Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Post-colonialism and Post-theism

(Hat tip to Atheist Hussy for grooving me onto the interview with Christopher Hitchens.)

Truthdig.com just did an interview with Christopher Hitchens concerning his new book God is Not Great. It is the latest in a series of best-sellers whose success motivates me to write Simon Peter faster so I can point to all the recent books directed at atheists that have sold a million copies. Beyond that, and the proximate reason for this post, is that Hitchens said something clever:

Wiener: The final killer argument of your critics is that Hitler and Stalin were not religious. The worst crimes of the 20th century did not have a religious basis. They came from political ideology.

Hitchens: That’s easy. Hitler never abandoned Christianity and recommends Catholicism quite highly in “Mein Kampf.” Fascism, as distinct from National Socialism, was in effect a Catholic movement.

Wiener: What about Stalin? He wasn’t religious.

Hitchens: Stalin—easier still. For hundreds of years, millions of Russians had been told the head of state should be a man close to God, the czar, who was head of the Russian Orthodox Church as well as absolute despot. If you’re Stalin, you shouldn’t be in the dictatorship business if you can’t exploit the pool of servility and docility that’s ready-made for you. The task of atheists is to raise people above that level of servility and credulity. No society has gone the way of gulags or concentration camps by following the path of Spinoza and Einstein and Jefferson and Thomas Paine.


This put me in mind of post-colonialism. For those not in the know, post-colonialism grapples with the legacy of colonial rule. Stuff like why is that Haiti is the amongst poorest nations on earth despite being one of the first modern democracies and despite having a massively profitable export product? Post-colonialism argues that it is the legacy of dependence created by the colonial system that keeps places like Haiti poor - that even after Haiti was technically independent of France's rule, most of the property in Haiti was still owned by people who had deep ties to France and who served the interests, largely, of France. Not to mention the brutality of slavery, the trained obedience to white prestige and privilege, things of that nature. The same is true in most former colonies. This ongoing legacy needs to be dealt with before a country can come into it's own. Haiti, having been particularly brutally colonized, is having a particularly hard time coming out of it's post-colonial period. Whereas China, which was far less colonized than Haiti, for less time, and with a far more robust culture than Haiti, has almost entirely put its post-colonial legacy behind it. And it is then unsurprising that the first Asian nation to come into it's own on the world stage was Japan - a country that had never suffered colonization by European powers.

So, when Hitchens said Stalin was able to take advantage of centuries of servility and docility that had been hammered into the Russian people by the Russian Orthodox Church, my mind made the connection between the legacy of religion and post-colonialism. It made me think that we're living in a post-theist society. God is dead, but as Nietzsche noted the shadow of god will continue to trouble our days for centuries to come. So, while Stalin was certainly an atheist, and a madman, the groundwork for his atrocities were laid by brutal theism of the Russian Orthodox Church in the same way that the brutality of Papa Doc Duvalier were laid by the colonial horrors of the French. The brutality of Stalin was not contextless. It was able to happen for a reason and part of that reason certainly was the habits indoctrinated into them by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Czar.

Some other examples of post-theism might be found in, say, Great Britain where the Church of England still has seats in the House of Lords. Despite the overwhelming majority of the British being a-religious, British laws are still in part shaped by the Church of England. It's absurd, but it's true. And in the United States, it is de rigeur for virtually all political candidates to publicly repeat ad nauseum their "born again" status - even though, on paper, the US is one of the least religious countries in the world. We don't have an official religion. We never have had an official religion. But so powerful is the lingering influence of theism that candidates must nevertheless acknowledge some silly born again state in order to get elected into office. A third example might be found in the Vatican City. Why on earth is a couple of blocks in Rome a separate nation? It's preposterous, but there it is, not to mention the absurd level of influence this decadent and dying religion continues to have on the modern Italian state.

Most of the world is in a post-theist phase - there is no enforcement of a state cult in most countries and religious leaders have little formal authority in most places. Yet, I think that it is important to realize that just because a society might not be religious doesn't mean the effects of religion mystically vanish from that society. After literally centuries of basing one's laws and culture off of various religious authorities these cultural habits remain ingrained into our society and person even if we have rejected the religion. Much of who we are, culturally, socially, is so deeply entwined with religion it will be a very long time before we're free of the malady of religion. Religion is a fever that has broken, but we are still a long way of having our full strength.

But we will. Skepticism is the fastest growing belief about religion in the world today. I don't figure this will change.

14 comments:

Marc said...

This is very interesting. I'd reply but i'm afraid i dont have a state of mind for it right now. It is a topic of much impoortance in my opinion.

concerned citizen said...

"The worst crimes of the 20th century did not have a religious basis. They came from political ideology." I don't know if religion can be that easily seperated from politics, in practice anyway, as they seem to go hand in hand.
Whether one is using the other seems almost beside the point.

I think religion by it's nature, trys to control the human spirit(soul) by coercing it to a certain philosophy outside it's self. Monotheistic *One all knowing perfect being outside the sphere of human understading* religions anyway.

I haven't had that much experience with political ideology.

As far as us living in a post-theist society, I see that also. Living in a small town with umpteen churches, I see some of them in their death throes. We just lost a Methodist Church because the lady Minister believed in equal rights for homosexuals. The fundimentalists in the church drove her out & the richer more libral part of the congregation left in disgust.
"How much we poor Christians sacrifice for our high principles."

Chris Bradley said...

Oh, yeah, I totally agree that all religion is political. Like economics, any organized religious activity should be regarded as fundamentally political in nature. In a more sane world, this would be obvious. Maybe I should post on that, soon. ;)

Chris Bradley said...

Marc,

Well, I hope you come back soon to say what you've got to say. :)

Anonymous said...

Haiti isn't the poorest country on earth. On a GDP basis it is 187 out of 229. It is often stated that it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. In response to Hitchens comment re Thomas Jefferson and co. please see the French Revolution..I am sure he'd make it out to be another Catholic movement...

Intergalactic Hussy said...

One way that religion and politics go together is how governments have used religion as a secondary means to keep them down. As if laws aren't enough?

And thanks for linking to me! :D

Chris Bradley said...

Anon,

Golly! My point about Haiti is totally disproven.

And I, not Hitchens, am going to say that part of the reason the Terror happened is because they were emulating the tactics of the French aristocracy, of which the Catholic Church was a part, and I am going to say that this is obvious to anyone who knows the slightest bit about the Terror and the French Revolution. The Terror and Revolution was the peasants acting like the aristocrats, of which, yes, the Catholic Church was an integral part. Obviously.

Chris Bradley said...

Intergalatic,

Yeah, I don't think that anyone seriously doubts the primary purpose of religion in history has been as a means of control and domination, if they know the least little bit about the history of religion, at any rate.

Er, which means that most people don't know, hehe. It isn't like historical literacy is a valued commodity in America. :p

Anonymous said...

Chris - my apologies if my earlier comments came off as rude. I work in Haiti and one of things Haitians are sensitive to is their perception by the outside world. It is certainly an economically poor country but there are far worse spots on earth that I have been to. Ironically, one of things that attracts people to Haiti is that it is extremely spiritual and even religous culture. Finnaly, I would say your criticism of religion is welcome. But you overweight the importance of it in fueling hatred in the world. There is not a single human characteristic or belief that has not been exploited by power seekers. Class, Mao; Physical Stature; Belgians/French Rwanda; Skin tone French Haiti (among countless other examples); education, Khmer Rouge, Cambodia; Religion, Hitler (among countless other examples); nationality - you name it. Human behavior is manipulated by stories and myths and only very rarely rationality. Sometime these stories /myths can effect deeply positive change and sometimes destruction. Sometimes these stories are religious but just as often they are based on something else - our intense fears, our desire to belong, and our need to survive. Good luck with your book. John

Chris Bradley said...

John,

What you did was the tu quo quo fallacy. "Other things also have spread hatred." It is indisputably true, but irrelevant. And very few things have spread as much hatred as religion.

If you're cosmopolitan, you of course know about the low-level religious conflicts in India -- Hindus vs. Muslims and Sihks, or the Dalits vs. high-caste Hindus. Of course, there's the vast wave of anti-semitism of Muslims vs. Jews. Or the number of Christians here in America who hate Muslims, a feeling that is returned, including things like massacres in the Sudan that are religiously driven. Right now, in the world, there is nothing -- not politics, class, or any other thing -- that is fueling as much warfare, death and hatred as religion. And this isn't even a particularly hate-filled period of religion!

So, if you're actually saying that the good that religion does somehow offsets the vile hatred that it does, I think you're being both naive and ahistorical in your analysis. I will also go on to say that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, religion does that isn't better done in some other way.

Adam Taylor said...

I will also go on to say that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, religion does that isn't better done in some other way.

I was going to say that religion produces know-it-alls with massive superiority complexes and annoyingly smug and self-righteous personalities.

But come to think of it you're right. 21st century secular humanism does even that better.

Chris Bradley said...

Adam,

Do you have a point other than an at the person attack? Seriously. I've made a fair number of refutable statements. Refute them, if you can.

Jason Doherty said...

notice Mr. Adam Taylor had nothing to say in response? I loved your post Chris and also your responses to defend your position. I am not sure if you are aware but there are some really good tapes on Athiesm and Post Theism available from the BBC

http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/features/atheism-tapes.shtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Atheism_Tapes

I highly recommend viewing this media

Chris Bradley said...

Jason,

Oh, I don't expect religious folks to actually be able to respond to many of the points I make about religion, other than with fallacies (the tu quo quo one being the most common - "well, Christians aren't the ONLY bad people in the world!" . . . well, yeah, but, should we endure pedophiles because of the murders?) and massive quantities of ignorance and a surprisingly large number of nilhistic post-modernist types who refuse to recognize the superiority of the modern world vs. the Middle Ages.

But is there anything new in the Atheism Tapes from A Rough History of Disbelief? I've seen A Rough History of Disbelief (and enjoyed it quite a bit).