View from
The Center

Religion and the Left: A Reply to McManus

“The ideas of the Right are more powerful precisely because they are more primitive. Fraternity between differing religious, racial, and linguistic communities is of greater abstraction than fraternizing with one’s co-religionist and inter-linguistic community.”

In “Why the Left Needs to Think About Religion (And Other Big Questions),” Matt McManus identifies the inability of the Left, as compared to the Right, to address the question of meaning in the lives of people. I think the identification of meaning as a central political concept is indeed a central and pertinent observation—and one that I also hold. The claim that meaning, broadly spoken about here, is the nexus within which political debate is occurring—and from which agency is being animated in the polis— runs radically opposed to 20th century political philosophy where economics (class struggle and free markets) and liberty were the central terms of reference. Indeed, the 20th century was, in the political sense, an aberration from history, and the re-emergence of “reciprocal” (the family, the nation, the religious community, etc.) units of belonging is perhaps a return to the natural state of Man. However, the transformations of political consciousness, in the 19th and 20th centuries occurred for a reason: this being the structural, social, intellectual, and economic movement of history known as modernism.

Modernism is too complex a phenomenon to be neatly summed by caricatures (often ideological), such as modernism as the triumph of secularism, reason, and science. Rather than speaking concretely about the outcomes of the process of modernization, it is better to think of it as a prioritizing of rational reflection. Spoken of in terms of authority, the self-authority of reason begins to force the recasting and recharacterization of values. The secular is not anti-religious; rather, it is a religiosity negotiated by reason (thus Kant is able to speak of a historical-unreflective religion and compare it to a rational-enlightened religion). Similarly, science, defined in terms of causal explanations of events in the world, is transformed by reason to beget a wholly naturalistic explanation of events: “It is not God, but a psychotic episode bought about by chemical imbalances in the brain, that explains the voice in one’s head.” And so on and so forth. In all of these transformations, the historically-held view of a particular thing is critiqued and thereby altered.

When an evaluation of modernization is offered by those who think that modernization was a bad thing, they will inevitably point to the death of traditional meaning. As it turns out, rational critique is apparently somewhat acidic: leaving little, if anything, remaining at its touch. “Disenchantment,” which is hailed as a rationalization of nature (bring forth such things as the scientific method) hands Man the world, but one which has lost all its meaning. In this sense, the traditionalist, which, within this context might refer to the conservative Right, with an air of condensation, is able to point out the apparent, ultimate failure of the modernist system of thought, which has eroded its very own imaginative and symbolic world of meaning.

Indeed, I would actually countenance this rather negative critique from a somewhat different angle. It is my contention that modernization as rational critique also transformed meaning rather than destroyed it and produced its own form and economy of imaginative symbols. The two most famous examples of these are scientism and humanism. Case studying humanism, we see that it is effectively Christianity without Christ (this was of course Nietzsche brutal observation); but, the force of Christian moralism simply did not translate into its humanist, bastardized form. Quite simply, the secularized “rational myths” and meanings do not have the same bite as the traditional ones had. When we have observed that the modern replacements of meaning in the guise of Marxism, humanism, scientism (all gargantuan systems of thought) have failed, what hope is there for systems of meaning based on the fetishization of sexual or racial minorities, or the reification of suffering?  

Another way of reading the above is as a litany of failures of the Left, a point upon which both McManus and I can agree. However, this leads me to my central contention, which is with McManus’s positive thesis: namely, the Right is more competent when it comes to political imagining.

I read him as offering the following thesis: people require meaning; meaning is in the realm of imagining; the imaginative economy of the Right and Left are both as abstract as one another; the Right is “winning”; therefore, the ideas of the Right provide greater meaning.

This argument hinges on a claim that there is a “floating” subject (a person, etc.) that is seeking and probing life’s questions. In the context of McManus’s essay, this person is a citizen-voter, and his answer to the enigma of meaning is one that is expressed politically. This is a complex issue, but let us grant this for the purpose of the current discussion.

I think that, on the whole, the existence of this “floater” is a myth—indeed a modern, liberal myth. Furthermore, it is one that is most exemplified by the normative turn in political philosophy: one which looks to conceptualize and construct the political/legal structure from an idealized, contextually expunged, standpoint. Rawls’ veil of ignorance is a prime example of this. In my view, and that of the descriptive political philosophy tradition, material situation is paramount. What I mean by this is that in order to do meaningful political thought, to quote Marx, one must take as one’s start point the way the world is, not what it should be. With this, when we think historically of how meaning permeates society, we are inevitably drawn to the conclusion that meaning has largely been a function of traditional religion, which is the traditional Christian in the West.

It is on this point that the critique of the Right, and indeed, the triumphalism of the Right—I too am convinced that the Right is on the ascendency and has effectively won the so-called “Culture War”—is most damning. When the Right suggests that they are more in-tune with “facts,” where facts are taken here to be descriptive claims about how people generally think and behave, we must unpack this notion, not by necessarily denying that these “facts” are in some sense true. Indeed, from an anthropological perspective, I think that this claim by the Right is quite accurate. I deny McManus’s claim that the ideas of the Right are just as abstract as those of the Left, because the ideas of the Right—on the whole, and how they are actually held by people—are in rather primitive forms.

A counter argument would be that the Right generally commits itself to a language which evokes “God,” and God is the most abstract of ideas. The problem with this is that the God of the Right is not the God of the philosophers. For example, as any anthropologist will assert, each and every tradition depicts God in the form of themselves. The Orthodox frescos in the historic Constantinople look like your average Greek man, the Orthodox frescos in Ethiopia have Jesus looking like your average Ethiopian—the Orthodox cannot even standardize the image among themselves! Similarly, plenty of ethno-nationalist movements evoked Christianity in the name of repugnant fascism—where the moral tradition of Christianity is one of universalism and mercy in its magnanimous form. These abstract ideas of God were parochial and primitive, to say the least.

The ideas of the Right are more powerful precisely because they are more primitive. Fraternity between differing religious, racial, and linguistic communities is of greater abstraction than fraternizing with one’s co-religionist and inter-linguistic community. From the “facts,” what historical, sociological, anthropological, and psychological observation has shown us is that this is quite simply true.

But the key and central point here is that it is meaningless to assert a fact as the basis of a norm. So, what if these facts are descriptively “true?” So, what if, as I am effectively arguing, the position of the Right is the starting point, historically, psychologically, sociologically-speaking? Any way of stating this is that being Right-wing is the default position.

For the most part, we do not engage in moral, ethical and political discussions simply to describe the world as it is; we engage in these discussions in order to provide answers and direct our actions for the better. The gleeful and condescending gaze of the Right-wing ideologue, which McManus was right to problematize, is brought before a mirror and shown to be ugly and undeveloped.

The rational critique of tradition—the apparent remit of the Right—did indeed birth the “crisis of meaning” problem that is modernity, but it also birthed a new world of possibility and imaginings. For the first time in history, the general acceptance that slavery is a moral evil has occurred (on the descriptive “facts” account, it is simply true that the historical propensity of Man is to enslave other men: again, an entirely “true” statement). Indeed, we are tentatively beginning to observe the first period in history where women are gaining the status of equality in the world. Universal suffrage is a descriptive lacuna: we have no script, no descriptive “facts,” from which to identify a deep structure of historical repetition by which to judge what is happening now.

Yes, the Left has failed in the realm of meaning, and push-back by the Right can function as an important regulating force. However, if the rise of the Right is simply a reassertion of nativism and primitivism, then its “factual” basis and triumph is nothing more than a failure to meaningfully imagine—a return to the default, the starting point, the primitive.

I want to end by noting that McManus’s thesis on the postmodern Right is central to this point. This is the Right, which, in some sense, I am condemning in the above. There is a philosophical and profound form of conservatism, which is both moral and modern: this is the “traditional traditionalism” of the Christian moralist of the 19th century. Although I have more to say on this point, I will leave it here.

Dr. Emre Kazim is an ethicist currently working on digital ethics at University College London. He can be found on Twitter at @EmreKazim_

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