Revolution #126, April 13, 2008
Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World
A Challenge to Take Up, Engage With, and Promote
Away With All Gods!
With the publication of Bob Avakian’s Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World, a highly fraught political and ideological moment meets an author who can powerfully speak to the questions posed by that moment. At a time of broad controversy and debate over religion—on a scale unprecedented in recent times—and over ideology more generally, Avakian’s book fills a unique need with power. . . and poetry.
Avakian goes deeply into the content of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as the more general religious impulse. He demystifies religion, demonstrating the historical basis for its rise, and continued dominance, in the material roots of society. He lays bare the ways in which all these religions buttress patriarchy and the oppression of women, and convincingly exposes the killing nature of the forms of “consolation” that they provide to the enslaved and oppressed. He thoroughly analyzes and demolishes the philosophical underpinnings of a whole range of religious apologists, and shows as well their political limitations (even while laying out areas of unity in some cases). And all this is marshaled to even more clearly bring forward the vision of a truly emancipated society—and to more sharply lay out and convey the truly emancipatory method people absolutely need to get to that society.
There are many critiques of religion now out there; and there are many replies to those critiques. But there is nothing like this book out there.
The challenge that now falls to us, the readers of this paper, is to take up and engage with this book; to get it out there, now, very broadly into society; and in so doing, to be part of recasting the ideological polarization in society.
The Battle(s) Over Religion
Perhaps the most salient feature of the political and ideological life of our times is the recrudescence—a new outbreak—of religion. Like a disease that you think you may be getting over but then comes back in an even more vicious way, religion has over the past 30 years permeated every sphere of life, including but not limited to the political. And this has taken the form of organized ignorance. Throughout vast reaches of the oppressed nations—in particular the Middle East, Asia, and parts of Africa—Islamic fundamentalism exerts a magnetic force on those seeking a way out. In other oppressed regions, like Latin America, different brands of Christianity, especially Pentecostalism, have emerged to speak to those same desires. In the imperialist U.S., Christian fundamentalism has arisen in the past 25 years to become a dominant force with a great deal of initiative up to the White House itself—and every presidential candidate takes great pains to profess their religion and often to cast their program in religious terms.
These forces all aim to speak to the widespread “crisis of meaning” that has accompanied the massive changes in society that have created conditions where fundamentalisms could adapt to contradictions and grow—not without conscious backing of the ruling class, but also because they reflected some of the underlying dynamics in the base of society. These include the ways in which feudal forms of production and relations, and even things that people in capitalist countries have previously taken for granted (secure jobs, etc.), have been radically transformed. It also includes the generally heightened parasitism of society in the imperialist countries, and the profound feelings of dislocation, social alienation, uncertainty, and emptiness that accompany all these changes.
The radical changes in the position of women—and the resistance to those changes, especially as it takes the form of the reassertion of traditional religion—have been one extremely sharp expression of this. Marx said that capitalism creates a society of constant change, where “all that is solid melts into air.” This has been especially so in these past decades, and this too can aggravate a crisis in epistemology and morality. When you add to this the defeats of the communist project in the Soviet Union and China and the failure of secular nationalism in the oppressed nations, there is tremendous uncertainty that provides soil for this religious “revival.”
There is very important work to be done in exposing the backward political programs of these forces—and that is one important, even very important, facet of Away With All Gods! But there is an even larger importance to this book in the battle over epistemology—the battle over not just what people think, but HOW they think. In taking on—and taking seriously—the key forms of religious thought, from fundamentalism to the “soft” upholding of religion by Karen Armstrong—Avakian provides people with the tools to analyze the problems in method and approach at the base of all these varied forms of religion and religious thinking. (Anyone wanting a basic course in critical thinking could do far worse than to start with Away With All Gods!)
Communism, as the Communist Manifesto put it, is the most radical rupture not only in the realm of production relations but also in the realm of ideas. However, this foundational insight has been, and continues to be, downplayed and even negated by people who are, or claim to be, communist.
Away With All Gods!, in a highly ideological time, provides people with one hugely important and potent tool to carry out that second radical rupture—a necessary and essential part of getting to revolution, and of bringing forward a revolutionary people as the key to that (which will in turn provide the basis to emancipate the mind and, yes, the spirit on a far greater scale!).
Forging Emancipators of Humanity
There is no denying that, in the wake of the 1960s rebellions and the relative ebb that followed, religion has radically increased its grip on the oppressed. And there is no shortage of people in the various social movements—and again, even some claiming to be communists—who either want to adapt to that or at minimum shy away from challenging that grip.
One of the most powerful and passionate strands in Avakian’s book is his refusal to go along with that—and, more than that, his undeniable case on the damage done by religion. Avakian makes clear the importance of taking on this poison among the oppressed and, as part of that, penetratingly criticizes as well the “smug arrogance of the enlightened”—people who both look down on those who are caught up in religion and then refuse to struggle with the masses over these beliefs that enslave them.
As a key part of challenging this grip, Avakian himself goes deeply into the historic, and current-day, relation between religion and the oppression of Black people in the U.S. He refuses the “contempt” of those who think that the masses “can’t be challenged with the truth and can’t come to embrace the truth and wield it to emancipate themselves and to emancipate all humanity.” The truth, as he powerfully states at one point, is that “Oppressed people who are unable or unwilling to confront reality as it actually is, are condemned to remain enslaved or oppressed.”
Clearly this book must find a wide audience in the communities of the oppressed—challenging many and giving heart to those who right now feel suffocated by the weight of this deadly chain.
Reversing the Polarization Among Intellectuals
The situation among the more “enlightened” strata is somewhat different. While there are way too many concessions to religious thought among these strata—including no small number who have turned away from rational thinking and enthusiastically taken up religious thinking—there has also arisen a very active atheist current. This is overall a very positive thing.
But too many in this current have tried to cast this as a battle between an imperialist enlightenment and an obscurantism arising in the oppressed parts of the world—and, in particular, have focused most of their anti-religious fire against Islam. With someone like Christopher Hitchens, this has gone along with a very openly pro-imperialist program and stance.
Among others who are commenting and writing on the dangers of Christian fundamentalism, there are people like Christopher Hedges; he takes very progressive stances against imperialism, but then casts religion as the only thing protecting the individual conscience, insists on the concept of sin, and opposes atheism on that basis.
Those who want neither imperialism nor obscurantism—and more than that, those who hunger for a truly liberating vision of society, based on collective liberation but valuing individuality—have nowhere to turn in the current lineup of the controversy, if these are seen as the only alternatives. Away With All Gods! stands out in that way; note the question that is posed, and answered, at the very end: “As opposed to being enslaved to things seen, and ‘things unseen,’ what would it really feel like, and what would it mean, to be free?” It is very rare that this question is even posed in these days of lowered expectations; that Away With All Gods! dares to pose it, and to point to the answer, demands a certain sort of courage on the part of those who would engage, and spread, its message. That it does so as powerfully as it does points to a great potential to radically change the terms of things.
Help Make This Book a Major Social Question
There are many people who need this book, and many sectors of society which it must penetrate. In the communities of the oppressed and in the truly hellish prisons, where people are force-fed religion...in the high schools and universities, where atheist and agnostic clubs are beginning to emerge...among the educated and progressive, and among those hungering for enlightenment...this book must reach.
April should be a time when this book emerges onto the scene with great impact. Several important programs and debates have already been scheduled around its content; these can help highlight the urgency of the themes in this book and should be built for maximum impact.
Of great importance is a special effort being mounted on Sunday, April 20, to get word of this book out everywhere. Every communist, every radical, and every progressive-minded person should find the ways to be part of this. The weeks going into this should be witnessing talks in classrooms, salons, serious study groups, and contingents of people going out into the community and challenging people to detox from the most damaging, slavish narcotic of all—religion...challenging them to unchain their minds and radically change the world. Bring your annotated Bibles and Qu’rans, take out plenty of copies of Away With All Gods!, and take on all comers. And the weeks following this effort should be weeks where new openings are seized and all this gets carried further.
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