Revolution #155, February 8, 2009

Harlem Program:

“Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World: Do We Need God or Away With All Gods?”

Sunday, January 25, 2009. Ninety people packed into Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe in Harlem, N.Y. to hear Sunsara Taylor and Father Lawrence Lucas have an exchange on “Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World: Do We Need God or Away With All Gods?” Sunsara Taylor is a revolutionary communist, a militant atheist, and a writer for Revolution newspaper. She has been on tour promoting Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World, a recent book by Bob Avakian. Father Lucas currently serves as a Catholic chaplain at North General Hospital in Harlem and ministers to prisoners on Rikers Island. He has been a long-time fighter against police brutality and racism. The afternoon exchange was moderated by Sibanye, head of the Harlem chapter of the Center for Inquiry. The speakers debated the very existence of god, the words of the Bible and Jesus Christ, and whether it matters for people to believe in things that don’t exist.

The audience was mostly Black and mostly from Harlem. People came out from the Hue-Man Bookstore email lists, Riverside Church, the Harlem chapter of the Center for Inquiry, City College of New York atheist student organization, hearing about it on WBAI radio, Time Out magazine, Amsterdam News, Revolution Books, and a local Harlem newspaper. There were atheists and Catholics, Presbyterians, questioning Christians and emerging atheists along with some who believed in a higher power but reject organized religion.

One of the most significant things about the program was that it happened! Many in the audience had never heard anything like this before.

The exchange was opened by Sunsara Taylor, who argued that belief in god is harmful both because it stands in the way of people coming to understand how the world really is and how it can be changed, and because the content of the major religions, including the Christian Bible, is extremely reactionary. She ended her opening remarks by arguing that it is necessary and good to challenge people to give up belief in god because what the masses of people, especially oppressed people, need is revolution and emancipation not consolation.

Taylor also went right to the heart of the difference between science and faith, explaining that science starts with what can be proven to be true by examining reality and encourages people to interrogate it, to test it, to add to it and improve it, whereas faith starts with fantastical make-believe—like the world being created in six days—and asks you to believe these things without any evidence.

Father Lucas answered by upholding the Bible, but not as a straight-forward text. He described the Bible as a collection of books by different authors, written in different languages in a totally different time and context than today. He compared his way of upholding the Bible with the way many uphold the Constitution; explaining that both have been used to cause harm but both embody an ideal that is yet to be realized. He insisted that human beings and the world around us are too complex to simply have evolved and insisted there must be a “designer.”

Father Lucas argued that the Bible didn’t insist that homosexuals should be killed. When asked about the attacks on homosexuals and women that have been driven by what the Bible says, Father Lucas drew from his experience in the prisons to argue that those are not the most pressing issues affecting Black people and others he serves. Instead, he spoke of the rampant poverty, criminalization and lack of healthcare. He argued that Christianity meant opposing all forms of killing, stating his disagreements with Catholics who use the Bible to argue for the death penalty and clashing sharply with Sunsara Taylor over the nature of abortion—he opposes it and she adamantly upholds women’s right to abortion.

The panelists both challenged the audience in different ways to not be fooled into going along with the crimes of America just because Obama is in office. They both condemned the U.S.’s involvement in the massacre in Gaza as well as the unjust wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They reminded the audience—and drew enthusiastic applause from a section of it—that the oppression of Black people is pervasive and that people should not buy the Obama line being put out towards Black people that now “there are no more excuses.” Both panelists also emphasized the importance of uniting over these questions while also insisting that their differences be thrashed out, because there are stakes involved in how people think and where this thinking takes them.

Other questions that came up included: Is socialism good for Black people? Is what happens to people god’s plan or the devil’s? Why isn’t the Black church doing more to struggle against the oppression people face? If communists want to get rid of religion, how do they meet the needs of people that the church addresses? How can you be sure there really is no god? Isn’t it cruel to take away people’s belief in god if they are sick and dying?

There was real unity between the speakers on a number of questions—standing firm against the massacre in Gaza, against police murder, and all the suffering that this system brings down on people, and on the need for revolution. All the way through the question and answer period people were eager and enthusiastic to hear the exchange. Some came with serious questions and everyone heard perspectives they had not heard before. For many, the event left them with many new questions and a desire to see more events like this in the future.  

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