Revolution #151, December 28, 2008

Taking out Away With All Gods! at the American Academy of Religion:

The American Academy of Religion (AAR) held its national conference in Chicago at the beginning of November. 5000 academics were there, mainly in religious studies, including important theoreticians at the forefront of their fields. We learned important things about the terrain and were able to get Away With All Gods! into this mix, especially among academics attending some of the more progressive sessions (where we saturated the crowds with cards about the book); we met or reconnected with some important and prominent individuals; and had deeper engagement with a few. A handful of academics ordered the book for consideration for use in their courses. There was also interest in the campus tour that Sunsara Taylor has been on from a number of people. This was important in beginning to get Away! out into the discourse of these progressive religious academics where it has not yet been engaged at the level that is needed. And there is a lot of follow-up to be done for deeper engagement, potential course ordering and reviews and the Sunsara Taylor tour. With many people, this has also opened up interest/discussion of revolution and communism. COMMUNISM: THE BEGINNING OF A NEW STAGE: A Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA and Revolution issue #144 on "The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of This System and the Revolution We Need" also reached some influential people.

More on the conference and what we learned about the terrain:

The AAR includes dozens of “working groups” that are dedicated to different areas of study: pragmatism, history, African American history, Daoism, Evangelical Theology, Islamic Mysticism etc. There are many, many of these groups. Each of them puts on a different panel (or more than one panel) at these conferences, but they’re groups with ongoing life. There were hundreds of panels throughout the three days, to give a sense - the AAR 2008 program book includes about 125 pages of panels. And the panels are very wide ranging. There were many more interesting things going on than we were able to go to and we chose panels based either on speakers we wanted to hear or topics that sounded provocative.

We may have a one sided view of the conference as a whole because of the kinds of panels we chose (for example we didn’t go to things like: “Daoist Sacred Space” or “Topics in Religions, Medicines and Healing”). And we were probably reaching out to the more progressive end of the AAR. That said, overall, there was a great deal of openness and among many, an eagerness to hear this radical, unique perspective. Many people asked why we were promoting an atheist book at a conference of religious academics (more on the response to Away! and to revolution and communism below). But there are also many theological academics who aren’t religious (we’ll come back to this later too), but are interested in biblical history or philosophy in ways that overlap with religion or religious studies.

The conference was quite diverse in age and nationality. There were lots of grad students and profs from schools across the country, though not many younger than grad students. I was surprised at the number of Black participants there were (perhaps more than you would find at any other academic conference, besides Black Studies). There were also a number of South Asian and Sikh participants, with a smaller number of Latino and Asian participants.

A few important themes that ran through the workshops and discussions we were part of:

[Because a lot of this was new to us and we’re writing this from notes, we may not have exactly what the different people were saying, and may have missed some of the nuance, but this gives you a sense of the discussion in this important arena.]

* The need for a new theoretical framework: Among the scholars who look to religion or belief as playing a central role in oppressed people’s ability to achieve liberation there was an expressed need for new theory in the context of a vastly changed and changing world. This was found especially among those concerning themselves with how we can get to a better world without oppression - various forms of liberation theology and womanist theology, for example (womanist theology is basically feminist theology but coming specifically out of the Black liberation theology tradition). This was found explicitly in the panel on liberation theology, but also was spoken to in the presidential address, Emilie Townes, and in other panels like the one on “Class Revisited.” Some people remarked that these panels were a new thing for the AAR.

There is a broad recognition that the liberation theology forged 40 years ago is “old.” But why it has failed, in what direction it needs to change, and by what method is this new synthesis to be forged are all highly contended. Within this and among more of the advanced, there seems to be a yearning to break away from identity politics (which was a marked feature of the conference and overall discussion). From what we can understand, this still exists within a framework of identity even as it’s one identity attempting to reach out more broadly. There was also only one person we spoke with who was consciously struggling against the philosophical relativism that this identity politics is rooted in.

Part of this seems to be in response to looking at the globalization of poverty and oppression on a different level, among one speaker examining the “failure” or loss of socialism, and again, somewhat in reaction against the limits of identity politics, a significant core of people were striving for a synthesis that did not proceed from “one oppressed group” but looking toward “liberating all humanity” or “all people of the world becoming one” or straining against nationalism (even while still finding themselves within those confines).

In the workshop on the future of Liberation Theology, one of the speakers, Benjamin Valentin (at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts) put forward the need for a new theory to take liberation theology forward. He began by rooting the need for this new theory in the changes in the world over the last 40 years that have led to a very narrow sense of political possibilities and have made the task, mission and a vision of liberation theology that much harder. He spoke to key elements contributing to this as: Decline of the mainline churches and rise of charismatic churches and fundamentalism; growth of huge international corporations and globalization; the loss of socialist countries and recent unpopularity of socialism; fragmentation of the political and religious left.

He argued that socially, politically, economically and ecclesiastically people are disheartened, and there is the need for a new liberation theology for the 21st century that roots out injustice and empowers ordinary people. He put forward three paths/goals this theory needed to address/incorporate:

1. Social and economic injustice is rooted in the political and economic structures of society, and has expression in cultural symbolic values and representation. Focus has become too narrowed to the cultural/symbolic injustice “ie, cultural domination, disrespect, countering hurtful stereotypes” which is important but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem of exploitation, economic marginalization, the effects of capitalism and poverty. There is “no solid analysis of the causes and conditions and prospects for change.” And he argued, there needs to be a “theological discussion of redistribution.” 2. Need to focus on building bonds. There has been a fracturing of the political left and utopian visions—feminists, Native American, LGBT—all divided into different movements that are objectively sharing the same political space but are not coalesced. These movements have a positive side in countering oppression, but they also cut against each other and lead to people turning inward. The substantive change all these groups want requires coalition, collaboration, requires awareness of the common good that undergirds our shared interests and ends, requires interactions and interconnections. There is a need for a discourse for a broad emancipatory vision. And 3. The movement has become bogged down in theological method and cultural analysis—producing commentaries and not actual new theological tracts (ie, new theory in the realm of liberation theology). He argued that while it is important to continue that method of inquiry, we need more than cultural critics, historians and commentators. We need constructive discourse on religious theories and we need to re-examine all this, in a “post-modernist and post-socialist context.”

In a panel on “Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire,” James Cone (at Columbia University, one of the founders of Black liberation theology) prefaced his remarks by saying that blackness is his starting point, but the end point is of humanity searching for one-ness. (In his presentation Cone compared a cross being forced upon you with injustice and domination, “no American should be allowed to forget the lynching tree and its ‘strange fruit,’ and the fact that both crucifixion and lynching were spectacle events” to the conscious decision to bear a symbolic cross to fight that injustice and domination, “Fannie Lou Hamer used the cross to inspire people to take up the civil rights struggle.”)

Another example of this striving to make connections was in the workshop on “The Sound of the Genuine: The Papers of Howard Thurman, volume 1.” This panel included Cornel West, along with Anthony Pinn (an important Black humanist) and several others. None of us were familiar with Howard Thurman before this, but it turns out he was a very significant Black theologian who died in 1980. He was a major influence on MLK and everyone agreed that King plagiarized much of Thurman’s work without crediting him. One of the things emphasized about Thurman in this discussion was his travels to India and the focus Thurman had on “all humankind” even as he was “coming out of the Black experience” and had to struggle against racism and segregation.

* Related to the above, we heard several comments from different quarters about the need for cross disciplinary ferment in academia and theological and philosophical studies in particular. (There was a panel none of us were able to attend on “Re-visioning Scholarship.”) Emilie Townes, a prof of African American Religion and Theology at Yale gave the presidential address on Saturday night which included a big polemic against pursuing one track in scholarship. She also argued that people needed to be active outside of the campus walls helping to meet the people’s needs. In terms of cross disciplinary discourse, she and others argued if you stay locked in your own field, it’ll all dry up. In the workshop on Howard Thurman, Cornel West argued that Thurman (who was a theology professor at Howard for many years) wouldn’t have recognized the splitting of all the fields, he was “involved in a quest for wisdom” striving to gather as much as he could to pass on to the next generations. We also heard this opposed as some argued that the problem has been too much focus on anthropology and other outside disciplines and theologians need to get back to theology.

* In different ways, there was contention over whether the source of oppression was located in the economic and class relations of society, or in the “cultural” sphere: as cited from Valentin above, some were arguing that the problem is that the liberation theology of the 80s-90s got lost in looking inward for identity of your group or just the cultural aspects of oppression, and others (this came especially from a Native American theologian at a seminary in Denver, George Tinker) saying that is the level necessary to address it and it needs to go further in that vein, or a woman at Drew University who defines herself as a Mujerista, coming from a feminist Latino perspective, Ada Maria Diaz, saying it needs to be addressed at the ethical/theological level, not economic. (In general, there was a lot of difficulty around the relationship between the economic base and the superstructure.)

Ivan Patrella (from the University of Miami) argued that the impoverished and oppressed condition was the global condition of humanity so therefore “there needs to be an epistemological shift” where that becomes the framework and outlook from which people approach all fields of endeavor. Joerg Rieger (a radical theologian and minister, originally from Germany, but now teaching at Southern Methodist in Texas) was sharply critical of how religions developed and were shaped by and serve the class relations and power relations of the societies and empires they are part of. He says he is trying to synthesize the revolutionary kernel in Christianity that can be grabbed hold of that can be the source and inspiration for revolution or resistance.

We had an important discussion with a radical theologian and minister which included a discussion on the relationship between culture and class. He was struggling to get the synthesis right as he knew class was principal and determining but didn’t want to entirely discount culture (though he was clearly frustrated at the degree to which people get lost in questions of identity and pursuing their own personal sphere instead of dealing with and analyzing the reality of the world). We talked with him about some of the breakthroughs Bob Avakian has made in this regard, taking further Mao’s understanding of the relative autonomy of the superstructure which does flow from the economic base of society. He appreciated this and it will be important to explore further.

* Marxism may be a re-emerging reference point for some in a positive way. In the birth of liberation theology Marxism was part of the mix, especially in Latin America. We talked to people who were commenting how some things were different this time—a more openness to socialism under the surface, a seminar on Class Revisited where panelists were struggling with the concepts of class, reaching back to what they see as the scientific foundation of Marx (even if understood in not very scientific terms). In that workshop, when asked by an audience member about the relevance of Marx to the question of class said they were attempting to use the 18th Brumaire as a foundation—even as in their presentations most had objectively put out a much more idealist framework. In our exchanges with people, there are also many who see Marxism as a religion and pointed to the teleological aspects of Marxism - it’s all working out to some grand utopia. This is a distortion of what Marxism is and has been, while at the same time reflecting what Avakian has summed up as a secondary shortcoming which he’s broken out of and summed up scientifically.

* From what we ran into, there seemed to be very little understanding of the need to take seriously and resist the rise of Christian Fascism. There were comments throughout that indicated people were not with Palin (and there was a lot of support for Obama), and saw the CF’s as a problem but not as something to take seriously and seriously counter. Patrella (mentioned above) is currently working on a project at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan to counter how the religious right has infiltrated the mainstream by using the same tactics to promote liberation theology. He wants to create a liberation think tank of ethicists, scholars and theologians, coming at things from the perspective of the marginalized, but going into all media like the right wing has and in that way infiltrating the wider conversation. The other more forceful person on this question was Mark Lewis Taylor (at Princeton Theological Seminary, also head of Academics for Mumia). In the workshop “Evangelicals and Empire: Engaging Hardt and Negri,” he spoke against “theocratic American exceptionalism.” And he did a lot of exposure of how they are endemic to US society - strength in military and police cultures, organizations of neocons and corporate - near Constantinian power. He called for people to “think, write, and act to block the return of theocratic American exceptionalism.” He also talked about the dialectic between aspirations on the one hand and failure/despair on the other as being a “compost heap” out of which a garden of revolt can grow.

There were also people who argued against taking on the religious right. Eric Gregory (from Princeton University) argued (in the panel on Religion and the 2008 Presidential Campaign) that we need to transcend the culture war, the problem is that there’s the religious right, rational progressivists, and “hostile atheists who think everyone else is irrational.” He argued we need more religion in the left, and for the secular and left to give up their moral superiority, be humble. Need to woo the “compassionate conservatives.” (This argument is heard among many, including it’s some of what Michael Lerner argues as well as Jim Wallis.) John Millbank (England) argued that a “negative program” like that put out by Mark Taylor isn’t enough, saying that while he’s also concerned about theology aligned with capitalism and nationalism, that secularity is producing problems. He asked why there is no serious critique of capitalism, or an alternative, and why, as he sees it, the secular left is so bankrupt? He argued that only Christians, who believe in a virtuous elite and democratization, can establish a new global order. (He’s talking about some kind of “progressive” global order in opposition to a Christian Fascist global order.)

There was a workshop on “Popular Evangelical Expressions and Practices: On Consumerism and Communism” which focused on Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life and Billy Graham’s use of anti-communism. The argument in regards to the latter was that Graham’s anti-communism provided a way to bond a diverse group of religious forces and brought about religious reconciliation. Jeff Scholes (from University of Denver) spoke critically of Rick Warren (important because many progressive theologians, including Lerner and Wallis, uphold Warren’s approach to the poor while he’s actually a CF, even as some of his rhetoric is different than some others). The person who spoke about Graham is Jay Learned, a 20 year veteran of the Air Force and avowed atheist.

* There were several people who were not religious or not very religious themselves, but believe you have to “work with” religion because this is what so many people believe and we have to deal with that. This commonly goes with a view that these religious beliefs can motivate people to resist oppression and do good in the world. And it is wrong to challenge people to give up these beliefs if they help them. A young Black woman who’s a radical grad student is herself against religion but said if people are going to be religious, she wants to help them see they don’t have to worship a patriarchal imperialist god, but a transgendered loving god. (She was very radical politically and excited to run into us.) On the flip side, we heard a couple people criticize the AAR for being smug about these views. People really believe and take very seriously the texts and ideas that were being dissected at this conference and in academia and people have to remember that (not, from our perspective, to uphold it, but to actually understand how and why people see things this way and wage the struggle necessary to transform that). One woman who teaches religious studies at Seattle University said some of her students think she’s trying to convert them and others think she’s a heretic. She herself was religious, but felt it was important to provide people with historic perspective about the bible. Also, Daniel Dennett said he’s starting a project to find and interview priests and reverends who have become atheists but don’t feel they should/can give up their churches. He gave an example of one reverend who told his congregation he stopped believing and was going to quit preaching and they begged him not to, they didn’t mind that he didn’t believe. He’s going to do this all anonymously but will make the results public.

* A number of the more advanced we met were frustrated with the conference to varying degrees—which a lot centered on how much of the conference was not that grounded in reality, not proceeding from actually changing the world in a meaningful way, too much of a talk shop. While some of this was coming from an economist framework of “where’s the action” and some disdain for intellectuals there was also some felt frustration among more advanced about the detachment from the masses of people outside of academia, many of whom are believers and could use a progressive reading of religion (as they see it). Also, as mentioned above, there was some frustration at the very pervasive identity politics and post-modernist deconstruction that permeated some of the more progressive panels.

Response to Away With All Gods!, and revolution and communism

One thing that struck us again in talking with people is how much Away With All Gods! speaks to some of the most key elements of the current discourse, questions people are grappling with, and views they have. There was generally a positive reception to the book - critical thinking and an openness to engaging marked the character of the people there. We did meet a number of atheists and one man commented to us that there were a lot of Black atheists in the crowd. It also stood out how few people in this receptive crowd already had heard about the book. Literally, we ran into just a handful. [There were also a few people who knew of the RCP and Avakian from the 60s but had not been keeping up, and were for the most part very happy to run into us.]

I don’t think we met anyone who agreed on the relationship of unchaining the mind and radically changing the world. Many people agreed on the need to break with traditional religions but didn’t see religion or religious thinking per se as harmful. The most common view among people was that religion can do both harm and good. There were several discussions about the harm religion does by fettering people’s ability to see reality as it actually is and changing the world on that basis, vs. believing in things that aren’t true even if they motivate people to do some good things. People would mainly agree if talking about a biblical literalist view of the world which does stand in the way of knowing the world. But they didn’t apply this universally to belief in things that aren’t true. We ran into arguments like: it’s scientific to include god as part of the reality of the world because god exists; or belief in god (or some sort of spirituality) is part of the basis for changing the world in a positive direction; and there were definitely elements of the view that Black people have a religious impulse.

For people who were more secular there was also a view that it is wrong to struggle with people to give up their religion. That they get something out of it that they need, and this is a positive thing. One person who had read the book said he agrees with most of it personally, but really disagrees with the approach of challenging people on their religion. There are a lot of secular people in religious studies and seminaries with this view, including that they teach religion and train ministers. As mentioned above, there were also criticisms from some of the more advanced we spoke with that many of the academics at the AAR don’t realize or pay attention to the fact that millions of people believe deeply in the texts that they are dissecting and arguing about. This is bound up with the criticism that people have of the separation from the academy and the masses. The people who raised this were very interested in how Avakian poses this as the “smug arrogance of the enlightened.” We also got into with people the related discussion in the book of how not to struggle with people to break from religion is contempt for the masses. This was much more controversial, including from those who understand that literal belief is a huge problem.

We talked with several people who appreciated what we described about how the book goes up against biblical literalism, does a serious reading of the text and refutes it cogently and powerfully as what it is. Often, this is a discussion people discount because “they already know all this and it’s not going to convince literalists.” (And overall at the conference, we found a strong trend of people discounting biblical literalism as discussed above.) But among a section of academics who have more direct contact with a broader range of students in religious studies, or with the oppressed Black and Latino masses in the inner cities, this section was seen as very important because of the growing influence of fundamentalism and “revealed truth” approach to thinking that they see. A radical theologian we mentioned above teaches in the South and he spoke of a young Black woman in the inner city that he had in a seminar class who ended up defending rape, because it was in the bible. He was upset and surprised to hear about the influence of fundamentalism outside of the south, we talked about the spread of it among oppressed communities all over the country (and internationally, which he did know more about).

I spoke with a professor from Seattle and from Iowa who really see a need to go up against biblical literalism. They’re both Lutherans personally and also quite progressive. She described the need for people to think critically about their religion and understand the bible as a historical text - a brutal and bloody historical text. The professor from Iowa studies race and the Bible and talked about how you have to read between the lines to understand the racial symbols of the old testament. He said he doesn’t say whether or not Jesus was Black but he does argue his great grandparents were. And to explain this further, he used the analogy of Reagan in Mississippi talking about state’s rights. You had to understand the language of the civil rights movement (and white supremacists at the time) to understand what this was getting at. He said there is much in the bible that’s similar. When I explained the first chapter of the book as a part of this conversation, they were intrigued and said there is not enough taking seriously the need to really refute the bible as the bible, people believe what it says and that has to be gone at. (They were also both really interested in the discussion of the bible belt and lynching belt and patriarchy.)

Some of the same people who thought the first section was important tended to be interested in the second chapter, on the historical development of religions and the rise of fundamentalism. A Black religious studies prof from Florida who got her doctorate in the development of Islam spoke of how important it is to teach the historical development - the role people played in shaping religions, the role power and conquest has played in their domination. This shocks students and counters their views that somehow religion just appeared from god. (This woman was quite radical and knew of the Party from 20 years ago. She’s against all “organized religions” including how they keep people mentally enslaved. She was interested in the section on the bible belt as the lynching belt and how the bible is still used today by reactionary CF types against Black people. She said she’s disturbed by how much religion is permeating all aspects of society. She got the Revolution #144 on the oppression of Black people and was very interested in Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy.)

At least one woman, a professor of women’s studies, religious studies, and advisor to the Christian and atheist groups on campus, with a masters in divinity herself, was very interested in the exposure of patriarchy in the bible and the analysis of that, and will consider it for a textbook in her women’s studies class.

Another person who had read the book thought the critique of Michael Lerner’s Left Hand of God is particularly important. He said that applies to all progressive religions, where people just chose to focus on what is good and define it any way they want, as oppose to criticizing strongly what is really bad and breaking people out of it. He was explaining how fed up he is with “liberal relativism” and ultimately conciliation with empire. On the other hand, he’s raising this criticism to get at what he sees as the radical heart of Christianity which has been suppressed by the church.

We also got into a lot of discussions with people about communism. Like I said above, there was a lot of intrigue and curiosity as well as a lot of anti-communism.

One of the biggest critiques/questions was how people viewed Marxism as another religion, and many pointed to Marxism as  teleological. We got into some fairly deep discussions about Avakian’s new synthesis and the philosophical ruptures that undergirds this whole re-envisioning of revolution and communism. Marxism is a science and has developed as a science. (There was one prof, of history and religion who has studied the philosophy of science and was very interested in this aspect, including in particular Avakian’s polemic around Karl Popper.) We also wove into our discussions some basic agitation about the way the world is for most people on the planet, and the need for revolution. The need for revolution is something most people disagreed with. Those who agreed, didn’t think it was possible. (And some felt electing Obama would be the revolution, which we argued out with people.)

We got into several discussions about the history of communism, including in relation to religion and how we would handle religion under socialism. We did have to explain that at the time of revolution, most people would still be religious but if there wasn’t a core of people who were the backbone of that process - both politically and ideologically proceeding with the goal of emancipating all of humanity and methodologically proceeding with a scientific approach to all of reality, there will not be a revolution and if there were, it would not go where it needs to go (much of this was in the context of discussing the need to struggle over religion at all. We returned frequently to a sentence in the book: “the truth alone will not set us free, but we will not get free without the truth.” This also prompted a couple discussions about the truth, who’s to say what’s true etc.)

A Chinese professor who was born at the start of the GPCR said that Mao and the GPCR were responsible for a lot of death and suffering. He got the Manifesto and was very interested to meet someone who upheld this history and had a different understanding of what happened. One Black grad student who was somewhat radical agreed with the need for revolution, but felt communism has done as much harm as religion so how can we say one is bad and the other good. He also argued that anyone can say that wasn’t religion or communism in its true form in which case they’re unachievable utopian visions. It took some work to unpack this because he was so incredulous that I was upholding China and the Soviet Union at all, but it was clear that there was a lot about the history that he just didn’t know. He wants to teach a class on religion and Marxism soon and was interested in the book. (He and I also talked about the civil rights movement and some of the rewriting of history about the role of the Black church, he TA’s for a class that includes discussion of Robert F. Williams and got a copy of the Revolution #144 on the oppression of Black people which he was interested in.)

One of the big questions in the briefer exchanges was why were we promoting an atheist book at a religion conference. We used some of the key points from the back of the book and emphasized the subhead in the title. People wanted to know what the RCP was, was it different from the CP, a lot of people asked about what kind of revolution we were talking about, and how we came to hook up with the RCP (a lot of the deeper discussions with people happened at the after parties so there was a more informal element).

We got out several copies of the Manifesto and Issue #144, while mainly distributing the Away! card (we distributed over 1,000). We didn’t get out any copies of the Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy pamphlet, but talked about it with several people. We also talked with several people about the tour Sunsara Taylor has been on and a few important profs were interested.


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