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Spirituality

Aronson's guide for the godless

A WSU prof contemplates America as a not-so-religious nation

MT Photo: Kim Heron
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Published 1/7/2009

Editor's note: Readers can discuss this interview and the questions it raises in the comment section at the end of this article. Author Ron Aronson will be checking our comment board for a dialogue with readers in the coming days.

It began seriously with publication of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, which became a best-seller for a previously obscure neuroscience grad student named Sam Harris. And it's grown into what Wayne State University professor Ron Aronson calls "a remarkable intellectual wave." What "it" is doesn't have a simple name, but involves questioning and sometimes attacking religion; it especially involves a questioning of the increasing role that religion has taken in American public life in recent decades. The wave includes philosopher Daniel C. Dennett calling for the scientific investigation of religion in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. It includes the acerbic journo Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) and the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion). Bill Maher recently added his two cents with the film Religulous.

Living Without God (Counterpoint), Aronson's contribution to the wave, was published late last year. It brooks no argument with religion as religion, but it challenges how the religious right has warped our politics in recent times. Mostly it considers how folks on the liberal left who aren't religious can nonetheless root their politics and passions in something larger themselves. It's a book that's won blurb-praise from both the activist-theologian Cornel West and the aforementioned Hitchens, as well as from author Barbara Ehrenreich.

Aronson is a distinguished professor of the history of ideas at Wayne State University and the author of books on Marxism, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. When he recently dropped by the MT offices in downtown Detroit to talk about his book, he reminded us that, along with being an author, academic and activist, he'd been Metro Times' original restaurant critic, leading, he recalled, to an article — when his first book came out — headlined "From Sauces to Sartre."

MT: At Borders the other day we saw this little section of about a dozen books for atheism, agnosticism, etc., at the end of all the religious books. As best we could figure, it was less than 2 percent of the books about religion, but these were all books from the last 10 years or so. It seems like there's a movement — even if it doesn't have any name — and that your book is part of it. What exactly is it and why now?

RON ARONSON: It's not clear it's a movement yet, and it's interesting to watch it. You've got a few writers who are fed up with the religiosity of the last, really the last generation, going back to Reagan, going back to the religious right. We've had this generation of in-your-face religiosity and one of the things that I'm interested in and write about is the fact that secularists have become so timid.

You compare that with going back 125 years, with what Susan Jacoby calls the golden age of American free thought, where we had people like Robert Ingersoll traveling from city to city on trains, with thousands of people turning out to hear him. This is in the 1880s. Ingersoll would have become president had he not been an atheist. Well, he was actually an agnostic, but he had his reputation for attacking religion and promoting free thought. Those were the days of a real optimistic, self-confident view that religion was declining and the future was going to be a happy future because we were getting smarter. People were leaving religion behind. People were becoming more educated. Society was more democratic, more scientific and, for many of them, more socialist — that was an important part of the current. And all of that optimism gave nonbelievers a sense that the future was ours, believing, like Ingersoll himself said, that there is the angel of progress and we are riding on the wings of progress.

I grew up with that sense of progress, the sense that the world was getting better sort of by itself. All sorts of people, whether on the left or the right, believed the world was getting better, and part of the reason it was getting better was because we were becoming more secularist. In April 1966 you had a very stark Time magazine cover with the headline "Is God Dead?" and, a few years later, you had John Lennon singing "Imagine" — imagine a world without religion. The world was getting better, and part of what was propelling it was the idea that there was going to be no more religion.


MT: And now?

ARONSON: So now here we are after the turn of the next century and the world doesn't seem to have gotten better. In many respects it has gotten worse, and people's optimism about the future seems to have gone away. Part of the reason for that optimism for many sophisticated, educated, politically hip people was that religion was ending. But religion didn't end, the world didn't get better. And people like me, I think we became timid. Plus the religious right, starting with Reagan, spawned this sense of feverish certainty on the part of religious people. I just happened to be listening to a right-wing talk radio station yesterday, and they were talking about lesbian parents and their sinfulness, and there was this amazing sense of we are right. I don't know anybody from the center on over to the left who believes with that kind of certainty anymore.

I believe in science. I believe in history. I believe in logic. I believe in human beings, through discourse, getting to what's true. But I can't thunder down and pound my fists and say, "You guys are wrong." I just don't do that.


MT: One of the things you point out early in your book is that most people have a skewed perception of how religious America really is, and how many people really fall under the broad umbrella of secularism.

ARONSON: If you look at surveys done by the Gallup Organization, for example, you get that 92 percent of the people believe in God, 5 percent say they don't and 3 percent aren't sure. But I recently wrote an opinion piece for USA Today where I contended that nonbelievers are really a much larger share of the population.

In reality, and other polls show this, one-quarter to one-third of Americans are not religious. I'll give you a mind-boggling statistic that nobody has mentioned but me. In a massive Pew Poll, when people were asked, "Where do you primarily get your morality from" — and they are given a list of areas that includes religion, daily life experience, reasoning, philosophy, science to chose from — only 29 percent of Americans overall say they get their morality from religion. Only 29 percent! That's astounding. What it means is that more than two-thirds of Americans have a secular morality.

Now, if you are talking with friends and you say, "I don't believe in God," what's the first issue that comes up constantly? They ask, "How can you be sure you are moral without God?" It's a constant theme. I get that from my students all the time. Well, it turns out that most Americans don't get their morality from religion, and to me what that's saying is that most Americans are really secular despite the fact that some among us go to church, believe in God. I find that absolutely fascinating, because when people talk about the 92 percent who say they believe in God, I want to say, "Come on. What percent really say they are guided by God?"


MT: But our culture is such that, to move in public life, you have to assume that the 92 percent is a reality, and that you need to act like you are part of it.

ARONSON: Yes, you assume the 92 percent is real. So when you have Obama here on Labor Day, in a speech that was cut to nine minutes because of Hurricane Gustav, he mentions God and prayer six times in nine minutes. And he closes by asking everyone to join in silent prayer for the potential victims of the hurricane. There are 100,000 people in the audience. What percentage doesn't believe in God? But let's say 10,000 people — instead of saying, "Hey, why should we pray?" — just sort of quietly bow, because we're in this religiously correct culture.


Guided by God?

MT: You mentioned earlier the certainty of believers compared to what you see as timidity on the part of nonbelievers. On one side there is this authoritarian mind-set — these are our rules and everybody's going to follow them. Whereas liberals, in the broad sense of the word, have this attitude of live and let live.

ARONSON: So, are you going to go to the barricades with that outlook? That's our political issue. Actually, I talk about that in the last chapter of this book, and that stays with me, I think, into my next book. The question for us is, how do we have as much passion and strength of conviction and willingness to struggle? In terms of writing the book, I was convinced that a religious worldview does not give you any more powerful convictions than a secular one. It's just that, if we're secular, we're not supposed to be sure, and we agree with live and let live — but we're not supposed to feel as strongly and we're also supposed to be taken in a little by someone like Camus, who says that we're on our own as individuals, and that the world is absurd and we can't really make sense of it. Part of why I wrote the book was to say that's wrong. We don't have to believe in God to see the world as meaningful and coherent. We can be as committed, and our lives can be as powerfully directed, as anyone who has the most powerful belief in God.


MT: Because we can believe in the rightness of the cause?

ARONSON: Yes, we can believe we're doing right, but it's a different kind of right. It's not authority-based. And, secondly, we can believe that we're part of a historical process that gives the world its meaning, and we are part of that process. I want to write another book about the historical process and say, "Wait a second! Look at how much humans have created over time to make the world a better place. We don't have to figure out where we belong. The place is there waiting for us, and you just have to see it."


MT: Isn't the belief in that akin to religion?

ARONSON: No. But I get the question. It depends on who you're with in this discussion. When we would talk, Cornel West, who made a very positive statement about this book, would say, "Brother Ron has his own way of being religious and I have my way." And I would love it. Because I would say we're both connected somewhere deeply. But I wouldn't call it religion. This is not faith, because I can show you. Come with me. Let's talk about our collective past.

I like to teach genealogy and family history because it roots people in where they came from, and I want people to see that we are always standing on someone else's shoulders and they on someone else's and they on someone else's. People don't talk about that as scientific, but it's part of who we are, and that's not religion, and it's not faith. I can demonstrate it and I can argue it.


MT: And the kind of movement that you are hoping this book might ignite, or contribute to — do you see the potential for a political alliance with religious progressives?

ARONSON: There are believers like Cornel West, people for whom religion is not an irrational and authoritarian escape from this life. They are people who are very grounded in this world and who don't use religion to substitute for other forms of direction and meaning, but complement themselves with it.

Along those same lines, there's also William Sloane Coffin Jr., a minister who wrote the book Credo before he died. Whatever he talks about as Christ, I can easily talk about in other terms, and we can get along very profoundly. I don't go beyond this world, but he doesn't abandon science and he doesn't abandon rationality. And he certainly doesn't abandon political struggle. That is pretty big.


MT: So, in terms of things that are necessary to create an alliance ...

ARONSON: One criterion would be, "Do you accept evolution or do you reject it for the creation story?" We know about 40 to 45 percent of Americans reject evolution, but the rest of the believers accept science. They do not want science and rationality to be compromised by their belief. So their belief takes a certain form and it's not that all-encompassing belief of the 45 percent who accept creation. So, yeah, I have an important connection, but I think there is an important task with those folks, which is to ask: Where do we agree? Where do we disagree? How do we learn to be in the same room together? And with mutual respect. I don't have to dismiss them as long as we can talk rationally about things that matter.


'Larger than ourselves'

MT: You're reaching out to some believers. But under the same tent, in this movement that we don't have a name for, you have someone like Christopher Hitchens who says religion, if not fundamentally evil, is something that we'd be better off without.

ARONSON: I had an interesting response to a talk I gave in Philadelphia. A number of people in the audience were hardcore atheists, and they got really angry at me for saying we need to talk with religious people. And the atheists said: What do we need to talk to them for? Their view of the world is totally incoherent. My answer was very simple: They're not going away any time soon. And do we want to learn how to live together? And if so, how would we do that? There are so many of them, particularly in the liberal religions, who are better organized than nonbelievers because their religious faith is tied in with a sense of community and with a sense of political action. I've had too much experience in the past, since the movement of '60s and '70s died, of working primarily with believers, working primarily with people who are inspired by Christ and God while my secular comrades were sort of losing their steam and losing their energy. I know that religion inspires and nurtures people.

Who would I rather be with on a picket line — Sam Harris or Charlie Rooney? Sam Harris is a right-winger who believes in torture and wants to use nuclear weapons. Charlie Rooney is one of our local heroes, activist, former priest, ran the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights with his wife, Jean, for about 10 years. Ed Rowe, the Central United Methodist pastor, is another perfect example.


MT: There's a beautiful passage in your book where you use the phrase, "Our own belonging to a world larger than ourselves." That may not describe a religious experience necessarily, but it does seem to have a spiritual dimension.

ARONSON: The essence of spiritualism, apparently, is being connected with something larger than you. Where I differ from most spiritualists is that this world that's larger than you is around us. It can be seen. It can be described. It can be mapped. It can be studied historically and socially and politically and biologically. The hunger that spiritualists have, I guess I must have had at some point. But I didn't find satisfaction in vague and semi-transcendent views of the world. I found I was satisfied by reading Marx, by reading Freud, by being politically active and by looking at the history of all the movements I was active in.

It becomes "spiritual" in that vague, murky way because people don't have the goddamn tools to look around themselves and map their world and think of themselves concretely in it. It has to do with how we're educated and how we're socialized in this society. We don't open our eyes and look around and see our links to global society, to other people, to other workers. We don't see that and we don't look in ourselves and see our past, and we don't look at ourselves physically and see our biology. We're not educated to do that. We're not socialized to do that. So those people who have the same hunger and needs to connect don't have the tools and they flip out and they become vague and they become incoherent. We are all part of some greater universe, but it doesn't have to be vague.


MT: But there is the unknown.

ARONSON: I was in Ann Arbor at Shaman Drum bookshop recently giving a talk. It was exciting because I thought there would be four people there, but it was a full house. And this one guy, who was clearly a student, at the back of the room raises his hand and says, "What about all those questions that you can't answer?" And I said, "This is about my chapter called 'Choosing to Know.'" I said, "Well, those are important questions. But I'm here to tell you that if you stick with the questions you can answer, and really dig into them, they are so powerful and so exciting that whatever we can't answer sort of almost pales to insignificance because this world we're part of is so rich and so important and gives us so much life. I could see he was responding, which was an exciting moment.


MT: So you are looking for common ground, and ways to build bridges with the faction of believers who are progressive and rational. Do you think Obama is trying to do what you're talking about?

ARONSON: Shit, no. He's not trying to do that. I think he's so caught up in the political process of appealing to these people — Rick Warren, for example — that he's willing to do things that one should never do, like submit to a religious test for the presidency. I think the Democratic Party's trajectory is: How do we get as many fundamentalists on board as we can? How do we appeal to them as much as possible?

I taught church-state this fall, and the Constitution is pretty clear on the separation. Obama pretends, as a constitutional lawyer, that he knows all that. I don't think he does, and it's worrisome.

In an '06 speech Obama said, I insist that you can bring religion into the public square and I'm not going to hold my religion back. But if you do that, and we're talking policy, you have to put what you're presenting in universal terms that everyone can accept and agree with. That's either a recipe for trying to create a large universal language among believers and nonbelievers — or it's a recipe for believers on how to manipulate. Is Obama saying, "You guys have to learn how to market so you can manipulate nonbelievers"?


MT: You used the phrase "religiously correct" a bit ago.

ARONSON: It's Susan Jacoby's. I give her credit.


MT: Here's a religiously correct problem: The drugstore clerk says, "Have a blessed day," when you get your change. How can you not be rude and yet suggest that's part of a creeping religionism that not everybody agrees with?

ARONSON: If you've got a minute, and you're feeling so disposed, you can say, Thank you for wishing me a blessed day, but I'm not a believer so I'll just have a good day and I'll wish you one too ... or something like that without being hostile or harsh. We have to develop the cheer because believers have a thing about nonbelievers, and I'll tell you what it is: They're mean, they're smart and they're sinful. Somehow we have to get around all of those just by not being mean, not being smart-assed and being nice so we appear to be as good as we are ...


Thank who very much?

MT: You talk about gratitude a lot in your book. But if one is not religious, to avoid being some sort of cosmic ingrate, whom do you give thanks to?

ARONSON: The point is to avoid ignoring who we are and to avoid anesthetizing ourselves and becoming morally numb. I'm trying to make a point about dependence. As Americans, we are especially numbed and dumbed in this respect. We are dependent on so much that is beyond us individually. But it's almost like the condition of being socialized as an American is to cut ourselves off from an awareness of how dependent we are for our very being, and our survival. We are deeply dependent and deeply connected beings, and you don't know yourself unless you know that. If you pretend you are on your own completely and that you are alone in an absurd universe and nothing makes sense, you are ignoring our deeper reality. And it's paying attention to our deeper reality as individuals that I'm talking about.


MT:
It sounds as if you are, again, saying that both people with faith, and people who are secularists, there's a point at which they can meet.

ARONSON: I think if you were to ask, "What do people look for in religion?" I'd say there is a sense of community, and a sense of being connected to forces that are beyond yourself. There is a sense of being rooted, and a sense what you should do with your life. And there is a sense of hope. What I'm saying is that there are ways to do that without religion, and it is not an abstraction. The last chapter of my book is a call to social and political commitment to make the world a better place. A call to join the great political movements that are still with us and that have made the world as good as it is, and to combat the forces that make the world as bad as it is. As one reviewer remarked, what I'm really demanding is a wider sense of social commitment, and it's true.


MT:
One reviewer talked about how the city of Detroit was almost a character in this book. How did growing up here shape your worldview?

ARONSON: I was born just a few blocks from here, and the last chapter of my book begins with a walk along the riverfront, which is another few blocks from here. And there is a rootedness in my experiences here that is at the book's core. I feel very much a part of this community. Somehow it is a strange place with a lot of people with a similar political background.

When I returned here after going away to college, for me, coming back to Detroit in 1968 was a wonderful experience. I came back because of, not in spite of, the riot-slash-insurrection. So many of us in the New Left thought Detroit was going to be the center of the next massive political transformation, and we joined it enthusiastically.

But there's another part of this book that's about being in this dumped-on, beat-up, abandoned community. The question has been, how do you find hope in a city that's lost more than half of its population and is on its way to losing more than two-thirds? How do you continue to find hope? And I became one of those people who sort of became nourished on the grittiness of the Detroit metropolitan area. There is a harshness and grittiness and a kind of energy to keep going on. I've looked for ways to be refreshed by this environment, by the riverfront, and the DIA and Campus Martius, where I take my grandchildren ice-skating.


MT: How does that relate to what you refer to in your book as the "privatization" of hope?

ARONSON: Particularly for people from Detroit, during the movements that took place during the 1930s and 1960s, there was this sense of collective hope. Detroit was one of the centers for that. But when the collective hope wanes, when the great movements wane, people have a rough time. And when that happens, one of the things people do is turn inward. You make your life and your family and your own pursuits your happiness. And to me, that's not a recipe for happiness, it's a recipe for discouragement.

In the past we had people like Ken Cockrel Sr. and Coleman Young, and both of them reached out to the progressive white community and included them, and that included people like me. And that's one of the things that we miss enormously right now, because what we need is a progressive movement involving both city and suburbs that is really dedicated to revisualizing the whole region. And it's so pathetically sad that we don't have it.


MT: Given everything that is going on, both in this city and region, and the world at large, how does a person remain hopeful without religion to rely on?

ARONSON: If you really have hope, you don't just have it and keep it. You're constantly plunging into discouragement and despair, because reality can be so negative. You are constantly digging yourself out again and again and again. To give them credit, many religious people will talk the same way. I can have a constant sense of doubt about where things are going, and why they're so goddamn wrong. But you can also say, "Fuck it; I'm going to fight against it." I'm going to do this to contribute or do that to contribute. You have to constantly dig into yourself, or dig into those around you, or dig into your sense of what people who have done before you.

I went to South Africa at one point, and it felt thrilling to be part of something that was so important, that people were pouring their energy into this fight against apartheid. I think part of the reason I write is to sort of reconnect myself, and to make that alive for other people, to help them realize we are connected in these struggles.

Struggle is intrinsic to life. And if you give up fighting against the bullshit, part of you just dies, and there is an emptiness. There's something about being engaged in the battle.


'You make yourself moral again"

MT: That would seem to explain, at least in part, why you've been so involved with the Huntington Woods Peace, Citizenship & Education Project, a small group of activists that has been opposing the policies of the Bush administration for years.

ARONSON: Just keeping a small group like that alive matters so much. Maybe it only matters to that small group. But maybe you're also an example to others. Maybe you don't know what results you're going to have. But one of the things I talk about a little — and it would be worth somebody writing a book about — is that by fighting against this shit, you make yourself moral again. You don't just do the things you do to meet the deadline and do the job and pay the bills, but instead are saying, "Hey, I'm living. I'm doing what human beings should do to be human beings." And you don't need God for that. You don't need religion for that.


MT:
Which brings us to our last question. The subtitle of the book is "New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided." But we finished still wondering what you call yourself.

ARONSON: Really? I suppose I never do say. (Laughs.) You are right that I never argue against religion, because I don't have an interest in attacking it. We could get into an interesting discussion about the difference between an atheist and an agnostic, and agnostic and a humanist. And a secularist. I'm not undecided. Freethinker, I like that too. I guess at a given moment I'm each of those. And I also reject the notion that there's anything to battle about between those. That's the best way to put it.

In November, I spoke at Harvard, and a friend of mine there said, "Ron, you need a one-page statement of our creed. You've got to really get it out there, and you need a name for it."

But after my experience with Marxism, I hate all names. We need new names like we need boils. But if there's any name I would coin, it is responsiblism. It means taking responsibility for who we are, and for taking responsibility for other people in the world, and then demanding that the society and the world around us take responsibility for us as well. In that sense I'm a responsibilist.


W. Kim Heron and Curt Guyette are the editor and news editor of Metro Times, respectively. Send comments to wkheron@metrotimes.com or cguyette@metrotimes.com. Or go through a simple registration to post and share comments on this article . Ron Aronson will be reading online comments and responding in the coming days.

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