Hello, liberal secular atheism: Religion called and wants its tricks back


Towards the end of the Radio 702 interview about my book, You Have to Be Gay to Know God, Eusebius McKaiser asked whether I had switched to “the gospel of Richard Dawkins” since the book was published. I then shared my political misgivings about Dawkinesque atheism.

The social media pushback from some listeners compels me to point out how the proponents of atheism typically share the blind spots of liberals. The right to freedom of speech is normally invoked for their political activism. The limits on this right have been discussed ad nauseam by others.

Here’s the upshot: the bad-faith use of the right externalises the cost of an unjust economic status quo, while fronting a political innocence or self-righteousness that’s at odds with the speaker’s position, making a mockery of whatever liberal position the speaker claims for himself or herself.

I recognise this trick from religion, where heterosexually married, sexually satiated pastors recommend celibacy to me — don’t get me started on what they preached and lived with regard to money.

To quantify the effects of what I’m describing, consider Tammy Bechus’s now-famous speech delivered by Kevin Leathem at Jeppe High School for Boys in Johannesburg. It explains that whiteness meant hard work and was allowed to amount to something; not so with blackness.

“Imagine playing a video game where the ‘save’ function was disabled and you were unable to accumulate experience points. That’s what it was like being black during apartheid.”

This meant that “no matter how hard you worked, or how much money you earned, you couldn’t own land, businesses or homes” and “every generation started back at zero”.

Through forced removals (among other practices) whiteness banked the fruits of its own — and black people’s — labour. Systemic whiteness today has a “refresh” button on historic guilt; before, it was “the only one with a save function” where benefits (of their own and others’ work) were concerned. This is the same button.

Now, if you haven’t already read Professor Jonathan Jansen’s words on the Ashwin Willemse debacle: “Why do two groups of people staring at the same event on television ‘see’ two completely different realities? The first reason is that, for whites, the event is frozen in time. There is no ‘before’ or ‘after’, only what happened in that less-than-three minutes of Ashwin making his statement.”

This perspective (later justified to Jansen in very liberal terms) locks down the effects of the “refresh” button against any affront to the notion of white innocence, ensuring its beneficiaries “are blind to the social arrangements that keep black people in their place”. It’s the save button at work.

What has Englishman Richard Dawkins done to reverse the legacy of colonialism perpetrated in the name of the God he denounces for being as much a genocidal maniac as those who helped to make his homeland as geopolitically privileged and powerful as it now is?

When will he use his sharp wit, his “freedom of speech”, to rouse the world to a denunciation of not just religion but also the economic inequality it is responsible for?

As Neil Howard wrote, the common understanding of liberalism as “live and let live” will “let us be socially egalitarian, but it will never let us be economically egalitarian”.

Liberalism has its uses; like a sorbet, it cleanses the political palate so it can distinguish the taste of corruption from that of “radical economic transformation”.

But I can’t help wondering whether the Enlightenment Brigade’s talk of religion “being a crutch” comes easier to people who have not only never had their legs broken by systemic oppression but have also benefited from others having been injured and left with whatever crutch they could find or were prescribed by their oppressors.

“Religion is an opium for the people”, I’m reminded. But why nibble at Karl Marx in quotes and soundbites when we could devour his revolutionary thinking as a whole? Remember, cherry-picking is another of religion’s tricks.

What would have happened in 1994 if every black Christian had suddenly concluded that Christianity was a colonist’s mirage, while the beneficiaries of apartheid were keeping the gains they had shored up through that religion? All hell would have broken loose.

A humanist may argue that attributing black patience with an unjust status quo to faith in an invisible deity ignores people’s innate potential for goodness. But this underscores the scarcity of moral action underwriting most of the liberal atheism today — measured, I mean, on the historical sociopolitical Cartesian plane of redress, not ideologically arbitrary, self-serving Tower of Babel DIY goalposts of “innate goodness” and “random acts of kindness”.

Finally, the focus on conservative Christians who voted for Donald Trump tends to take attention off the Americans who didn’t vote. I’m willing to bet they identify as liberal-atheist and, at the time, felt no obligation to track history and their place in it, let alone respond to it by voting. They might not know it yet but they are also casualties of the refresh button.

“When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible,” observed Jomo Kenyatta. “They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.” Atheism serves to keep the beneficiaries’ political eyes closed.

Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex. He is the author of You Have to Be Gay to Know God (Kwela Books, 2018)

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Siya Khumalo
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