Paul Pojman passed away this morning. An Associate Professor at Towson University's Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Paul was active in several Baltimore organizations working for a better world: the Free Farm, the Baltimore Green Currency Association, and the Free School.
I didn't have the pleasure to know him well. But in the conversations that we had I knew him as a man of keen intellect, rare insight, and open heart. I was looking forward to getting to know him better and maybe working together in some way. This is truly a loss for Baltimore.
Today on Facebook, several people have quoted the marvelous final paragraph of his paper "Anarchospirituality". It's a short paper and I'd like to post it in its entirety here. (I believe "fair use" applies.) As always, that doesn't mean I agree with every word of it -- but I'm sad that I won't have the chance to discuss those fine points with him over a beer.
Atheism in its negation of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty. Emma Goldman
Mikhail Bakunin’s God and State, and Emma Goldman’s “The Failure of Christianity” and “The Philosophy of Atheism” critique not only Christianity but spirituality in general. They argue that religion is a human creation arising out of primitive people's fears and is a symptom of human suffering (the standard Marxist critique). Furthermore, religion manifests as an authority over humans in two ways. It offers an external authority, a standard of morality and obedience, which can be manipulated by the state. Furthermore, God, as a supreme master, negates the possibility of true human freedom, leading to servility. Hence, in a reversal of Voltaire, Bakunin writes: “if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.” In addition, belief in god permits oppression as it distracts us from efforts to make social progress by placing the real in the transcendent rather than here on earth. Finally, religious beliefs are scientifically false; atheism is justified by materialism, which is supported by science.
There are at least four problems. First, the link with materialism and science is not so simple, and the adoption of materialism for political purposes is dangerous. Science is indeed methodologically materialist (proceeding as though there is no non-material reality), but there is no deduction to metaphysical materialism (a claim as to what is True). Bakunin argues that science will always be an incomplete project, but nonetheless, he uses the authority of science to support materialism. However, if science is always to be incomplete, then we cannot know materialism is true (or what version of materialism). For instance, various panpsychisms are also fully compatible with science.
Many thinkers of Bakunin’s era (notably the philosopher-scientist Ernst Mach) regarded materialism itself as an ideology, potentially as malicious as spiritualism. The ideological use of materialism by Marxists lends support to this concern. For Bakunin, a metaphysical acceptance of materialism leads him to a simplistic positivistic view on the relation of society to science. While science should not be used by humans to claim authority over each other, he looks forward to the day when an adequate social science is developed with laws, which are “quite as necessary, invariable … as the laws that govern the physical world.” When these laws of social science, “by means of an extensive system of popular education and instruction, shall have passed into the consciousness of all, the question of liberty will be entirely solved.” It is unstated who is to determine when this social science is ready for application, nor who is to determine the methods of education.
Second, religious belief is not a prerequisite for spirituality. Although Bakunin and Goldman acknowledge that there are non-Christian spiritualities, they implicitly assume that all spirituality must include the idea of a transcendent realm, of something beyond the earth which is more important than here. However, many traditions, even within Christianity, encourage a skeptical attitude, or even utter ambivalence about belief.
Third, the claim that religion is detrimental to social progress may be true within many euro-centric contexts, but demonstrably false when applied to struggles against euro-centrism. The long fights for Black liberation, the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements in India and South Africa, as well as the various Liberation Theology movements of Latin America, have all drawn strength from spirituality. In doing so, they often were able to reclaim important aspects of their spirituality away from the dominant discourse; that is, the libratory moment was not a rejection of spirituality but a reclaiming and reconfiguring of it. The methods of non-violent non-cooperative direct action developed within some of these movements are today an important part of struggles for justice.
Fourth, there is no necessary connection between spirituality and inner servility. It is interesting that while Goldman references Nietzsche’s criticisms of Christianity, she ignores his openness to creative, individualistic, and ecstatic spiritualities. Many people turn to spirituality precisely out of libratory aspirations, taking responsibility for enacting the change in themselves they wish to see in the world, of healing, gathering strength for outer work, or for investigating and struggling with their own conditionings and imprisonments, whether social or biological.
An anarchospirituality might include horizontal social relations, active analyses of class, race and gender dynamics, a culture of tolerant skepticism toward metaphysical beliefs, lots of fun and play, and commitment to social change. Beyond minimum compatibility requirements, it has a lot to offer. Fighting injustice in the world is not enough; there is also injustice within us. For instance, anger is a reasonable response to pervasive social injustice. But anger can also be self-righteous, loudly proclaiming the truth of a barely understood ideology, blind to its own pain and confusion. Discerning the difference certainly does not require a spiritual community, but nonetheless, it is in such communities that discourses of inner work, self-discipline, and healing have been developed.