Marx and the meaning of godlessness: a radical atheist’s response to Kris Nelson

There’s a passage from Marx’s critique of Hegel that antitheists like to quote and defenders of faith like to quotemine. In a piece titled ‘3 Myths That Make Navigating the Radical Left as a Person of Faith Difficult’, Kris Nelson notes Marx calls religion the heart of a heartless world as well as the opium of the people, claiming to ‘open up . . . the full quote, and not just the snapshot used to pick at those who dare let their god(s) lead them’.

In fact, Nelson – ‘a queer trans witch [who] runs an online store . . . where they sell handcrafted wirework jewellery, crystal pendants, handsewn tarot bags and pendulums’ – is the one peddling a misrepresentation. The actually-full quote (translation mine) reads:

The discontent of religion is at once an expression of and protestation against true discontent. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, heart of a heartless world and soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. To overthrow the bogus happiness they find in it is to demand they be allowed true happiness; to demand disillusionment with a condition built on delusion is to demand its end. And so to criticise religion is, in embryo, to criticise the vale of tears of which it is but an apparition.

Such critique has not shredded the imaginary flowers on people’s chains so as to leave them chained without solace or fantasy, but so that they might cast away their chains and gather real flowers. It disillusions people so that they might think, act and shape their own reality, as does anyone brought to their senses – so that their lives might revolve around them, people being their own true suns. Religion is no more than an illusory sun, revolving around people whose lives do not revolve around them.

The point missed on all sides isn’t that religion is either a bad habit or a source of hope – nor is Marx saying it’s one in spite of being the other. The meaning of ‘Opium des Volkes’, a metaphor Nietzsche and Bernard Shaw would later recycle, is that faith is comforting and delusional, easing the pain by clouding the senses: Marx labels it the courage of a heartless world as part of his attack.

There’s a lot I could say about those lines, which never fail to move me. Unlike new atheism’s figureheads, I’ve been a believer – I could say I remember not having enough to eat, going to church with a single mother and meeting other oppressed creatures; remember the cost of the church’s help, belief spinning out of control, abuse and mental illness taking hold; remember the bogus happiness, then finding poetry in the real world.

000I could say that as an apostate on the left, my skepticism serves an instinct that, in Chomsky’s words, ‘the burden of proof for anyone with a position of power and authority lies on them’ – that my atheism will never be separate from the fight for a just society – and that my antitheism will never, ever be divorced from compassion for those on the margins. I could even accept, though I think his argument survives it, that there’s room to criticise Marx – either in that his presumption to dismantle strangers’ beliefs rings paternalistic, or inasmuch as leftists can and do repurpose God for their own ends.

For now though, Nelson’s post.

Calling oneself a person of faith feels like setting light fingers on ‘person of colour’ – a move less tasteful still when apostates whose former religions have a marked ethnic dimension are among the most stigmatised, frequently smeared as race traitors. Mentioning one’s spirituality – ‘We’ve all got one!’ – likewise resembles the language of sexuality. While it’s perfectly true certain religious groups are ostracised, constructing believers in general as an oppressed class is putrescent – if Nelson finds religion a fraught topic on the left, it’s because of its role as oppressor, and it’s hard to see how conflating the ‘struggle’ of Baptists and Anglicans with those of Jews and Muslims in the west does any good. [Read more…]

Out of the blue: what now for the Labour Party?

When the wrong Miliband became leader, Tories rubbed their hands gleefully and named Ed M the heir to Michael Foot. Seeing them vindicated hurts, and yet I don’t regret voting for him in 2010. That Britain glanced at Foot and instantly preferred Thatcher is a fiction – before the SPD split the left vote and the Falklands lionised her, Labour had poll leads nearing twenty points, predicted a landslide, and Miliband’s failure was no more inevitable. The tragedy of Labour’s loss last week is that the coalition years were a unique chance for a leftish platform to succeed: but for his lack of confidence and failure to convince voters, Miliband’s strategy of cornering the anti-Tory vote might well have worked. Ed blew a chance that won’t soon come again.

000His leadership wasn’t without its achievements. Miliband unified a bruised party when internal spats threatened to explode, moved perceptions on from the Blair-Brown era’s most loathed missteps (not least Iraq) and saw strong local election performances. His campaign, albeit futile, put living costs on the agenda and exposed, perhaps unwillingly, the extent of media bias in the UK. Nevertheless, he’ll be recalled as the leader who managed to do worse than Gordon Brown – a fate all the crueller because till the eleventh hour, everyone in the game expected him to be PM. Experts are asking where the polls went wrong, but while left and right fight over what cost him victory, neither has longitudinal data: whereas certain events demonstrably harmed Brown’s support, we have no way to know if Miliband’s numbers were ever accurate.

Labour still needs a strategy, and predicting the next election’s trials will do more good than wondering what went wrong. 2015 shows a fractured electoral map, most of whose distinct battlegrounds broke the wrong way for them – red versus yellow in Scotland, red versus purple in the north, red versus blue in the midlands and capital, blue versus purple in the south, blue versus orange in the west country. Scottish losses weren’t offset by new English seats – even if Labour made extraordinary gains north of the border, where full recovery will now take it a decade or more, all their work would still be ahead of them. To win again, Labour must wrestle traditional votes from Ukip and the SNP, plus swing votes from the Tories in the south, fighting on two contradictory fronts.

The pill is as bitter for me as the rest of the left, but there is no sugaring it – this time around, Labour has to court more right-leaning votes. At the same time, it must shore up and recover grassroots support, broadening its left-leaning base – all on redrawn boundaries that extend the Tory advantage from 99 to some 125 seats. With the road back to power all uphill, how can Labour go the distance? [Read more…]

Welcome Jamila Bey to Freethought Blogs!

In case you hadn’t heard, Jamila Bey is joined Freethought Blogs’ newest bully – read her first post, on atheism and Black History Month, at the Sex Politics and Religion blog, a tie-in with her long-running radio show.

A preview:

February, the shortest and coldest month on this part of the planet, is the time in which schoolchildren learn that Black Americans did far more than just suffer enslavement in these United States.  Children all over learn (just short weeks after MLK’s dream-filled celebrations) that George Washington Carver was a peanut genius, Rosa Parks got tired and wouldn’t give up her bus seat to a white man, and that ​Black people are all God-fearing and without the reverends and churches of the post-WWII era, the Civil Rights movement wouldn’t have been a success.

I’m skipping over my (minor) quibbles with the month for this post, as I genuinely wish to make it clear that Atheists really need to support Black History Month for the simple fact that one of our own invented it!

Jamila – as in tequila, not vanilla – is one a small handful of new members we’ll be rolling out in the near future. Some of them you probably know, some you probably don’t, but they all exceptional additions.

In the mean time, go and say hello!

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New posts soon and a thank you

Last week’s fundraiser reached its goal a few days ago – thanks to all who took part. A related reminder: people in London can see me at this event on February 27.

I haven’t posted much of late, and for once there’s a good reason – I’ve been busy these last couple of months working on something you’ll hear about soon. This week it’s all getting wrapped up, so I’ll be more active on this blog from the final third of January on.

See you all soon. Tata, AG.

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Snow in Berlin 26.12.14

It’s very nearly been a year
Since snow fell and I landed here
Citing at yours that night my lack
Of a coat for the journey back.
Next morning I face the outdoors
To lumber home in one of yours,
The mark left by its owner’s face
Proving a challenge to erase
Even as a fresh fall fills in
The trail where my feet’ve been.
Outside my window now the snow
Has come back for another go.
Almost a year on I can tell
This snow’ll bury you as well.

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Thank you so, so much

Five days ago I posted I was in a crisis, asking readers of this blog to support it and to hire my skills. I meant to post an update on Thursday but came down with a cold, and am just regaining blogging faculties. (One thing about being a writer: a broken leg would be no problem whatsoever, but a common cold makes work impossible.)

Long story short, I’m now fine. Actually, I’m better than fine. [Read more…]

I’m in a serious financial crisis. Here’s what you can do to help

Update.

Something I’ve come to love about this network is how it rallies round. Every so often when a FTBlogger has a personal crisis, they ask for colleagues and site readers’ help and get it in spades. I’m hoping the rule holds, because it’s my turn.

I’m in a serious financial crisis. Twice before, I’ve asked for assistance when things were dicey; at present, things are worse than dicey. [Read more…]

Please donate to support this blog – and help me speak at events

Back in the spring, I asked readers of this blog to donate to it. Because you did – because readers’ support allowed me to blog more and made blogging matter in a way it hadn’t – I’ve done some of my best writing since then.

As an atheist, I’ve posted about

As a queer writer, I’ve posted about

On pop culture, nerd culture and other things, I’ve posted about

I also got nine posts into a full-length chaptered version of my ‘coming out story’. For those who’ve asked, this hasn’t been abandoned – it’s on hold, and I’m planning to resume writing it in August. (The umbrella title, ‘A memoir in a month’, will have to be ironic.)

So now I’m going to ask you again: if you like my work, and if you can, please donate to support this blog.

To support writers in magazines, readers pay subscription fees; to support writers in newspapers, readers pay at the counter or subscribe for web content. To support campaign group workers, members make donations. The media industry has yet to settle on a way for bloggers to be paid – in fact, the increasing expectation that our work will be unpaid is undermining writing as a profession. For now, on top of a very small amount of ad revenue, this is how my work here can be supported.

Currently, largely due to moving house this month and having a month’s rent to pay both in my new and former flats, my finances are touch and go, and whatever help I receive will let me focus on writing posts like those above. Recently – until the last week or so – I haven’t posted as much as I want to in August and beyond due to concentrating on other, more lucrative forms of work. (This included designing a blog banner for Heina Dadabhoy, who’s set to join this network in the coming week.) More security will mean I don’t need to make that compromise.

Additionally, I’ve recently been invited to speak on a panel in a fortnight’s time at a British event whose themes include gender, queer culture and feminism; because another prospective panellist is Ally Fogg (of Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men), another FTBlogger I’m keen to meet in real life, I hope to take the invitation up, but organisers can’t cover my full travel expenses. At Brute Reason, Miri invites readers to help her speak at conferences; similarly, whatever I receive beyond basic living expenses (rent, food etc.) will go toward making this happen.

If you’ve liked my blog for a while, are just discovering it or want to see it grow, this is what you can do to support it.

Clicking this link or the ‘Support this blog’ button below will let you donate however much you choose. (I’ve had donations in the past ranging from €3 to £100.) Additionally, if you’d like to help me out on an ongoing basis – thanks to everyone already doing so – you can ‘subscribe’ through PayPal and give €5, €10 or €20 a month. On PayPal’s regular donation page, you can also tick the ‘Make this recurring (monthly)’ box to make payments of any other amount regular.

The page includes an information box where donors can attach a note. Everyone who helps, unless they ask otherwise there, will be publicly thanked in future posts. If you need more information, here are some relevant numbers.

  • €270 / £215.48 / $365.57 is my monthly rent.
  • €100-150£79.17-118.77£133.80-200.71 is the amount that will make paying August’s on time possible.
  • €33.83 / £27 / $45.81 covers a month’s phone and internet access (vital to my work).
  • €20-30 / £15.96-23.94 / $27.08-40.62 covers food, transport and other basic living costs for a week.
  • €10 / £7.98 / $13.54 pays for food for two or three days.
  • €5 / £3.99 / $6.77 pays for a return trip across town on public transport. (I make one about once a week.)

Thanks in advance to everyone who helps me out, and to everyone else, we now return to scheduled broadcasting FTBullying.

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Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you.

 Explicit racial slurs and similar nastiness follow.

This will be the last thing I ever say to you.

Recently grandmother, you tried to find out where I live. That I don’t want you to contact me should already be clear: in four years at university a bus ride from your home, despite repeated invitations, I never visited; when we’ve been together with relatives, I’ve avoided you; when you’ve tried to converse, I haven’t reciprocated. You’ve given me cash and I’ve donated it, sent me cheques and I’ve recycled them. It seems that you now want to send me more in spite of being told not to, and all the evidence I don’t want a relationship with you.

If you’re getting this message, it’s been relayed to you. Online, where what I write is published, thousands of people are reading it. None know who you are or anything about you, so nothing will come of this; I’ve hesitated to write it even so, but it’s obvious you’ll keep harassing me unless I go on public record telling you to stop.

You strike me as a bully, grandmother – snobby, controlling and contemptuous of everything apart from what you assume to hold status. You show particular contempt for foreigners and anyone ‘coloured’ or ‘nigger brown’ enough for you to deem them foreign, complaining ‘masses of Japanese’ (discernible, you insist, by their eyes) can be found in your nearest city, refusing continental food because of non-existent allergies; for ethnic Jews, warning me once that someone’s name was Goldstein, and for ‘gippos’ even though your mother was a Romany.

You show contempt for any woman not thin, youthful, white and femme enough – including, as it happens, most women I’m into – and for the children in your family born out of wedlock. As for the men I’m into, you call queer people ‘peculiar’. You show contempt for my whole generation and most born since the 1960s, describing us as ill-mannered, our clothing as scruffy and our English, since you’re not familiar with it, as meaningless. (As a graduate in literature, your mourning ‘the language of Shakespeare’ tells me you know little about him or it.) You show contempt for people claiming benefits, as your daughter and I did when she raised me, accusing them of ‘putting their hands out’ while you live off yours in old age.

Worst, you’re contemptuous of anyone who disagrees with you, laughing at, patronising or ignoring them. When you heard I wrote for a living, you commented I never seemed to say much; I don’t talk to you because I don’t waste words. You epitomise the figure of the senior bigot, obsessed with manners but oblivious to your own spite, and unlike some I’m not amused by it. Nor will I insult people your age, many of whom have inspired me, by putting your toxic outlook down to being 93.

Being the only one who won’t oblige you has made me a villain. Family members caught in what they see as the crossfire of two warring relatives have called me heartless for trying to indicate passively that I want you to leave me alone. This message might be heartless, but if so you’ve left me no other option, aggressively dismissing every signal I sent that I didn’t want to know you. The only reason others have been caught amid anything is that like a possessive ex, you’ve refused to let go.

This isn’t a warning or an ultimatum. I’ve quit Britain for central Europe and don’t expect to return while you’re alive. If I do you won’t get my address, and I’m now self-reliant enough to avoid staying with relatives at the same time as you. We won’t meet again, and I’m not interested in hearing from you.

If this is upsetting, you should have considered that people you insult, attack and treat with broad derision don’t have to accept it. If it’s only registering now that keeping a relationship with an adult might involve respecting them, too bad. You’ve had too many chances as it is.

Goodbye, grandmother. Enjoy your remaining years.

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Supporting this blog: an update on my living costs

In late April, I installed a donation button on this blog and asked you to support it, promising to thank all those who did. As well as everyone who’s asked not to be named, huge thanks are therefore due to the first twenty:

  • John-Henry Beck
  • James Billingham
  • M C Brian
  • Jonathan Cantwell
  • Richard Carrier
  • Jennifer Chavez
  • L. Catherine Crompton
  • Eleanor Dent
  • Sue Drain
  • A R Hosking
  • A P Lee
  • David Lindes
  • Gordon MacGinitie
  • Louisa Manning
  • Bruce Martin
  • Ken Rokos
  • Emma Rose
  • Lee Roseberry
  • Jeremy Stein and
  • Rose Strickland-Constable.

It matters to me that everyone who donates knows how they’re helping me. For that reason, I included in my call for support the following description of my living costs:

  • €313.70 £258.27 $434.10 is my monthly rent. (Yes, that exact figure.)
  • €150 £123.49 $207.57 is what I need to pay May’s, due this Thursday, on time.
  • €62.25 / £51.25 $86.14 covers a month’s phone and Internet access (vital to my work).
  • €20-30 £16.47-24.70 $27.68-41.51 covers food, transport and other basic living costs for a week.
  • €10 / £8.23 / $13.84 pays for food for two or three days.
  • €5 £4.12 / $6.92 pays for a return trip across town on public transport. (I make one about once a week.)

As of July, most of these figures will be defunct. I’m updating the information here so prospective donors can still decide based on the evidence. (I’ve heard they prefer to do that.)

Next month, I’m set to move to a new part of Berlin. Different living arrangements, as well as up-to-date exchange rates, will mean…

  • €270 / £215.48$365.57 is my monthly rent.
  • €33.83 / £27$45.81 covers a month’s phone and internet access (vital to my work).
  • €20-30 / £15.96-23.94 / $27.08-40.62 covers food, transport and other basic living costs for a week.
  • €10£7.98$13.54 pays for food for two or three days.
  • €5 / £3.99$6.77 pays for a return trip across town on public transport. (I make one about once a week.)

Overall, my finances are stronger than they were in April. Due to reader support, more paid writing away from this blog and additional work in other fields, my income’s set to rise while my expenditure falls. In other words, this move’s a good long-term development.

The short-term downside is, I’ll need to pay both my final month’s rent in my current flat and two thirds of the new amount within the first half of July, totalling €493.70£394.01$668.46. I’m not too worried by this: provided current cheques come in on time I should be able to cover it, and am working on a higher-than-usual number of projects at once to do so.

Beside wanting to let readers support this blog who choose to, though, I’m accepting all help offered and leaving the options open to donate using the blue button below or give a monthly sum by subscribing:



I’ve also added a new button for those who simply want to follow this blog on Facebook. (I use the same page to collate writing I do for other sites and to recommend occasional work by people I like.)

Thanks for reading and for any support you choose to lend. We’ll now return to scheduled programming.

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