The empty name of God

'The basic doctrines of the major religions have their roots in the superstitions and fancies of ill

What religious people mean by “god” means nothing to me beyond an incoherent cluster of concepts from which the aforesaid folk choose the subset most convenient to themselves.

But the word brings to mind the man-made phenomenon of religions, whose net effect on humanity now as throughout history has been, by a considerable margin, negative. It would be so just because of the falsity of belief; and the consequent absurdity of behaviour premised on the idea that there exist supernatural agencies who made this very imperfect world, and who have an interest in us that extends to our sex lives and what we should and should not eat on certain days, or wear, and so on. But it is worse than false: it is far too often oppressive and distorting as regards human nature, and divisive as regards human communities.

It is a frequent source of conflict and cruelty. Monstrous crimes have been committed in its name. And more often than not it has stood in the way of efforts at human liberation and progress.

Apologists for religion point to the Sistine Chapel and Bach’s Mass in B minor as some sort of justification for it. I answer: first, the church had the money to commission these things; second, lots of wonderful art is about naked women and bowls of fruit, and required no belief in deities to prompt its production; and third, the existence of religious art does not excuse burning people alive at the stake for disagreeing with some doctrine or other.

Apologists for religion point to charitable works as some sort of justification for it. I answer: non-believers perform these, too, out of simple fellow feeling, not requiring the idea of pleasing a deity or getting into heaven to prompt them to it.

Apologists point to Stalinism and Nazism as murderous ideologies, as if their existence made Torquemada and the Taliban somehow acceptable. I answer: all monolithic ideologies, claiming to possess the One Great Truth and demanding that everyone to submit to it on pain of penalty, with their prophets and pieties and shibboleths and sacred cows, come to the same thing when allowed to go to their all too natural extremes – which is precisely my objection to religion. This does not stop me having the same objection to Stalinism and Nazism, which I very much do.

The basic doctrines of the major religions have their roots in the superstitions and fancies of illiterate peasants living several thousand years ago. It is astonishing that these superstitions, in the partial guise of sophistical successor versions, retain any credibility. The reason they do is proselytisation of the very young, the institutionalisation of religious sects, and certain psychological factors.

I would wish people to live without superstition, to govern their lives with reason, and to conduct their relationships on reflective principles about what we owe one another as fellow voyagers through the human predicament – with kindness and generosity wherever possible, and justice always. None of this requires religion or the empty name of “god”. Indeed, once this detritus of our ignorant past has been cleared away, we might see more clearly the nature of good, and pursue it aright at last.

A C Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times