of liberation came to be used as a stick to beat Muslims in a completely different social context from which it emerged, so the militant secularists who fetishise metaphysics and cosmology as a reason to declare the religious beyond the liberal pale are now ending up as apologists for western supremacism and violence. Like nationalism, religion can play a reactionary or a progressive role, and the struggle is now within it, not against it. For the future, it can be an ally of radical change.

Milne’s by no means the first unreconstructed Marxist to come out on the side of religion in this ongoing debate, Brendan O’Neill of Spiked (ie. Son of Living Marxism) tried the same thing last December to much the same general effect – no one got hurt but a lot of straw men got burned by way of collateral damage – although to be fair to O’Neill at least he doesn’t appear to quite so deluded as Milne, who appears to think that all secular atheists are either Martin Amis or Christopher Hitchens.

(Don’t tell Seumas, whatever you do, but we’ve been secret cloning the pair of them for years  – how else do you think Dawkins shifted 1.5 million units of his book in a matter of 12 months).

So what’s the deal here with a bunch of Marxists suddenly taking sides with religious apologists, apart from the obvious common interest in writing vacuous nonsense?

Well, seemingly in between nips from a bottle of meths, O’Neill comes closest to giving the game away:

The key difference between the old and new atheism is in their views of mankind. For atheists like Marx (pdf), religion expressed, in a backward and limited form, human aspirations to greatness: “Man … looked for a superhuman being in the fantastic reality of heaven and found nothing there but the reflection of himself.” He continued: “The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest being for man, hence with the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being … ” Today, Hitchens says of religion’s destructive impact: “What else was to be expected of something that was produced by the close cousins of chimpanzees?” For Marx, religion had to be abolished because it made man despicable; for new atheists religion exists precisely because man is despicable, little more than a monkey.

What brings [some] Marxist and religionists together is, perhaps, best illustrated by this quotation from one of Dawkins’ earlier, seminal, works, The Blind Watchmaker:

“There are people in the world who want desperately not to have to believe in Darwinism. They seem to fall into three main classes. First there are those who far religious reasons want evolution itself to be untrue. Second there are those who have no reason to deny that evolution has happened, but who, often for political or ideological reasons, find Darwin’s theory of its mechanism distasteful. Of these some find the idea of natural selection unacceptably harsh and ruthless, others confuse natural selection with randomness, and hence “meaninglessness” which offends their dignity, yet others confuse Darwinism with social Darwinism which has racist and other disagreeable overtones, Third there are people, including many working in what they call (often as a singular noun) ‘the media’ who just like seeing applecarts upset, perhaps because it makes good journalistic copy and Darwinism has become sufficiently established and respectable to be a tempting applecart”.

Assuming that neither O’Neill or Milne is solely motivated by the prospect of a little applecart overturning, what both find objectionable in the ‘New Atheism’ is that it is firmly rooted in neoDarwinian ideas, ideas which are gradually beginning to escape the narrow confines of evolutionary biology and invade the realms of philosophy, psychology and culture, ideas which neither O’Neill or Milne adequately understand.

O’Neill’s suggestion that the ‘New Atheism’ contends that ‘religion exists precisely because man is despicable, little more than a monkey’ carries with it echoes of Nietzsche’s critique of the English as the source of intellectual vulgarity and the ‘plebianism of modern ideas’:

They are no philosophical race, these English: Bacon, Hobbes, Hume and Locke. They lack spirituality, and (in both senses) they lack music.

But now, the the spirit of respectable but mediocre Englishmen- Darwin, John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer- is starting to gain ascendancy in the midregion of European taste. Exalted spirits have more to do than merely know something new- namely to be something new, to represent new values! On the other hand, for scientific discoveries such as Darwin’s, a certain very English narrowness and industrious conscientiousness may be useful. European noblesse of feeling, taste, of custom, is the work and invention of France; European vulgarity, the plebeianism of modern ideas, that of- England.

Friedrich Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil 

It was this vulgarity that Nietzsche considered to be the real source of nihilism and the sense of meaninglessness which he saw as acting to depress the modern spirit and, by way of misreadings of both Nietzsche and Darwin, also the source of the common trope that holds that the inevitable consequence of atheism, secularism (and Darwinism) is a retreat into nihilism.

Nihilism. Nietzsche and his retrospective and, to a considerable extent, undeserved association with Naziism. Social Darwinism and its uneasy and ‘disagreeable’ association with Racism and Eugenics. Toss then altogether in the pot, give them a quick stir and then misread the outcome and it should come as little or no surprise to find some amongst those Marxists who have long since ceased to define themselves in any meaningful terms other than by way of their opposition to a string of ill-defined ‘isms’; ‘fascism’, ‘imperialism’, ‘colonialism’, ‘capitalism’ (or course), ‘racism’, and ‘sexism’ – but never ‘relativism’ – and one can hardly be too surprised to see them chucking a few new ‘isms’, like ‘new atheism’ and ‘militant secularism’ on the intellectual barbecue. Just don’t point out that some of them are happy to cosy up to ‘radical Islamism’ because they not too keen on being reminded of that.

There is a delicious irony in all this.

Milne and O’Neill may, on their misreadings and misunderstandings, prefer to equate this ‘new atheism’ with Nietzsche and the concept of nihilism, the philosopher whose work comes closest to expressing a neoDarwinian account of the nature of society, culture and morality is David Hume, who Nietzsche considered to be no philosopher. Hume was also no Englishman, having been born in Edinburgh, but in his ‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion‘, the character of Philo, which his held to be Hume’s personal ‘avatar’, does come within an ace of anticipating Darwinian theory while wiping the floor with Cleanthes, his advocate of theism.

And it is Hume, free-thinking, irreligious, sceptical, and to often miscast as a conservative, whose philosophy and ideas are most in keeping with those of ‘new atheists’ and of the secular left whom Milne would rather see forging alliances with ‘religious progressives against poverty, capitalism and war’ in the mistaken belief that this will ‘change both sides’ for the better rather than shore up religion’s ‘regressive’ tendencies, tendencies which remain firmly in the ascendant today as they have, in relation to Christianity, since it hit paydirt and became the state religion of the Roman Empire.

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'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Reader comments

Errr, I think you’re being a bit academic here. My reading is that Seumas has suddenly found religion great because of Muslims. Lefties are instinctively protective of those under attack (I’d broadly say) and because of the Amis/Hitchens/Dawkins cre, I think he’s merely trying to give the other side.

I think he does a bad job because he’s not really rooted in that tradition. In fact i have a similar article kicking abot which I have yet to finish about how religion can be quite a liberal force, but then I come from a background where religion and culture are very interlinked etc.

So all this academic talk goes a bit over my head, especially since it sometimes doesn’t take into account how things are playing out on the ground in the Middle East now, or worldwide in the past,.


If it were just Seumas you might be right, but then its not just Milne, it’s also Eagleton, O’Neill, Lewontin and a fair few other ideological Marxists all pushing the same basic critiques and the same tired accusations of nihilism and the monkey thing, which was old hat back when T H Huxley ripped on Wilberforce.

Milne’s talking complete hooey but its hooey based on a specific set of assumptions about the world, history, class and human nature which the neoDarwinian brand of atheism rejects and its that that’s behind a fair bit of this, although the Hitch’s involvement makes it all the more attractive a target because of his views on the Middle East.


interesting take (I have to admit I haven’t read either the O’Neill piece or the Milne piece, life being too short and all that). The whole “Darwinism=nihilism” criticism has always left me puzzled.

re comment #2: what has Lewontin been saying lately? from what little I’ve read of his essays, he struck me as being one of the more reasonable Dislikers of Dennett.

Actually, I would probably have been better to cite Rose rather than Lewontin who’s been fairly quiet of late.

With Lewontin its less what he’s been saying so much as the extent to which he’s routinely put up by others as the ‘acceptable face’ of left-wing evolutionary science.

I’ve usually found Rose frustrating (as in “well, I was more-or-less agreeing with you until you said *that*”). Am not aware of the use and abuse of Lewontin (but that reflects my own patchy awareness of the state of play perhaps).

With Lewontin its less what he’s been saying so much as the extent to which he’s routinely put up by others as the ‘acceptable face’ of left-wing evolutionary science.

Point taken, but isn’t that a reasonable line for them to take (present the best face and all that?). I’ve only read a few of his NYRB articles (in an essay collection) and they seemed eminently sane, though I wouldn’t claim to agree with all the details. But as I said I haven’t taken the trouble to trace the Marxist background/context/undertones.

What do you mean by “left-wing” — I appreciate this is useful shorthand, but Dawkins is by several usual indicators (being patronizing to Americans as a nation, saying really imprudent things about Israeli influence on US policy, general believer in social responsibility) a typical British left-winger, IMHO.

>>> Point taken, but isn’t that a reasonable line for them to take.

To some extent, perhaps, although sometimes its not at all clear to me whether or not this gives a fair reflection of where Lewontin is at today. Much of what gets quoted tends to be his older material.

Lewontin has moved on since his critique of Blind Watchmaker and his work with Gould, as has Dawkins and others on the neoDarwinian side and much of the sound and fury of that period now looks a little ridiculous in places as ideas which were perhaps a little crudely expressed 15-20 years ago, causing contention, are starting to be refined and grow in nuance and subtlety.

>>> saying really imprudent things about Israeli influence on US policy

Not imprudent, merely a little politically naive. What was reported was no more than a minor paraphrase of a comment which appears in the God Delusion and Dawkins was doing nothing more than holding up, somewhat admiringly, the example of the Jewish community in the US as being one that punches above its weight in terms of its ability to successfully promote its agendas.

All Dawkins was saying was, in effect, that they seem pretty good at lobbying so it would be nice if atheists could become as good and the only thing he got wrong was that he didn’t understand how easily such a comment could be misconstrued.

That Milne piece is one of the most muddled pieces of dismalness I’ve read for a while. I (just about) buy the concept of “militant secularism”, but to toss it wholesale into the pot labelled “defence of the global liberal capitalist order and the wars fought since 2001 to assert its dominance” is simply specactularly wrong, and indeed demented.

Insofar as it’s a major political movement (i.e a lot less than Dawkins wishes or Milne believes), secularism has narrowly defined aims, and straddles every possible right/left, authoritarian/libertatian, pro/anti-Iraq, blah/more blah divide — just as religion does too.

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