Wishful Feeling: Christianity and Emancipation

Many Christians maintain that their religion “set them free”, or liberated them. Whatever do they mean? I received a Catholic “education” and my descriptives would be far and away from glowing terms employed by the born again. In theory and practice that religion’s representatives meant to stupify the mind.

In keeping with Catholic tradition, separation by gender was implemented as far as was legally acceptable. Girls were expected and then praised to high Heaven for their deference and natural grace. (Tomboyishness – as in: personality – was actively persecuted.) As a reward, they were alloted extra “play time” and allowed to leave for home earlier. Boys were damned with the assumed tautology that we were too “boisterous” (yes, the staff were really that dense), and instructed that sports and a little mathematics were to be the extent of our purview.

John Erskine told students they had a moral, and attainable, obligation to be intelligent. Nothing so affirming here. We were informed regularly which of us was useless, which of us stupid and irreparably so, who was smart – not in the Erskine sense, but that pointed, accusatory way, as in, “oh, Mr Clark, I had no idea you were an expert in ark construction”. We soon learned that harsh words (usually with reference to Hell) and consequences were reserved for any who questioned The Doctrine.

On one occasion, I was told by a bucktoothed shag-weasel named Mrs Smith – her poor, browbeaten and well-meaning husband worked for the same institution – that no one in our class would amount to anything much: no successful businessperson or university scholar would escape the ragged crowd. We were working class and had to accept our lot. This sort of thing will, even at a young age, trigger an overwhelming sense of dejection. Children, we somehow forget, or pretend to not know, have a remarkable capacity for foreboding. It complemented what we were taught as a matter of course; we recited weekly:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And o
rdered their estate

This among a tsunami of verses in All Things Bright and Beautiful, an awful hymn that still retains the ability to sneak attack my consciousness. England has a long history of Christian moralists, working in service to power, excusing hideous societal failings by claiming that eternal bliss awaited their victims in death. That hypocrite Wilberforce arrogantly claimed to be doing God’s work, all the while stamping on the worker and hacking away at the Liberty Tree. Besides chattel slavery*, every terrible excess of the British capitalist class was justified: workhouses, the banning of workplace organisation, and government massacres, including Peterloo. Because, oddly, class distinctions were Heavenly ordained, and by extension contained, even if the racial weren’t.

While he went on to preach about the perfectibility of the British State, with its damnable constitution — has anyone seen it? — and its heroic resistance to reform, starved bodies were being discovered in the Home Counties, half-digested daffodils in their stomachs. Hazlitt, perceptive and brilliant, put it tersely, “[he, Wilberforce,] who preaches vital Christianity to untutored savages, and tolerates its worst abuses in civilised states.”

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William Cobbett satirised this type of Christian. The type who thinks suffering a holy virtue, and considers envy the very worst a pauper can experience.

Come, little children list to me
Whilst I describe your duty
And kindly lead your eyes to see
Of lowliness the beauty

‘Tis true your busy backs are bare
Your lips too dry for spittle
Your eyes as dead as whitings are
Your bellies growl for Vict’al

But, dearest children, oh! Believe
Believe not treach’rous senses!
‘Tis they your infant hearts deceive
And lead into offences

When frost assails your joints by day
And lice by night torment you
‘Tis to remind you oft to pray
And of your sins repent ye

Let dungeons, gags and hangman’s noose
Make you content and humble
Your Heavenly crown you’ll surely lose
Of here on earth you grumble.

Liberation Theology

But, as I’ve alluded to, this isn’t Christianity in toto, and I mustn’t allow the personal make me think so. Cobbett himself was a dedicated believer (he could never reconcile that his hero Thomas Paine was a deist), and despised those clergy that he felt were twisting the Good Word. And hasn’t it been the case that, just as there have been men citing the Old Testament when committing their terrible deeds, they have had their opposite, quoting from the Gospels? There are Bible verses that glory in the freeing of slaves, and there are those that revel in the taking of them – and indeed both sides of the 18th and 19th century debates on the question of owning of Africans made good use of them. There are other verses that teach followers to resist change and new ideas, and others still that seem to instruct believers that they should defiantly question, and if found lacking, overthrow the status quo.

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Does this mean that there’s enough in the Judeo-Christian canon to make any condensing of it arbitrary? While the US-backed juntas of Central and South America paraded Family, Order and the Cross, independent priests and nuns were forming the vanguard of liberation theology. This movement which, until School of the Americas trained thugs put bullets into its leading figures, led with Jesus and made common cause with the socialists. The lies about unending joy following death were put to the wayside. They demanded salvation, in the form of land reform, democracy, adequate healthcare, and the pursuit of happiness, in the material here and now.

But the poor person does not existing as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.

So said Gustavo Gutierrez.

Well meaning as they no doubt were, there was – and will always be – a trap door awaiting all those wishing to employ Christianity for progressive means. It’s got a vindictive and selfish god, scriptural defenses of murder and plunder, it’s got heroes like Lot, and a historical connection to Rome that opens up an entirely new (and terrifying) avenue of dismay. It, in other words, it has baggage.

Cut out the bullshit and get right to the liberation. Real emancipation requires a radical change in the material realm, and to Hell with the spiritual (whatever that is anyway). If something requires an illusion – or is it delusion? – to sustain itself, surely there’s something amiss, the impartial must admit. Can’t people take the socialist pill without the sweet – and deadly – sugar coating of Christianity?

Reason, Slave

The great Richard Carlile, jailed for six years for fighting for an English free press, made the mistake of thinking that all that was required to revolutionise the masses was the propagation of radical literature. Once people read that there was an alternative to superstition and submission, then surely they would reach for the last priest’s entrails and strangle the world’s last king with them. The reasons why this wasn’t so are numerous, although principally it’s thus, people aren’t rational. To expect Man to be led by Reason alone, as he did, is like expecting a flower to be sustained entirely by starlight. It can’t, and we can’t – or at least, we had better not: John Stuart Mill was brought up to experience the world solely in terms of the rationalist utilitarian calculus, and by the age of twenty he found life weary and stale and was ready to die. His relief came chiefly from the poetry of the Romantics.

(And it was to the poetry of William Blake that Clement Attlee’s reforming Labour government turned to in 1951. Even this had its Biblical allusions:

I will not cease from mental strife,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.)

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That’s not to say that Christianity must therefore be the vessel containing the germ of change. Only that appeals to reason alone will not suffice. Marx himself recognised this when, just before he wrote his famous line about the “opium of the people” (one of the best known quotes on the internet and one of the least understood), he described religion as, “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”. This leaves non-religious narratives at a disadvantage, because they haven’t the same recognition – in part because religious regimes have actively cracked down on them – and neither can they promise so much.

A Political Alternative

Yet attempts at an unifying, non-religious and emotive narrative have been made. These efforts (mostly communes), it could be said, have seen success by satisfying itches in those zones of the cortex usually reserved for the religious. Sin becomes alienation and oppression, the saviour figure of Moses, Jesus or Muhammad is replaced by the Collective or class, the moment of salvation and/or rebirth is The Revolution. Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, suggests that were his lead character – a devout and pious man of the cloth – to answer “do you believe in God?” with the negative, he would be a fervent socialist. He sees the overlap as significant, drawing particular attention to utopianism.

In the same way, if he had decided that God and immortality did not exist, he would at once have become an atheist and a socialist. For socialism is not merely the labor question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism to-day, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to heaven from earth but to set up heaven on earth.

But we have to be careful here. Socialist and Christian groups share similarities exactly because they are groups, and all groups have their common objectives, vices and taboos. And it’s no surprise that a dedicated God botherer might make a committed politico – indeed, American politics is awash with those who manage to make an identity of both. More importantly, the socialist project is no illusion. It promises, rather than “spiritual improvement”, implementable solutions rooted in the world we can fairly assume exists. And in its quasi- forms it’s given us such boons as the welfare state, nationalised heathcare, subsidised arts, industries held in common, and trade unions.

What a socialist future can’t guarantee is vicarious redemption, or, for that matter, quick fixes. It won’t free you from the troublesome tendrils of reality. It’s unlikely to answer all of your prayers (yet what does?), and it certainly won’t grant you a personal Jesus.

What it may do is erode the binds of economic exploitation, eliminating what Oscar Wilde called the sordid nessessity of living for others. Allowing individuals to fully realise their innate talents, and the dreams that the pressures of work and capital, at present, suppress. It won’t be perfect, but it promises people a new, higher and more meaningful form of consolation: self-expression. (And if you insist on having concepts like “soul”, you might dedicate your freshly unmanacled mind and body to discovering or defining it. Perhaps without resorting to folk stories and clergymen.)

However, whatever the future brings – socialism or no – it’s unlikely to be “heaven on earth”. For this reason and others, Christianity will endure as source of false hope and sham freedom. Irrevocable as it and all religion may be though, can we at least begin to make them a little less necessary?



*Slavery existed in the colonies, and continued under a different name following “Wilberforce’s” abolition.

Same for sex. On women agitating for the abolition of slavery, “[F]or ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions – these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture“.



Had Its Day? Two Quotes on Religion

Morrison I. Swift, Human Submission

This Cleveland workingman, killing his children and himself, is one of the elemental, stupendous facts of this modern world and of this universe. It cannot be glossed over or minimized away by all the treatises on God, and Love, and Being, helplessly existing in their haughty monumental vacuity. This is one of the simple irreducible elements of this world’s life after millions of years of divine opportunity and twenty centuries of Christ. It is in the moral world like atoms or sub-atoms in the physical, primary, indestructible. And what it blazons to man is the … imposture of all philosophy which does not see in such events the consummate factor of conscious experience. These facts invincibly prove religion a nullity. Man will not give religion two thousand centuries or twenty centuries more to try itself and waste human time; its time is up, its probation is ended. Its own record ends it. Mankind has not sons and eternities to spare for trying out discredited systems…

Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

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. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.

Gun a Nun

What good results from these bothersome penguins?

Some evil murderous bastards posing with Nazi officers

These whistling husks appear to serve two purposes:

1. committing themselves, out of fear and love for a Heavenly Father who doesn’t exist, to great personal suffering

2. taking 1. out on the rest of us

Sticking with 2. (because the first is really their own business): At their most brazen, you can witness these ugly bores scuttling off to countries awash in the victims of starvation and war to preach about how contraception is equal to abortion and abortion is murder. With Bible in one hand and phony charity in the other, they spew dangerous nonsense about the only half-enjoyable activity one has at hand in these places. (One can go to Hell Proper if one wears a rubber apparently.) In the process they make themselves the only virgins I’m aware of which spread AIDs.

And when these sexless beasts aren’t attempting to stamp out physical love in Earth’s many wastelands, they’re teaching their cloth-less sisters about the virtues of slavery. A woman is only something, they squawk, when she’s the property of a man, and she is only a soul worth saving when she’s squirting out children she can’t feed. Preventing, as Christopher Hitchens tirelessly argued, the only known cure for poverty: female empowerment.

Hitchens questions the saintliness of a women who was found in bed with murderous dictators and dodgy millionaires

Indoctrination-cum-molestation centres masquerading as schools have been inflicted on everyone from the Native population of British Columbia to the victims of Franco’s coup, to the stick figures haunting India’s slums. The nuns dug thousands of graves (left unmarked) in the service of their designated Father Torture. The willing congregations haven’t fared all that much better. The poor have been fleeced of their last pennies in exchange for, of all things, a few Hail Marys.

Gimme gimme gimme

The stains left on Ireland, Mexico, the Congo and elsewhere by these satanic harpies will be difficult to remove. But, in respect for their countless victims, we should at least try.



An Atheist and an Agnostic walk into a pub…

Paddy and I have been friends for years. After sixth form we both moved to different cities (in my case to another side of Europe) for studies. We were able to maintain contact because we have more or less similar interests and tend to agree about most things.

There are some things, however, that we have never been able to agree on. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of those things is religion. Although both of us come from Catholic families, neither of us are actually believers. When we were younger, Paddy was an aggressive atheist. I myself believed in the existence of god, souls and a afterlife, but wasn’t religious per se. I didn’t pray, I didn’t go the church and had a different vision of god to the traditional Judeo-Christian one. As such, we had some strong discussions. It never ended in a fistfight, Paddy never called me an idiot for believing in bronze age fairy tales, nor did I call him a heathen.

Since then our religious orientation and beliefs have changed slightly. We, I guess, have matured. Paddy is still an atheist, but he is definitely less hateful towards religion, and I have become an agnostic.

Now we would like to share our views on faith and belief. It will not be a discussion about the existence and nature of god, we will not judge the merit of different religions and beliefs. We will talk why we chose those orientations and what we perceive to be ‘true’ atheism and ‘true’ believers.

Pole: Let me start by explaining what it actually means to be an agnostic. I neither believe nor disbelieve in the existence of god. The basis of agnosticism is a belief or acceptance of the fact, that it is impossible to know anything about god; his nature, his existence, his stance on social, political and moral issues. Hence, I don’t seek answers to the big questions about god or the meaning of life. I also don’t associate or identify myself with any religious group, be that atheists or Christians or anything else.

Paddy: Switzerland would be proud. On possibly the biggest philosophical question of history you’ve decided to sit on the fence. Although there is something admirable in modesty of this kind, to maintain consistency you would also have to declare to be uncertain about the existence of leprechauns, unicorns and Henry Kissinger’s conscience (all of which, you would no doubt agree, are complete fantasy). This is where I derive my atheism. I am not making a claim based on faith, I am considering the merits of other peoples’ claims, and, when it comes to the supernatural, I have found none.

Pole: What do you mean leprechauns aren’t real? Their existence hasn’t been disproved or proved. Just because we haven’t seen one, doesn’t mean they don’t exist and simply believing they exist doesn’t mean they do. But you can’t really compare an almighty being, which created the world to a little man, dressed in green and running around the Irish countryside. You cannot forget that at the basis of each myth there is a grain of truth.

My point is, what we imagine leprechauns to be, might be completely wrong. It doesn’t mean they’re not real. The thing about them though, is that they are still beings of this world, so theoretically, their existence can be proven or disproven. That doesn’t apply to transcendental beings, such as god. (Btw, it appears you have simply fallen victim to very effective leprechaun propaganda. They want you to believe they don’t exist, so you don’t go after that pot of gold. #illuminati)


“Everything is going according to the plan, laddy.”

Paddy: According to your world view anything could conceivably exist, and by extension, nothing can be conclusively proven. Objective truth becomes a redundant concept, the study of history futile. I disagree. The world does have external meaning, we agree on points of reference all of the time. (Sky is up, things fall down, the beauty of Beyonce…)

We shouldn’t be opposed to declaring what we know. We know flowers produce energy through photosynthesis, we know how the force of gravity affects the physical world. Equally we know the religious claims about god defy the known laws of physics. In other words, we know A; claim B contradicts A so can’t we assert confidently B is invalid? Neutrality just seems pointless here.

Pole: Yes. We know A and if B contradicts A, then we can assert B is invalid UNLESS new evidence arises, proving B to be true and falsifying A. The theory of relativity states that nothing can move faster than light and that statement has been the undisputed bedrock of modern physics for decades.  Yet, now scientists are searching for neutrinos, which may in fact be capable of faster than light travel.

Paddy: The discipline of physics may experience paradigm shifts but it’s produced nothing to suggest a god figure – a being that is unaffected by space and time, the laws gravity or solidity – exists. The more we learn about our world the more such a being is shown to be ludicrous.

Archaeologists have disproved the stories of the holy texts, psychology and biology have discarded the soul. Our understanding of the Universe’s workings makes talk re: a guiding hand – being directed by an intelligence interested in some half-apes cruising passed Sol – sound solipsistic (and silly). What else do our religious brethren have? What else do we have to produce to guide them from their misguided paths? And what can be done to show you agnostics that no doubt is necessarily on your part, that you can be certain in (and somewhat proud of) your unbelief?

Pole: Yet again you miss the point. Yes, there is no scientific evidence of god’s existence. I am not disputing that YET the scientific principle dictates: never accept anything as a certainty. The whole point behind all those experiments is assuming that the other guy was wrong, or at least didn’t discover everything there is to know.

No evidence will ever be sufficient to prove or disprove god’s existence. As you said earlier, we should not be afraid to state what we know, but we should also not be ashamed to admit what we don’t know and will never know.

I agree that the existence of god is improbable, but it is not impossible. As dear old Bertrand  Russell would say, there are degrees of probability. Total scepticism serves no purpose. It is asserting that there is no more to know about that subject, thus stopping any advance.

Paddy: We have our evidence that god doesn’t exist. We can explain why the world works the way it does without a supreme omnipotent leader. The discoveries in evolution, gravity, thermodynamics and neuroscience all make short work of any Biblical explanation. No doubt you subscribe to the school that, well, a god could still conceivably have had a hand in all this – even if our scientific explanations do not require him.

I could as easily say that a giant purple teddy bear is responsible for all this – for “guiding” evolution and such – do you welcome this claim with equal merit and respect? If you do, you’re either a fool or lying.

Let me explain: if the former’s the case you claiming you treat every single claim made (regardless of how patently absurd it sounds) with respect, willing to accept, unwilling to deny. However, I do not think you truly thing that way – or any agnostic for that matter – it would mean you’re skeptical 24/7: treating conspiracy theories, maths answers and your sibling’s teasing with equal validity.

Russell was correct to say total skepticism serves no purpose. Agnosticism – the doctrine of the perpetual skeptic – serves no purpose.

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Praise our new lord and saviour.

Pole: There could be a giant purple teddy bear responsible for it all. If someone would start the Church of the Great Purple Teddy Bear, I would ridicule them for it. I would say that it sounds ridiculous, but I could not claim with an absolute certainty that it is not true. There is always a possibility; no matter how small, even if it is only 0.00001%; that any claim is true.

Coming back to my previous argument, I’ve made quite a big mistake there (and you didn’t fail to get on that like a hawk on a helpless wittle wabbit). I have failed to add the word absolute to scepticism. Yes, agnosticism is a doctrine of scepticism, but not a complete one. I agree that biblical claims are probably wrong, and god probably doesn’t exist PROBABLY is the key word here.

The point is. Some things are more probable than others. I can say that it is the movement of tectonic plates that causes earthquakes, because we have evidence for it. But I cannot say with absolute certainty that it isn’t Poseidon, god of the sea, thrusting his trident into the earth and shaking it, even though the former is far more probable.

I cannot stretch or emphasise my point any more: I CANNOT BE ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN, THERE IS ALWAYS DOUBT.

Paddy: As I’ve wrote, modesty is commendable and all that. Doesn’t change the fact, that on this one, I’m right.

Pole: Well. Let’s leave it at that lovely note. We both completely missed the point we set in the introduction. Paddy didn’t waste a second and went on the offensive from the start, a kind of philosophical blitzkrieg. I adopted a more defensive but still wanted to prove him wrong as much as he tried to do that to me. So we’re both to blame.

In any case, we both could go on, but we’ll be walking in circles. The argument continues in When Contrarians Become the Rear-Guard – Why New Atheism is (still) Terrible: http://www.poleandpaddy.com/when-contrarians-become-the-rear-guard-why-new-atheism-is-still-terrible/