God, Sex and the Left (Part 1)

by Clive Hamilton, Alex Doherty

In the first part of a wide ranging interview philosopher Clive Hamilton discusses the 'New Atheist' critique of religion and the need for the left to be less complacent regarding sexual morality.

First published: 09 November, 2011 | Category: Gender equality, Religion

Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, based at the Australian National University. He is the author of The Freedom Paradox, Growth Fetish and, most recently, Requiem for a Species. In the first part of a two part interview he speaks to NLP’s Alex Doherty on the relationship between religion and the left and the need for the left to take a moral position on certain sexual practices. 


One of the things you've critiqued the left for has been its lack of engagement with religion. Preparing for this interview I was reading  the article you wrote in 2006 'Will the Churches Save the Left?'. Now, lately there's been a proliferation of very harsh critiques of religion coming from the so-called new atheists - Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling and so on - which has had some influence on the left. So why do you believe the left should be engaging the churches and what's your view of people like Dawkins?

I understand Dawkins because I used to be exactly like him. I remember as a sixteen year old I used to stalk the school grounds to find the believers so I could harangue them about their stupidity. It's an easy thing to do if you're cocky and moderately clever and don't know much about religion, just as the people I was haranguing didn't know much about religion. They just had their own personal beliefs, so they were easy game.

I think Dawkins is ignorant in two ways. First, he has a caricatured view of what religion and belief is. In the preface to his book (The God Delusion) he says quite clearly 'Whether God exists or not is a scientific question.' Well if that’s the case why read on? I mean, if you think that then of course it's simple to show that it's all absurd, that the virgin birth is crazy and so on.

More subtle thinkers recognise that there are literal truths and there are symbolic truths, and that there are certain psychological facts which interpreted scientifically are manifestly absurd and yet are true psychologically, and perhaps metaphysically. They are powerful, have a truth about them.

I am not, of course, saying that the virgin birth is “true”. I'm not a Christian. I don't belong to a church and I don't believe in a God. While Dawkins is stuck in the schoolyard, others grow out of their adolescent atheism, not least because they get to know some very clever, thoughtful and good people who are also firm Christians. The fascinating thing is that when Dawkins says “whether God exists or not is a scientific question” he is, epistemologically, on exactly the same ground as the Christian fundamentalists, those he derides so savagely. They also believe the existence of God is a scientific question. Everyone else thinks that belief in God or otherwise is not a scientific question at all. It's a different type of question. It still may have a yes or no answer, but whatever answer you give is given with more humility.

So I think Dawkins is ridiculous, to tell you the truth. Of course he has a certain appeal - we all think that fundamentalists in the United States are crazy and dangerous. But in a way Dawkins is one of them.

To play devils advocate so to speak - you say Dawkins' position and the fundamentalist position is essentially the same but is the tendency to interpret religious ideas literally really just the preserve of what are called fundamentalists? To take your example, how many Christians do view ideas such as the virgin birth symbolically?

In the US clearly fundamentalist beliefs are quite widespread amongst Christians. But we ought to recognise that the breadth of that belief is quite recent and, I suspect, not very deep, although there is of course a small fanatical minority. During the last presidential election campaign I was in the United States. I watched a news broadcast in which a reporter interviewed two women who were neighbours in a suburb of Philadelphia or somewhere. They were a kind of everywoman in the US.

They were on the front lawn in front of a television camera and were asked what they thought of the Democrat candidate Barack Obama. One of them looked into the camera and she said she believes that Obama is the incarnation of the devil and that he’d be terrible for America. They turned to her neighbour and asked if she agreed. ‘Oh no, no. I might vote for him, it depends on his policies’. They reporter said thanks very much, and the women went back into their houses.

Now here was this woman who seemed quite convinced that Obama, who had a good chance of becoming president of the United States, was the devil incarnate. It was not a figure of speech; she actually believed it. Well, I wondered, if that’s what you believe, that Lucifer is going to become President, what do you do? She just went back in and started peeling the potatoes, or putting the frozen chips into the oven. So, in what sense did she believe that? If she genuinely took it to heart, that’s a world-shattering belief. But no, she just went back, doing whatever she does, and probably didn’t think about it again until it came up in conversation.

In Australia, and probably in Britain too, the proportion of Christians who have a literal interpretation of the Bible is extremely small. The great majority, certainly the committed Christians I meet, think the fundamentalists are crazy. They hate being represented in the media by the views of extremists. Here are thoughtful, reflective people who understand the power of symbolic truths, whether they’re Catholics or Anglicans or Methodists or whatever. Some of the people I most admire are very committed Christians.

But why do I say that the churches could be the foundation for the new left? I am not referring to the churches as institutions but to the epistemological ground on which the churches are based. That is, a sense of something deeper about being human that goes beyond the simple-minded rationalism of Dawkins or the kind of superficial rationality that dominates our universities and political thinking. It’s about a deeper notion of human beings joined together in a common project in which compassion is the dominant sentiment that underlies progressive politics. Compassion based not, as in the old Marxist canon, on shared class interests, but something that grows essentially out of our humanity.

Now if you talk to a progressive Anglican, for example, that’s very much the understanding that they have. They will have an extra story about how that compassion is associated with the arrival of Christ on earth, and that he gave his life for us. I respect their views but that doesn’t appeal to me in any way. It just doesn’t do anything for me.

But the left has a problem. In an era when the majority of people, and in many Western countries, a large majority of people live lives of material comfort and even affluence, what is the basis for solidarity? Why should we care about other people? We are living off the moral capital of social democracy; but it is being rapidly depleted. If, as Thatcher said, there is no such thing as society, then there is no such thing as anti-social behaviour.

So I am claiming that it is the ontological ground shared by all religions that could be and should be the ground for a new left politics. Not the institutions themselves, which have in many ways become corrupt. Yet there is a long tradition of social justice in both Catholicism and Protestantism. I think you can combine that sense of compassion for all beings with a blazing determination to overcome and vanquish injustice and inequality.

Regarding sexuality, you’ve written that the left has essentially abandoned the moral discussion, leaving the field to the right. Why do you think it’s important for the left to stake out a moral position in this area and why do you think the left has retreated from making moral claims about sex?

I think the left has retreated from making moral claims about sexuality because people are terrified of being accused of moralising. I was part of the sexual liberation movement in a small way and it was tremendously liberating. But it didn’t have a way of recognising where personal freedoms crossed the boundaries of the perverse. The ideology of the time, which still persists, is that anything goes, the only thing that matters is consent and that any judgement about sexual practices or attitudes is a form of oppression.

It seems to me that one way of finding the depths of humanity is by way of our sexuality. Sex is deep and complex; both wonderful and frightening. It is associated with the most powerful emotions within us. And yet arising out of the 60s and 70s is a one-sided view that sex is an expression of personal freedom. What’s the problem with that? There is a dark and dangerous side to sex. The left refuses to recognise it. Or some set it aside by thinking that only bad people, like rapists, do bad things with sex.

Yet the dangers of treating sex without responsibility became apparent from the outset of “free love”, such as in hippie communes. There was a very powerful view that monogamy and restrictions on sexual partners and sexual practices was oppressive and reflected a kind of neuroticism. So we should all be able to go wherever our urges took us. Of course this was very much a male project. It led to terrible conflict and brutalisation of people’s emotions. Jealousy is a natural human tendency, and attempts to suppress it make us neurotic. I think everyone has had experience of that, one way of another. To pretend that’s not the case leads to all sorts of trouble. Even Catherine Millet, who built a reputation from her memoir of complete sexual abandon, finally confessed to feelings depression and worthlessness from her husbands affairs.

So I think there's been a great cover-up amongst progressives about the dark side of sex and sexuality - particularly in relation to pornography. The dark side has emerged with a vengeance in the spread of porn, particularly internet porn. Many people in the left, particular older ones, have an old-fashioned idea that pornography is just about men and women bonking. They need to go and have a look on their computers, spend an hour or two having a look at what is there on the web: every dark, exploitative and vicious thought that a human being has had about the uses of sex is their in glorious colour on the web.

I worry enormously that there are 14 year old, 12 year old, ten year old boys who are exposed to that sort of stuff. Bestiality, multiple penetrations, rape sites, you name it. The dominant theme is the brutalisation of women.

It's bullshit to say that it's the parents’ responsibility - that's Margaret Thatcher speaking. This is a social problem. Parents don't want to be turned into policeman in their own homes. They want government, the collective, to help them regulate this scourge. That's a progressive position isn't it - to have government regulate dangerous activities on behalf of the collective. There's no question a large majority of parents, of all political persuasions, are worried about it and want something done.

Even five year olds are now reported to be acting out scenes they could only have witnessed in porn videos or websites. The failure of the left to engage in the criticism of pornography has abandoned that territory to the right who have been able to shape the issue in ways that have served their own agenda.

Amongst other genres of porn there's also a proliferation of sado-masochistic practices. It happens to be my view that there's something inherently problematic about S & M even in a situation where it's entirely consenting adults, where both partners are aroused by doing this, and that's certainly sometimes the case: it's not the case that simply all women are coerced into these things by men (though sometimes that is the reality). But it's hard to express this intuition effectively. If there is a moral defect in some consenting sexual practices, what is it? 

I know people baulk at making these sorts of moral judgements but, having thought about it, I don't. When you mix sex and violence there's something wrong. Let’s say it: sex and violence don't belong together and there's something perverse about wanting to play out violent fantasies in the sexual act. Giving consent doesn't in itself make it acceptable, because it normalises violence or implies it's acceptable in certain circumstances. In all other circumstances we praise non-violent activities and when people, for whatever personal reasons, enjoy sexual violence even in a consenting context I think we shouldn't just say “whatever turns you on”. We should say “There's something wrong here”. But people on the left are so terrified of being accused of moralising and therefore of being oppressive that they've abandoned their critical faculties in this area.

Part two to follow...

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