Counterpunched: We Have No Theory of Power

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.

–Frederick Douglass

The freethought movement has recently come in for a barrage of criticism, but not from the usual sources: in the past few months we’ve been battered from the left. It’s one thing to be attacked by right-wing fundamentalists and Fox News pundits – I expect that - but when columnists in the leftist political newsletter Counterpunch and radical Marxists like Ralph Dumain start throwing punches, I’m caught off-guard.

Perhaps this is why so many of their blows land: the movement does have a problem with sexism (as Jeff Sparrow contends), it does tend to overlook issues of economic justice (as David Hoelscher avers, twice - and I’m as guilty of this as anyone, something I’ll address in future posts), and it hasn’t grappled sufficiently with critical theory (as Ralph Dumain argues).

The freethought movement in the 21st Century, and Humanism as a philosophy, has been (for a while) and remains ill-equipped to fend-off challenges from the left. Partly, I imagine, this is because much of modern “movement Humanism and atheism” grew up in the US, where their main opposition has been regressive right-wing religion. Our conceptual and persuasive repertoire has been honed to defeat fundamentalist ideologues, not to discourse learnedly with disciples of Foucault. We have sharpened our wits on other mental whetstones.

But part of the problem is more fundamental, representing a serious gap in the intellectual edifice of  Humanism and freethought: we have no theory of power. All three critics linked above allude to this problem. Sparrow writes:

“insofar as the New Atheism represents a coherent intellectual trend, one of its central characteristics is an absence of any theory of ideology”

Dumain thinks similarly, arguing that “the atheist – humanist – skeptical movement, particularly in the USA…addresses only one half of the cognitive sources of irrationality of the modern world, and is ill-equipped to grapple with the secular forms of unreason, which can be denoted by the term “ideology”.”  Hoelscher’s excellent essay on the lack of discussion of class and inequality of wealth within our movement can be seen as an in-depth analysis of one manifestation of the same problem: while we are attuned to individual deficiencies such as dogmatism and irrationalism, the movement has had a tendency to overlook structural problems such as oppression – and when it does attempt to tackle sexism, racism, classism etc. the response is often swift and retributive.

In general, I find the criticisms these three authors offer to be fair ones. If you search through the philosophical output of the most significant contemporary freethought advocates, you will find very little discussion of structures of inequality and oppression, or of the mechanisms which create and sustain such structures. For instance, neither Corliss Lamont’s The Philosophy of Humanism nor Richard Norman’s On Humanism - two of the finest single-volume expressions of a comprehensive Humanist worldview – include any real analysis of the way in which power is marshaled in the service of elites.

Paul Kurtz, one of the most prolific Humanist philosophers, while certainly interested in issues of injustice (including, as Hoelscher notes, issues of economic injustice), likewise does not take a systematic structural view of the problem. He speaks vaguely about the creation of democratically-governed economies and international institutions, but writes little about the powerful interests which ensure that such radical visions do not come about.

The major New Atheist authors tend to criticize religion (rightly) as a sort of cognitive error or collective mistake – a “delusion” or a “spell” which must be broken – whilst mainly avoiding the ways in which religion is reinforced and propagated by societal institutions and social practices. Perhaps predictably, when they bring their intellectual backgrounds to bear on the topic, what you get are evolutionary, philosophical and, to some extent, political explorations of religion, none of which fully address its sociological aspects.

This freethought tendency, I argue, is linked to another: the tendency to focus our critical gaze on the individual, rather than the group or community. When racism, sexism, homophobia and other systematic forms of oppression are discussed, it is often in service of the reform of individuals rather than the melioration of social conditions and institutions which shape individuals in the first place.  If only people would be more reasonable, more rational, the suggestion seems to be, then they would be less sexist, racist, classist etc.

When reading the works of major atheist activists I often get the sense that their theory of social change goes something like this: 1) identify the cognitive errors to which people are prone; 2) demonstrate to them, individually, how they are mistaken; 3)… ; 4) PROFIT! I exaggerate, but it is striking how individualistic and skeptical of communal action our movement is at times. While other social movements devote huge resources and energy to local organizing and institution-building, the freethought movement has relatively few, relatively small organizations dedicated to the collective realization of our aims, and essentially no political presence at all.

A neat example of these problems can be found in Richard Norman’s On Humanism (a truly excellent book and one I thoroughly recommend, despite the forthcoming criticism). Writing on the problems of injustice and oppression – the only time in his book that he does so that I can find – he offers:

As a matter of fact, whatever progress there has been towards greater equality and the combating of injustice has been made possible by the clearer perception of what human beings share in common. The protest of oppressed groups has been that ‘we are human beings like you’, and progress comes when that truth is recognized…the myth of women as creatures of ‘intuition’ rather than ‘intellect’ has served for millennia to prevent women from developing and and using to the full their shared human powers of intelligence. (p, 81)

I’m not saying Norman is wrong about this – indeed, I think the insight that the expansion of our concept of who we consider “human” is at the heart of moral progress is extraordinarily important. But the picture is fantastically incomplete. Strictly speaking, progress does not come when the truth of our shared humanity is recognized, but after years and decades of struggle against powerful forces which want to keep us down. The problematic myths freethinkers like me love to skewer are only one part of the picture – and sometimes a small part, a symptom of an underlying problem. Power concedes nothing without a demand.

The myopia toward power often found in major contemporary freethought texts is triply dangerous: it can blind us to forms of structural oppression which demand our attention if we wish to call ourselves “Humanists”; it deprecates the communal and the collective with its continual focus on the individual; and it propagates an inaccurate view of how social change occurs, which in turn debilitates our efforts at achieving our aims.

I’ll follow up on all three points in future posts.

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God and the Gay Humanist - A Response to Matthew Vines
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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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