Weaponized Relativism

Thinking critically about thinking about religion is fraught with misdirections. I’ve been reflecting on a post that Steven wrote last week highlighting the way that individuals are able to combine a ‘default cultural relativism’ with a ‘high level of dogmatism.’ He does an excellent job of outlining how a student has combined contradictory arguments:

(a) how you describe God is a matter of personal opinion and what you want God to be like; (b) Christians who did not believe in a literal six-day creation and a young earth were guilty of a totally illegitimate ‘pick and choose’ approach to their faith.

How to account for this contradictory logic and its bloody repetitions? And it is, to be sure, a repetition. Talal Asad has identified this logic at work in the doctrine of secularism–especially in the discourse on “Islamic terrorism” and its supposed existential threat to the West: (a) The Qur’an is posited to be absolutely binding upon Muslims. (b) Christians and Jews may come to various interpretations of the Bible. Asad states that “On the one hand, the religious text is held to be determinate, fixed in its sense, and having the power to bring about particular beliefs [and subsequently actions]–rendering readers passive. On the other hand, the religious reader is taken to be actively engaged in constructing the meaning of texts in accordance with changing social circumstances–so the texts are passive.” Perhaps Steven’s student has been watching too much Bill Maher. The six-day creationist is absolutely passive in his or her relation to the Bible, and yet, somehow, they seem to keep finding ways to apply the Bible to all these new scenarios. It seems that the brave atheist has found an enemy internal to the West against which to deploy the orientalist logic.

We should not be suprised that there are enemies both internal and external. The brave atheist will be disappointed to hear this, but at the end of the day they are just being a good Christian. However, what if the literal six-day creationist and the brave atheist come together in the same room? God knows they love a good debate that goes back and forth for hours. I remember countless youth group lessons devoted to training for these opportunities.

These debating sites are not just in college dorm rooms or online forums. They also include the U.S. Senate chamber, the Palace of Westminster, and CNN roundtables. In those rooms the debate over contradictions no longer matters. Relativism is fine–nay encouraged–as long as we are safely dealing with the internal thoughts and intentions of subjects of the Western political project. We can amicably disagree over matters of religion because we have isolated a secular plane upon which we translate our private motivations into common cause. ‘Separation of church and state!’ Believe anything you want privately, but in public you must believe in the secular. Nevertheless, when it comes to foreign policy, the mandate is clear: abandon our bold binary and present a unified front against the Axis of Evil. Those others have not attained to the height of human culture: privatized relativism. Better bomb them until they do.

Society as Protection Racket

A familiar feature of organized crime is the protection racket. In this scheme, a mob leader demands to be paid to protect a business. If the fee is not paid, then that same mob leader attacks the business — hence you are first of all paying the fee to be protected from your protectors themselves.

The same logic repeats itself in mainstream society. Taxes are a protection racket in the sense that if you don’t pay them, you aren’t exposed to the violence of criminals or foreign terrorists, but first of all to the violence of the government itself. The labor market is another protection racket, because in the last analysis you’re not working just to earn money, but to avoid being excluded from the economic system altogether. Many religions also duplicate the same logic, as you are asked to be devout in order to avoid a supernatural punishment that would not be a factor if you didn’t already believe in the religion — so in mainstream Christianity, for example, God is giving you an opportunity to avoid God’s own wrath.

From this perspective, one can understand neoliberalism as doubling down on the protection rackets. The system demands ever more intensive performances of obedience in order to avoid the violence of the system itself. In the mafia scenario, you can pay your fee and go about your business, just as you could imagine paying your taxes or putting in your hours at work and going about your business. Under neoliberalism, though, you are expected to be constantly thinking about your taxes and how to game the complex system of tax credits and penalties, and you must also mobilize all of your resources (all your time, all your social connections, all your hobbies and preferences) in service of the labor market. Even the evangelical Christian groups most in tune with the neoliberal ethos demand more and more constant self-examination and church involvement — you can no longer go to church on Sunday and expect God to leave you alone the rest of the week.

Agamben’s political theory, whereby the signature gesture of sovereignty is to exclude, can be understood as a theory of the protection racket, and his quest is to imagine a political order not structured according to the logic of a protection racket. This is what provides its remarkable contemporaneity, despite its often esoteric and obscure content.

More broadly, I believe we can view the elimination of the protection racket as the ultimate goal of the radical left, and we can define causes as left-wing to the extent that they at least aim to mitigate the protection racket. Hence the push for universal health care, which keeps the job market from extorting one’s participation based on concerns about one’s physical health, or the more radical goal of universal basic income, which uncouples some minimal participation in economic life from the demand to work. It is important in both cases that the provision be in principle unconditional, so that the system of benefits itself does not become a new protection racket that can demand certain performances of obedience — as has happened most vividly in the UK’s welfare system.

The goal is not simply justice, then, but freedom — freedom from continual threats and demands, freedom from having to worry about things. This is surely a more meaningful form of freedom than the abstract freedom of “choice” offered by neoliberalism, a false freedom insofar as we can never be free of the demand to choose, can never go a single moment without getting hassled or evaluated. The goal of the radical left, at least in our contemporary situation, could be formulated as the creation of a world in which society leaves us alone.

On Finding a Place in History

One of the major discoveries I have had in my personal analysis has been the importance of history on my religious and psychological development. Growing up in a conservative Evangelical family in the South left me in an historical black hole. Like many Evangelicals, my parents rebelled against their (non)religious upbringings and created a new family culture ex nihilo in the early 1970’s during the Vietnam War. This is not particularly surprising given that both my parents emerged from unhealthy households with parents who were grossly incompetent. Evangelicalism offered them a sense of community, security and identity in a world that was being torn asunder by war, political strife and social upheaval. Read the rest of this entry »

Forthcoming Book

Just a quick announcement that a book of mine — on Deleuze, in connection with many things, including Adorno, religion/secularism, and metaphilosophy/nonphilosophy — is coming out with Edinburgh UP in December. I’m happy to be able to post the cover at this point. Read the rest of this entry »

On the undecidable Caputo-Hägglund debate

I am vastly late to the party, but I have finally gotten around to reading Caputo’s response to Hägglund’s Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. A blog post is probably not the place to adjudicate detailed scholarly questions, but it does seem to me that Caputo has made a convincing case that Hägglund’s reading of Derrida leaves a good deal out. I have said before that we should view Hägglund’s book as a systematization of Derrida rather than a “reading,” and Caputo makes clear that it is a systematization with the goal of making Derrida newly useable to the kind of person who goes in for contemporary materialisms of various forms, which includes having a serious allergy to anything “religious.” That is to say, if I can be forgiven for putting it in a crass and over-simplifying way, Hägglund seems to be concerned with getting all that gross religion off of Derrida’s text.

What I’d like to suggest here is that Caputo’s argument is a kind of mirror image of Hägglund’s. Where Hägglund wants to use Derrida to get us completely free of religion, Caputo seems to want to use it to set up a completely blameless religion that would be free of the historical baggage of “religious violence.” This particularly comes out in the end of Caputo’s long piece, where he argues that deconstruction does not have access to a field in which the existence of a God beyond our experience could be “disproven” — hence, again, “religion” remains “safe and sound” (as Hägglund will recall in his response to Caputo). Thus, either we’re kept “safe and sound” from religion or religion is kept “safe and sound” from our tendency to screw everything up.

I would maintain that both readings of religion are actually present in Derrida’s sprawling oeuvre. Read the rest of this entry »

Book announcement: Religion and Hip Hop

My colleague Monica Miller, a fellow CTS PhD currently teaching at Lewis and Clark in Portland, has a new book coming out this summer called Religion and Hip Hop. Here’s the book description:

Religion and Hip Hop brings together the category of religion, Hip Hop cultural modalities and the demographic of youth. Bringing postmodern theory and critical approaches in the study of religion to bear on Hip Hop cultural practices, this book examines how scholars in religious and theological studies have deployed and approached religion when analyzing Hip Hop data. Using existing empirical studies on youth and religion to the cultural criticism of the Humanities, Religion and Hip Hop argues that common among existing scholarship is a thin interrogation of the category of religion. As such, Miller calls for a redescription of religion in popular cultural analysis – a challenge she further explores and advances through various materialist engagements.

Going beyond the traditional and more common approach of analyzing rap lyrics, from film, dance, to virtual reality, Religion and Hip Hop takes a fresh approach to exploring the paranoid posture of the religious in popular cultural forms, by going beyond what “is” religious about Hip Hop culture. Rather, Miller explores what rhetorical uses of religion in Hip Hop culture accomplish for various and often competing social and cultural interests.

The nerdiness of the New Atheism

This Sunday, the New York Times published a hugely entertaining review of a book purporting to demonstrate that quantum physics definitively answers the question “why is there something rather than nothing,” absolutely and once and for all. The reviewer goes to great lengths to show how ridiculous this claim is, but the best part of the piece is when he responds to the author’s polemic against religious thinkers:

And I guess it ought to be mentioned, quite apart from the question of whether anything Krauss says turns out to be true or false, that the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong — or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.

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