In God is not Great Christopher Hitchens writes “When I was a Marxist, I did not hold my opinions as a matter of faith but I did have the conviction that a sort of unified field theory might have been discovered.” He goes onto note that there is no supernatural or absolutist element in dialectical materialism, but it did have a ‘messianic’ aspect in its faith in the coming revolution. There are also martyrs and saints in the figures of Che Guevara and Vladimir Lenin. With Stalinism there was the papacy complete with heresy hunts, miracles and inquisitions. He draws parallels between the leftist reverence for Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg and the elevation of particular figures in Christianity to the status of sainthood. No doubt Karl Marx is the founding Jewish prophet of this faith, while Luxemburg is a mixture of Cassandra and Jeremiah in Hitch’s mind.It has been acknowledged by Hitch’s former IS comrade Terry Eagleton that Karl Marx may have been an atheist there are Judaic themes in secular form to be found in his thinking.
This includes notions of justice, emancipation, the reign of peace and plenty, the day of reckoning, history as a narrative of liberation, the redemption not just of the individual but of a whole dispossessed people. You could draw a parallel between Marx’s avoidance of sketching out utopia of the future and the Jewish aversion to any speculation of the World to Come. Hitchens favours this side of the bearded dialectician because this is where we find the hostility to fetishism, idols and illusions. Again, all of this could be seen as Judaic. Yet it is the case that the tenets of dialectical materialism do not consistent of any set of claims about the cosmos. So the religious may subscribe to Marxist materialism, the curious blend of German philosophy, French politics and English economics. In fact Karl Marx once told his wife Jenny that if she wants to “satisfy” her metaphysical needs she’d do better to seek out the Jewish prophets than to attend the Secular Society. Perhaps if Marx is the founding prophet then Leninism serves as a Pauline ‘betrayal’ necessary for the establishment of a universal church.
Today it is no coincidence that the liberals have become increasingly obsessed with secularisation while the radicals have taken up theology as a pursuit. It’s nothing new. Nietzsche’s enmity for socialism came down to his view of the project as a radicalised kind of Christianity. There is an element of truth in this charge:just as the Christians live for the otherworldly the socialists seek to build, out of this world, the other world. It is no wonder then that the New Atheists fall back on liberal shibboleths as a presupposed Gnosticism – especially the notion of history as progress, to which any obstacle must be circumvented. It might be because liberalism really believes in nothing except that the individual should be free to believe that the last obstacle is totalitarian belief itself. The first step towards totalitarianism, in the liberal mind, is any attempt to reach beyond the confines of capitalist society. So for many it would seem the only political project, of any worth, is the fight to rid the world of faith.
In this sense the New Atheists are post-political in their anti-theism. It is apt then that Christopher Hitchens took on this projectafter he lost his ‘faith’ in socialism. Despite Hitch’s tirades against God, conveniently framed to provide a defence of the ‘War on Terror’, he admitted that if he could he would not rid the world of religious conviction. Apparently there is no third camp between Athens and Jerusalem, rationality in one corner and religiosity in another. Yet in his newfound ‘free-thinking’ Hitchens severed any responsible commitments he had before to take on the convictions needed to support the invasion of Iraq.The liberal tradition (which certainly includes the New Atheists) does not have the monopoly over democracy, civil liberties, human rights and notions of equality. The same goes for its claim to science, reason and unbelief. The Marxist project was originally pitched as scientific in its critique of capitalism, which went as far as to take the church as a superstructural institution that serves to legitimatise the economic system.
There is no contradiction here. The New Atheists may adhere to a strenuous conception of secularity, but it was the Catholic tradition which spawned secularism as an irreligious realm where there is space for religious conviction, influence and practice. John Gray traces absolutism and atheism to the advent of monotheism, in its fundamental claim to universal truth. Unbelief is just an extension of the Abrahamic passion for truth.Gray stresses that “Only with Christianity did the belief take root that one way of life could be lived by everyone.” Before monotheism it was taken for granted that the rejection of one god merely meant the embrace of another god and another cult. It was the first time that there was strictly one way to live and believe, which had to be taken above all others. He claims that “If the world had remained polytheist, it could not have produced communism or ‘global democratic capitalism’.”For polytheism is too ‘delicate’ for modern thinking Gray concludes “If we live in a world without gods, we have Christianity to thank for it.”