Sociology, Religions and the Religious

April 26, 2009 at 5:59 pm (Human rights, liberation, religion, voltairespriest)

One of the first things you realise when studying approaches to sociology and other social sciences is that you can find a paper to support almost any argument in the world. And that’s exactly what our good friend and old sparring partner Red Maria has found with the research which she’s used as the basis for this post about how “religion brings peace”.

Reporting as it does the “less well documented” instances in which religious groups have worked for progressive anti-war causes and for human rights worldwide, the researchers claim that amongst other things their thesis is supported by the record of Catholics in in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

They then qualify the point by specifying precisely to whom in these countries they are referring:

One example is in Nicaragua, where local Catholic churches were more sympathetic to revolutionary parties than was the Catholic hierarchy.

And we all know what the hierarchy thinks of Latin lefties, don’t we?

The point here is quite clear. There are people in the world who do have progressive politics and who do so from a religious perspective. There have indeed been religious figures who have worked bravely for peace in the most extraordinary circumstances. This has been common knowledge throughout the modern political era. But when creed overtakes wisdom, when doctrine overtakes a will to understand, and when adherence to a particular rule overtakes the drive to compassion for our fellow human beings, then such progressivism becomes impossible. That is the great contradiction of religion in politics: it’s not the particular belief system which makes the difference to someone’s actions, so much as the individual believer and their ideas of what makes the divine real to them.

When it comes down to it, the old Sufi saying encapsulates my stance on this issue more beautifully than I ever could:

A donkey with a load of holy books is still a donkey.


  1. Jeremy Stangroom said,

    “A donkey with a load of holy books is still a donkey.”

    If it’s reading the books, though, you’re talking about one special ass.

  2. maxdunbar said,

    Doesn’t Maria’s attempt at parody sound a lot like Maria herself?

    ‘Your news report “Religion brings peace” was a typical example of the kind of heterodox neo-Protestant bitching about the Magisterium in which your flaccid organ periodically indulges. The principle Extra Ecclessiam Nulla Sallus which no Pope has yet abrogated means we must wage ceaseless war on all heretics, apostates, schismatics and ciabatta-chomping fancy-pants Tablet readers who live in Hampstead and picket churches celebrating the Extraordinary Form of the Mass even while they … cont for 94 paragraphs’
    Paul Priest

    Also, I think it’s important to acknowledge that anti-war causes are not always progressive. Pacifism, for instance, has an ugly history, and an ugly philosophy in that its logic dictates that one cannot use force to defend the weak from being enslaved and murdered by the strong. When you think about it, you could not convict Ian Huntley or General Pinochet on the basis that ‘he who is without sin should cast the first stone’. If pacifism truly derives from religion, it can be argued that pacifism is yet another of religion’s awful legacies; or as Christopher Hitchens puts it: ‘the idea of non-resistance to evil’.

  3. voltairespriest said,

    She does have a certain sense of self-depracation.

  4. Matt said,

    It’s a bit of a straw man argument though isn’t it? Who has ever denied that there are decent people within religious organisations despite their reactionary leaderships?

    The phase when religion in general can play a progressive role has long since passed. It was inevitable that Thomas Munzer in the Peasant War in southern Germany in 1525 and the Levellers in the Engllish revolution of the 1640’s expressed their egalitarian ideas through the framework of the Bible. The French revolution of 1789 was the first bourgeois revolution not to do so.

  5. voltairespriest said,

    Indeed – I guess the point isn’t that religion is necessary to progressive politics, but that the two aren’t always mutually exclusive.

    The article itself though is a bit of a riposte to Maria, who appeared (in a tongue-in-cheek way) to be jumping on a piece of work which actually made my point, in order to claim that religion per se “brings peace”. That obviously is not correct.

  6. chjh said,

    Who has ever denied that there are decent people within religious organisations despite their reactionary leaderships? What exactly was reactionary about the Southern Christian Leadership Conference?

  7. voltairespriest said,

    It was a political organisation (composed of religious people), not a religious one.

  8. Matt said,

    VP’s right that the SCLC was a political organisation of religious people.

    I had in mind the Catholic Church which clearly has a reactionary leadership but there are religious groups, including some of the nonconformist Christian ones, which do not.

  9. entdinglichung said,

    Thomas Müntzer’s theology was an apocalyptic one and unlike the Levellers, he did not call for a state with religious freedom, e.g. he advocated killing all “priests of Baal”, etc., the approach of many 19th/20th century socialists separated his criticism of an unjust society from his mystical and apocalyptic worldview

    and now (like always) may favorite quote from Lenin on this topic:

    “Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.” (Socialism and Religion, 1905)

  10. Red Maria said,

    Doesn’t Maria’s attempt at parody sound a lot like Maria herself?

    That was because I wrote it, you ninny. An author’s imprint is invariably visible on a given piece of text. In this case it was the word heterodox which screamed out at you. In the case of your hilarious spoof of a scientologist’s plea for understanding it was the adjective shrill and the big giveaway – the fact that you got the doctrine of transubstantiation wrong, plus ça change.

    Right, quiz time.

    Who said this:

    After the bourgeois revolution of 1789, the time had come for a new, proletarian revolution: progress could not simply continue in small, linear steps. A revolutionary leap was needed. Karl Marx took up the rallying call, and applied his incisive language and intellect to the task of launching this major new and, as he thought, definitive step in history towards salvation—towards what Kant had described as the “Kingdom of God”. Once the truth of the hereafter had been rejected, it would then be a question of establishing the truth of the here and now. The critique of Heaven is transformed into the critique of earth, the critique of theology into the critique of politics. Progress towards the better, towards the definitively good world, no longer comes simply from science but from politics—from a scientifically conceived politics that recognizes the structure of history and society and thus points out the road towards revolution, towards all-encompassing change. With great precision, albeit with a certain onesided bias, Marx described the situation of his time, and with great analytical skill he spelled out the paths leading to revolution—and not only theoretically: by means of the Communist Party that came into being from the Communist Manifesto of 1848, he set it in motion. His promise, owing to the acuteness of his analysis and his clear indication of the means for radical change, was and still remains an endless source of fascination. Real revolution followed, in the most radical way in Russia.

    Together with the victory of the revolution, though, Marx’s fundamental error also became evident. He showed precisely how to overthrow the existing order, but he did not say how matters should proceed thereafter. He simply presumed that with the expropriation of the ruling class, with the fall of political power and the socialization of means of production, the new Jerusalem would be realized. Then, indeed, all contradictions would be resolved, man and the world would finally sort themselves out. Then everything would be able to proceed by itself along the right path, because everything would belong to everyone and all would desire the best for one another. Thus, having accomplished the revolution, Lenin must have realized that the writings of the master gave no indication as to how to proceed. True, Marx had spoken of the interim phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessity which in time would automatically become redundant. This “intermediate phase” we know all too well, and we also know how it then developed, not ushering in a perfect world, but leaving behind a trail of appalling destruction. Marx not only omitted to work out how this new world would be organized—which should, of course, have been unnecessary. His silence on this matter follows logically from his chosen approach. His error lay deeper. He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man’s freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.

    And who said this:

    Nothing but dismal effects can follow from this error of principle. […] When the poor acquire the status of an epistemological ‘primum’, what happens to the faith and its doctrine on the theological and pastoral level? […] The inevitable result is the politicization of the faith, its reduction to an instrument for social liberation.

    The ‘pastoral action of liberation’ becomes one of the many branches of the ‘popular movement’. The Church becomes like an NGO, and so also loses substance physically: it loses workers, militants, and faithful. Those ‘on the outside’ feel little attraction for a ‘Church of liberation’, because the militants already have NGOs, while for religious experience they need much more than simple social liberation. Moreover, because of the failure to perceive the social extent and relevance of the current spiritual malaise, liberation theology shows itself to be culturally myopic and historically anachronistic, or alienated from its time.

  11. Matt said,

    I’ll go for Joseph Ratzinger aka Benedict XVI for the second one: it sounds too academic to be John Paul II.

  12. Red Maria said,

    OK and what about for the first one?

  13. Carnival of Contrarians. « Tendance Coatesy said,

    […] Voltaire’s Priest has some excellent musings on religion’s claims to spread peace  at Shiraz Socialist. This drew fortha  reply from the Grande Dame of West London, Red Maria (not I suspect her real […]

  14. Carnivalesque « Poumista said,

    […] Voltaire’s Priest has some excellent musings on religion’s claims to spread peace  at Shiraz Socialist. This drew forth a  reply from the Grande Dame of West London, Red Maria (not, I suspect, her real […]

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