Thursday, 22 November 2012

Politics and Religion


When discussing politics, on discovering that I have a set of beliefs and values, I am occasionally accused of having a kind of 'religious faith'. This does not go down at all well with a 'traditional Marxist' but upon reflection I have found this not to be an insult but rather more of a historical misunderstanding. We live in an age where the division of labour has been introduced to almost every discipline – including the intellectual pursuits. The 'Natural Sciences' were a development of Philosophy just as Chemistry owes it's origins to Alchemy and as Astronomy does to Astrology. We now live in an age where more and more people know more and more about less and less. Specialisms have come to define knowledge itself. The 'experts' are the new priesthood who zealously guard the portals of knowledge. Some people find it difficult to converse outside of their 'area of expertise' and would consider conclusions about a subject they have no in-depth understanding of as merely  an example of personal prejudice. This is all very well for some of the sciences but it is useless when it comes to the practice of that most 'multidisciplinary' of human endeavours – politics. Without an understanding of History, Economics and Philosophy no polemical activity is possible. Politics is not only impossible under such conditions it demands multi disciplinary integration uncompromisingly. Those who speak on economics without reference to politics (as many try to do) can have no insights into human reality at all. Religion, as with politics, needs many realms of knowledge to produce its picture of the human condition. But Christianity in the West has become rather confined as a 'personal religion'. The Protestant tradition of a personal relationship with God has turned it into a kind of individual consumerism. As with other personal relationships the subject becomes highly emotionally charged that in turn leads to a certain reluctance to discuss such ideas openly. Faith becomes the last defence in the light of any criticisms. The need to believe becomes more important than what is believed. Do Socialists share this 'need to believe' and is it this that provokes some to accuse us of being 'religious' about our political ideas? 
  Any study of the Reformation and the later revolution in England can only conclude that the political confrontations of the elite were being fought within a religious ideological arena. An attempt to separate the two in men’s minds or in the ensuing power struggle would be ridiculous. Henry VIII’s need to secure a male heir (and so a divorce) was also part of the Tudor conquest of absolute power in England. Church and state have been inextricably linked since then. As our culture became increasingly secular the division of religion and politics became more pronounced. Certainly the early Socialists were keen to make this division - preferring to align themselves with a ‘scientific’ perspective and a consequent ‘objective analysis’. Much debate has ensued about whether the art of politics can ever be considered scientific (Popper’s law of falsification would imply it cannot). I am not convinced of the importance of this debate anymore since mankind will always practice ‘politics’ (scientific or religious) because it is actually part of what it is to be human. Mankind tells itself stories to explain existence and so give meaning to life. The stories can be scientific, religious, romantic, cynical and even mythic but, in the end, only you can make the decision about which ones reflect your life. No expert, be he scientist, politician or priest can or should make this choice for you. If you find such a story that fires your imagination you can then subject it to vigorous critical analysis (many writers will aid you in this since the opposing perspective is always available). If you are still confident in its value then the test of history can be applied. Does it go some way in describing how the world reached its present condition? If you do not subject your conclusions to such a rigorous critique then you run the risk of never being wrong - and that indicates an inferiority complex rather than intelligence. Marx thought there to be only two relevant narratives since, historically, there were only two classes left and that their opposing perspectives were the only arena for meaningful political debate. Such was his belief in the human ability to reason through critique that he was certain the working class (the vast majority of mankind) would see socialism as the only rational option. Personally I still find this the most compelling analysis available. Having discussed process I’m aware the answer to the question I posed earlier remains unanswered. With the aid of this analysis I will now attempt to do so. 
  Over and above the contemporary habit of dividing disciplines into specialisms is there still a good reason to separate religion and politics ? Does this distinction in some way define the two? A faith driven value system with or without a deity or an analysis based on dialectical reason with man himself at it’s centre? Both serve the same human need - meaning and structure. Both have been subverted into authoritarian social structures. But does such a distinction hide more than it reveals? I find the area they share more interesting and I think there’s a word that can powerfully bridge the gap - redemption. In its original meaning it meant redeeming one’s homeland (the Jewish tradition). For Christians it’s about original sin and forbidden knowledge. For Socialists? I think its about redeeming our humanity from the depredations that followed the invention of private property (expulsion from Eden). While shopping in a supermarket recently I found, because of arthritis, I could not bend down far enough to reach the last loaf that was buried deep on a bottom shelf. Suddenly a toddler disappeared into the recess and emerged with the loaf beaming from ear to ear as he handed it to me. He broke my heart because I realised that my generation had not created a better world where this truly human behaviour can thrive. So yes, I need to believe in human redemption that will transform the world. As someone once said: ‘what have we got to lose but our chains?’