Friday, November 03, 2006

Religion and the
Human Prospect

By Alexander Saxton
Monthly Review Press

Amazon Notes: Since September 11, 2001, religion has been at the center of debates about the global future. 'Religion and the Human Prospect' relates these issues systematically to a path-breaking interpretation of the history of religion, its part in human development, and its potential role in preventing or enabling global catastrophe.

Religion has made possible critical transitions in the emergence and development of human society. At the moment when our humanoid ancestors became aware of the inevitability of death, religion interposed the belief in spiritual beings who gave it new significance. When individual self-interest and collective survival conflicted, religion defended collective survival by codifying its requirements as morality. When inequalities of wealth and power developed, religion extended moral codes to include obligations of dominance and submission. Religion enabled a species facing constant hunger and scarcity to adapt and spread.

Today, however, facing ecological disaster, exhaustion of essential natural resources, and the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, religion no longer provides a collective defense mechanism for the human species. Instead, the solutions it has provided have become central to the problem of human survival. This magisterial and compelling work weaves together evolutionary theory, anthropology, reflection on theological treatments of the problem of evil, and ideas from literature and philosophy into an account of the human prospect that is truly epic in its ambition and explanatory power.

[ALEXANDER SAXTON is emeritus professor of history at UCLA. He is the author of three novels and several historical works, including The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. ]


Rael Bassan said...

Hysterical Scientism.
The ecstasy of Richard Dawkins,

[Of recent interest in many forums and blogs is Harper's Magazine for November 2006, pg 83-88]

By Marilynne Robinson,

She writes:

"The nineteenth-century abolitionist, feminist, essayist, and ordained minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson made the always timely point that, in comparing religions, great care must be taken to consider the best elements of one with the best of the other, and the worst with the worst, to avoid the usual practice of comparing, let us say, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie with the Golden Rule. The same principle might be applied in the comparison of religion and science. To set the declared hopes of one against the real-world record of the other is clearly not useful, no matter which of them is flattered by the comparison."

Impelling the questions: By what/whose standards are best and worst determined? And in which areas? Declared hopes and real-world records are two areas mentioned, as is sustainability and burdening "this beleaguered planet".


Harry Targ said...


By Harry Targ

Kamyar Haghighi, West Lafayette, condemned the reactionary character of 'political Islam' in a presentation at the November 11, Midwest meeting of the Committees of Correspondence (CCDS). He argued that political Islam opposes democracy. It consigns women to political, economic, and intellectual subordination. It uses violence against people indiscriminately. And, in sum, it rejects the values of humanism and the enlightenment that represent what in word, if not in deed, civilization stands for. From his point of view, political Islam is the mirror image of capitalist imperialism. Each needs the other. Each thrives on the other.

Haghighi said that political Islam emerged with the Muslim Brotherhood in the mid-twentieth century. It expanded its political influence in the Middle East and the Gulf region as more progressive voices of the Pan Arab and Socialist movements were defeated by western imperialism. Since political Islam represented then, as now, political reaction it was supported by the West. Its great surge on the world stage occurred during the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the Afghan war against the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul in the 1980s.

Armed with a realistic understanding of political Islam, Haghighi stated, progressives must take a stand against it. Repulsed by U.S. imperialism, progressives have tended to ignore (or even celebrate) the actions of political Islam. Left, progressive, and peace forces need to stand in opposition to it along with its opposition to imperialist war. Only by standing against the two forms of reaction can progressives attract the masses of people who oppose U.S. war but see the left as implicitly endorsing those who have been defined as “the terrorists.”

Ted Pearson, Chicago, and Ira Grupper, Louisville, discussed the difficulties of organizing progressive forces to take strong stands against Israeli imperialism in the Middle East and repression of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories. Pearson reported that when a Chicago area peace group organized a panel on the Middle East that included Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry, and Kathy Kelly, anti-Gulf War activist, there was much resistance to sponsoring the program, attending the program, and criticism of its outcome from sectors of the progressive Jewish community. He argued that the peace movement needs to figure out a way to dialogue with Jewish progressives who work in solidarity on most issues but resent attacks upon Israeli policy.
Grupper noted that, several years ago, the mainstream Louisville Jewish establishment successfully pressured the local public radio station to cancel his appearance on a popular talk-radio show.

Berenice Carroll, Frank Rosenthal, and Harry Targ , all from West Lafayette, challenged the view that American Jews are a force of such great significance in the peace movement that they need to be given special attention. Probably high percentages of American Jews, they said, are among critics of U.S. support for Israel, Israeli aggression, and the U.S. war on Iraq.

Debate ensued about whether the controversial report on the Israeli lobby by John Merscheimer and Stephen Walt claiming that the Israeli lobby determines United States policy was correct. Targ cited Noam Chomsky’s view that the lobby served to mobilize public opinion to support policies that were initiated by the United States to serve U.S. geopolitical and economic interests.

Mildred Williamson, Chicago, said that the left needs to retake the political high ground by applying standards of democracy to United States foreign policy. Calls for real democracy in the Middle East and Iraq would challenge a rightwing global agenda that uses claims that it supports democracy when in fact it does not. Concretely, she said, progressives need to vigorously oppose United States military aid to Israel.

Grupper opened the discussion by underscoring the seemingly intractable character of the Middle East conflict. However, he said, progressives need to begin their discussions with an historical and materialist analysis, even though defense of Israel oftentimes is based upon pure emotion. He briefly outlined western European expansion into Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere in the 1800s, and various agreements in the early twentieth century made by big powers to divide these areas after World War 1.

The panel discussion occurred during the semi-annual meeting of the Midwest region, Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). Twenty-five participants came from four states and five cities.

Carl Davidson said...

Report on Discussion:

We decided to read Alexander Saxton's 'Religion and the Human Prospect,' not only for its own content, but as an antidote or complement to the previous book by Sam Harris, 'The End of Faith.' Harris's book is primarily an intellectual argument; a polemic between 'reason' and 'faith,' and Harris seems to think we urgently need to get rid of faith, especially Islam and fundamentalisms of all kinds, if disaster is to be avoided.

Looking at Harris's dissection of the irrationalities of the Bible, the Koran and other religious coda, we had little problem with his exposures of what might happen if everyone to this stuff seriously and literally. Where science conflicts with religious creed, we stand with science. What we did have a problem is his willingness to go to war with certain brands of Islam, along with a tendency to deflate the political and economic causes of war in favor of their religious justifications. With atheists, agnostics and secular humanists making up only about 10 percent of the US population, we felt Harris's unwillingness to offer much leeway to religious moderates of all sorts less than helpful.

The Saxton book offers a deeper overview of religion, from within the Marxist tradition but critical of some Marxist dogma as well. He gets into why religion has been around since the beginning of humankind, how it evolves, its plus and minuses, and why its going to be around for a good while.

He shows its rootedness in how we face the inevitability of individual death and how we face the problem of evil. He argues that a social morality, and accompanying stories and rituals, began with the earliest humans, and helped them survive. Religion developed later on this basis.

I reported on what I learned about early ape-men, both from our earlier reading of 'Blood Rites' by Barbara Ehrenreich and more recently, 'Before the Dawn' by Nicolas Wade.' Both show how human sociality, religion and language are all interconnected from the very beginnings, and gave us the ability to survive while other primates didn't. Contrary to the fundamentalists, social morality came first and religion evolved from it. Social behavior implies what to do with the 'freeloader,' one who benefits from being in a social group but makes no contribution to it. Language is not only social communication, but also implies what to do about its use for telling lies. Then there's the need for individual altruism for the group to thrive, as well as the group taking care of the weaker. The 10 Commandments, or the Buddhist Eightfold Path, or other moral codes, are all implied here, 25,000 years before Buddha or Moses.

In the end, all agreed for the need to work with the majority of the communities of faith, to affirm the tradition of social justice in many of them, and to try to isolate and curb the most reactionary theocrats in the political arena. Personally, we reflected a variety of approaches to religion-with one ordained minister who studies Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, others who were engaged in the study of nontheistic paths like Zen, and still others who believed materialism combined with the social conscience of secular humanism would suffice as well.

We decided the next step would be to do a deeper look into how the conflicts of religion and politics were playing out in the history of the Middle East.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this book. It is well written and many of his perspectives are deep and insightful. Unfortunately, I think it still falls way short of his goal, to determine what role religion can play in helping us solve the incredible problems before us.

As I see it, there are two problems Saxton has and they are both related to his strengths. First, he sees religion through the eyes of its theologians and secondly he is looking for religion to be the institution to rally around.

The theological concerns of the intellectual elite in a religious movement are fascinating and Saxton does a good job in analyzing them. For him they flow from the "crisis of consciousness" meaning every individuals eventual understanding of their own mortality. He sees this as driving the creation of an intellectual superstructure to combat this fear. I don't want to debate this but point out that there is another way that humans and human culture deal with this crisis, namely, love and human solidarity. Most religious people can hardly discuss theology competently, this has not dissuaded them from religion. I believe the reason is obvious, the religious community is what they really seek. That is what gives them comfort and allows them to believe in whatever metaphysical constructions are thrown around in the community.

In my view this weakness leads Saxton to miss the political aspect of religion. That is the way that different religious communities over the centuries have always played political roles (the rise of the new fundamentalist right is a current case in point). The politics may or may not play to the advantage of powerful religious institutions. Kevin Phillips argues this exact point in his latest book, American Theocracy.

This problem leads to the second one, namely that we need to address religion as an institution to look for an answer. I believe that we need to see religious people as part of the masses and approach them as such. I think the point Saxton makes about attacking religion through the story of Budenz is critical. Attacking religion is seen by the religious masses as attacking them, their families and communities, attacking their bulwark against death. The fact that an ecumenical united front is unlikely does not mean that religion is not part of the solution it just means that a religious institution will not be the vanguard.

I wonder if this is what underlies Saxton's problem (as I see it). He is still looking for a vanguard institution to lead us forward. I am still hopeful since I see the possibility of a large amorphous united front that is not composed of one center but a large global network of institutions and activists that can help us make the changes we need.

One final note, I think his reliance on evolutionary psychology is both wrong and a diversion from his main line of thought. Chomsky may have got him to give up his behaviorist ways, but Chomsky's theories have some serious problems from the point of view of evolution too. Chomsky and his EP followers (I don't think Chomsky is one by the way) have to contend with this sophisticated, very complex rule based adaptation coming into existence for the most part at once. There is no evidence for any intermediate steps and nobody has proposed that there could be. The current thinking that I am aware of sees a "pre-language" with no grammar at all preceding human language. What this means (to me) is that Chomsky is looking for something big and complex to explain language while it is probably something simple but flexible that is at the root. If this is the case then it is hard to see how or why other sophisticated behaviors that the EPers contend could be the direct results of natural selection on the genome.

I have lots of ideas about this, but they are better discussed at another time.