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Freedom from Religion: An Interview with Alexander Saxton

Religion and the Human Prospect
RELIGION AND THE HUMAN PROSPECT by Alexander Saxton
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I first met Alexander Saxton in 1997 at a conference on the “problem of whiteness,” held at the University of California, Berkeley, at which we were both speakers.  Although we had never met, I considered him a mentor, particular his book, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (Verso, Haymarket Series, 1990, 1996).  Dr. Saxton was a professor of history at University of California, Los Angeles, 1974-1991, where I had received my doctorate in History in 1974, having missed the opportunity to study with him.  So, when asked to interview Dr. Saxton about his new book from Monthly Review Press, Religion and the Human Prospect, I was pleased to do so.

RDO: Your new book probes the negative effects of religion in our time.  What is your own religious background and how did that influence your perspective?

AS: My religious background is a typically American ecumenical mix.  My father, a Baltimore Catholic, had his entire schooling (grade school through college) in Jesuit institutions.  My mother, born to a Midwestern, modestly middle-class Protestant family that hit the skids during the depression of 1893, went to public school and won a scholarship to Bryn Mawr.  This introduced a third ingredient — Quakerism — into the mix, which in my own case probably became the dominant element.

The Catholic Church in those days took a dim view of mixed marriages.  Priests were permitted to perform such ceremonies, but not inside the church, only in the vestibule; and the non-Catholic spouse must vow to raise the children as Catholics.  My mother was attracted in a romantic, aesthetic way to Catholicism, but could not quite bring herself to the point of converting.  So my parents were married in the vestibule — by one of my father’s (at that time) closest friends, Father McSorley, an eloquent and powerful priest of the Paulist order.

Yet my father (as I learned later) was not altogether single-minded about his Catholic faith and he already had had a belly-full of Jesuit schools.  When it came to educating their children (two of us by the time I came along), they compromised on a Quaker seminary nearby — the Friends’ School, Stuyvesant Square, New York — within which my brother and I spent many of our waking hours from kindergarten through ninth grade.  My mother, however, had not forgotten her wedding vows.  On Wednesday afternoons she meticulously packed us off to a convent for catechism with the nuns and preparations for First Communion.

That, for me, led to an intense religious phase.  I kept saints’ medallions in my bureau drawer and went every Sunday to mass (whether my parents went or not); and to confession once a month, although I was still so young I sometimes had to invent sins in order to confess them.  Then during my first teenage year came what might be described as a reverse conversion experience.  I was attending mass at the huge church on West 12th Street, attached to the same convent where I had studied catechism.  Half way through, I decided to leave.  But out of the pew behind me rose a nun, three times my size, in huge black habit, who collared me and sat me down.  “You don’t leave till mass is finished,” she said.  Well, ok: I waited for the next round of genuflections, knowing it would cost the nun a bit of struggle to get to her feet, and by that time I was out the door, half way down the block.  I won’t say I never entered a Catholic church again.  I have returned many times, for other people’s weddings; or in Europe, to marvel at the architecture and art; never again for worship or prayer.

During most of the rest of my life — as industrial worker, wartime sailor in the merchant marine, political activist, writer, eventually a professor of history — I paid little heed to religion, which seemed to me obsolete and irrelevant.  Of course I was totally mistaken.  By the time I retired from teaching in 1990, I understood that religion was becoming again, for the world, what it had been for Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries — a scourge of endless, hopeless wars without mercy.  That was when I began working on the book just completed, Religion and the Human Prospect.

So how did childhood religious experiences influence my perspective?  What I inherited from them was, first, a total rejection of religious belief; second, deep distrust of clerical hierarchies; third, admiration for the sorts of social activism which (some) Quakers (John Woolman, for example, in the 18th century; but there have been a few others since then) actually pursued; and finally, a wish to take to myself a command that might be read as the leitmotif of all radical history: “Speak Truth to Power.”  We don’t always know what the truth is, but at least we can say what we know is true and avoid pretending we know the rest.

RDO: Why did it take so long for the Left, here and elsewhere, to recognize the religious surge that became politicized in the 1970s?

AS: That religious surge marked the end of the so-called Age of Secularism which began with the 18th-century Enlightenment and ended shortly after World War II.  The hard core of secularism was disbelief, or atheism, and this (in modern times at least) had its beginnings in the left wing of the Enlightenment.  During the 19th century, Marxism and Marxist-oriented socialist and labor parties inherited the role of cutting edge for disbelief.  But these parties faced a difficult problem.  Their political task was to organize industrial workers in opposition to capitalism, yet religious belief remained more solidly based in working-class communities than among upper-class, educated, bourgeois supporters of capitalism.  The upper classes tended to adopt skeptical, scientific styles for their own thought, while at the same time supporting and subsidizing clerical hierarchies that propagated religion in working-class communities.  We see a later version of this same pattern here in the US, where neo-cons (Paul Wolfowitz or Elliott Abrams, for example, or our own Vice President Cheney) — obviously skeptics from way back — enter enthusiastically into alliance with fundamentalist sectors of American Protestantism.

Marxian socialist and labor parties in the 19th and early 20th centuries often tried to evade the problem of working-class religion by soft-pedaling criticisms of religion.  Since it was precisely these parties, however, that were the main purveyors of such criticism, the effect was to leave the Left — both in Europe and the US — unprepared for anticipating, or resisting, the upsurge and politicization of religion that marked the end of the Second World War.

So why was there such an explosion of religious belief?  In long-range historical terms, I think it was because the devastations and suffering imposed by World War II — as well as by the Great Depression and First World War immediately preceding — had for vast numbers of human beings undermined their confidence that secular, technological, industrial “progress” could lead to anything other than disaster.  There would then be two possible directions of movement.  (1) To blame capitalism for the disasters and move in a socialist direction; or (2) to attribute ills of the modern world to secularism and disbelief, to move in a “spiritual” direction.  Obviously, religious institutions and clerical hierarchies, as well as capitalist ruling classes, would tend to favor the second alternative.  Not so obviously, however, scientific elites (especially in first-world industrial societies) have provided massive support for treating religious, or “spiritual,” experiences as equivalent to empirical experience — thus according to religious belief a credibility level equal to that of science.  The gigantic research and educational endowment mill run by the Templeton Foundation provides a striking illustration of this tendency.

That left-wing parties sometimes found it easier to avoid religious issues than confront working-class believers points to a deeper problem.  The real problem is: why was it that the Left — we are talking mainly about the Marxist-led Left — successful though it often was at organizing political actions, made so small a dent in working-class religious belief?  In my book, I explore this problem in some detail.  An essential first step for inducing believers to reexamine their beliefs would be a persuasive, secular explanation of how religion began, and why it spread universally among human societies, since religion’s universality provides one of its prime claims to belief.  For a variety of reasons, Marxists were unable to come up with such an explanation; hence the title of my chapter, “The Failed Critique. . . .”

One scarcely need fault Engels or Marx individually.  Hard-pressed financially — growing older, Marx in failing health, both totally focused on their monumental critique of industrial capitalism — how could one ask for more than that?  Collectively, there were many reasons for the failure.  Most important, I think, was the persistence of a kind of echo, or residue of belief, even in the minds of non-believers.  For radical thinkers through the entire nineteenth century it was difficult to abandon the notion of a force for progress, somehow inherent in nature — or inherent at least in the “laws” of human development.  One finds such formulations expressed by Marx and strongly so by Engels.  Certainly they permeated the ranks of socialist parties on both sides of the North Atlantic.  But since this amounted to acknowledging a transcendent, or spiritual, force at work in human history, its effect was to short-circuit evolutionary theorizing about religion.  The bottom line, then, is that Marxism, which had begun by negating religion, failed to come up with a persuasive secular hypothesis for its origin and universality.  Consequently there remained a strategic gap in the secular (materialist) interpretation of human history.  Intellectually and ideologically, this undermined the capacity of the Left to anticipate, or mount any effective resistance to, religion’s resurgence when it “exploded” after the Second World War.

RDO: Explain how the new religious “awakening” worldwide relates to post-colonialism and late-stage capitalism.

AS: The new religious “awakening” is not really that new, having been with us now for at least half a century.  Relatively, of course, that seems like a short time compared to the so-called “Age of Secularism” preceding it, which lasted more than two hundred years.  These long time spans tell us the resurgence of religion is not a superficial phenomenon, but an aspect of “deep” historical change.

When we date the “awakening” back to the decade of the 1950s, we see that it has to include Liberation Theology in Latin America and African American Protestantism in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the heroic dedication that ended apartheid in South Africa.  All these, when they were happening, appeared politically “progressive” and liberationist.  By contrast now, in the first decade of the 21st century, religious “awakening” seems to be reinforcing repressive, reactionary politics; and this applies equally, I think, to its Protestant-Fundamentalist and Islamic versions.  Religion, then, can be liberating as well as repressive.  Social scientists who studied religion, from Marx and Engels through Weber and Mannheim — at odds though they were on many other questions — generally concurred on this point, and agreed also in seeing liberationist religions as typical of oppressed and exploited social groups.

Mannheim expressed precisely this view in the title of his famous book, Ideology and Utopia.  Ideology, for Mannheim, was the manipulation of ideas, including religious ideas, by which exploiters maintained their dominance.  Utopia, in Mannheim’s terms, was the yearning of the oppressed to overthrow or transcend their oppressors.  Marx and Engels, focusing on class as the dynamic of historical change, argued that clerical hierarchies — priesthoods — because religion gives them access to social power and wealth, tend to align ideologically with the ruling class.  The current world scene offers vivid examples.  We were just now speaking of the Bush administration, and of capitalist neo-cons like Cheney collaborating with born-again Christians, like — well, like Bush himself.  Or if we look at Latin America, we recall that many Catholic leaders — mobilized by the Pope — repudiated and undermined Liberation Theology.  Now we see a second generation of liberationists asserting themselves in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, maybe even Mexico.  We can be sure they will be targeted by the upper hierarchy of their own church.  In Africa, the penetration of capital into post-colonial countries, especially by transnational oil corporations, is certain to split religious denominations horizontally — and just above ground level.

As to “late-stage capitalism,” its agenda — now that the outcome of the Cold War has ended effective opposition — calls for construction of a global “free” market sustained by American military power.  Clerical hierarchies worldwide (including major sectors of Islam) will soon be discovering that God’s will (“Intelligent Design”) points in this same direction.  This does not necessarily mean the Global Market will succeed; but it means those opposing it will be obliged to stand in opposition to most of the world’s institutionalized churches.  I can refer again, here, by way of example, to the Templeton Foundation — an educational grant-awarding institution with funds running into the billions.  The Templeton’s statement of purpose specifies bringing scientists into dialog with religious leaders.  But a large part of its funding, probably now the major part, goes to advocating a global capitalist free market and propagating doctrines of neo-con economics, which aim at reducing taxes (on corporate industry) by privatizing (for individual citizens) the costs of social security, industrial safety, public health, health insurance, medical care — even public schools and public responsibility for “protecting” the environment.  We can be grateful to Templeton, at least, for giving us a glimpse of what “late-stage capitalism” would have in store for us.

RDO: Unlike most of the books recently published on religion, Religion and the Human Prospect does not focus on the rise of fundamentalism among the monotheistic religions, rather on religion itself.  You see the rise of religion as a survival mechanism of our early ancestors, a mechanism that is no longer necessary, indeed perhaps a hindrance to our survival as a species.  Can you expand on this thesis?

AS: Let’s begin by asking what we mean by recent.  During the past 25 or 30 years there has been an explosion of books about religion, most of them glorifying it, and many, like Billy Graham’s treatise on angels, or the Celestine Prophecy, riding high on the best seller list.  But if “recent” refers to the last 3 or 4 years, we see — not exactly an explosion — but a significant output of books critical of religion from a secular viewpoint.  I find this a positive, hopeful index.  It opens up for the first time in many decades an exchange of informed and serious discussion about — forgive me for quoting my own title — “Religion and the Human Prospect.”  Most of these books, as you point out, are narrowly focused.  They criticize, not religion as such, but particular religions: Protestant fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism being favorite targets.

Your question suggests a connection between fundamentalism and monotheistic religions.  I think that is not quite accurate.  Christian Unitarianism, for example, or various forms of deism, are monotheistic but not fundamentalist.  Fundamentalism gets into the act because many believers believe their creeds come to them ready-made by divine revelation.  Divine revelations are thought to be ultimate, absolute, eternal.  They are not supposed to be negotiable.  Science, on the other hand, is always re-negotiating — amending, revising — our understanding of the human condition.  For this reason (among others), it collides with religious fundamentalisms; and recent books critical of religion have mostly been efforts to defend science against fundamentalist styles of religious belief.

A good example would be Creation, published this year by the famous Harvard evolutionary biologist, E.O. Wilson.  Creation takes the form of a letter to a fundamentalist Protestant minister.  Let’s not argue, Wilson is saying, whether the natural world we all live in was created by God in six days or created through millions of years by biological evolution.  The fact is our planetary eco-system is in mortal danger due to environmental damage inflicted by human technology. Science would be able to avert the danger provided we act immediately.  Will you join, then, Wilson asks, in protecting “Nature” — and nature, after all, includes the human species — from impending ecological burn-out?  I concur, of course, with Wilson’s plea and admire its power and eloquence.  Yet the focus is narrow.  The heart of the problem, for me, is not simply fundamentalism, but “religion itself.”  In my own book, I have tried to dig deeper.  I keep insisting that religion can be defined precisely and researched as a discreet historical phenomenon.

Religion is much older than science.  The fundamentalist collision with science is actually quite a modern phenomenon.  Most recent books critical of religion have been written by scholars whose training, like that of E.O. Wilson, is in evolutionary biology, or various spin-offs such as evolutionary psychology or cognitive science.  On the other hand, I am by trade a cultural historian, which means that I come to the study of religion, in a sense, from the opposite direction.  My book is organized around three historical problems.  First, how can one explain the origin of religious belief itself?  Second, how can one explain its universality in human societies?  Third, how can one explain its “modern” conflict with science, and the obstacles it poses — in my view at least — to survival of our species?

RDO: Being a historian myself, this is what I find unique and particularly useful about your book, that you tackle religion as a historical phenomenon and look at it outside the dichotomy of science versus religion.  Could you be more specific about the problems you encounter in constructing the historical hypothesis?

AS: Your phrase, “dichotomy of science and religion,” is exactly right for describing recent critical writings by scientists about religion.  Generally, these pay little heed to how religious belief actually worked in history and tell us instead why that belief is unreasonable, or unscientific.  The book by E.O. Wilson is a good example.  But I want to come at this from a different angle: one of the strongest arguments defenders of religion have ever been able to make is to point to religion’s universality in human societies.  Everybody on both sides of the question has to agree at this point; and the religious person then says, well that could never have been the case unless God had planted seeds of belief in every human soul.  So a critic of religion — in order to wield any sort of persuasive power — has to begin by explaining religion’s origin and how it became universal.  And when I say “explain,” I mean not mystical or spiritual meditations, but a historical account that will be as hard-nosed and empirical as possible.

That right away raises a big difficulty, because religion’s origin had to have been long before there was any historical evidence or archaeological data to cue us in.  The most we can do at this level is construct a hypothesis that offers a credible account of how such an event might have occurred.  There are many possible hypotheses.  The one most persuasive for me runs as follows: Humans (so far as we know) are the only animals that possess consciousness.  Consciousness (in secular terms) is understood as a product of biological evolution.  It conveyed survival advantages that were crucial for the ascent of humans to the top of the global food chain.  But also it contains a massive disadvantage.  For all other animals, moments of mortal terror would be short episodes, triggered by immediate threats and separated by long intervals of feeding and recovery.  To be conscious, by contrast, is to confront death as a permanent intruder.  The notion that terror of death led to the invention of religion is by no means a new idea.  For example, I quote in my book a Roman poet, Publius Statius: “Fear, first of all, produced gods in the world.”  Statius, contemporary with Christ, was drawing on much earlier classical sources.

In our own era, this ancient explanation gains new power because we can now treat it as analogous to what evolutionary biologists call an adaptive trait.  “Adaptive” simply means beneficial to the organism that carries the trait, and it is this meaning I need to bear down on.  Let’s suppose we are writing a biography of the first of our ancestors to discover religion.  Religion takes the form of believing in spiritual beings thought to reside in Nature.  As spiritual beings, they are presumed to have human connections and understand human language.  Indeed our ancestor converses with them, receiving assurances of special protection and guidance; consequently her (or his) behavior grows more purposeful, more effective, than that of others in the same band or tribe.  He (or she) wastes fewer calories in terror and despair.  Small margins accumulate into big advantages of hunting and gathering, mate selection, tribal leadership.  Belief enhances fertility.  The ancestor’s family flourishes; but since cultural transmission (unlike biological transmission) proceeds independently of genetics, the new discovery spreads by example and imitation, teaching and learning — all the multiple channels of social diffusion.

This may happen quite rapidly.  The point is that to believe in privileged access to supernatural power — simply as belief — enhances the success and survival ratio of believers.  It needs no other validation.  Knowledge of death, by contrast, entered consciousness by way of empirical observation.  Its validation was the capacity of mind to organize sensory signals according to time, space, and causality.  Pasted together through slow processes of genetic selection, this is the capacity from which evolved the web of approximations we call knowledge — or sometimes science.  Survival of our species obviously would be impossible without this handhold on empirical reality.  Yet religion — because it offers access to a “truth” truer than empirical reality — has always held (and still holds) the inside track in cultural evolution.

We have here two closely related hypotheses, one explaining religion’s origin, the other offering an account of its rapid diffusion through human societies.  Both, being “pre“-historical, remain largely speculative.  How, then, can they be verified or falsified?  Well, that can’t be done in the same direct way a hypothesis that earth moves around the sun could be verified.  Nonetheless, they are testable in more devious, round-about ways.  My entire argument, from prehistory to our post-nuclear era, stems from these two hypotheses.  The uphill end of this time span brings us into the bright light of recorded history where we find abundant empirical evidence for checking out historical generalizations.  As to the two hypotheses from which all this began, their confirmation rests on logical continuity.  Thus the first hypothesis proposed a radical disjuncture between empirical experience (knowledge of death) and the advent of religion (belief in spiritual beings).  This disjuncture generated the Problem of Evil, which in turn led to spiritualization of Evil, construction of Evil Empires, the enormous power of clerical hierarchies to justify wars as crusades, or jihads, against the Evil Empire.

RDO: Speaking of Evil Empires and religion’s capacity for inciting holy wars and crusades, you seem to be pointing out negative aspects.  Yet you argue in your book that religion was beneficial to human survival.  Is this a contradiction?

AS: No.  It refers to historical change — to a turning point in history.  Throughout most of cultural evolution, religion functioned adaptively, that is, beneficially, for human survival and dominance.  We don’t have time to trace the entire sequence, but one example can suggest the direction of this argument.

Wars between rival social groups — tribes, city-states, nations, empires — have been a major factor in cultural evolution.  Religion contributed to this process by empowering each social group to perceive its enemies as dupes or agents of the Evil Empire.  The effect was to escalate economic or political disputes into holy wars and crusades.  On first glance, this might seem negative or dysfunctional.  But since war stimulates technology and technological development expands the collective culture, a longer-range result was to enhance the global dominance of the human species.  Religion and war, yoked together, functioned adaptively within a certain historical time period.  And since this time period is historical, the assertions I have made about religion and war can readily be checked out.

So what was the historical turning point?  The turn came at the end of World War II when Hiroshima/Nagasaki made clear that weapons of mass destruction were capable of destroying life on earth; and when, simultaneously, pioneer ecologists (one thinks of Rachel Carson, among many others) were showing that industrial technology — which had seemed so useful and desirable — was in fact rapidly exhausting our planetary eco-system.  The bottom line, then, is that religion could remain adaptive, or beneficial, only so long as wars for “survival of the fittest” could be fought without butchering the entire human species; and only so long as industrial technology could be pushed without contaminating the natural world in which all biological life is based.  When those conditions changed, religion ceased being adaptive and became dysfunctional.

RDO: A chapter of Religion and the Human Prospect I found particularly interesting (and perhaps debatable) is the discussion of Marxism where you say the Marxist criticism of religion proved unsuccessful.  By “unsuccessful,” I think you mean, not from the believer’s viewpoint — which would have opposed such criticism in any case — but from that of skeptics, or non-believers, who would wish the criticism to be as successful as possible.  Can you pinpoint the main reasons why non-believers might be dis-satisfied with the Marxist critique?

AS: That is a hard one.  Pinpointing is tough because these questions seem to get more complex the harder you try to pin them down.  But let’s give it a try.  Religion functions in society at two levels: individual (psychological) and collective (social).  Marxian analysis focused mainly on the second level where, initially at least, it proved dramatically successful.  Marxists identified religion as ruling-class ideology.  They denounced clerical hierarchies for supporting capitalist exploitation of the working class.  By invoking real, empirical experience of workers in the industrializing societies of the nineteenth century, they triggered a powerful politics of anti-clericalism.  Anti-clericalism then provided a kind of lingua franca for labor parties pushing socialist projects (under the umbrella of welfare state capitalism), while insisting at the same time on their own religious affiliations — Christian Socialists, Catholic Workers, etc., etc.

But anti-clericalism falls short of examining belief itself.  Even Marx’s celebrated description of religion as “the opium of the people” remains relatively useless for explanatory purposes.  Ruling classes of course use religion to their own advantage but where does the religion come from?  Did they invent it?  How?  When?  Marxists say (and this certainly is accurate) that religion generates priesthoods which, because they wield great social power, tend to merge into the ruling class and bestow tokens of divine approval on ruling-class strategies.  Whence comes the social power of religious hierarchies?

One easily understands how social power accrues to landlords in feudal societies, or to capitalists in capitalist societies; but why would it accrue to priests in clerical institutions?  Such institutions sometimes actually do control vast wealth; yet the crux of the question is whether their wealth figures as a cause — or result — of their social power.  Landlords and capitalists deploy social power because they already have wealth.  Priests, bishops, and so on up the line accumulate wealth because they already have social power.  The social power of clerical hierarchies derives from religious belief held by the population-at-large and (in industrializing societies) especially that of working-class communities.

So let me sum up what we can conclude from all this.  Yes, it is important to know that religion often performs the star role in ruling-class ideology.  Yet, to understand anything about religion itself as a historical phenomenon, one needs to dig deeper psychologically, and further back in evolutionary time.  This poses a conceptual problem, especially for Marxist-oriented historians and anthropologists.  To identify religion with ideology shuts off access to this sort of deeper research.  Why?  Because the concept of ideology is linked to that of class — it forms part of the apparatus of class conflict — and class is generally thought to have entered history at the same time as division of labor.  But the division of labor could only have occurred after thousands of years of cultural evolution, somewhere near the end of the hunter/gatherer stage.  By this reckoning, human societies would have had to wait a long, long time before ruling-class ideology finally introduced them to religion.

Was there no religious belief prior to class society?  Simply at the level of common sense one knows this could not have been the case.  I am sure Marx and Engels knew it.  In later years they both already were over the hill so far as theorizing religion was concerned.  On the other hand, Marxist parties were recruiting some of the brightest, bravest, most competent members of subsequent generations, many of them brilliantly equipped to cope with such questions.  In the chapter you refer to, I suggest reasons why none did so — at least not very effectively.  As to theoretical, or conceptual framework, I think the difficulties I have just described posed the main obstacle.

Secular explanations of the origin of religion have to be partly hypothetical.  We talked about that earlier. I proposed one such hypothesis in my book, making heavy use of concepts from evolutionary biology.  Of course evolutionary biology was available also to Marxists in the late 19th century.  Compared to what we now know in the 21st century, this was still a meager narrative.  Nonetheless, it was predictive.  It enabled Engels in his famous essay, “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man,” to construct an extraordinarily prescient account of the co-evolution of hand and brain (labor and consciousness) from their beginnings in biological evolution through the accelerating leaps of what we would now call “cultural evolution.”

Why did Engels not apply a similar biological/evolutionary logic to class origin?  I don’t know.  Maybe he was so firmly fixed on deriving class as the necessary outcome of labor division that other possibilities were excluded.  I wish he had written that essay; it would have made a splendid companion piece to
“The Part Played by Labor.”  And even if, as a hypothesis, it later were revised or shot down (as almost any evolutionary hypothesis dating from the late 19th century would have had to be), it still could have served a valuable purpose by bearing witness to the conviction that religion — like other properties of the human condition — must sooner or later prove accessible to secular, materialist reasoning.  This would have focused attention on the need for such a breakthrough as a crucial next step in the Marxist agenda.  It was due to this lack — this failure — that the Left (I am speaking now of the Left on a world scale) found itself unprepared and intellectually disarmed for the resurgence of religious belief that followed the Second World War.

RDO: Finally, what would you like for social activists to take from Religion and the Human Prospect to incorporate into their organizing practices?

AS: My book concludes that the changed role of religious belief is irreversible.  Religion can no longer function adaptively for the human species.  On the contrary, it tends increasingly to become destructive.  Examples of this tendency are immediately visible in our contemporary world.  As ecological limits close in, the struggle to gain control over natural resources intensifies.  Religion, by consigning “our” enemies to the Evil Empire, makes the possession of weapons of mass destruction (and readiness to use them) appear under the guise of sacred duty.  Scientifically-guided efforts, meanwhile, to salvage our planetary ecosystem point to the need for international cooperation and global re-allocations of energy and resources.  These necessarily would impinge on affluent societies and wealth-holding classes.  Religious belief, on the other hand, assigns priority to believing over knowing, to faith over science.  Thus believers believe the Invisible Hand of Providence will save us (or some of us at least), in much the same way that some of our world political leaders believe the invisible hand of the Global Market can exempt (some of us) from the rigors of ecological meltdown.  Religion moves in to provide ideological armor for a politics of denial.  In God we trust: what market value, today, has biological life on earth a thousand years from now?  Or one hundred?

I hope my book helps readers kick the habit of religious belief.  In any case, non-believers are likely to remain a small minority among earth’s population for several generations to come.  How should they conduct themselves?  The messages I hope my book will convey are:

First, the necessity of “Speaking Truth to Power” — of bearing public witness to non-belief, explaining (as empirically and non-rhetorically as possible) why religion is perceived as destructive and dysfunctional.

Second, the absolute necessity of recalling (at least one time each day) that the primary purpose is not winning debates about religion.  The purpose is survival of human culture, which rests on the survival of biological life on earth.  The first step, then, is not converting believers into non-believers, but turning them into fellow travelers.  The truest of believers, after all, remain no less vulnerable than non-believers to worldly loves — (and note how negative a connotation religion attaches to this luminous phrase: worldly loves!) — yet both partake, inevitably, in affections that view the world as we often look at children, or young people in love, hoping things might go well for them.

Such overlaps of shared experience, I think, contain our best hopes for resolving the oncoming crises of the twenty-first century, this side of global catastrophe.

RDO: Thank you so much for talking with me.  I learned a great deal from your book as I’m sure anyone who reads it will.


Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a long-time activist, university professor, and writer. In addition to numerous scholarly books and articles, she has written three historical memoirs, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), Outlaw Woman: Memoir of the War Years, 1960–1975 (City Lights, 2002), and Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (South End Press, 2005) about the 1980s contra war against the Sandinistas.



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