The Fascism of Anti-religious Utopians

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1.Right and Left united against “evil religion”, the common scapegoat enemy

“The Qur’an is a licence to kill.”

Filip Dewinter KoranThese words come from Filip Dewinter, one of the leading members of far-right political party Vlaams Belang, who spoke during a session of Belgium’s federal parliament (January 22, 2015).

Dewinter sounds a lot like the members of Islamic State (IS) whose conclusion on the issue of beheadings drawn from their reading of the Qur’an goes as follows:

“The Qur’an justifies these killings.”

It seems a bit ironic, but Dewinter and the members of Islamic State actually agree on the so-called “true nature of Islam”. Dewinter literally echoes the words of Hussein bin Mahmoud, a Jihadi cleric, who said (from an article posted August 21, 2014 on the Shumoukh Al-Islam forum):

Islam-Behead-Infidels“Islam is a religion of power, fighting, jihad, beheading and bloodshed.” 

For some it’s a small step to go from this so-called “true, violent nature of Islam” to the so-called “true, violent nature of religion in general”. That’s in fact an even more extreme version of Dewinter’s discourse and, once again ironically, if Dewinter would deliver that statement he would find some allies on the far-left side of the political spectrum (heir to Marx’s idea that “religion is the opium of the people”). As the French would say, eventually Les extrêmes se touchent”, the extremes meet one another.

In fact, many atheists today believe (hmm, “atheists believe…”), whether from the political “right” or “left”, that “religion must die for mankind to live” (Bill Maher in the mockumentary Religulous). Yet many of them claim to nevertheless have respect for people who believe in God, although some of them make a distinction between “respecting the people” (for instance Muslims) and “disrespecting their belief” (for instance Islam – And then you get things like: “I’m not saying you, as a Muslim, are violent, I’m saying Islam is violent!”). That’s a bit like some Catholics who say that they don’t have any problems with homosexuals, only with homosexuality (“I’m not saying you are perverted, I’m saying your sexuality is!”). For more on this analogy, see below (chapter 4 of this post).

religion is to blameAnyway, as René Girard points out in his mimetic theory, to sacrifice what is considered to bring about violent mayhem – a “scapegoat” – is a mechanism as old as humanity itself. In the words of Karen Armstrong:

As one who speaks on religion, I constantly hear how cruel and aggressive it has been, a view that, eerily, is expressed in the same way almost every time: “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.” I have heard this sentence recited like a mantra by American commentators and psychiatrists, London taxi drivers and Oxford academics. It is an odd remark. Obviously the two world wars were not fought on account of religion . . . Experts in political violence or terrorism insist that people commit atrocities for a complex range of reasons. Yet so indelible is the aggressive image of religious faith in our secular consciousness that we routinely load the violent sins of the 20th century on to the back of “religion” and drive it out into the political wilderness.

2. Mimetic doubling of religious fascism by some (“liberal”) humanists

Our ancestors attributed all sorts of violence to the gods or, more generally speaking, “a sacred realm”. In order to prevent “the wrath of the gods” – experienced in violent rivalry tearing a community apart, but also in the violence of a pandemic or a natural disaster – and receive “peace and order from the gods”, ancient cultures held on to different systems of taboos and rituals. The taboos on violence and the things that were considered to bring about violence could only be transgressed in rituals and sacrificial rituals (which included wars and ceremonial battles). The ritualistic violence of sacrifices, ceremonial battles and wars was considered permissible and necessary violence, sanctioned by the gods, and ultimately aimed at the establishment of a new peace and order. In short, sacrifice – “the good of a stabilized violence” – was considered necessary to expel “the evil of destabilizing violent mayhem”.

Some atheists, dreaming of a “non-religious” world, might pat themselves on the back now and point to the backward nature of the religiously motivated sacrifices by Islamic State:

• Clearly the sacrificial violence of Islamic State (whether suicidal or aimed at others) is primitive and barbaric, rooted in a pre-modern world-view when people could still believe that violence comes from a non-human realm, from a divine or sacred realm.

In short, according to Islamic State, God is violent (although he can grant us peace as well, if we are willing to live according to his rules).

• By using God as a justification for sacrifices the members of Islamic State cowardly try to avoid their own responsibility and accountability for the violent acts they commit. Moreover, the members of Islamic State make themselves dependent on a set of so-called divine rules (sharia), unable to even take responsibility for their own lives as a whole.

In short, the members of Islamic State use God as a scapegoat, blaming God for the violence they commit themselves.

In this regard one would expect that atheists see religion for what it is – at least in this context: religious beliefs and practices are (imaginary) answers to the problem of human violence. Religion is a consequence of the need to deal with our own (tendencies towards) violence. Sure many “islamists” in Europe grew up without religion, or without the religion of their parents (hence the generation gap between some Muslim parents and their radicalized children). The sudden “conversion” of young people in Europe and their violent opinions on Islam can therefore indeed be understood as a consequence of certain frustrations and aggressive tendencies, more than as a cause of those frustrations and aggressive tendencies. The atheist analysis of religiously motivated violence should therefore read as follows:

• In case human beings use violence, this violence comes from a human realm. Violence is not divine or sacred, it is human.

In short, according to atheism, humans are violent (although we can be peaceful as well, of course).

• Atheists claim that God does not exist. A creature that does not exist, cannot be responsible for anything, let alone for the violent acts performed by humans themselves. Humans cannot blame anything other than themselves for violence.

In short, according to atheists, humans carry responsibility for violence.

However, a strange thing occurs in some atheist quarters. The analysis of religiously motivated violence often goes like this:

Gods don't kill people• In case religious people use violence, it is caused by their religion. Since no man is born with a religion, it is clear that the roots of religiously motivated violence lie outside man [as if religion comes from Mars or something, as if religion is alien to (“the true nature of”) man?!]. Of course, it’s true as well that no man is born with any particular language, but the big difference is that we need languages to communicate and work together in order to survive, while we don’t need religion – on the contrary, religion might prevent the survival of the human race! [Note: to determine the value of something by measuring its supposed “usefulness” is not “neutral”, it’s already dependent on a certain outlook on life or world-view].

In short, following this type of reasoning, religion is violent.

According to some atheists, religion is not a consequence of man’s violent tendencies. On the contrary, religion is one of the main causes of man’s violence. Human violence does not cause religion or the need for religious justifications. It’s the other way around: religion causes human violence.

In short, according to some atheists, religion is to blame for violence.

evil-twinThere is a striking resemblance between the way in which some religious fanatics view the reality of religiously motivated violence and the views of some atheists. In the words of René Girard, some atheists are imitative twins or mimetic doubles to their intolerant religious counterparts.

Both groups believe that the roots of violence lie in a realm which somewhat transcends humans (a supernatural or perverted realm respectively). “God orders violence.” Or, “religion causes violence”.

Both groups also share a common view on how to achieve a peaceful world: humans should live according to their “true” nature.

The members of Islamic State believe that humans who live without belief in God (or, more extreme even, without belief in the “true” God) invoke the “violent wrath of God”. Thus peace is only possible if the “infidels” are willing to sacrifice their pagan or secular opinions and lifestyle, and convert to God. If they are unwilling to sacrifice their sinful way of life, they should be sacrificed in order to prevent more “violent wrath of God”.

Some atheists believe that humans who live with belief in God are sustaining some of the major conditions that invoke violence. In the words of Bill Maher (again from his mockumentary Religulous):

Religion is dangerous… This is why rational people, anti-religionists, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves. And those who consider themselves only moderately religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you actually comes at a terrible price.

sam harris religion is dangerous

Thus peace is only possible if “theists” are willing to sacrifice their barbaric and primitive opinions and lifestyle, and convert to atheism. After all, according to these atheists, no human being is born with a religion, hence the truly “natural” state of man is non-religious. Note: the zealous advocates of an “Enlightened Reason” that is supposedly very different from “all those fear-rooted religions” constantly refer to “the dangers of religion”. Quite ironic. Ah, well…

Sam Harris fear

3. The Fascism of Anti-religious Utopians – Joël De Ceulaer joins Filip Dewinter

The atheist camp might point to a difference that still seems to exist between “theists” and “atheists”. Although some atheists ask theists to consider abandoning their beliefs, they don’t use any violence against people. At best they use “verbal violence” against “weird ideas” or “weird behaviors” – you know, again, this is analogous to some Catholics who tolerate gay people while condemning homosexuality. They don’t sacrifice people, unlike some theists. Some regard this as a confirmation of their claim that it is really religion that drives people to violence. Moreover, most atheists are able to tolerate religious people, even if their religion is the cause of so much violence! Surely, atheism leads to a better, more tolerant world, no?

The so-called “humanist” atheist tolerance towards “theists” often comes across a bit strange. The atheist who stresses that the belief of his fellow man “is not a problem” to him actually implies that “this could be an issue in normal circumstances”. As if it’s not self-evident. As if the atheist is in the superior position from which he grants the theist the right to be who he is or wants to be. What if people who claim tolerance towards gay people would stress that they don’t have any problems with gay people every time they meet someone who is gay? A bit odd…

But, oh, I forgot to mention other signs of tolerance among atheists. Many of them have no problem whatsoever to attend Turkish restaurants run by Muslims. Also, many atheists already paid a visit to a mosque. Of course none of them would consider conversion to Islam a reasonable option, but look, even if they know that they are in the superior, more progressed and enlightened position, they still take the time to get to know a little bit more about a “less advanced” culture.

Joel De Ceulaer Patrick Loobuyck Jan HautekietDespite the seeming tolerance, intolerance towards religious people is never far in some atheist quarters. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo, Belgian journalist Joël De Ceulaer expands the Islamophobia of Filip Dewinter to religiophobia. Unlike Dewinter, who still somewhat tried to make a distinction between the Qur’an and Muslims, De Ceulaer immediately becomes personal. The journalist and his ideological friends want to “get rid of all merchants of religion and other world-views” in Belgian schools and replace their respective curricula by one, supposedly “neutral” curriculum on “world-views, ethics and philosophy” (Dutch: “LEF – Levensbeschouwingen, Ethiek, Filosofie”), taught by “neutral” teachers. It’s still not clear what a “neutral” use of rationality and science to study different world-views actually looks like, but De Ceulaer (interviewed on Belgian television program Reyers Laat, January 19, 2015) is convinced that:

“It is a train that cannot be stopped.”

Wow. A neutral curriculum as an antidote to the violence of religious fanatics. It seems De Ceulaer is one of those utopistic atheists John Gray writes about in an article for The New Statesman (October 1, 2014):

The idea that religion is fading away has been replaced in conventional wisdom by the notion that religion lies behind most of the world’s conflicts. Many among the present crop of atheists hold both ideas at the same time. They will fulminate against religion, declaring that it is responsible for much of the violence of the present time, then a moment later tell you with equally dogmatic fervour that religion is in rapid decline. Of course it’s a mistake to expect logic from rationalists. More than anything else, the evangelical atheism of recent years is a symptom of moral panic. Worldwide secularisation, which was believed to be an integral part of the process of becoming modern, shows no signs of happening. Quite the contrary: in much of the world, religion is in the ascendant. For many people the result is a condition of acute cognitive dissonance.

As I already mentioned, both religious and anti-religious fanatics claim that religiously motivated violence is ultimately rooted in a realm that transcends human nature (a supernatural or alienating/perverted realm respectively). Both camps also claim to have access to “The Truth”. The members of Islamic State claim to possess the source of full knowledge (that is, within the limits of human possibilities) of “what’s true” and “what’s right”, revealed to them in the Qur’an. De Ceulaer and his lobbyists also claim to possess the source of full knowledge (again, within the limits of human possibilities) of “what’s true” and “what’s right”, namely reason and science.

In short, both religious and anti-religious fanatics are convinced that they can occupy a viewpoint which transcends “all particular viewpoints”. Call it Divine, call it Neutral – I call it Totalitarian and Idolatrous, implying the self-divinization of Man and the disappearance of any true belief in a transcendent realm. One can expect OBJECTIVITY from teachers of religion and world-views, NOT NEUTRALITY. Atheist, Buddhist, Christian or Islamic teachers who present Christianity from the viewpoints of, say, Karl Rahner, George Coyne or James Alison (all Catholic theologians) will tell similar things to their students if they’re objective. They will be able to confront those views with the views of fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. With the views of past Catholics like Benedict of Nursia, Francis of Assisi or Ignatius of Loyola. They will be able to point to similarities and differences. They will also create the possibility of a dialogue with the perspectives and cultural background of their students. A so-called “DIVINE” or “NEUTRAL” viewpoint does not call for dialogue. It demands to be accepted without any discussion, and is a form of mind control or brainwashing.

merchants of religionI’m one of those so-called “merchants” De Ceulaer refers to. What am I selling, according to him? Lies – maybe even deliberately? Violence? When will I be replaced by a colleague who teaches from the “neutral”, state-imposed viewpoint? Clearly, this has to be done – and I will give De Ceulaer one more reason to demonize the “merchants” – because I will never ever claim or agree to speak from a so-called “neutral” perspective. That would be the biggest lie! I’m trying to teach what Christianity is all about from a Catholic perspective (“a”, not “the”). This should enable my students to form their own opinions on Catholicism, but also on other types of Christianity, and other religions and world-views, because I’m able to point to differences and similarities from my particular perspective. Rest assured, it is not my task to try to convert people to Catholicism, it is my task to enable them to form their own opinions on things they very often know nothing about.

While I wait for De Ceulaer’s unstoppable train of “a state-imposed neutral viewpoint” (I thought we were passed the violence – indeed! – of totalitarian atheist regimes in Europe), there’s another train coming as well. De Ceulaer’s words inadvertently made me think of a statement by Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary, who was interviewed by CNN-host Brian Stelter (on the August 31, 2014 edition of the program Reliable Sources):

“I believe that the Sharia is the best way of life. I believe that one day it will come to America and the rest of the world.”

Apparently we are living in “end times”.

The apocalyptic battle is on. Which train will win?

 freedom of speech megaphone

4. Some more words on the religion/homosexuality analogy

Some atheists say:

“No man is born religiously, religion is a perversion of human nature.”

Note: some argue that the inclination to believe in God can be situated in the brain – since when are brains “unnatural”? Of course, it is not because something is “natural” that it is “good” – maybe pedophilia is also a natural inclination, that doesn’t mean it’s good. It is quite funny, though, how some atheists argue that homosexuality should be allowed because of a “gay gene”, while at the same time they argue that theists should no longer allow their faith because of a “God gene”.

Some religious people (but there are atheists as well who think like this) say:

“No man is born gay, homosexuality is a perversion of human nature.”

Well, of course no one is born with a particular gay partner and a particular way to experience his homosexuality, but the homosexual inclination is there. And no, lovingly or passionately talking about a partner is not synonymous with an attempt to convince other people that they should also start an intense relationship with that partner. They’re still free to choose their own partners, but at least they get a testimony on what it means to be in a relationship with someone.

Are there homosexuals with a distorted, disrespectful sexual life (disrespectful towards other gays)? Sure, like there are heterosexuals with a distorted sexuality; this doesn’t mean that homosexuality as such is a perversion.

Well, of course no one is born with a particular religion and a particular way to experience his sense of awe for what transcends human life (atheists have this spiritual experience as well as theists), but we could argue that a “religious inclination” is there. And no, lovingly or passionately talking about a religion is not synonymous with an attempt to convince other people that they should also start an intense relationship with that religion. They’re still free to choose their own religions, but at least they get a testimony on what it means to be religious.

Most sexual relationships don’t involve rape. The same reasoning goes for religion: most religious beliefs and conducts don’t involve violence. Of course, certain media and polarizing populists often don’t like “the ordinary” – they go for “the sensational”.

Are there religious people with a distorted, disrespectful religious life (disrespectful towards other people)? Sure, like there are atheists with a world-view that encourages disrespectful attitudes towards other people; this doesn’t mean that every religion or world-view is a perversion.

Anyway, some fundamentalist Christians blame homosexuals for some of the main evils in the world (click here for my previous post on this), like some atheists blame religious people (“people with gods kill people”) for some of the main evils in the world. That’s why De Ceulaer says: “Get rid of the merchants of religion in our schools!” As if we’re perverting the youth. This mirrors the reasoning of some religious fundamentalists who ask to “Get rid of the merchants of sexual perversion – homosexuality – in our schools!” As if gays are perverting the youth.

The paradox is that so-called “anti-religionists” create a new religious structure according to a scapegoat mechanism. However, there are enough spiritual minds (whether theist or atheist) who can free us from our scapegoating impulses (whether theist or atheist).

Conclusion:

Every ideological, non-spiritual religion its scapegoat, whether atheist or theist?

Religulous Atheism

“You’d think if you were one of Christ’s biographers, [the virgin birth] would be sort of an important thing not to leave out. Oh, God, he was also born of a virgin. They don’t notice the virgin birth. You know, I think that is something if you were any sort of reporter you’d put into the story. What editor looks at the facts and goes, ‘Yeah, but take out the thing about the virgin birth. That’s not interesting.’”

This is one of Bill Maher’s quotes in the docu/mockumentary Religulous. I already mentioned this film in a previous post (Religulous in Barcelona), but I wanted to examine it a bit further. So I made a video compilation that tries to reveal some of its prejudices on religion and religious people.

Click the following to watch the movie A closer look at Religulous:

(for a transcript of the video, including dialogues – click here;

voor een Nederlandstalige transcriptie van de video zonder de dialogen, klik hier)

CLICK TO WATCH:

One of the main prejudices is the idea that the way biblical stories are written, is comparable to the way we write history in modern times. Hence Bill Maher’s above mentioned remark on the birth of Jesus. He clearly expects the two stories about the birth of Jesus (in Matthew and Luke) to contain historical ‘facts’ in the modern sense, or at least he believes that’s what they claim. In that sense he imitates his religious counterparts – who are fundamentalists –, and he reads the Bible like they do. He just comes to different conclusions.

Moreover, in trying to differ himself from his adversaries, Bill Maher seems to resemble them more and more. The ‘final solution’ he proposes to solve the problem of violent religious groups says it all: “The plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live.” He makes religion (and religious people?) overall an enemy to mankind, and considers it as the source of all evil. He believes that getting rid of that source (sacrificing religion) will ‘save’ us and will lead us to a better, ‘paradisiac’ future (remember John Lennon and his song Imagine, with the line ‘and no religion too’?). Well, ‘getting rid of it’ is exactly what some of his religious counterparts believe must happen to ‘secularism’ and ‘infidels’. History shows that the battle for the so-called ‘ultimate Truth’, for ‘Paradise’ and ‘Peace’, be it claimed by religionists or secularists, always ends in bloodshed… An atheist like Stalin, who violently oppressed Christianity in the Soviet Union, really is a ‘mimetic double’ (as René Girard would call it) to some of his dictatorial religious predecessors. Indeed his actions are a mimesis (i.e. imitation) of the so-called evil enemy he’s trying to destroy, and by doing so he regenerates this evil. He maintains violence, because he tries to destroy the possibility of violence by violent means…

The question is whether there’s a way out of the dilemma created by the opposition between ‘radical secularism’ and ‘religious fundamentalism’. I think there is. I think we need to educate ourselves in becoming ‘spiritually literate’. E.g. concerning the question how to read the Bible, more specifically the stories about the birth of Jesus, I’d like Bill Maher and his religious counterparts to consider the following observations.

The two stories about the birth of Jesus don’t ‘match’. Matthew’s story is very different from the one by Luke. For example, the story in the Gospel of Matthew begins in Bethlehem and ends in Nazareth, while the story in the Gospel of Luke begins in Nazareth and ends in Bethlehem. If the compilers of the New Testament would have considered these stories conveying historical facts as we understand them, then they probably would have chosen one of the two and not both of them. Disparate reports on the birth of the Jesus you’re trying to ‘sell’ to the outside world just don’t add to the credibility of your story… Unless, of course, those disparate reports are not historical in the modern sense of the word. I do believe the stories on the birth of Jesus try to express something about the historical experience of people with Jesus, but the stories themselves are not ‘historical’. They are comparable to ‘poetic’ expressions. For example, Jesus was experienced as a liberator by many people, in one way or another. He freed people from oppression, social exclusion, anxieties, … As said, I believe this personal experience of the ones who knew Jesus is real, is historical. However, to express this experience, people turned to well-known mythological images and stories, ‘formulas’ one could say. Hence Matthew and Luke portray Jesus in typical stories which their audience understands as conveying the personal, experiential and historical truth that Jesus is a savior and liberator, comparable – in some ways at least – to the prophet Moses, or to king David.

Sometimes the poetic and mythological images used to express a certain experience will contradict each other, but this doesn’t mean that they exclude each other. They may simply refer to other experiences, or to different aspects of the same experience. A contemporary example may clarify this. Many songs in the English speaking world make use of ‘the car’ or ‘the road’, and everything associated with them, as metaphors to express different (aspects of) life experiences. In the song It’s my life Bon Jovi sings “It’s my life, my heart is like the open highway…” to express he feels free, or that he desires to be free. His heart is, of course, not literally a highway. Meat Loaf, on the other hand, expresses the longing for freedom slightly differently, in his song Objects in the rear view mirror, may appear closer than they are: “And if life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car…” It’s no use asking who is ‘correct’, Bon Jovi or Meat Loaf. It’s no use asking: “Well, now, is the heart a highway, or is life a highway?” We understand these somewhat conflicting images and the common experience they refer to, because we are part of the culture which uses them… Both the experience of Bon Jovi and Meat Loaf is true and historical, albeit personal. And the image of the road or the highway is omnipresent. James Hetfield, of heavy metal band Metallica, sings “And the road becomes my bride…” in the song Wherever I may roam… Once again, not to be taken literally, but we normally understand what he’s referring to.

It’s a bit more difficult to understand the images used two thousand years ago, so we might need to study to get there. Considering the ‘false’, but often vehement conflict between ‘secularists’ and ‘religionists’ I described above, it might be a necessary study though. Karen Armstrong traces the origins of this conflict back to the period of the Enlightenment. According to her, a confusion arose around that time in the western world concerning mythology. Mythology was considered a primitive form of science by many intellectuals of the modernist era. Hence an opposition arose between those who held on to a ‘mythological truth presented as historical fact’ and those who embraced modern science as carrying the keys to the ultimate truths about life. Research, however, points out that the modernist assumption about mythology (and science for that matter) is false. Mythology and ‘poetic images’ never functioned in the way modern science functions, even to this day…

The distinction between mythology and modern science is actually quite simple: mythology tries to express and to ‘mold’ human experiences and offer different perspectives on them, while science tries to explain human experiences. The example I give in the film to make this distinction clear, is about the mythological story of Cain and Abel. This fictitious story reveals an existential truth about our existence: sometimes we are all too heavily consumed by envy. Furthermore, it tries to answer the question what to do with these envious tendencies – where we should direct them, if it belongs to our ultimate goal to be guided by envy… These are questions which science cannot answer. Science can maybe explain how we become jealous, and that jealousy is a natural tendency in man, but it cannot answer the question whether jealousy is a good or a bad thing. This last question is an existential one, more specifically a moral one.

So, in short, there should be no conflict between modern science and mythology because they try to answer different questions. Once you realize that religion belongs to this mythological, poetic, indeed ‘spiritual’ realm which deals with existential questions, it becomes a genuine, reasonable and sensible force that undermines the certainties of every ‘ideology’ – be it religious fundamentalism or the radical atheism which opposes it, indeed ‘doubles’ it. Understood as poetic and spiritual images, religious texts open up dialogue and different perspectives on a Reality which, ultimately, is ‘not in our control’. A Reality, in other words, which ‘transcends’ us – as we didn’t create the world we inhabit.

There’s a lot more to discover on the distinction between scientific and existential questions. For example in the works of philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), who makes a distinction between ‘problems’ that can be solved technically, ‘scientifically’, and the mysteries we are confronted with which are ultimately unsolvable (they allow for different ‘attitudes’).

To read a paper by Karen Armstrong on

FUNDAMENTALISM AS A TYPICALLY MODERN MOVEMENT, CLICK HERE (PDF)

Enjoy exploring!