Eye of the Beholder: Religion, Liberty, and Violence

754px-Battle_of_Nandorfehervar.jpg
(Battle of Nandohrfhervar/Wikipedia)

By David Wheeler-Reed

After the recent terrorist attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store in Paris, France, by men who claimed to be al-Qaeda militants, it didn’t take long for Twitter and the blogosphere to reignite the old debate about whether religion leads inexorably to violence. This debate calls to mind Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek's take on what he calls the “pseudo-revolutionary critics of religion,” who attempt to denounce the tyranny of religion while creating their own kind of totalitarianism. “In fighting religion,” he says, "they are compelled to forsake freedom itself, thus sacrificing precisely that which they wanted to defend.” In other words, people often become the monster they wish to destroy.

As someone who spent a decade in graduate school studying religion, I would be the first to admit that it has what Carl Jung terms a dark, shadowy side. Christianity had the Crusades; the pograms against Jews; the Inquisition; and, in our own country, the theocracy of Puritanism. Islam has political Islam, a perversion of the teachings of the Quran, which inspires in some of its followers the kind of atrocious acts carried out most recently in Paris, France or every day in countries in its thrall. Judaism has its radical adherents who will murder co-religionists or assassinate an Israeli prime minister to bend other Israelis to their philosophy. Hindu nationalists in India have slaughtered Muslims, most infamously, perhaps, in Gujarat, and the leader of the nationalist party, who was chief minister of the Gujarat state at the time of the riots, has been elected president of India. Buddhist monks have been in the forefront of attacks against Muslims in Burma. The shadow side of even the most "peaceful" religions is not hard to find.

But maintaining that religion is the major cause of violence in the world is a false claim. Noam Chomsky points out that some of the "new atheists" (e.g., Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris) have created what he calls a kind of “state religion” that is much more dangerous than the major religions in the world today. This new religion is more dangerous because it often fails to critique the political policies of Western governments and unregulated capitalism. One of the "new" atheism's major proponents, Christopher Hitchens, for example, gave ideological cover to the Iraq War, which caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings. Going further back, the fire bombing of Dresden, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Gulag of the Cold War were not propagated by religious fanatics but by scientists and intellectuals using what they thought were rational, utilitarian arguments.

There seems to be a growing consensus that fundamentalism, whether religious or secular, is the real problem. Those who take their beliefs—and perhaps themselves—too seriously are often the cause of violent atrocities in the world. Think, for instance, of the destruction caused by those who never question American Exceptionalism and assume that their perverted form of Social Darwinism gives the United States the right to spread "democracy and freedom" throughout the world. In fact, American Exceptionalism can be a religious ideology, a secular ideology, or both simultaneously, depending on who is invoking it.

When I reflect on Charlie Hebdo and its cartoons, many of which would never be printed in the United States because of the self-censorship and pressure from powerful interest groups, I think of Michel Foucault's statement that "somebody who writes has not got the right to demand to be understood as he had wished to be when he was writing; that is to say from the moment when he writes he is no longer the owner of what he says, except in a legal sense." In other words, cartoonists, filmmakers, visual artists, dancers, and writers have no control over how their work is interpreted. But the people who interpret them are responsible for their own actions, for how they interpret the world around them. Personally, I think we are stuck in a debate that is asking the wrong questions.

How can religious socialists shift the sterile debate?  We need to ask hard questions while still remaining true to democratic principles. These would include: (1) How do we allow different groups to voice their opinions while being critical of opinions that ultimately lead to violence and destruction? (2) How do we educate people about different religions and be fair in our assessments? (3) How do we address the plurality of religions in the world today? and (4) How do we convince people to take personal responsibility for their reactions to things they may not like? I don’t pretend to have answers to any of these questions, but I do think that without asking them, we run the risk of becoming the monster we wish to destroy.

Suggested Readings

William T. Cavanaugh. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of

            Modern Conflict. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Terry Eagleton. Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. The Terry

            Lectures. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

RS Editors. “The Freedom to Offend: Religious Socialists and Cartoons” RS 30 (2006): 1, 4-5.

           

David Wheeler-Reed, Ph.D. (Toronto) is a visiting fellow at Yale University and Yale Divinity School. He is working on his first book, Sex in the Empire: Strategies of Power from Augustus to the Early Monastics, and is a member of the editorial collective of DSA's Religion and Socialism blog, launching in February.


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Grassroots Fundraising: Paying for the Revolution (9pm Eastern)

June 23, 2017
· 45 rsvps

Are you new to socialist organizing? Or after many years do you still struggle, raising money from members when you need it but without a steady flow of income or budget to plan ahead? Are you afraid to tackle fundraising because it seems so daunting or you are uncomfortable asking people for money?

In this webinar, you will learn why fundraising is organizing, and how to do it – face to face, through fundraising events, and other ideas.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

Instructor:

  • Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

Training Details:

  1. Workshops are free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have preferably headphones or else speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt talt@igc.org.
  5. If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt schmittaj@gmail.com 608-355-6568.
  6. Participation requires that you register at least 21 hours in advance -- by midnight Thursday for Friday's webinar.

NOTE: This training is scheduled for 9:00pm Eastern Time (8pm Central, 7pm Mountain, 6pm Pacific, 5 pm Alaska, 3 pm Hawaii).

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

June 27, 2017
· 63 rsvps

Join DSA activist Judith Gardiner to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 9 pm ET, 8 pm CT, 7 pm MT, 6 pm PT.

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"
WHEN: 9PM EST, 6PM PST

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 8 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.