[Marxism] Norm Geras attacks Marxmail subscriber

Haines Brown brownh at hartford-hwp.com
Fri Jun 6 05:40:58 MDT 2008

> Marxists should recognize in the essay the reference to Hegel's
> dictum that the real is rational and the rational is real. Geras
> apparently didn't. I take this dictum to imply that the irrational,
> in so far as it exists, has a kernel of rationality - it results
> from real conditions that can be understood and changed.

I, for one, could use some clarification of the meaning of "rational"

Hegel's dictum makes no sense to me. I think of the word "rational" in
three general senses: a) a kind of thinking that provides explanation,
b) formally valid arguments, c) a kind of action in the world that
lends itself to desired outcomes. All are subjective in whole or
part. While mind itself is certainly real, and the mind's
representation of the world _may_ have truth value, when we say
"real", are we not making an ontological statement about a reality
that is independent of thought?  If so, it seems to have no connection
with the term "rational". The word "irrational" seems merely the
opposite of these three meanings and so remains subjective and
therefore a matter separate from the issue of whether something is
"real" in the ontological sense of being independent of mind.

Given this framework, is religion irrational? (a) It does offer an
explanation of the world, which is much a part of its appeal. (b)
Whether it offers formally valid arguments strikes me as an open
question, for while a theologian can be quite logical, his premises
seem to contradict our usual criteria of truth. c) I suspect we all
would agree that religion is not directly conducive to desired
outcomes (however, a sociologist might point out that it indirectly
supports success, for if we act in terms of coherent system of values,
we are more likely to succeed). In short, I don't think a dismissal of
religion because it is irrational gets us very far.

Furthermore, to dismiss religious behavior as irrational might
arrogantly discount an important sector of the working class as being
incapable of rational thought and imply they are inferior beings. So I
recommend that we criticize religious faith, not from the outside in
this way (dismissing people as knaves or fools), but from the
inside. That is, we should think of ourselves as somehow being
religious, even if we happen to be atheists, so that we might grasp
more deeply how religious beliefs affect our situation in the world.

More specifically, we need to be aware of the difference between 
the anthropological and the sociological approaches to religion. The
former tends to look at how faith functions in mental life; the latter
on how institutions function in society. A critique of religion needs
to be fully aware of which is the target. For example, in the European
Enlightenment, the target of criticism was the latter, not the
former. I suspect that in a Marxist discussion of religious
irrationality, the concern is instead for the former.

So what is religion in an anthropological sense? Obviously it has to
do with something that transcends this world, such as hidden
(non-empirical) forces or a state of being that is independent of this
world. The problem is, and the reason why I suggested
that we can all put ourselves in the shoes of the believer, even those
of us who are atheists, is that there are two ways in which we must
accept the existence of transcendent or hidden forces. The first is because
consciousness of the transcendental is a distinctive feature of the
human mind. Consciousness, however we explain it, is an emergent
process that does not reduce to the mental state that gives rise to
it; it therefore _is_ a kind of mental self-transcendence. Secondly,
it is good to remember that the natural sciences are replete with
hidden forces (called unobservables). Radical empiricists might not
accept this, but their position has fallen into disfavor of late.

The problem with religious consciousness is that (other than in the
very limited sociological sense I mentioned before) it does not lend
itself to effective action in the world. It entails an ontological
dualism (the natural and the supernatural) that makes rational thought
more difficult; its appeal to hidden forces does not lend itself to
empirical (worldly) justification because the supernatural does not
emerge from the material world, but from a state of mind.

This ineffectiveness in the world is not simply because, like a
disease, some people got the supernatural into their heads, but
because the further back we go in time, the less developed are the
forces of production. With less worldly efficacy, there is less reason
to look to our natural powers to achieve a desired outcome.

It is frequently mentioned that this typically modern view of
religious history must face the awkward fact that religious faith
seems to be currently on the upswing; religion should have died out in
the twentieth century due to the predominance of positivism (to
suggest that positivism was the hobby horse of the elite and therefore
irrelevant to the working class is implicitly arrogant). But that
didn't happen. But if we see faith as a result of powerlessness in
natural terms, and we inquire about the relation of actual power and
the perceived need for such power, it turns out people are very
powerless today. Like exploitation in Marxist terms, it is relative
exploitation that is really significant, not absolute exploitation;
only the former has explanatory power.

To elaborate this a bit, power is not an absolute, but is relative to
our need to exercise it. In neolithic times, people had little power
over circumstance, but they sensed there was a very limited arena in
which power might be exercised. Today, state's insist that they are
accountable to us, and so we are made acutely aware that we have
little power to affect the state's behavior. Today we feel that we
should be able to purchase a range of goods that not only ensure our
subsistence, but are provide personal gratification in psychic, social
and cultural terms. But even when we can buy such goods, they seem
empty of real value. Capitalism encourages a remarkable expansion of
personal expectations, but cannot really satisfy them. This relative
powerlessness offers a ground for religious faith, such as responding
to capitalist anomie by mining values from the Old Testament.

Just some idle speculation on my part, but I believe that dismissing
religion because it is irrational is really not very helpful.

Haines Brown      

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