Friday, January 22, 2016

When politics becomes like a religion

There are two views about whether religion is a good thing, and the main criterion for which view you think is right is whether you think there actually is a God or not.

There is, however, not much room for argument about whether it is a bad thing when heads of government demand to be worshipped like Gods or when a political philosophy starts to behave like a religion.

Two political philosophies which have been particularly prone to acting like the worst forms of religion, including starting wars and persecuting people with different belief systems, are Communism and Nationalism.

An argument which I regularly have with atheist friends is whether killing or persecuting people for holding a different belief about God is a problem specific to religion.

The atheist side usually start the argument by saying that only religious believers kill in the name of religion: I always respond by pointing to atheist regimes like those of the Soviet Union, People's Republic of China, Kampuchea, and North Korea which have attempted to eliminate or restrict religious belief, persecuting millions of people and murdering large numbers in the process.

The atheists usually come back by pointing out that these are all Marxist, Communist or extreme left-wing regimes, and all other regimes which have repressed religion are totalitarian, and therefore that the problem is with totalitarian regimes in general and many Communist ones in particular rather than atheism. I respond that we can agree that totalitarianism is the problem, and it's only the religious totalitarians who kill in the name of religion.

Whichever stance you take on that particular argument, I quote it because I think it makes the point perfectly that political philosophies which come to act like religions are very bad news.

A couple of days ago I saw a tweet from Richard Dawkins with a link to an Iraqi "Islamic Scientist" supposedly a researcher in astronomy, who, in a TV debate with a real scientist was arguing that the earth is flat because the Holy Quran says so. (There are also Muslims who would strongly dispute that interpretation of the relevant passages, by the way.)

I thought "come on, he has to be being ironic" so I watched it. Nope: he was serious. Here is the clip.

This is ppossibly the most extreme refusal to admit the obvious since the moment during the Gulf War when the Iraqi information minister nicknamed "Comical Ali" was giving a press conference saying

"there are no American Tanks in Baghdad"

and the cameras all swung round a few degrees, zoomed out to long range and focussed on where, actually in sight from the location of the press conference, was the unmistakable shape of an M1 Abrams main battle tank moving insouciantly up the highway and effortlessly blowing up anything in its' vicinity that might contain Iraqi soldiers who had not yet surrendered.

It is only fair to point out that this kind of religious flight from reason into dogma is the complete antithesis of the attitude of many religious believers including Muslims - during the Islamic golden age (from about 800AD to 1300AD) Muslim scholars were as advanced as any in the then world - and many if not most of the great advances which led to modern science were made by scientists who were themselves religious believers, something which is still true today.

Nor does it apply to everyone on any given point of the political spectrum.

But my point is that it is not just Muslims and religious believers, or rather a subset of those groups, who close their minds to the truth like the chap in the clip above. Sometimes those with strong political convictions do. And for evidence I refer you to a book and an article which came out in the few days by two prominent journalists both of whom were raised by Communist parents.

The point that certain political philosophies which act like churches can be amazingly good at persuading people to close their minds to reality is a powerful one, and the recent book David Aaronovitch "Party Animals: my family and other communists" gives a very clear picture of how this can work.

“The Party was a church,” he writes. “Its strength was that it was about belief and faith as much as about intellect.”

There is an excellent review of this book by Martin Kettle (who like David was raised in a family of communists) in the Guardian this week which you can read here called

"How did my communist family get it so wrong? Because politics was their religion"

"Communism didn’t work. And most people who lived under it hated it," he writes,

but Communists, many of them intelligent and decent people,

"couldn’t in the end face the reality that something that had given their lives such meaning had turned out so badly. They put loyalty before sense and reason in their politics and in their lives. They lived with their lies as best they could."

More to the point, Martin Kettle looks at the British left in 2016 and the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn and argues that the same thing may be happening again today. His article concludes:

"This left of today looks to me suspiciously as if it is developing into another church. This left too is marked by a reluctance to ask necessary but difficult questions about its plans for the world beyond the church walls. This left too seems happiest as a fellowship of true believers, squabbling among itself, dismissive of all those who remain sceptics or whose beliefs the elders find unacceptable. Just as the communists knew things deep down that they should have faced up to, so too does this left."

"There is nothing inherently wrong with having a politics that is essentially a religion, providing that you recognise it for what it is, something personal between you and your friends. But I’ve been there and done that. If politics is an act of faith – rather than a programme and a willingness to change and adapt to new times – it will fail, as communism did. That’s fine for those for whom belief in socialist principles matters more than anything else, just as it was for the communists. But it won’t work. And in the end people will hate it too."

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