Anti-fascism and the Left’s Euro-Secular Arrogance

Fighting fascism cannot be done with cheat-sheets, graphics, or slogans; it must involve building vibrant, tolerant, and culturally-rich communities that refuse to discard spiritual meaning. And that cannot be done without interrogating the secular arrogance of the left’s “founding fathers.”

An editorial, from Rhyd Wildermuth

Perplexity, shock, and a revulsion she tried to temper with all else she knew of us rippled across her face after we said the words to her:

“We’re pagan.”

“But you two…you’re both anarchists and anti-fascists! How…how can you two also believe that stuff?”

We’d met through my partner. Both were in the same graduate history program; her work focused on the Nazi extermination of Jews during the Shoah and the ways those histories have been written since; his focus was upon the alternative occult and queer communities in Berlin that the Nazis both crushed and appropriated in their march to power.

Most of our bonding came from our life experiences, however. We were all anarchists, had done anti-fascist work, were all queer, and had lived similar counter-cultural lives. Despite all we shared, despite already being good friends, my partner and I had been quite scared of telling her what we believed.

The conversation which followed our confession was long and sometimes heated. But it was around a table on a balcony overlooking a lake, with food and tea and German beer, and because we were all friends who genuinely wanted to understand each other (rather than merely wanting to be heard), we not only stayed friends but became better friends.

I remember what she said to us that night, because it was the first time we’d ever heard anything of the sort: “this goes against everything I have known, but I believe you that it’s possible to be Pagan and not fascist.”

Especially to those with shorter histories in anarchist and anti-fascist spaces, this conversation might not seem very significant. But for me, more than ten years ago, it felt like pure freedom and hope. Before then, whenever I told other anarchists or communists in the US or Europe that I was a Pagan, the response was almost always something along the lines of: “Wait…you’re a fascist?” Those who didn’t immediately make that conclusion instead responded with words less accusatory but no less dismissive, such as “that’s all nonsense.”

I’d been derided enough times that I learned to keep my beliefs as private as possible. I learned to smile pleasantly when atheism and anti-religious dogma was repeated in speeches at protests and organizational meetings. “No gods no masters” was an unquestionable foundation of every anarchist gathering, never to be challenged. And though my entire experience of the living world ran counter to the secular-scientific atheist consensus in the anarchist and socialist groups I worked with, keeping silent about what I believed was better than being lectured, laughed at, or more often: labeled a fascist.

So when my friend (herself an atheist, an anti-fascist organizer, and later a curator of anti-fascist and anti-nationalist museum exhibitions in Germany) accepted my apparently contradictory positions (being against fascism, being deeply Pagan), relief flooded my soul.

Her acceptance gave me the confidence to broach the subject with others in political spaces. Though most of the conversations repeated the same dismissals (or worse) that I had experienced before, I was able to slowly find others who would cautiously confess that they themselves also held similar beliefs. I remember an IWW and Solidarity Network organizer telling me in an anarchist bookshop (after looking around herself first to see who might hear her say it) that she read tarot. I remember a leftist social worker who also did sex work admitting she kept an altar and did protection magic. And I remember meeting a burnt-out anarchist magician coming to life again upon finding someone he could finally talk to about his work.

European Leftism, European Atheism

There are several reasons we had all felt both embittered and scared of being open about our beliefs.

Most of these reasons are historical. Anarchism and communism were both first articulated in Europe during a time when being anything other than atheist marked you as anti-intellectual and aligned with bourgeois values. Proudhon, Marx, Stirner, Bukunin–pretty much all of the early philosophers of anarchism or communism (with Tolstoy a significant exception) were not just dismissive of spiritual beliefs, but aggressively hostile.

Any astute reader of the aforementioned paragraph, however, will note that the philosophers of whom I am speaking are all of European origin or derivation. This is an important fact, because the atheism that was carried into leftist thought was a European atheism. Being European, it bore with it utterly unnoticed colonial conceits. While many were influenced by indigenous (including Iroquois) forms of autonomous self-government and anti-colonial struggle, the European narrative of progress (which posits that all societies eventually “progress” from animist and polytheist beliefs into monotheism and finally atheism) prevented these philosophers and theorists from accepting the metaphysically animist nature of the cultures that inspired them.

This arrogance is what then allowed communists, anarchists, and socialists to argue that indigenous cultures would need to relinquish their non-scientific (that is, non-European) beliefs and worldviews in order to achieve full liberation. No gods no masters was not just a rallying cry but an imperative, and this has in no small part led many indigenous cultures to reject some leftist ideologies as continuations of colonial oppression.

This arrogance was rarely subtle in the leftist spaces in which I moved. I listened to socialists, anarchists, and communists (sometimes to crowds of thousands) say that First Nations and indigenous peoples of other continents must eventually come into the 21st century and “throw off the chains” of shamanic and other traditional beliefs. Never once did I hear this challenged in those spaces.

As non-indigenous adherents to reconstructed Pagan beliefs, my partner and I had even less ground to stand upon in these arguments. Though the “backwardness” of indigenous people gave them some time to change, we were white, which meant we were supposed to have moved beyond such beliefs centuries ago. We were “lifestylists,” according to the worshipers of Bookchin and  “immature” according to the Scientific Socialist currents birthed by Trotsky and Lenin. But worse than this, we are also “crypto-fascists.”

There is another root to this accusation. The history of Paganism and occultism in Europe during the 19th and  20th century is unfortunately rife with fascist forms. Esoteric fascists such as Julius Evola evoked Pagan forms in their writing, Theosophy and the Golden Dawn both had adherents who were sympathetic to fascist forms, and of course some Nazis attempted a re-invigoration of ancient Germanic religious beliefs. But socialists and anarchists also evoked Pagan forms, and the aformentioned occult traditions (Theosophy and the Golden Dawn) had more intersections with leftist groups than they did with the right (*a good source for more on this is Affective Communities by Leela Ghandi). Further back, as Peter Linebaugh has shown repeatedly in his works, leftist and anarchist resistance to Capitalism in Ireland and England often evoked ancient pagan gods (particularly the Whiteboys in Ireland and the Luddites in England) and pagan forms (such as May Day) as part of their resistance.

So while a case can be made that Pagan, esoteric, and occult forms are fascist and do not belong in leftist or anarchist movements, the exact case can also be made that they were important parts of leftist and anarchist movements from the very beginning. Thus, leftists who label Pagan beliefs as fascist by pointing to historical connections are only ever looking at half of the evidence, if they are even looking at all.

Why they would appear to miss that evidence has been addressed succinctly by post-colonial historian Dipesh Chakrabarty in his work, Provincializing Europe. Basically–European secularism is an artificial narrative, and it is one which attempts to overwrite its own non-secularism. Erasing traces of folk traditions and religious beliefs within European (and generally Western) societies helps European societies and intellectuals see themselves as more “advanced” and “modern” than the rest of the world. That is, this secular-atheism is a product of its own colonial arrogance.

The continuation of this arrogance in Anti-fascism

Anarchism, Communism, Socialism, and especially Anti-fascism has never really interrogated this arrogance. This becomes a particular problem now that we are seeing increasingly public displays of aggressive white nationalist, anti-immigrant, and extreme right rhetoric in the United States and Europe.

This rise is absolutely cause for concern. Unfortunately, the violence of their ideologies and their actual physical violence has initiated quite a few panicked and uncalculated responses to their threat, some of which spread patently false information. In such a panicked state, we can clearly see the symptoms of this un-examined arrogance.

For instance, consider this image from the U.K. group Brighton Anti-Fascists:

Text reads:” Know your enemy–NeoNazi symbols & codes Nazis and white supremacists often use codes and symbols to disguise their true politics. Memorise these symbols–if you spot one (of[sic] more) of them, you’ve probably got yourself a fascist!”
I encountered this image with great dismay after it was shared by another anti-fascist group. Dismay might not even be the correct word: I was horrified by the inclusion of one particularly image–that of the Valknut (third image from the left on the bottom row).

The Valknut is an ancient Nordic symbol found on stone work and textiles, and while its precise original meaning is unclear, it’s usually thought to have indicated the procession of ancestors and to honor warriors who died in battle. Currently, its most common uses are amongst those who adhere to Heathenism or Asatru, religions derived from Scandinavian and Germanic cultures. Some followers of these religions profess racist, exclusionary, and even fascist beliefs, but many more do not. I personally know several antifascist organizers who use this symbol, including one who has it tattooed on his body.

Claiming that the presence of the Valknut indicates that “you’ve probably got yourself a fascist!” is, therefore, no more true than claiming that a person wearing a cross is a child-molester or a person carrying a prayer mat in order to pray towards Mecca is a terrorist. That is, while there are Heathens who adhere to fascist beliefs, and no doubt there are fascists who adorn themselves with the Valknut, there is no correlation between the symbol and the violence of the extreme right.

The presence of the Valknut in this list of “NeoNazi symbols and codes” is not only misinformation, but it has other effects as well:

  • It damages the credibility of the anti-fascist organizations who disseminated it. Any reader aware of the much larger non-fascist and even anti-fascist uses of the symbol immediately understands that Brighton Antifascists don’t actually know what they’re talking about. People are thus less likely to take anything else they say seriously.
  • It causes unfair and damaging defamation of people who use the symbol and are not fascist, putting them into situations where they have to “prove” themselves not to be fascist.
  • It makes anti-fascism in general elsewhere lose credibility among those who are not yet politicized. Anti-fascists are often criticized for being “alarmist,” “fanatic,” and otherwise unable to distinguish symbolic meaning from actual threats; lists of symbols and codes that signify someone is a fascist increases this perception, and when those codes are demonstrably false such accusations become irrefutable.
  • It undermines years of work that anti-fascist Heathen groups (like Heathens United Against Racism/HUAR) have done to prevent their religious beliefs from being co-opted by white nationalist, supremacist, authoritarian, and explicitly fascist groups.
  • Perhaps worst of all, it increases the already-high fear and anxiety felt by oppressed peoples in a damaging way. The trauma experienced by those against whom the marches, rallies, and repeated identity-based violence of the various extreme-right groups occurs is already deep; inflating their fear through false information only helps those who wield terror against them.

The importance of this work

The Valknut is hardly the only symbol that that has been recently mis-labeled (see my previous critiques of such panics regarding the Tyr rune, red boot laces, the Black Sun and egoism, and the wolfsangel.)  And some of these mistakes can be ascribed to mere panic or a puerile fundamentalism that mistakes the symbolic for the real, much in the same way that Christian fundamentalists publish lists of “signs” your child is into the occult.

But a larger criticism is necessary.

The larger issue is that leftist, anarchists, and anti-fascist spaces in European and Anglo-American contexts have too long failed to re-evaluate their inherited Euro-atheist arrogance. The Valknut is an artifact of the pre-Christian cultural existence of Europe, one which has persisted into the present through folk customs and art. It’s part of the paganism that European secularism–especially now in its Anglo-American leftist forms–tries to forget it ever was. And by forgetting, it gives over those who find meaning in such things to the very fascists it claims to fight.

Much has changed already regarding the arrogance against Paganism and magical traditions in leftists spaces.  Some of this change is on account of my work and the work of other writers at Gods&Radicals, as well as more clear-thinking anti-fascist theorists such as Shane Burley. This collective work has brought us to a place where Paganism, witchcraft, and occultism are now much more accepted as authentic expressions of autonomy and resistance.

Heathens unfortunately remain too often smeared as crypto-fascist by anti-fascist groups and the larger public. Worse, these smears and misinformation campaigns comes at a time when white supremacists are actively recruiting in Heathen communities, making it much harder for Heathens to fight off their advances.

Knee-jerk assumptions, simplistic reductions of symbols and beliefs, and a willingness to discard spiritual and cultural symbols in our fight to stop a nebulous Fascist threat will not only lead us nowhere good, but will aid the recruitment efforts of the people we are claiming to oppose. It not only shows us as ignorant but willfully arrogant: our “enlightened” European-derived secular-atheism is the only true way, and any who find meaning in spiritual symbols are at best foolish or, more often “fascist.”

Fighting fascism cannot be done with cheat-sheets, graphics, or slogans ; it must involve building vibrant, tolerant, and culturally-rich communities that refuse to discard spiritual meaning. And importantly, greater acceptance of non-Christian and non-Atheist cultural and spiritual beliefs supports a much larger work: abandoning the colonialist arrogance which still sees European-derived civilization as superior in its secularism.

As this arrogance is abandoned, indigenous and colonized people will able to claim more space to articulate their animist and ancestral beliefs, without being dismissed as uneducated or backwards in leftist spaces. It’s this larger work we must be committed to, a work that cannot be accomplished by sacrificing the beliefs of others on the altars of purity or the fight against fascism, nor can it be accomplished without interrogating the secular-atheism of the left’s “founding fathers.”


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is one of the co-founders and co-editors of Gods&Radicals. His recently released collection, Witches In a Crumbling Empire, is available now. You can support him on Patreon, and listen to his podcasts with Alley Valkyrie, Empires Crumble.


Gods&Radicals Press would like to hear from you! Tell us how we’re doing (and we’ll give you a discount on our works for your time!)

Don’t Let ‘em Steal the Gods like They Steal the Rent

“There is nothing radical nor inherently leftist about atheism, and dismissing religion for political reasons is counterrevolutionary.”

From Alfred Peeler

 

Religion is the opiate of the people. This iconic statement expresses Marx’s structural understanding of religion: capitalism renders the working class and the poor needing both expression and antidote for their worldly ills. Often understood out of context, this statement is regularly used in the political Left’s dismissal of religious faith; a dismissal prevalent among liberal academic types, progressives and hard leftists alike.

Coupled with this conception of religion is a more dogmatic rejection represented by Bakunin’s argument: “If God is, [then] man is a slave.” There seems to be something incongruous between Leftist politics and belief in God.

Leftist atheism is nothing new. It’s as ubiquitous as it is uncontroversial, and I won’t comment on it any further. With leftist anti-theism – the position that leftist politics obligates one to atheism or to hostility toward religion – we have mad beef. There is nothing radical nor inherently leftist about atheism, and dismissing religion for political reasons is counterrevolutionary. It can also indicate a subtle racism that I’ll explain below.

To begin with, Leftist anti-theism enables the political Right in a number of ways. The Republican Party relies heavily on a religious voting bloc manufactured for it. White evangelicals vote overwhelmingly for Republicans – 81% for Donald Trump – and this affords the political Right energy in (re)defining what religion is in America.

There is a clear sense in which American Christianity resides under the auspices of the Right. It has become nearly synonymous with homophobia and the anti-choice movement, not because Jesus condemns homosexuality or abortion – he literally doesn’t mention either in any of the four Gospels – but because these issues serve the purpose of rallying an electorate behind the Republican Party and its benefactors.

The conflation among American Evangelicals of Christianity with American patriotism, and of American patriotism with American militarism, buffers this perversion of the Gospel. Incidentally, the Right’s American Christianity has come to blame the poor for their poverty, condemn the imprisoned to their cells, ostracize, oppress and murder our brothers and sisters who aren’t white cis-male heterosexuals, to leave the sick’s health to the whims of privatized markets, champion the purveyors of war, turn their backs on refugees, and view success in financialized terms. In addition to not vindicating the Right’s homophobic and anti-choice bearings, Jesus was very specific in his condemnation of virtually everything the Republican Party (and the Democratic Party for that matter) stands for.

But there is yet an even more insidious claim over religion at work here in that Leftist anti-theism enables the Right to designate the very nature of God. And that nature is hierarchical power itself.

God is conceived as an enumeration of omnis – omnipotence, etc. – sitting in judgement of his creation – yep, he’s definitely a man – and punishing his children when they stray from the path. Punishment and holy cliquishness are the defining characteristics of conservative Christianity even when it’s hidden on Sundays in the language of peace and charity, or when lip service is made to God’s loving personhood. Much how Trump represents what the American right has always been, the Westboro Baptist Church isn’t so much an aberration, but a visceral explication of what conservative Christianity is at its roots.

This is a cosmic hierarchy, with American conservative Christians being on the right side, and everyone else being on the business end, of unmitigated transcendent power.

This hierarchical conception undergirds Bakunin’s staunch anti-theism. We are God’s slaves and the master commands our focus be on a distant otherworldliness. For those who aren’t properly focused, there is only eternal fire. If Bakunin’s conception of God exhausts what’s on offer, then we should join him in joyous rejection of the deity. But of course it isn’t even Bakunin’s conception. He has been fed this conception – just like the rest of us – and by treating it and its ilk as valid theology we reinforce the Right’s conception of God. Our rejection is precisely our acceptance of the Right’s God.

Thankfully, hierarchical conceptions don’t exhaust theology. I would argue that God as hierarchy is decidedly rejected in the figure of Jesus. The weakness of God, as understood by radical theologians like John Caputo, remind us that Jesus’ life, works and Gospel were earthly, vulnerable and in solidarity with the oppressed. Caputo’s God, far from sitting atop an ultimate hierarchy, doesn’t even ‘’exist’’. Rather, God “insists’’; God’s ontological status is here literally understood as a constant call – from a place below our very Being – to the cosmic contingency of hierarchical power structures. God is an insistence to commune with every pariah and every victim of power’s oppression. Radical weakness translates into radical community and radical anti-hierarchy in Caputo’s theological conception of Sacred Anarchy.

Other radical theologians, like Jean Luc Marion, have argued that, among other things, our power conceptions of God are bits of idolatry. God functions as a mirror, from which reflects our own prejudices, linguistic habits and obsessions with power. In leaving religion to the Right, we enable its idolatrous perversion of the God of love to be used as a political weapon against the very people Jesus communed with: the oppressed. Power interprets all, including religion, in terms of power, and incorporates an existentially cosmic anti-hierarchy into its quest for domination. The world of the rich is not the world from which to pull a religious hermeneutics. James Cone, the American scholar of theology and Black Power, makes the point pithy in his dictum: “theology which doesn’t arise from the historical consciousness of the poor is ideology.”

Cone’s work on Black Theology, arguably the most important American theological work of the second half of the 20th Century, testifies to mainstream theology being White Theology. The white image of Christ is nothing if not a power grab. Leftist hostility toward religion, in a sense, lends validity to White Theology, if only to grant its status as the legitimate representative of Christianity and then reject it as false. Why, by way of anecdote, do we, progressives and leftists, think of American religion as the Fallwells and Robertsons, as the anti-choice and anti-marriage equality movements, as the fights against science and as the rampant Islamophobia and Nationalism threatening people and the world every day? Why don’t we think of Malcolm and Martin? Why don’t we think of the political activism embodied in the historical Black Church? Why don’t we think of the legacy inherited from the Central and South American traditions in Liberation Theology? It’s because we are white, and we let white religion define religion for us.

In contrast to accepting White Theology as religion and then rejecting it, Cone’s response is far more subversive. He stresses that “if Christ isn’t black, then the historical Jesus lied.” This statement, despite having relevance to the profound topic of relating the historical Jesus to the Christ figure, and despite scaring the hell out of all the right white people, emphasizes that the religion we’ve been fed is highly politicized. As is our rejection of it. Imagine, again by way of anecdotal explanation, a white leftist telling Malcolm X – a Muslim inspired by his faith to dedicate his life to the liberation of all from the fetters of capitalism and racism – that religion is the opiate of the people or that his faith – and not the white oppressor his faith motivates him to fight – enslaves him. White leftist anti-theism is a cosmic and ultimate form of Whitesplaining. Removing the blinders of white supremacy requires critical assessment of each and every way in which the world shows up for us. Leftist hostility to religion is no exception, and needs to be purged of its background white supremacist suppositions.

If any of these theological approaches sound radical or deviate too far from what folks typically mean by ‘religion’, that’s because they ARE radical and they DO deviate from mainstream discussion of religion. But radicalism is relative. Hierarchical conceptions of religion reign hegemonic, so liberationist conceptions are as anathema to the status quo as the pariahs Jesus consorted with were to the social mores of his day. Heretical conceptions of God are necessary when mainstream religion serves power and has become a violent mixture of idolatry and ideology. Instead of accepting a hierarchical conception of God only to reject it in a defiant act of atheism, the Left should open itself to a deconstruction of the Right’s very way of thinking about God; instead of countering the Religious Right by saying “God doesn’t exist”, we should say “Your God is the Fucking Devil!” I’m not out to convert anyone, but a living faith in an anti-hierarchical God centered around the liberation of all and stemming from the historical consciousness of the oppressed is endlessly more subversive than atheism ever could be.

Christianity isn’t what your ignorant white parents told you it was. It’s what Black Theology tells us it is! It’s what Feminist Theology tells us it is! It’s what Queer Theology tells us it is! It’s what Liberation Theology tells us it is! It’s what Radical Theology tells us it is! Don’t let ‘em steal the Gods like they steal the rent.

I want to close with a somewhat lengthy quote from Caputo. God be with the Revolution:

“Suppose the event that is sheltered by the name of God is not identified with timeless infinite power invested in an omnipotens deus, but with the powerless who suffer the ravages of time? Suppose the sense of ‘God’ is to interrupt and disrupt, to confound, contradict, and confront the established human order, the human, all too human way and sway of doing business, the authority of man over man – and over women, animals, and the earth itself – human possessiveness and dominion – to pose, in short, the contradiction of the ‘world’? Suppose God has no time for the hierarchical power structures that human beings impose on one another and even less time for the power of God over human beings, which is actually the power that human beings exert ‘in the name of God’? Suppose the event that simmers in the name of God, if it were to be written out, would read: ‘No God, No Master?’ Suppose that God’s power over human being is limited by love and that God takes up a place beside them in their powerlessness?”


Alfred Peeler

Alfred is a parent, heretical Christian and Libertarian-Marxist writing on the intersection of radical Christianity with leftist politics.


 

Review of Romantic Rationalist: A William Godwin Reader

Romantic Rationalist: A William Godwin Reader
PM Press
SKU: 9781629632285
$17.95

Romantic Rationalist: A William Godwin Reader, edited and introduced by Peter Marshall, is a brief but wide-ranging introduction to the writings of a man who is often considered the founder of anarchism. William Godwin (1756–1836) was the first major philosopher to propose a decentralized directly-democratic society made up of small self-governing communities, and he also anticipated several of the major arguments of later radicals such as Marx and Kropotkin on issues such as private property and the labor theory of value. If you’re interested in the classical anarchist philosophers but you don’t know where to start, you could definitely do worse than this collection of short passages drawn from Godwin’s works. Unlike Bakunin and Kropotkin, who can be difficult to read because of their frequent references to events and conditions that are no longer current, Godwin expressed himself in general principles. This gives his ideas a clarity and directness often lacking in other works. Here’s his argument against the benefits of government:

The most desirable condition of the human species is a state of society.
The injustice and violence of men in a state of society produced the demand for government.
Government, as it was forced upon mankind by their vices, so has it commonly been the creature of their ignorance and mistake.
Government was intended to suppress injustice, but it offers new occasions and temptations for the commission of it.
By concentrating the force of the community, it gives occasion to wild projects of calamity, to oppression, despotism, war and conquest.
By perpetuating and aggravating the inequality of property, it fosters many injurious passions, and excites men to the practice of robbery and fraud.
Government was intended to suppress injustice, but its effect has been to embody and perpetuate it.
(Pages 48-49)

Despite his radical philosophy, Godwin was not a revolutionary like Bakunin or Kropotkin. He believed that society would steadily improve through rational discussion and calm debate, eventually leading to the abolition of the State without revolutionary violence. Many anarchists will see this as a flaw in his analysis, because Godwin’s approach would force millions and millions of people to suffer patiently for generations under tyrannical rule in the naïve hope that reason must eventually prevail. Despite this flaw, I find Godwin’s calm approach much more accessible and humane than Bakunin’s fiery apocalyptic pronouncements. Godwin may also have more to offer pagan anarchists, because major elements of his philosophy are drawn from the ancient pagan thinkers.

Bakunin was not only an atheist, but a militant materialist and anti-theist. Godwin was officially an atheist too, but in a much more nuanced way. He was an “immaterialist” or idealist, believing matter to be a function of mind rather than the other way around. This unusual viewpoint is most often found among Platonists, and it tends to lead to the vague non-anthropomorphic theism which Godwin apparently adopted in later life. He was also fascinated with the occult, and wrote a Lives of the Necromancers which has probably not been read by very many anarchists.

The influence of pagan philosophy on Godwin is less obvious, but anyone familiar with Epicurus and Epictetus will easily recognize the ideas of these bitterly opposed ancient thinkers in Godwin’s writings. For example, Godwin tells us:

The true object of moral and political disquisition, is pleasure or happiness.
The primary, or earliest, class of human pleasures is the pleasures of the external senses.
In addition to these, man is susceptible of certain secondary pleasures, as the pleasures of intellectual feeling, the pleasures of sympathy, and the pleasures of self-approbation.
The secondary pleasures are probably more exquisite than the primary… (Romantic Rationalist, page 48)  

This is nothing other than the core doctrine of ancient Epicureanism. The Stoics, enemies of the Epicureans, accused them of decadence and hedonism because they based their ethics on human pleasure. The Epicureans countered that the highest pleasures were friendship and stimulating conversation, and therefore the true Epicurean was not so much a hedonist as a person who knew how to throw a really great dinner party.

Godwin also tells us:

Justice requires that I should put myself in the place of an impartial spectator of human concerns, and divest myself of retrospect to my own predilections… Duty is that mode of action which constitutes the best application of the capacity of the individual to the general advantage… The voluntary actions of men are under the direction of their feelings.
Reason is not an independent principle, and has no tendency to excite us to action; in a practical view, it is merely a comparison and balancing of different feelings.
Reason, though it cannot excite us to action, is calculated to regulate our conduct, according to the comparative worth it ascribes to different excitements.
It is to the improvement of reason therefore that we are to look for the improvement of our social condition. (Romantic Rationalist, pages 49-50)  

Godwin’s claim that reason is “a comparison and balancing of different feelings” is an original contribution (and a convincing one). Everything else in this argument is simply a paraphrase of the core argument of ancient Stoicism: justice is the highest good; reason is the uniquely human capacity to choose between rival claims on our judgment; we can best improve society by making our reason the cornerstone of all our decision-making.

The Stoics would defy authority rather than obey an unjust order, but in practice they tended to be politically conservative. The Epicureans were also a lot more likely to be found hosting dinner parties than putting up barricades. Yet Godwin somehow synthesized these opposing philosophies from the ancient pagan world to produce modern anarchism. If the whole point of society is to improve and increase human happiness and if this is best achieved when we allow our reason to regulate all our actions, then the greatest mistake any society can make is to interfere with the free exercise of our autonomous judgment and thus interfere with the general happiness. Thus, all systems of government are both oppressive and inefficient. Godwin may well have been overly optimistic about the power of reason, but his synthesis of pagan philosophies produced a vision that remains inspiring: a society of equality, dignity and autonomy.

Romantic Rationalist includes passages from Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice as well as his novels and other writings. The passages are organized into chapters (such as “Ethics,” and “Politics”) and themes (such as “Duty” and “Rights”) to make it easier to find Godwin’s thoughts on any particular topic. Editor Peter Marshall is the author of Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, which is a comprehensive if not massive work. At under 200 pages, Romantic Rationalist is a less intimidating way to dip your toes in the deep waters of anarchist thought.


Christopher Scott Thompson

cst-authorChristopher Scott Thompson became a pagan at age 12, inspired by books of mythology and the experience of homesteading in rural Maine. A devotee of the Celtic goddesses Brighid and Macha, Thompson has been active in the pagan and polytheist communities as an author, activist and founding member of Clann Bhride (The Children of Brighid). Thompson was active in Occupy Minnesota and is currently a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. He is also the founder of the Cateran Society, an organization that studies the historical martial art of the Highland broadsword.


The Year Of Dark Epiphanies

Greece wasn’t really, technically, on fire. Most of it was just falling apart. This was 2011, and austerity measures had been hard at work for a few years already, gutting the economy, destroying lives, and driving half the population to xenophobia. There were a lot of anarchists in prison there, at that time. Well, always. But I was paying extra attention to it just then because I was on a ferry from Italy, heading to Greece for the first time in my life

It was a year of dark epiphanies, a year during which I wrapped my head around a lot of adult, scary bullshit. It was the year I put the words “anxiety” and “panic” to the demon that’d been plaguing my brain. It was the year I realized that actions have consequences beyond immediate and physical ones like getting arrested or injured or sick. It was the year I started to grapple with the divine, death, and family.

I spent two days and a night on the floor of the deck with the other people who don’t have the money for cabins. I watched the Mediterranean go by and tried not to terrify myself with what the Greek border guards might make of me.

“Fuck,” I said to myself, hopefully sub-vocally, “I wish I believed in God.”

To know the divine is one way to gain the strength to move past fear. It would be a lot easier to have that comfort to fall back on.

I wondered for awhile if it’s possible to wage war without faith. Faith in God is probably the common type, but I bet the hordes of godless communists and anarchists who fought fascism in the 20th century had faith of another sort.

The anarchist martyr August Spies (d. 1887) stood on the gallows and shouted: “the day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” That’s a kind of faith.

He was right, what’s more. The martyrdom of him and his four compatriots spurred a national discussion of labor issues and won a great number of people over to anarchism. His grave in Chicago is, ironically, a federally-recognized landmark.

I do have faith. I believe in anarchism—I believe that freedom is a relationship between people, not something doled out by a state or a church or something that springs forth from our wallets. I believe it’s worth fighting for that freedom, even if it scares the living shit out of me to stand up to cops and jailers and all of their ilk. I believe that these ideals, these relationships of freedom we forge in life, will survive my passing.

But on that ferry, I just wished I believed in God. It seemed a simpler way to accept mortality.

The ferry landed, and I got into the country without a hitch. I stumbled my way through a month or so of trying to be useful to the people I care about and the global movement I love. To be frank I’m not sure I had much success at either.

Tradition is a myth, a story we tell each other. 364 days and 23 hours of the year, I despise Christmas music. When I’m with the family I rarely see, at the darkest time of year with the cold about to set in, I understand it. “We’ve grown a little older, we’ve grown a little colder,” goes one chorus.

My immediate family is getting older without a younger generation taking its place, and my extended family seems to be drifting apart. We’re Catholic—culturally at least—and it’s only at Christmas that I see more than a few of my relatives. Christmas Eve has never been the same since my father’s parents died. We get together at the same house, eat the same food, sing the same songs, and it isn’t the same.

Tradition, in a conservative sense, clings to a fictitious, static way of being. Nothing stays the same in this world. The rapid pace of technological development and population growth in the modern era makes the inevitability of change readily apparent, but I believe with all my heart that the environment and the ways of life we develop to interact with that environment have always shifted from generation to generation. The conservative understanding of tradition is a violent lie we tell one another to force conformity to an illusory ideal.

At its best, tradition is a buoy in the chaotic and metaphorical sea of time. It signals the way to shore or at least gives us something to cling to so as to catch our breath. We are not beholden to tradition. It doesn’t confine us, it doesn’t trap us in the past. I’ll call this the liberatory interpretation of tradition mostly because I like the word liberatory (a word which doesn’t exist even though my friends use it all the damn time).

Since no one has ever had much luck forcing me to conform to anything, I’ve never personally been much affected by the conservative understanding of tradition. I’ve never presumed to do what my family says ought to be done. But it took me until the year of dark epiphanies to appreciate the liberatory version.

Winter holidays are the vain and beautiful attempt to drive back the sorrow of aging.

It doesn’t work, in the end, but of course in the end the dark and the cold come for us all.

The men in my family drift in that liminal space between paganism and Catholicism. One winter, one of them said to me: “the reason I like Catholicism is that it’s essentially polytheistic. We revere the saints, each a different aspect of the divine.” Well, I paraphrase him. The next year, he declared he was a pagan. He calls me on winter solstice, sometimes, to wish me a happy new year’s. It warms my heart.

Another dark year, anxiety was doing its best to destroy me. Chest pains, numbness in my limbs and jaw, headaches, and every morning I was wracked with hot and cold flashes for hours at a go. It wasn’t that I wanted to die, it was that I knew I was about to.

“You have a guardian angel,” my family told me.

My grandfather was Catholic, probably wasn’t very pagan. He designed ships for the navy, and once they were built he’d make the captain drive them into the worst storms they could find. Safety testing. He stood out on the deck and let the wind and the rain and the waves try to tear apart these ships he’d designed. According to my family, the same divine creature watches over me as watched over him.

It’s easy to poke holes in this. But when I want to be brave, sometimes I think about my granddad on one of his ships.

People are up in arms about how the word “literally” can now, according to the dictionary, be accurately used to mean “figuratively.” People think this is literally the worst thing ever. This never bothered me, personally. I actually thought it was kind of cool to have an expression of hyperbole so strong it says “this isn’t even hyperbole.”

When I think about a literal understanding of the divine, this ambiguous meaning is perfect. My granddad literally had this invisible dude (not God, a minor dude in the invisible pantheon) watching his back who kept him from drowning. When I say literally, I mean figuratively but he meant literally. But it’s the same word because it’s the same thing, in the end.

It’s a shame about what happens when people take their literal gods too literally of course, and start denying that the other people’s literal gods exist. And for all my newfound acceptance of my upbringing, I think it’s outright monstrous to tell a child that if they don’t behave they’ll be tortured for all eternity. But the evidence against every religion that’s ever held power is clearcut and well-documented, unnecessary to explore herein.

Near the end of that dark year, I developed a faith, of sorts. It’s one of the mix-mashed things that takes a reverence for the universe and throws some metaphorical (literal!) gods on top. I’m old enough now that I’m willing to accept that I’m culturally Catholic, but it would be just as honest to call myself an atheist as a pagan. If religion is a metaphor to help us make sense of the fact that we’re skeletons inhabited by colonies of microbes and stitched together with bloody meat, then I figured I could use one. I’d be a chaos magician who doesn’t believe in magic.

My fabricated faith doesn’t do shit for my anxiety. I tried for awhile. I had this mantra: “I am of the earth. I will return to the earth.” I said it to myself as panic came over me in waves, and to be real, it didn’t work. A darker epiphany still: I gave it all this thought, but religion wasn’t enough.

It’s been mostly the detached, scientific Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—and the tools it taught me—that’s gotten me through. As the worst things in my life happen, I go to self-diagnosis mode: how am I feeling, concretely? On an emotional pain scale of 1 to 10, where am I? Where do I think it would appropriate to be? How long does each wave of panic or grief take hold of my mind? How long are the intervals between?

Those are the kinds of questions that work for me. Better than invisible dudes or nature-is-god or even freedom-and-anarchy-are-all-that-matter.

But coming to know the divine, in my own way, has helped me understand the bigger picture. It’s helped me come to terms with the arc of my life, of the role I play as a strand in the woven twine of my family, my movement, and human history. I feel more connected to the earth, I feel more comfortable with the inevitability of my own death.

All light comes from darkness, after all.


Margaret Killjoy

Margaret Killjoyis an author and editor who travels with no fixed home. Margaret’s most recent book is A Country of Ghosts, a utopian novel published by Combustion Books in 2014. Find more of Margaret’s words at Birds Before The Storm.

 


This work was originally published in our first journal, A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are.

 

What’s A Nice Atheist Like Me Doing At Gods & Radicals?

“The Sources” by Emy Blesio (oil on canvas)

 

Recently, some criticisms of the Gods & Radicals community have included condemnation of the inclusion of a self-proclaimed atheist — me — among the contributors.1

What’s an atheist doing at Gods & Radicals?  It’s a fair question.

The truth is, while I am an atheist, I am also a non-theistic humanist, a Gaian pantheist, an archetypal polytheist, a naturalistic animist.  And which one I answer to really depends on how you ask the question or what aspect I am choosing to emphasize at the time.

I am but atheist north-north-west.

When the wind is southerly, I know a god from a geist.

My worldview does not accommodate supernatural beings that exist separately and independently of human beings — and in that sense I am an atheist.

And yet, my world is full of gods.  Let me give you an example …

Each morning, I wake up and greet the rising sun with arms upraised and an invocation of Indra, adapted from the Rig Veda, on my lips:

Scaling heaven, splendor encompasses you,

Chariot-Borne, sun-bright, and truly potent,

You pour forth, bursting the clouds,

Giving life to sun and dawn …

You say the sun is no god?  What is it else that rules outside our selves?

I saw that there are, first and above all,
The hidden forces, blind necessities,
Named Nature, but the thing’s self unconceived :
Then follow, — how dependent upon these,
We know not, how imposed above ourselves,
We well know, — what I name the gods, a power
Various or one: for great and strong and good
Is there, and little, weak and bad there too,
Wisdom and folly : say, these make no God, —
What is it else that rules outside man’s self?

— Robert Browning, “The Ring and the Book”

Do I believe the gods are real?  Of course!  What could be more real than the sun?

For ages, humankind, we’ve wanted to celebrate what brings us life. What is this thing that allowed us to emerge. …

The Sun. The Star.

That right there is the source of all of our myths and allegories and hopes and dreams. It gave life to the world; gave birth to life.

Its core burns at ten million degrees and it consumes millions of tons of matter per second – we ourselves are made of remnants of its fallen siblings.

The preconditions for our humanness, that, certainly, is what god is right? ‘Let there be light!’

— Jason Silva, “What is a God?”

But you say, it’s impossible to interact with this god?  Not so.  I interact with it every morning when I open my eyes to the growing light.  I interact with it every time I step outside and feel its warmth on my flesh, my cells absorbing  its rays.  I interact with it every time I take a breath of air which is warmed its radiation.  I interact with it every time I eat a vegetable which transformed its energy into life-sustaining matter.

True, the sun does not hear or respond to my prayers.  You might say it is indifferent to me.  And yet, in a sense, I am an extension of the sun.  I am its energy transformed into living matter.  I am the light of the sun made conscious, capable of reflecting back on itself, seeing and appreciating its own warmth and beauty.  “Indifference” does not seem a fitting word to describe this relationship.

“I want to know why beauty exists, why nature continues to contrive it, and what is the link between the life of a lightning storm with the feelings these things inspire in us? If God does not exist, if these things are not unified into one metaphorical system, then why do they retain for us such symbolic power?”

— Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat

Why does the sun hold such beauty and power for us?  Because there is a sun within us too, an inner sun god.  Indra, to whom I call in my invocation, is just one of the names of this god.  He is the power of the sun personified.2  Indra is my internal sun — the part of me that is called forth by the sight of the rising sun.  The sun god without speaks to the sun god within, and the sun god within responds.

Have you ever felt the sun rise within you?  Words like “archetype” and “symbol” are inadequate to capture this experience.

You say this Indra is not real because he is “in my head”?  It’s true it is all in our heads, but if we think this makes them less real, then, as Lon Milo DuQuette has written, we have no idea how big our heads really are.

For the pioneers of modern psychology, Freud and Jung, the deepest levels of the psyche merged with the physical body and the physical stuff of the world.  Ecopsychologists like James Hillman and Theodore Roszak extend Freud’s id and Jung’s collective unconscious and draw the rational conclusion that what these terms imply is literally the world.

The most profoundly collective and unconscious self is the natural material world.

— James Hillman, “A Psyche the Size of

the Earth”

What meaning does the phrase “merely psychological” have if the psyche is “the size of the earth”, a literal anima mundi which suffused with subjectivity, interiority, intimacy, and reciprocity.

But you say this Indra is not real because he is not separate from me?  But if that’s the case, then you and I are not real either, because we are not separate:

We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.

— Neil deGrasse Tyson

Our interconnectedness makes us more, not less, real.  From this perspective, the more we emphasize the separateness of the gods, the less real they become.

What does any of this have to do with being a “radical” or with anti-capitalism?

In order to answer that, I need to explain briefly the relationship between capitalism and the disenchantment of the world.

According to Morris Berman, “The story of the modern epoch, at least on the level of mind, is one of progressive disenchantment,” which Berman defines as “nonparticipation”  and “alienated consciousness.”  A disenchanted consciousness sees everything else, even living beings, as objects — objects to be bought and sold, in the case of the capitalist form of disenchantment.

Capitalism is one of the driving forces behind the disenchantment of the world.   It alienates workers from the products of their labor, but it also alienates us from the physical world, from nature (including our own bodies).  Capitalism disenchants the world by reducing everything to resource and commodity, fungible and without intrinsic meaning.

Nothing we come upon in the world can any longer speak to us in its own rights. Things, events, even the person of our fellow human beings have been deprived of the voice with which they once declared their mystery to men.

— Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counterculture

This disenchantment of the world happened, not when we stopped seeing gods and spirits in nature — gods and spirits can be objectified too — but when we stopped feeling our connection to nature, when we lost our sense of essential participation in the world.

The view of nature which predominated in the West down to the eve of the Scientific Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, and clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt at home in this environment. The cosmos, in short was a place of belonging. A member of the cosmos was not an alienated observer of it but a direct participant in its drama. His personal destiny was bound up with its destiny, and this relationship gave meaning to his life.

— Morris Berman, The Re-Enchantment of the World

The re-enchantment of nature, then, is a means overcoming capitalist alienation.  It means relating to nature once again as our home — in the deepest sense of that word.  (The prefix eco- means “house”.)  It means cultivating a profound awareness of our interconnectedness — our kinship  — with every other living being — and, yes, even with the rocks and other unconscious, yet animate, matter.

So let’s go back to my morning ritual …

When I raise my arms in greeting to the sun, I am re-storying myself to my proper place in the universe.  I am re-placing myself in the vast cosmic drama which began billions of years ago, when stars were born and died, and spread their life throughout the universe.  I am re-calling the time when the rays of the sun gave life to our first simple-celled ancestors.  I am re-membering how my body and yours evolved in response to the sun — how our sensory organs were shaped by a long and delicate process of interaction with the world around us, how our eyes were shaped by and then finely tuned by the light of the sun and its reflections off of the myriad surfaces of the natural world.

… when I look up at the night sky and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up—many people feel small because they’re small and the Universe is big—but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant you want to feel like a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.

— Neil DeGrasse Tyson

I am also reviving the energetic process which sustains my life today.  I am re-cognizing my kinship with all other life — both human and other-than-human, both plant and animal — all life that depends on the energy from the sun — as well as to the winds and waters whose cycles are driven by the sun’s rays.  And I am re-connecting the experience of the light and warmth outside of me to the experience of psychological light and warmth inside of me — as above so below.

This simple gesture of greeting the sun is one way of re-enchanting the world.  Ritual gestures like these work together as an antidote against the disenchantment of capitalism …

… the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

— Rachel Carson, “The Sense of Wonder”

Doing this reminds me of my place in the cosmos — not a “stranger in a strange land”, not a exile from heaven, and not a mere consumer of widgets and producer of GDP — but a child of Sol and Terra, kin to wolf and salmon, redwood and moss, earthworm and parasitic wasp.  Knowing I am a part of this earth, and it me, and that my destiny in continuous with it, helps me see capitalist alienation for what it is.  It helps me find ways to resist that alienation and to imagine a different kind of life.

So am I an atheist?  Yes, but that’s not all I am.  I am also a worshiper of many gods … and a radical too.  And as surely as the earth is my home, so is Gods & Radicals.


With gratitude to Rhyd Wildermuth and others who have defended my participation in this community.


Endnotes:

1 I am not the only non-theistic writer at G&R.

2 Indra was a sun god in his earliest form in the Rig Veda. In later forms, he became a god associated with rain and lightning.


John Halstead

John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which is hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.


Both issues of A Beautiful Resistance are available not just in print, but as digital downloads as well.  Follow these links for Everything We Already Are  and The Fire is Here.