God, Sex and the Left (Part 1)

by Clive Hamilton, Alex Doherty

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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First published: 09 November, 2011

Category: Gender equality, Religion

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25 Comments on "God, Sex and the Left (Part 1)"

By neil_c, on 09 November 2011 - 13:28 |

“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? ... We are living off the moral capital of social democracy; but it is being rapidly depleted ... So ...  it is the ontological ground shared by all religions that could be and should be the ground for a new left politics. .”

While I agree - it sounds like something Ernst Bloch already started to do for the left -  the question is why, and if so how, would the ontological ground of religion be any more of a promising basis for solidarity without a major change in material circumstance first? I look forward to part 2.

By ChrisR, on 09 November 2011 - 15:05 |

I’m very relieved that the interviewee here has an ontological critique of Dawkin’s adolescent stance on God (playground analytic positivism?) and that the possibility of metaphysical or symbolic truths is raised. For a horrible moment I thought Hamilton might be a new atheist. In my limited experience, bizarre at it may seem, there is such as thing as healthy, consenting sado masochism, although I’d imagine it’s a fairly niche thing.

By George, on 09 November 2011 - 19:12 |

I would have thought that a major change in material circumstance is not going to happen without some kind of revolutionary movement. And such a movement obviously requires solidarity. The solidarity would have to come first. The question therefore is: What will provide the ontological ground for such solidarity?

By ChrisR, on 10 November 2011 - 09:34 |

Just thinking - or writing - aloud here, if neo-liberalism were able to provide material comfort and affluence for the majority, there may not be a need for a revolutionary moment. I would think that the inherent dysfunctions or internal contradictions of neo-liberalism (poverty, inequality, emiseration) - both within the developed world and in the exploited developing world - will provide cause for solidarity? In fact, we might be seeing that today? Looking for a specifically ‘new’ basis for solidarity seems a bit philosophicallty problematic to me. Just some thoughts!

By Seb B, on 10 November 2011 - 13:41 |

Yet another half-baked critique of the New Atheists along the lines of ‘metaphorical’, ‘symbolic’, ‘metaphysical’ truth. It’s an expression often used and that superficially sounds plausible – until one must consider: what is such a non-literal truth? “Whether God exists or not is a scientific question”, not one to be absolved of evidential scrutiny by re-labelling it as symbolic: is there any evidence? Is it coherent? Is it logical? This is not ‘playground atheism’, it is science; and as long as misdirected ideas such as ‘non-literal’ – that is, ‘non-evidential’ – truth are raised, it will be all too easy for gap theologians to hide behind the non-overlapping magisteria argument (which Dawkins also discusses). Fundamentally, if religion is to play any role in society (and I recognise the powerful force for good it can be), it should be as a focal point of compassion, as I think you rightly note – but for atheism to be antithetical to this is ridiculous: the “simple-minded rationalism of Dawkins” should be seen as concluding an hypothesis (God) that should have fallen by the wayside centuries ago.

By Chris R, on 10 November 2011 - 16:19 |

A non-literal truth might be something like an aphorism or a saying. For example - ‘what goes around comes around’. The truth of the statement is personal and arises out of lived experience and life. It can’t be falsified or empirically proven and the saying loses it (hermeneutic) meaning if the terms used are defined in order that it can be subjected to an analytic-positivistic test (unlike, say, ‘all cats are black’). What is important is that because all humans are born and will die, non-literal truths (e.g. ‘love is all’ or even ‘maths is beautiful’) have a higher and deeper meaning for humans than scientific truths (such as ‘H2O turns to a gas at 100 oC’). I am also wondering - what’s wrong with Gould’s non-overlapping magesteria argument? And why ‘should’ God have fallen by the wayside by now? ‘Should’ is, after all, a normative and non-scientific term.

By Chris R, on 10 November 2011 - 16:24 |

‘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’

The more I look at this phrase, the more surprised I am by it, and the more I disagree with it. But I am very curious about it, because I don’t think the NLP should just be a group of like-minded lefties all agreeing with each other all the time. Dischord is healthy! I think that consenting S&M is perfectly fine and we should protect its practicioners because we’re democratic socialists. But at the same time, I would genuinely love to read more about why it might be problematic because, well, it would just be really interesting to read!

By Seb B, on 10 November 2011 - 18:55 |

I respectfully suggest that ‘non-literal truth’ (and your (Chris) several examples) are abuses of the term ‘truth’: it may well resonate with some/many people (as you note), but to call it ‘truth’ is wrong. “What goes around come around” is simply another form of belief or subjective opinion: no matter how many people accepted it this would not endorse its truth, merely its acceptability, plausibility, or aesthetic value (or even persons’ gullibility) – only evidence analysed under controlled conditions could do this.

Truth, if it to mean anything at all, is whatever can be proven beyond reasonable doubt, and the more precise the predictions of a theory the better (more useful) it is and less likely to be wrong. Moreover, echoing Hume in particular, we must treat all knowledge with varying degrees (though hardly equal) but at least some fundamental degree of scepticism for the single reason that countervailing evidence may challenge what we currently understand – so far, so accepted for centuries. But to accept this and then accuse Dawkins or science as lacking humility – as Hamilton implies (“It still may have a yes or no answer, but whatever answer you give is given with more humility”) – on the God hypothesis just doesn’t pass muster. There is nothing fundamentalist about the New Atheist enterprise: it is simply a more confident demand that the absence of evidence should be finally accepted as evidence of absence; it is the claim that God probably does not exist – the right balance of analytic rigour and humility.

I specified *God* should have fallen by the wayside because as a truth claim it falls well short of the standards we should now require of it. Humans still have a need to congregate and communise, and I think this partly explains the endurance of religious communities, particularly in increasingly individualistic societies, so it is wrong to assume all communal worshippers are believers. It simply reflects the aesthetic value of religious belief and of music and art (produced even by atheists and agnostics, as I am confident most people know now). It is tradition, not belief proper.

By Alex, on 10 November 2011 - 19:56 |

Great to see some interesting comments here people. I might contribute more on the issue of sexuality later but just to say @chris R you say  “I think that consenting S&M is perfectly fine and we should protect its practicioners because we’re democratic socialists” It does not at all follow that believing that S &M is harmful therefore entails regulation of that practice or its suppression. Just as I might think it’s harmful and wrong to be rude to other people it doesn’t therefore mean that I must advocate laws enforcing politeness. It is troubling that whenever critiques of sexual practices or pornography are made readers are so often quick to assume that those making the critique are arguing for the outlawing of those activities and it unfortunately has the effect of often shutting down debate or steering it away from more important aspects of the topic.

By George, on 10 November 2011 - 20:07 |

“Dawkins or science”?

Is Dawkins synonymous with “science”?

Also “evidence analysed under controlled conditions” is of no use to most people getting on with their lives. Where are the controlled conditions outside of a laboratory?

The belief that there is a God who demands compassion could move people to actually do something. What are we supposed to do with the “selfish gene”? And – since genes have no selves – is “selfish gene” not as much of an oxymoron as “virgin birth”?

By Jamie, on 10 November 2011 - 20:22 |

George: the scientific method is useful to “most people getting on with their lives”, given that those lives profoundly benefit in all sorts of ways from the discoveries made using that method. In any case the point about it is precisely that it provides a much better, surer way of testing hypotheses about reality (i.e. about the way the physical world is) than ‘common sense’ or intuition or any other method we know about it. That you can’t conduct a scientific experiment while walking down the street is true, but I don’t know what consequences you think follow from it.

Religious belief can (and does) indeed motivate people to do things, both good and bad. It does not hold a monopoly on providing motivational force, though, and there is something to be said, I think, for the idea that it is better for action to be motivated by truth than by delusion.

The “selfish gene” is a metaphor: Dawkins isn’t saying that genes are literally “selfish” (they can’t be) nor that they make people selfish (he says they don’t). He argues that natural selection happens on the level of the gene, because the gene is the unit of replication, and hence the only unit on which natural selection could act. Natural selection selects those genetic mutations that, in the context of their environment (other genes; the surrounding world; etc.), improve the chances that the gene will be able to replicate itself. So - to switch back to metaphorical language - from the gene’s ‘point of view’, the only thing it is ‘trying’ to do is replicate itself. But again, Dawkins isn’t saying that genes are literally selfish - plainly genes are not the kind of things that have personality traits.

By Jamie, on 10 November 2011 - 20:34 |

I agree with Seb that this idea of “symbolic truth” is a slippery one. I’d like to know more about what is meant by it. The scientific method is a way of testing hypotheses about the physical world based on empirical evidence. Science therefore has in principle something to say about all propositions that make some claim about the nature of the physical world.

Many people clearly take religion to make such claims, and I don’t see why it is “fundamentalist” of Richard Dawkins or anyone else to observe that the claims are not supported by, and often contradicted by, the available evidence. 

If one strips away the factual claims made by religious texts and thoughts, then one can interpret them as a kind of ethics or as works of literature. If one views the Bible, say, as simply a great book, or as a source for moral guidance, then that puts it out of the domain of the natural sciences. But Dawkins wouldn’t disagree with that (on the contrary he has explicitly made that point). In that case, though, I don’t see the sense in which the Bible would be a source of “truths”.

By George, on 10 November 2011 - 21:15 |

I suppose I may be too hard on Dawkins. He seems a nice chap. I met him once.


Dawkins calls “the selfish gene” a metaphor but you have to be careful with such devices i.e. if they don’t mean exactly what they say but are, nevertheless, appropriate then we must ask “In what way are they appropriate?” Dawkins would never stomach some “religious nut” trying to get away with saying the Bible is full of metaphors. He wants to know exactly what such devices mean.

Now Dawkins’ use of “selfish” doesn’t actually mean selfish. In fact it means something like “self replicating” which is frankly rather banal and if Dawkins had called his book “The self replicating gene” it would have generated as much interest as a book called “The green grass”. No – it is the common meaning of the term “selfish” which made Dawkins book such a hit. And – I fear – it is the common meaning of “selfish” that most will take away from it.

By Seb B, on 10 November 2011 - 21:31 |

George: I wasn’t treating Dawkins and science as synonymous – but an alleged lack of humility is a frequent (and I think utterly spurious) criticism levelled at both. That is why I was so surprised to see it again here.

Further to my (and Jamie’s) comments regarding ‘symbolic truth’: they were not intended to denigrate the value of religious and metaphysical symbols, but to emphasise that they are not truths – they are symbols and metaphors, rather than symbolic truths or metaphorical truths. This is a crucial distinction – again, one that I was surprised to see elided in this interview.
The jury is out on S&M.

By Jamie, on 10 November 2011 - 22:56 |

George: I think one can fairly criticise his choice or use of metaphor in this case as being misleading. But nonetheless for the purposes of this discussion, his “selfish gene” idea doesn’t contradict his critique of religious truth-claims.

I don’t think it’s right to call The Selfish Gene ‘banal’: plainly it was common knowledge that genes replicate, but Dawkins (building on the work of others) drew out the implications of that for evolutionary science in an extremely compelling and insightful way.

By neil_c, on 11 November 2011 - 00:18 |

I am not qualified to say whether religious and metaphysical statements are ‘truths’ in some sort of a philosophical sense –  personally I’d be perfectly content to talk about different truths – scientific, religious, artistic etc  - but I feel it’s a pity from a practical/political point of view that some commentators here seem to reject the NOMA hypothesis outright.  While it’s true that the boundary between the domains is uncertain and shifting and there is frequent straying  -  from both sides  - I don’t see that this overturns the fundamental intellectual validity and utility of the concept.  
It depresses me a little to hear many leftist intellectuals extolling Dawkins and the new Atheism when they could be exploring and reflecting on the rich intellectual heritage of thinkers closer to ‘home’ (including Marx, Freud, Durkheim and their later disciples) who had a far more complex and intelligent critical engagement with religion. They’re probably not rigorously positivist enough for some commentators here. 

Most importantly, I think Hamilton and I would argue that it is counter-productive and intellectually impoverishing to the left to denigrate or ignore noetic beliefs (i.e. based on inner wisdom, direct knowing, or subjective understanding)  and motivations derived from these sources because they are not derived from (scientific) truths, and, it is implied,  therefore possibly delusions.  I therefore also find it depressing that (with some honourable exceptions) the main bulk of comments have been debates about the nature of truth rather than about the bases of solidarity and praxis. I feel like I’m back in an academic tutorial (a long time ago) ... and I’m not interested. 

By Jamie, on 11 November 2011 - 00:41 |

neil_c: speaking just for myself, I’ve been engaged in a very narrow discussion here, focusing solely (in response to comment that were already made) on whether Dawkins’ criticisms of religious truth-claims are generally correct. I think they are - certainly I don’t find the enterprise wrong in principle - and think some of the criticisms of it one often finds on the left, particularly those that go on to question the value of the scientific method itself, frustrating.

But like I said, that’s a very narrow discussion. I think when Dawkins et al. stray beyond critiquing religion on epistemological and methodological grounds into the arena of sociology, I think they tend to go seriously awry. I think it’s very important to study seriously religious institutions, beliefs and sentiments as political and historical phenomena, and I certainly wouldn’t advocate ignoring or dismissing them. Still less would I say that the fact that religion is a poor basis for testing factual claims precludes solidarity with religious people, or precludes the latter from having good politics. In general, I think there should be much more discussion about all of this than there is, which is one of the reasons I find the ‘New Athiests’ so annoying, and also one of the reasons why I wish some people on the left would stop making ‘anti-science’-style critiques of Dawkins (so they can focus their energies on making more serious ones). So I agree in general with your comment here:

“I therefore also find it depressing that (with some honourable exceptions) the main bulk of comments have been debates about the nature of truth rather than about the bases of solidarity and praxis.”

By Jamie, on 11 November 2011 - 00:43 |

(Also I don’t really see that acceptance or not of NOMA has any obvious political consequences. Its relevance, it seems to me, is to the narrow epistemological debate about religion, not to the sociological understanding of religion or to political questions about how to engage with religious beliefs/movements/people.)

By Chris R, on 11 November 2011 - 10:32 |

Hi Alex - thanks very much for your reply. I’m sorry if I assumed that you wanted to ban or regulate S&M rather than engage with it and critique it in a more sophisticated fashion. I’m just thinking aloud again here but perhaps we can make a sort of distinction that could help. I would say that our society has become more aggressive sexually and that images, symbols and instances of women (and other marginalised groups) being humiliated, degraded and sexually objectified have become more prevelent and that the left needs to engage with this trend without feeling that it is being prudish or puritanical. In fact I think the left is strating to be more assertive about this and that’s really good. I think we probably agree with each other on this and I think we probably agree that neoliberalism is one the main drivers in this nasty trend. My concern is that S&M practices do appear to be enjoyed in healthy and unexploitative way by a minority of people and I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying that kinky, leather-clad shenanigans are ‘wrong’. I’m not saying that you are saying this though, it’s just that there is the potential for sliding into a condemnation of out-of-the-ordinary sex practices. It seems to be part of the Blue Labour thing too, I think. Perhaps one of the key issues though is poverty. Women trapped in poverty are much more likely to have to turn to prostitution than wealthy women, and the majority of women who are humiliated and degraded on the internet and in pornography in brutal fashion to satisfy the dysfunctional and misogynist desires are doing so because of the material conditions they face. Most sex workers in the UK are single mothers, for example. So perhaps we can actually say that, just as poverty causes religion (Marx), so poverty causes sexual humiliation and exploitation? By the way - isn’t it rather bizarre that I am, in soemw ays, defending both religion and S & M? Or perhaps they go together… ah, the dungeon…


By neil_c, on 11 November 2011 - 11:24 |

It seems to me that if you don’t accept NOMA then you are unlikely to accord respect and sovereignty to both domains (since you don’t recognise there are two distinct domains); it’s an easy next step to begin colonising and conquering the other domain with your own intellectual methods and ideologies. This inevitably has political consequences. For instance, think of the link between creationism and religious fundamentalism and conservatism; of the great historical conflicts over scientific advances e.g. Galileo, Darwin; and of the influence of evolutionary theory on socio-political ideology and its consequences. Without mutual respect it would be very difficult to build co-operation and solidarity on a political level and it seems to me that NOMA shores up the distinction and tries to preserve the peace.

By Tom, on 11 November 2011 - 11:44 |

A very interesting discussion.  To me the major problem with the critiques produced by the ‘New Atheists’ is that it they tend to assume that religious people are motivated in their political and social actions by the metaphysical or cosmological truth-claims that they seek to debunk.  It seems to me that if we take seriously the idea that religious texts and institutions are socially constituted, then this is rather foolish.  The various religious texts (like the Bible) which are used by religious people to guide and justify actions are hugely varied, and often contradictory, and so plainly cannot form the basis for political/ethical action outside of an interpretive process which is necessarily social and political (and of course we could add that the texts themselves emerge in particular social and political contexts).  This is why all this talk about ‘taking the Bible literally’ is such nonsense – it’s impossible to do so without selection and interpretation, and that process takes place in the real world of politics and power.  In the case of civil rights in the US, for example, both racists and anti-racists used religious ideas to defend and to challenge racism.  Where does this leave non-religious people dedicated to humane politics?  I think perhaps the fact that a text or tradition to which the non-believer feels no connection is used as the basis for political action makes dialogue between religious and non-religious people more laboured, but I don’t think it follows that the value judgments made by the former are necessarily irrational.

By Seb B, on 11 November 2011 - 13:52 |

NOMA’s principal relevance in this context is really the way it allows the ‘different kinds of ‘truth’’ perspective (with which I initially took issue) to take hold; and it allows for science to be presented as ‘fundamentalist’ simply for insisting on proper evidence for any truth-claim to be taken seriously. To address Jamie’s question (“I don’t really see that acceptance or not of NOMA has any obvious political consequences”): just consider how this may be presented in education (most notably with Creationism in the US and faith schooling in the UK); or religious bigotry (often permitted) compared to irreligious bigotry (often condemned). NOMA effectively safeguards ‘non-literal truth’ from scrutiny. This should not be conflated with disrespect, as neil_c implicitly suggests, simply that all truth claims should be taken seriously, and if found wanting they should be publicly disregarded.
And Tom’s point (“‘New Atheists’...tend to assume that religious people are motivated…by…metaphysical or cosmological truth-claims”) is, I think, only partly true: the more particular case that the NAs make is that belief in God makes an uncritical, non-independent worldview more likely. Therefore, religious belief is quite at odds with the critical, scrutinising approach of science and reason. By all means preserve the aesthetic advantages of religion, but at least sever its ties with the antiquated and inferior tradition of belief. A culturally informed Left should allow its citizens to enjoy their traditions – but for it to enjoy the status of truth and yet be safeguarded from scrutiny is not justifiable.

By ChrisR, on 11 November 2011 - 16:04 |

I see what your saying Seb and I understand and sympathise with the point that something should only be said to be true if it is empirically observable or falsifiable. I understand that if we allow other forms or defintions of ‘truth’ we might be slipping into a sort of nihilistic, subjectivist relativism. And I know from personal experience that it can be really unpleasant to argue a point on a message thread when many people are arguing against you! (unless it’s Harrys Place of course, where its just fun). However, I think it’s incorrect to say that if the left understands truth to have more than one definition (e.g. the statement ‘we can never be completely happy’) we are in danger of inadvertently promoting or excusing religious fundamentalism. This is because socio-economic class relations promote religious fundamentalism, not ideas. It was the Chicago boys and the Republican’s cunning ‘Southern strategy’ that led to the resurgance in Southern Baptist mania, not a sudden upsurge in religious mania per se. Because the New Atheists do not engage with social, economic and historical relations (Dawkins on the Isael-Palestine conflict for example), they often seem to argue that religion itself causes various ills, without realising that religion is ‘superstructural’. I think we can say that there are other definitions of truth - ‘personal truth’ rather than ‘scientific truth’ - which actually have more meaning (in the hermeneutic sense) to humankind because we are ontological rather than epistological beings. However, for any subjective, metaphorical or symbolic truth to be used as anything other than a highly personal guide towards wisdom and happiness would, as you say, be dangerous. It’s interesting that no one yet has raised the fact that the New Atheists supported the disastrous war on terror and I suspect that’s one the reasons they are so unpopular on the left.

By Seb B, on 12 November 2011 - 13:21 |

ChrisR: ‘personal truth’ is not ‘truth’ – it is a value, much like morality or a love of Beethoven or sculpture. An individual may or may not have particular reasons for loving or valuing something, but are you honestly suggesting that Beethoven or the Mona Lisa are ‘true’ and that you can prove it? Or that (for instance) you prize them very highly? The latter still allows for the “more hermeneutic meaning”, but recognises that your doing so is not the result of proof but a reflection of what is a more involuntary phenomenon of enjoyment or fulfilment. This does not make it less meaningful, but that ‘truth’ does not essentially rely on opinion but on evidence.

Socio-economic class relations are historically (evidentially) the most fertile grounds for most kinds of extremism, but at least non-religious extremists are on much trickier ground in establishing their ideologies as absolute – that is, ‘true’. Religious ideologues, by contrast, can and do readily proclaim this. Therefore, challenging their claim to ‘truth’ is vital in the interests not only of scientific endeavour but also of individual liberty. Consequently, the NAs’ insistence that religious ‘truths’ be subject to the same criteria as all truth claims should be welcomed because it should have been obvious from the outset. I am staggered that the interviewee seems so preoccupied with reconciling the Church with the Left that he strongly appears to overlook so many basics – most notably, ‘truth’ (science) and ‘personal meaning’ (religion).

By eustatic, on 29 December 2011 - 16:43 |

this is a great book concerning the sexual issues raised by this article.  


I also recommend “the ethical slut”  


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