Revolution #147, November 16, 2008
On The Road with Away With All Gods!
Flash: On Thursday, November 20, an overflow crowd of 200 heard Sunsara Taylor, Massimo Pigliucci and Paul Eckstein in an exchange on “Morality Without Gods,” at New York University in New York City. Sponsored by Atheists, Agnostics & Humanists at NYU and Equal Time for Freethought radio WBAI- NY, the presentations, the exchange between the panelists, and the engagement with the audience was an intense and invigorating experience—something there needs to be much more of!
Watch it on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-jDpdbVff4.
Since early October, Revolution correspondent Sunsara Taylor has been on a national campus speaking tour, giving talks on the recent book by Bob Avakian, Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World. The Away With All Gods! tour brought Taylor before high school classrooms, and to groups who are part of the growing secular, atheist & freethought movement on college campuses. Tour stops included Sonoma State University, sponsored by Project Censored lecture series; the University of California, Berkeley; Stanford University, sponsored by Atheists, Humanists & Agnostics; and two public high schools. Other events on the tour included an appearance at UCLA sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion; the Santa Monica Public Library; Campus Atheists and Secular Humanists at University of Minnesota; Amazon Bookstore Cooperative in Minneapolis; Cleveland State University sponsored by the Department of Black Studies; and a program on “Morality Without Gods—An Exchange” at NYU, sponsored by Equal Time for Freethought on WBAI-NY and Atheists, Agnostics & Freethinkers at NYU.
On November 6, Sunsara Taylor was part of a colloquium sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA on “Away With All Gods—Possibility or Fantasy?” with Dr. S. Scott Bartchy, Director of the Center. Revolution is publishing correspondence from Sunsara Taylor about these events. (See Revolution #147 and #148 for Parts 1 and 2. The entire correspondence is available now online at revcom.us.) For more information about the Away With All Gods! tour, and to arrange interviews with Sunsara Taylor, check out www.awaywithallgods.com.
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The audiences at each of the events have been very broad, even as they have varied at each event. They have included people who are questioning their religious beliefs, committed atheists, firm believers who have come to argue for their religion, libertarians (there is a strain of right-wing Ayn Rand type folks in the atheist scene), Bible-believing Christians (this was mostly at the high schools), and quite a bit more.
My presentation highlights several themes in the book and I read several passages from Away With All Gods!, including the opening called, “God Works in Mysterious Ways.” I do a lot of exposure of the content of the Bible and I get into what is wrong with religion and the tradition of Jesus even at its “best.” I discuss what is the basis for morality without gods, the danger of Christian fascism including Palin and the way that Obama has helped legitimate and not to challenge this whole direction, and I give a glimpse of the very end of the book of what it would be like with no more belief in gods and no more suffering that makes people feel the need to seek solace in make-believe.
Some highlights from the road:
At Sonoma a young woman was brought there by a friend. Her mother had not allowed her to take anthropology so she wouldn’t be taught evolution. This young woman was a bit “white-knuckled” by the whole event and wouldn’t say anything after it was over except that she was a believer. Her friend, on the other hand, also grew up conservative Christian. Now she is 18 and after the event said very quietly, “Your talk... made me so.... happy.” She was grinning and fidgeting and looking at the ground. She was very shy. Asked why it made her so happy, she said she had stopped believing when she was about 16, but had never heard anyone explain logically why god doesn’t exist and that belief in god is harmful. Even as she had spontaneously gravitated towards these views, she had never articulated them and it was apparent looking at her that hearing this really had made her genuinely happy.
At the Stanford event, during the Q&A two guys challenged me to study ancient Greek and Latin because, they claim, in the original texts of the Bible god is referred to in gender-neutral language and that the patriarchy wasn’t in “god’s original word” but was smuggled in later by humans. In this, they were trying to unite with the thrust of my comments against the church and fundamentalism, but to do so in a defense of the “true” word of the lord. I got into how patriarchy wasn’t only in the reference to the Lord as male, although that is definitely the case, but saturated throughout the commandments and stories told in the Bible—like the commandments to women to obey and submit to their husbands, or the accounting that Bob Avakian does in his book of why all the “begats” are in the Bible which trace the male lineage of Jesus down from the ancient Jewish patriarchs to Joseph, even though Joseph supposedly had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus!) After this an Indian student (there was a small group of Indian atheists who came to the event) got in on challenging these two other audience members. The defender of “god’s true word” had said, “Who cares about the church, I am talking about the lord...” and the Indian student responded, “I care about the church, because it is doing horrible things and shaping people’s lives today in a big way, including women’s lives...” This was quite good.
One of the other Indian students came and talked to me after the event and asked what I thought of the relationship between globalization and the rise of fundamentalism. He observed that in India both of them really took off in tandem in the mid-nineties. He’d been part of a rationalist group that took atheism to the rural areas in northwestern India but found it extremely difficult because everything about people’s lives was structured around religion: their beliefs, their social order, even the local governments (even as they were supposed to be secular). He wasn’t ready to give up on bringing atheism to people, but seemed very challenged as to how it could ever take hold.
I discussed with him what is raised in Away With All Gods! and some of Avakian’s other works about the way that globalization has brought modernity to millions of oppressed peoples around the world together with profound horrors that have uprooted them from their homelands and thrust them into desperate and exploitative conditions. Also, how this has combined with the loss of revolutionary China and the dream of revolution for millions as a way to liberation in the real world to set the stage for such a rapid and pernicious growth of fundamentalism. While acknowledging that there are some different particularities to India, there is a need to go at this on many levels. It is very important to go out directly with atheism and science, but also with a revolutionary way out. Further, there is an impact that people can have on the whole atmosphere in the world from this country. Avakian has spoken to the importance of building resistance to the crimes of imperialism right here within this country that is powerful enough it can’t be hidden from the people of the world and that this gives more “oxygen” to breathe to those who are secular and revolutionary in various places around the world where fundamentalism is growing. The guy was very taken by this—it seemed to be a brand new thought, trying to figure out how to repolarize society and the world on these questions and that we should go at this at many levels.
There were two very big questions that came up repeatedly from people generally, but particularly from people who considered themselves atheists and part of the secular community.
1. “Isn’t spreading atheism too much like the way religious people spread their religion?” Or, another way it came up: “I don’t want to be part of telling people what to think.” This went together with a tendency, on the part of atheists, to downplay the questions of methodology. Even among big advocates of the scientific method, it still wasn’t always appreciated how this relates to challenging the religious mentality and why this is a VERY GOOD THING to do.
2. “If you don’t believe in god, where do you get your morality from?” Some atheists offered answers like “empathy” and “being good to other people.” While these reflect very good sentiments, in many ways they don’t get beyond all the problems identified in Away With All Gods! with the second of Jesus’ two major commandments (to “love your neighbor as yourself.”) This can’t provide a morality for society as a whole, especially in a world as filled with oppressive divisions and as in need of radical transformation as this one. (If you love the slave-master you cannot really love the slave and if you act in the interests of the slave you will be acting against the interests of the slave-master.)
Also, some raised—and this was a theme that was echoed by more than a few of the organized atheists on campus and trumpeted by Daniel Dennett at the Freedom From Religion Foundation conference—that religion is dying out. Some students cited the slackened belief among their peers as opposed to parents. Dennett cited the same study—that only 4% of Christian teens today will grow up to be “bible believing” Christians — that BattleCry cites in trying to scare people into being foot-soldiers. Also, some (not all) organizers with the Secular Student Alliance seemed to argue that rationality will just win out over time and didn’t see this as an urgent battle that needs to be fought. There doesn’t seem to be a very “live-nerve” among a lot of the atheists I met about the growth and dangers of theocracy and Christian fascism in this country. On the other hand, quite a few of them had a sense of the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism—undoubtedly this is largely influenced by Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.
This goes together with a big currency among many of the secular student organizers to think the main issue is “improving the image of atheists.” That instead of challenging religion, atheists have to prove that we are good people too. One chapter of the Secular Student Alliance volunteered down in New Orleans rebuilding housing together with a Christian club in order to “build bridges” between the two groups. I was told that “both sides learned that they are all just people” and forged unity. This is very bad. They explicitly didn’t challenge people around their beliefs or the content of them. Instead they just wanted to show that atheists can be humanitarian and moral as well. Some strains of this are not as bad as others—like having an atheist blood drive day is not terrible (something some of them do), but explicitly trying to forge unity with right wing Christian groups is terrible.
This seems to combine two things: 1. Underestimating the seriousness and danger of religious growth and the harm that religion in all its forms does, and 2. Not really getting that there is a danger in the method of religious thought and where it leads, not just in “prejudices” against atheists. This dovetails with a tendency to see the limit of the battle as fighting for the separation of church and state, rather than fighting to break people free from religion itself (even while uniting with progressive religious forces in the very important fight to insist on the separation of church and state as well as other urgent social and political issues).
I got into this more extensively with one secular student leader in particular and I got him Avakian’s book. This guy said he wasn’t really interested in more debunking of the Bible, he hadn’t been personally raised with it, and doesn’t talk that much to fundamentalists. I talked with him about why it is important in this country to take on the Bible not just for talking to fundamentalists but as part of understanding and challenging religion more generally, but then I focused more with him on what is in the last chapter of Away With All Gods!, the polemic and basis for unity-struggle-unity with Michael Lerner and other progressive religious folks, the whole discussion of rational thought vs. faith, and the basis for morality.
In Chicago, I held a salon on the book with a group of performance artists who do a lot of work on religion. Four of the six of them had read at least parts, if not all, of the book and they all took the salon very seriously. Very interestingly, just like the lunch I had with a group of atheists from the Midwest during the Freedom From Religion Foundation conference, the main topic they actually wanted to engage was over questions of communism, revolution, fascism, corporations vs. imperialism, etc. The questions of whether and how a new society could be brought into being and whether the problems facing humanity really flow from a system or something else (corruption, need for more regulation, human nature, etc.).
When the question of methods of thinking and the difference between spreading atheism and science and spreading religion came up, one of the artists said, “We aren’t telling people what to think, we are telling them what WE think.” So I put back to him, “How about, ‘We are telling them TO think.’” And we went from there—getting into the difference between spreading things that aren’t based in reality and training people in a way of thinking that doesn’t sort things out based on an engagement with reality (ie: religion and religious thinking) versus spreading things that are true, welcoming contestation and an ongoing deepening or even correcting of understanding based on measuring things against objective reality (science and a scientific approach).
He got excited by this but it was clear he really hadn’t seen that. This was typical…to a striking degree. It seems we ought to sometime do an event that puts this question front and center, “Why spreading atheism and science is NOTHING like spreading religion.” Or, “Why Science is NOT ‘Just another belief system.’”
Going back for a minute to the student organizer I mentioned before, he definitely was of the view that “atheists have an image problem” and that we need to show that we are good people and have morality and this will defuse the image many believers have of us and enable more people to consider atheism. It was striking because he clearly knew what science was and explained himself that as science-based people we don’t know everything, and we know we don’t know everything, but “we have a damn good method for finding out” and he contrasted this to the Creation Museums where there is absolutely nothing that is left as unknown or an open question. But, while he felt it was good to spread and promote atheism, he didn’t see this as a battle over how people think but over challenging their prejudices and showing that we do good things. He was a pretty progressive guy, and objectively argued for the superiority of rational thought, but didn’t seem to consciously understand the difference between fighting for people to unchain their minds and how this links up with radically changing the world—and fighting to shut down the mind and critical thought in the service of oppressive relations that goes on with religion.
This question also came up from a host on a local NPR affiliate station that interviewed me in connection to the Sonoma event. The interviewer—who was extremely thoughtful and edited a very nice clip out of a half hour interview—asked at the end, “It sounds like you are doing some evangelizing for atheism.” I took this question apart, but this gives a sense of how pervasive this question is.
Interesting in this regard, and a story I told on several occasions to help answer this, is something that happened after I spoke at a humanist meeting in Palo Alto. Afterwards a college student said, “I grew up Catholic and every Sunday no one understood or really agreed with what the priest was saying, but everyone acted like they did and never asked any questions. I came here and you talked and made perfect sense. I understood almost all of it, agreed with almost all of it—I think most people did—but as soon as it was over all these people raised their hands and started disagreeing, challenging you, asking all kinds of questions...”
Questions from the various audiences also included more about how I became an atheist, what my family thought of my breaking with Christianity (this was from students who seemed to be considering or dealing with what their own families would think), whether I had always been a “militant atheist” or at what point I decided to become militant about atheism. In answering this, I talked about the difference it made to learn that the world doesn’t have to be as it is. The more radical I got politically and the more I understood the need for people to be involved in their own emancipation, and the more I came to understand how directly religion is an obstacle to that, the more militant I became about atheism—and I cited that this is a core part of what Bob Avakian is arguing for and pointed to the subtitle of the book.
At Stanford, a young Muslim South Asian woman came right up to me as soon as the event was over and was effusive, “Your story is exactly like mine!! It was so helpful.” She explained that she grew up Muslim in Detroit and there were many things, particularly about women’s role, that rubbed her wrong about her faith as it was practiced, but she also mainly thought this was the people and not the religion that were getting things wrong. Now she is really on the fence and she signed her questionnaire, “I was raised Muslim...but that might change.” Her other comments included, “I think it was fantastic and very inspiring. Her personal story resonates with me and her journey of discovery is personally empowering. I agreed with the facts that religious indoctrination from an early childhood is what prevents people from being able to think critically about religion for themselves as adults.... I had hoped to hear more about the arguments about the ‘non-existence’ of God(s).”
At the Stanford event, a couple of people wrote on their questionnaires that what stood out most to them was really getting a much better understanding about why the attack on women’s reproductive freedoms is tied to biblical literalism, and that the claims to being for the preservation of life in the universal sense that “pro-life” people like to claim has absolutely no basis in the Bible. One wrote, “Aha! Now I get it. No Biblical basis for pro-life position—hadn’t thought of that.” When asked what they learned or agreed with, another wrote, “Universal preservation of life—no basis for it in the Bible,” and went on to write, “These people (religious fanatics) are not on the fringe—they are being normalized. People justify wars as ‘God’s mission.’”
Another wrote, in response to the question of what stood out to you about the speech: “Mythology 4 religion has to be seen from a historical materialist perspective. Nothing is sacrosanct!”
Several wrote that they didn’t see the relevance of communism—and warned that communism can be a religion as well. The question of communism came up at every event, most directly at Berkeley where the Q&A was the richest and the longest. One guy who is sympathetic to communism asked how religion will be handled after the revolution and this was very eagerly listened to and followed up on by others. People wanted to know if socialism was possible because they had questions about “human nature.” An Ayn Randian guy also was intrigued and provoked by the notion that there is no such thing as human nature in the way people understand it (during my speech, I read a selection of some of the chapter heads that I don’t have time to get into in the presentation, including “There Is No Such Thing As Unchanging, and Unchangeable, Human Nature.” Just off of having heard this title he asked about it so we got into it).
The audiences generally were pretty progressive and took seriously the discussion of communism, even while a significant handful of questionnaires admonished or cautioned against it. It seems this is quite affected by the current financial melt-down as well as to some dissatisfaction with the election, even as many were big Obama people. When I criticized Obama after criticizing Palin at Berkeley, there was a lot of applause—this seemed to be from a section of people who are regulars at Revolution Books. At Stanford, a number of people wrote their support for Obama on their questionnaires.
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