A Marxist critique of the La Jolla conference

[ Sat. Mar. 11. 2006 ]

The headlines were intriguing. “A Free-for-All on Science and Religion,” wrote the New York Times. “Losing Our Religion: A gathering of scientists and atheists explores whether faith in science can ever substitute for belief in God,” was Newsweek’s version. New Scientist magazine called its article “Beyond Belief—In Place of God: Can secular science ever oust religious belief—and should it even try?”

The reports summarized the highlights of a conference, held Nov. 5-7 at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., that attracted a large number of very prominent scientists, mostly from the United States and Britain, for a discussion called “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival.”

Richard Dawkins was there, an evolutionary biologist from Britain who wrote “The God Delusion,” currently a best seller.

Sam Harris, a doctoral student in neuroscience, also spoke. He is author of “Letter to a Christian Nation,” another recent best seller, as well as an earlier book, “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason.”

Physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg also spoke, as did Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. Carolyn Porco of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., seemed to be one of the very few women speakers in a conference dominated by white men.

The published accounts mentioned above emphasize that the overwhelming majority of the conferees identified themselves as atheists or non-believers and the speakers posed the issue as a conflict between reason and dogma. But they sharply debated one another on what scientists’ attitude should be toward religion.

If anyone at the conference took a historical materialist view of this question—that is, a Marxist view—the mass media did not report it.

That alone is worthy of note, because for many years a conference in the U.S. that promoted atheism would have been branded “communist” by much of the commercial media. That certainly was the case during the years of the Reagan administration, when the influence of the religious right in politics was very consciously promoted at the same time that a major assault was being made on social programs benefiting the working class.

It was considered a noteworthy break with these political and ideological forces when Nancy Reagan later disagreed publicly with the religious right over the issue of stem-cell research, after her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

But since the collapse of the USSR, the debate over science and religion has taken a new turn. The prominent speakers at this conference could not be considered leftists by any stretch of the imagination.

What Marx said about religion

When Karl Marx wrote about religion in the mid-19th century, at a time when much of the new ruling bourgeois class in Europe still identified with the Enlightenment as against medieval dogma, he was able to say about the German intellectual establishment that, “[T]he criticism of religion has been essentially completed.”

But he went on to explain why religion continued to have a strong influence among the masses.

“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. ... The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” (Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” 1844)

Marx’s term “the opium of the people” is often quoted out of context, as though it were nothing but a slur against religion. But here it is obvious that he was referring quite eloquently to how people turn to religion to dull their pain over unbearable social conditions that need to be abolished.

Marxism goes to the heart of the problem. The new capitalist class needed rationalism as against dogma in order to lay the basis for the tremendous scientific-technological development that vastly expanded its means of production and commerce. But capitalism brought with it new horrors for the masses—the conversion of much of the peasantry into wage laborers working 12 to 14 hours a day in the hellish mines and factories.

Thus this new system, which needed rationalism and science in order to grow, at the same time propagated the social conditions that ensured a continued place for religion among the masses. Even today, after several centuries of scientific discoveries that have transformed the way in which every daily task is done—and have brought immense fortunes to those in the ruling class—a large percentage of the people cling to religion as “the heart of a heartless world,” to use Marx’s phrase.

Did the conference in La Jolla look at religion in this social context? Not if the published accounts correctly represent it.

What, then, spurred on scientists to organize such a gathering at this time?

One would certainly expect that much of the energy for it came from the need to respond to the increasing efforts by the religious right and certain corporate interests to impose anti-scientific views on society. The attempts to legislate the teaching of “creationism” as opposed to evolution, the opposition to stem-cell research by churches claiming to defend the “unborn,” the denial of global warming by scientists funded by energy companies—all this cries out for a counter-attack by scientists. Undoubtedly, many of the attendees at the conference came because of this political climate.

But there was another and more disturbing motivation, and it was pushed by some of the most prominent speakers.

The Web site edge.org is devoted to scientific discussion. According to a critique of the conference written for Edge by participant Scott Atran, “We first heard from Steven Weinberg, and then from every other second speaker, about the history of Islam, about why Muslim science went into decline after the 13th or 14th centuries, and about why suicide bombers, the most fanatically religious of all would-be mass murderers, are an outgrowth of Islam. Missing at ‘Beyond Belief’ was erudition and deep understanding of Islamic history other than the usual summaries of names and achievements. ...

“We heard from Sam Harris that Muslims represent less than 10 percent of the population in Western European countries such as France, but over 50 percent of the prison population. The obvious inference expected from the audience is that Islam encourages criminal behavior. ...

“Richard Dawkins tells us that Islam oppresses women.”

The New York Times article of Nov. 21 confirmed that Islam-bashing was a strong component of this conference. “By shying away from questioning people’s deeply felt beliefs, even the skeptics, Mr. [Sam] Harris said, are providing safe harbor for ideas that are at best mistaken and at worst dangerous. ‘I don’t know how many more engineers and architects need to fly planes into our buildings before we realize that this is not merely a matter of lack of education or economic despair,’ he said.”

In Harris’s book “Letter to a Christian Nation,” he tries to ingratiate himself with Christians in the United States by saying, “Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well—by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God.”

Harris says he started writing the book the day after 9/11.

Clearly, the time has not yet come when scientists in the imperialist countries can be expected to organize a truly scientific discussion on religion. That would require an honest, dispassionate view of the world today as it is: divided between the rich and the poor, the oppressor and the oppressed, the imperialist countries and those fighting against efforts to re-colonize them.

Islamic fundamentalism is flourishing among the oppressed as U.S. and British imperialists inflict unspeakable atrocities on the peoples of the Middle East. It cannot be equated with Christian fundamentalism in Western imperialist countries.

What is needed to counteract dogma is not just atheism but a Marxist-Leninist world view that understands religion and all social phenomena in their real context and can apply this to the current period in human history, which is characterized above all by the capitalist division of society into opposing social classes and a world system in which a few imperialist countries super-exploit the majority of the human race. The triumph of “reason” will come when the masses of people overturn this unjust, antiquated social system.

E-mail: dgriswold@workers.org

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