Growing up, the discovery of atheism was one of the defining points in my development as a leftist. Stumbling upon various writings by the New Atheists — Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens in particular — I found myself enamored by their defiance in the face of centuries-old religious power structures. Critiques of religion promised to liberate the masses from the stranglehold of ignorance. It challenged the dogmatic ideologies that have justified some of history’s most egregious crimes, including the Crusades, colonialism, slavery, and more. Atheism, as opposed to religion, prided itself in a tradition opposed to coercion and dedicated to the rational. It revolutionarily placed people at the center of moral structures, rather than some external and omnipotent being who escapes the faculties of intellectual engagement. I understood Atheism as the much-needed rehab for the masses’ debilitating addiction to the opiate of religion.
However, I’ve come to think that the leftist atheist does herself a disservice by wholeheartedly rejecting the institution of organized religion. It is easy to regard these structures as antiquated and oppressive, but one should not forget the central role that they play in the lives of billions of people on this planet today. A leftist movement based in subverting potential followers’ spiritual infrastructure will simultaneously divide the masses and deny itself the unique resources that organized religion has to offer. While leftist efforts towards social and economic justice should not necessarily define themselves as religious endeavors, radical political movements should nonetheless embrace organized religion in their charge towards progress.
A quick clarifier: for the purposes of this article, my discussion of religion specifically refers to organized structures that institutionally establish moral and metaphysical beliefs and manage rituals related to the spiritual realm. I am concerned with the social and political implications of religious institutions, rather than the veracity of their claims to theism and supernaturalism. Questions of the Absolute have challenged spiritual thinkers for millennia, and it is not the intention of this article to try to settle them.
One of the most notable characteristics of religion is its centrality in the lives of its adherents. Through the legacy of scripture and the authority of ecclesiastical figures, religion presents a moral framework for the proper life. Such institutions provide legitimacy and weight behind normative teachings. Progressive ideals of social justice and collective action can take on a new force when intertwined with the wide-reaching apparatuses of organized religion. This is not to argue that secularism does not offer a legitimate and sound path to moralities of justice, but thousands of years of institutional structures may give established religions a leg up in leading the march (or at least playing a major role in said march).
Leftists should look to the transformative legacies of past political movements that have fought for justice from spiritual foundations. There is no shortage of historical examples of religion’s transformative potential, but one that particularly stands out is Liberation Theology of 20th-century Latin America. This ideology, integral in the region’s anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles, embraced the philosophical and institutional underpinnings of the Catholic Church as a means for radical action. It gave a spiritual vocabulary to political protest and elevated the legitimacy and influence of those fighting gross violations of human rights. Its leaders and adherents understood the social role of religion and its importance in the formation of a popular revolution. The influence of religion can be used both for good and for bad. But regardless of the net value of historical precedents, the absolute influence of organized religion is undeniable. Rather than arguing that organized religion has always been good, it is important to recognize these structures’ inherent resources inherent that could be manipulated and utilized for good. A leftist celebration of religion does not mean accepting the totality of contemporary religious ideologies, but rather embracing the institutional tools for translating them into action.
Progressive ideals of social justice and collective action can take on a new force when intertwined with the wide-reaching apparatuses of organized religion.
In a world in which organized religion plays as major role as it does today, a politically radical adherent to faith can be more threatening to the status quo than a radical atheist. Whereas the extreme materialist proposes a sweeping rejection of anachronistic superstitions and structures, the religious radical does not ostensibly pose as dire a threat to the existing order of things. However, the latter’s transgressive potential lies precisely in the fact that she maintains the vocabulary and infrastructure of the status quo (i.e., the language of faith) in her efforts to effect change. Society’s unequal power structures can more easily protect themselves from external ideological threats by appealing to tradition and rallying collective condemnation against malicious apostates. But when the subversive ideas develop from within the existing structures, a similar call to arms is more likely to cause an internal rupture by turning the system against itself. This leaves open the way to radical progress.
Image: Ty Ragan