[Marxism] Norm Geras attacks Marxmail subscriber

Haines Brown brownh at hartford-hwp.com
Sat Jun 14 08:25:02 MDT 2008

Paula, thanks for the challenging reply.

Haines wrote:

> >That is, I don't think religion has much to do with an optimal
> > choice among worldly or material resources.
> The choices people make are, to some extent, suited to their
> situation. If millions of people choose religion, there is something
> in it for them.  Organized religion does indeed offer important
> worldly and material benefits (as well as emotional benefits).

Well, I can't entirely disagree. I don't have the context for my
comment, but let me take it on the face of it in terms of your
remark. That is, can we employ optimal choice theory to account for
the popularity of religion?

The basic point I raised was that optimal choice theory presumes an
atomized individual, while Marxism employs the notion of our social
being. That is, what we are and what we can become results from our
social connection. In terms of the issue you raise, this means we have
to distinguish carefully between the benefit one might gain through
religious affiliation and the benefit we derive from a belief in god
because of our psychic dynamics.

As for the latter, I suspect the answer is negative. I would argue
(not sure if the point is obvious to everyone) that a belief in some
transcendental non-material force is a mental effect of our relation
to the world and is not there because the idea of the transcendental
was planted in our mind by some divine being. Given this, the belief
is not a benefit that derives from without, but an effect of an
internal process. While I suppose we can engage in mental operations
that prove beneficial (such as commiting to memory or reasoning
better), optimal decision theory has to do with connecting to a real
outside source of potential benefit.

As for the benefit of religious affiliation, I don't doubt that at
all, but this benefit comes through socialization and whatever
benefits it brings, not in principle because it is religously based. 

Let me give an example. I have a close connection with an
African-American fundamentalist church here. One thing I've come to
understand that it is a valuable rumor-mill. What's happening in the
community? The best way to find out is to attend church, for the
newspaper or local TV news are inadequate. It affirms one's connection
to the community as you see and chat with folks regularly, now that
social life on the street has atrophied. Who is ill and why?  Finding
out about and joining in a joint behavior associated with some one's
death. Who is sleeping with whom? Meeting some attractive young
ladies. Gaining some friends whom you might visit or or hang out with
outside church. The church seeks to control these things (even
arranging marriages, offering alternative education and counselling
services), but this social control is not just negative (it has been
disastrous in my experience), but constitutive of social relations as

The church is socially cohesive because it is organized, has
leadership, promotes the sharing of some basic values, meets regularly
(besides all day Sunday, on many other occasions during the week), can
provide a range of goods and services, and so there's no question of
its offering social identity and benefits. But the question is, to
what extent does it differ from other institutions, such as the NAACP,
Masons or a sorority?  I'd suggest very little except in degree. That
is, the social benefit of church participation is not necessarily a
result of the fact that its members share a religious belief, although
a sharing of deeply held values and ideas certainly helps.

In short, you are right in both your points, but they do not quite
resolve the issue. Millions do choose religion, presumably both
because of their inner needs and because of the benefits of religious
affiliation. The issue is, I believe, that both these inner needs and
the need for the benefits of socialization can be addressed in ways
that have nothing to do with religion. Participation in a social
movement for change (class struggle), for example, can address both,
and _potentially_ offer much greater satisfaction.

So the issue becomes, why not satisfy those needs through, say, class
struggle rather than turn to religion? I suspect, although won't try
to argue the case here, that the explanation comes, not from the
intrinsic superiority of religious faith, but from the deepening
contradictions of capitalism, which tend to deconstruct social bonds
and thereby reduce our feeling that we can transcend
circumstance. Optimal choice theory, I believe, cannot offer any real
understanding of the choices we make as social beings; it presumes the
individual possesses a private power to make effective choices that
have a significant impact, and excludes the working class.

> < There's a world of a > difference between saying that thought is
> real and that the content of > our thought must also be real. A
> silly counter example: I see a > mirage. The thought is real, the
> phenomena are real, but the mirage is > not. We have constructed
> something in the mind that has a functional > (necessary) relation
> to the phenomena, but I draw from it the wrong > inference.
> The mirage is real (the water is not). The mirage is not constructed
> in the mind, but in the relation between the outside world, the eye
> and the mind.  We would not say a mirage is 'irrational'. To use
> another example - your image in the mirror is not really you;
> nevertheless it is a real image. It has a real content. I think Marx
> (or was it Engels) used the term 'real illusions' - a good term.

We don't really disagree. The "mirage" can refer to the phenomena
(which are real) or to the notion that we see water (which is not
true). I also agree that the term "irrational" is inappropriate here,
but I hope I didn't employ it in this context. Irrational would be
action that we know is contrary to our interests or, I suppose, a
belief contrary to what experience tells us. Experience conveys the
phenomenon that the mind interprets as being the presence of water,
and so our belief that there is water is entirely rational. If
religion is a manifestation of an inner psychic process or if it is a
social norm that one doesn't see as being counterproductive, then I
can't see how one would consider it irrational.

I'm not sure about the interesting term "real illusion". Just what
exactly do you think it means? If I see a mirage, and in my thirst
start walking in its presumed direction, my illusion of water is real
because it is causing me to walk. Is this the meaning you infer from
"real illusion"?

> > The ideological role of religion tends to be subtle; the religious
> > institution is largely depoliticized. So I wonder if we really
> > should trouble to launch a critique of religion.
> We can be subtle too. The interesting thing about religion is that
> it itself contains a critique of existing society. The socialist
> critique of religion, then, is a negation of a negation.

Well, here I'd be inclined to disagree with you. The reason is that by
"critique" we must distinguish an ideational critique and a critique
in terms of action. Of course, religion offers an ideational critique
(love thy neighbor as oneself), but that only becomes significant when
it happens to inform our activity as individuals. Religion might imply
we are better people as individuals, although I don't see this as
being empirically the case. But assuming otherwise, if for some reason
many people happened to share the belief and happened to manifest it
in a behavior that went beyond what circumstances would imply, it
would be a better world. The point is, however, that this would be
accidental, not necessary. I don't believe the growth of global
fundamentalism we see today is making the world any better, and many
would argue in fact worse (I see it in more positive terms because I
feel an ideational critique can be a ease the way for a materialist

A Marxist "critique" is materialist. That is, the potential for change
arises from material (contradictory material processes) rather than
ideational (Kantian real oppositions) "contradictions". It therefore
draws on real potentials outside the individual that represent a power
for change, not just an idea. An ideational critique offers little
power beyond the accident of the ideals we happen to implement and
happen to share with others so that we might happen to combine our
individual powers--which for the working class, by definition, are
negligible (the working class does not own the means of production).

> > I believe that the best policy is to engage religious people in
> > the social struggle despite their beliefs, and that success in it
> > will come to vitiate the psychic reasons for their religiosity.
> Plus, crucially, its material reasons. Yes, I agree that this is the
> best policy. But socialists should also honestly (and respectfully)
> explain to believers what we think about religion itself.

Well, I can't help but wonder if you have ever tried to do this. I
have a good rapport with a number of clergy, but while they all know
I'm an atheist, if I were to argue in support of my views it would
imply a critique of their own, and all I'd accomplish would be to
alienate them (have you ever had the misfortune of being prevailed
upon by a friend who is an evangelist?) To insist upon one's views
with those who don't share them, like a teacher or parent, can make
one seem arrogant therefore unworthy of heeding). I have greater
effect simply by being a presence who in their eyes is a good person
_despite_ my being atheist (among Black clergy here, knowing that I'm
also a Marxist is not particularly interesting because they know
Marxism is a reasonable outlook and don't see it as alien).

Paula, I find your comments stimulating, and hope you will keep
putting my feet to the fire.


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