“The criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.”
— Karl Marx, Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
With all due respect to cats and dogs, I don’t expect them to ever understand the laws that govern planetary motion. Does this prove the existence of God? Of course not! What a silly question! Yet, if you replace cats and dogs by humans and the problem of planetary motion by the question of the origin of life, or of the universe, or why a number of physical constants take certain precise values, then the “yes” answer summarizes the entire content of the so-called Intelligent Design movement.
Why devote a whole book to that argument, as John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York do in their recent Critique of Intelligent Design (Monthly Review, 2008)? Well, one reason is that the argument is unfortunately extremely popular, especially in the United States. Besides, the book is not about only that, but it also reviews brilliantly the eternal struggle between materialism and spiritualism or idealism, going through the works of Epicurus, Lucretius, Hume, Feuerbach, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Lewontin and Gould and their adversaries. Materialism can be defined as the attempt to explain the world in terms of itself, an idea that goes back to the Greeks. Of course, to avoid tautologies, one has to know what one means by “itself.” For religious people, God is part of the world and therefore explaining the world in terms of God is part of explaining the world in terms of itself.
Here is where modern science and British empiricism (which can be characterized as the working philosophy of most scientists) enter. Science explains the visible world, let’s say the structure of matter, by appealing to the invisible one, the properties of atoms. So, why can’t science postulate an invisible Intelligent Design to account for the origin of the Universe or its unexplained properties? The difference is that we do not use merely the word “atom” in our explanations, but also its many quantitative and testable properties. On the other hand, the Design of the ID movement is just a word — nobody has ever proposed that it possesses any given properties, nor how, if such properties were proposed, one could test them. The postulated Design has just whichever properties were needed to make the world as it is and not otherwise. But then why was the ID not intelligent enough to create a world without birth defects, tsunamis, or American imperialism? The only thing that the defenders of ID are able to establish is that there are certain things we don’t know — and with that, of course, all scientists agree.
Because of the specificity and testability of its explanations, modern science has introduced a new factor into the spiritualism/materialism debate that was absent among the classical materialist philosophers. The latter had their hearts in the right place but, because of lack of experiments, their physics was fanciful and open to the objection that it was not any more credible than religious stories. Since then, modern science has turned the tables decisively in favor of materialism.
More to the point, this postulated Design has nothing whatsoever to do with the Gods of the traditional religions. Theologians constantly try to present such “arguments” as ID in favor of a deity as if they supported their favorite belief systems. But those belief systems are all based on some kind of revelations and “sacred” scriptures. Even if the ID arguments were valid, they would tell us nothing about particular revelations. The God of ID is a philosopher’s God, like the one whose existence St Thomas Aquinas or Descartes thought to have proven. But the God of the traditional religions is entirely different . It is a being that defines what is good and evil, answers our prayers, and punishes us in the afterlife. Those belief systems are even more radically undermined by modern science than ID. Indeed, whenever one looks at the facts in an undogmatic way, the sacred books turn out to be essentially wrong. Not only about evolution but about almost everything. There is no independent evidence for the story told in the Gospels, the Bible is mythological, and even the Jewish people is, as Shlomo Sand puts it, “an invention.”
Given that, there are two routes open to the believer. There is that of Sarah Palin, clinging literally to the belief system, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. That school of Christians enter into direct conflict with science. Or one can choose the metaphorical route, which most liberal and European Christians (including even the Pope, at times) follow — declare that, whenever the Scriptures conflict with science, they have to be “interpreted” in a non-literal way. That leads to total defeat for religious belief, because, if the parts of the Scriptures that can be checked with the facts are not to be taken seriously, why pay any attention to the parts that cannot be checked (notably concerning Heaven and Hell or God himself )? The whole of liberal Christianity is the result of a double standard: follow the Scriptures whenever they are “metaphysical” or ethical and cannot be checked independently, and discard them when they can. Since God is not good enough to tell us what he really meant in his “revelations,” and which parts have to be taken seriously and which parts not, we are left with total arbitrariness.
People who call themselves agnostics are often confused about these two notions of God. What they claim to be agnostic about is the philosopher’s god not, say, the Gods of Homer. With respect to the latter, they are atheist, just as all religious people are atheist with respect to all gods except their own.
It is also a pity that some secular leftists, like Stephen Jay Gould, support liberal Christianity with the idea of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA): science deals with facts, religion deals with values. But if you really remove all statements of facts from religion, including those about the existence of God or of Heaven and Hell, then why should one care about what religion says about values? (That is why the NOMA argument adds to the confusion on the secular side, but is rarely accepted by the religious one).
John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York have to be commended for writing such a book while having a leftist perspective, because the left, specially in the United States, but also nowadays in Europe, has often shied away from any critique of religion, either because it would be too unpopular or because of the supposedly progressive aspects of religion. It is easy to complain that the critique of religion is mainly done nowadays by relatively apolitical liberals like Dawkins or Dennett or by neo-conservatives like Hitchens, but if the left abandons such a critique, why complain if others take it up ?
The left should not aim at some sort of official atheism, of course, but it should demand that religion be a private matter, namely that it be totally kept out of public life, in particular of political discourse. Indeed, even assuming that some god exists, we have no way to know what he thinks one should do about global warming or the financial crisis.
This form of secularism is far from being achieved in the United States. It existed in France before Sarkozy, the most « American » of French presidents, who speaks of God as much as he can. If the most secular of Western countries, France, became victim of the « Americanization », i.e. of « religization » of political discourse, then modern secularism is dead.
Concerning the progressive aspects of religion, it is true that there are nice priests, harmless believers, and a few liberation theologians. But, what about the global picture? Aren’t those more or less progressive people far outnumbered by the Sarah Palins of this world (including of course the Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, or Jewish versions of her)? For them, it is very difficult to keep religion out of politics, because religion is so important to them. After all, if you believe that God defines what is right and wrong and punishes you in the afterlife for what you did, why on earth would you want to keep Him out of the affairs of the city? It is true that liberal Christians are more prone to accepting a genuine secularism, i.e. keeping religion out of politics, but it should not be forgotten that liberal Christianity did not exist in, say, the 18th century. It is entirely the result of the way segments of the Church reacted to the advances of science and materialism in the 19th and 20th century. So, it is hard to see how, without any scientific critique of religion, we would have even the mild form of secularism that exists nowadays in the United States.
Sometimes people defend religion on the grounds that it helps us to act in a moral or even a progressive way. What progressive Christians will tell you is that Jesus helps them to take a “preferential option for the poor.” But the logic of that argument is very odd. Suppose somebody advocates land reform, in order to help the poor. If he is a Christian, he has to show that God exists, that Jesus is His son, that the Gospel adequately reflects His words, and, finally, that a suitable interpretation of those words lead to support for a land reform. Nothing in the Gospel tells you how to distribute the land, whether to compensate the owners or not, which acreage should be affected, etc. These issues all have to be settled without the help of God. And, after all, not even neoliberal economists claim to be against the poor — in fact, they usually claim that their policies will help the poor more than anyone else. So, all the substantive issues have to be solved without the help of religion and the latter only provides “motivation.” But it seems to me that the detour through God and Jesus is so long and unprovable that, if people who claim to find their motivations there didn’t have them anyway, they wouldn’t acquire them because of that detour.
It is often remarked that the attacks on Sarah Palin have an unpleasant class character. That is true, but the deeper question is: why should the “masses” be so religious? In Europe, they are not (apart from recent immigrants). And the reason is probably that, in Europe, especially in France, but unlike the United States, there has been, within the Republican, Socialist, and Communist movements, a centuries-long battle against religion itself and against its intrusion into politics. The problem for the American left is that, if nobody ever does anything to combat religious ideas, then, a century from now, any conceivable left will still be stuck with tens of millions of “fundamentalist” Christians who will vote “with their faith” against any rational or progressive policy and even against their own economic interests. It is true that it is an unpopular struggle — but so was it in France in the 18th century. It is also true that the effects will only be felt in the long run — but if nobody ever starts doing anything, nothing will ever change. The catastrophic impact of the Christian fundamentalists (without them, the world would probably not have had to suffer Reagan or Bush) is largely the result of the past indifference of the American progressives towards religion.
The deep reason why progressives should oppose religion is that it is irrational and arbitrary. A better world is necessarily a more rational world, a world where people search for solutions to human problems based on the facts of the world and with the help of reason. Critique of Intelligent Design gives us an enjoyable and enlightening introduction to the philosophical underpinnings of such an attitude.
Jean Bricmont teaches physics in Belgium and is a member of the Brussels Tribunal. His new book, Humanitarian Imperialism, is published by Monthly Review Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This review first appeared in the 14-16 November 2008 issue of CounterPunch.