Seamus Milne’s Lord’s Prayer

March 27, 2008 at 10:06 pm | Posted in The God Delusion, What's left? | 1 Comment
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Now, this puts me in something of a predicament: either I’m too young, naive & drunk on the self-serving service of capitalism to know any better, or Seumas Milne is a paranoid left-wing dilettante who clumsily casts all those with whom he disagrees as badge-wearing advocates of corporatism, neo-conservatism and… well, general degeneracy.

Oh Neil, show some restraint,’ a voice pleads. ‘Aren’t you being a bit rash to judge such a faithful comrade? Does he really deserve such wordy condemnation?‘ Perhaps/perhaps not, but I’m working on the theory that if all educated people find at least five minutes in their days to ridicule those who, without irony, use the absurd formulation of ‘militant atheists/secularists’, perhaps they’ll only ever use it in those obscure journals that never make it further north than Cambridge (sorry Southerners – you’re on your own).

With their cordouroy jackets and open-necked shirts, their esteemed teaching positions and speeches to lecture halls filled with grad students – speeches that advocate evolution, scientific inquiry, democracy, free speech and the rights of women and gays – there is absolutely no way an unprejudiced, straight-thinking person could class Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens’ atheism as ‘militant’. Forthright and uncompromising? Certainly. Groaning under an internal self-logic that hasn’t won over as many people as their sales figures suggest? Without doubt. But ‘militant’? Abu Hamza militant? Jerry Falwell militant? Louis Farrakhan militant? No. You can only peg these people as spite-spewing venomistas if your intellectual allergies are so strong that you can only digest things you already find agreeable.

Anyway, I should get on to the substance of the matter, for Milne is nothing without substance:

Panicked by the rise of radical Islamism and the newly assertive religious identity of migrant communities in a secular Europe, the anti-religious evangelists are increasingly using atheism as a banner for the defence of the global liberal capitalist order and the wars fought since 2001 to assert its dominance. At the same time, they are unable to recognise the ethnic dimension of their Islamophobia, let alone the deeper reasons why people continue to search for spiritual meaning in a grossly destructive economic environment where social alternatives have been pronounced dead and narcissistic consumption is king.

Welcome to today’s straw men: the anti-religious evangelists whose Islamophobia is not just based on religion but on ethnicity, and who are willing to piggy-back on every one of Dick Cheney’s cruise missiles until those backwards, Qu’ran-bashing bastards either reads some John Stuart Mill or does some internet shopping. Is this an accurate characterisation of any real person? Erm, probably not.

But enough with the straw men. Did you know that religion is now totally left-wing?

Religion cannot but now find itself in conflict with the unfettered rule of money – a capitalism that seeks to dominate exactly the social and personal arena which religion has always regarded as its own preserve. And as it becomes less useful as an ideological prop for power, religion’s more radical and anti-establishment strains have become stronger. 


No wonder the medieval church tried so hard to prevent people reading such incendiary stuff in their own language. But similar demands for equality and social justice can of course also be found in Judaism (“you shall not oppress a stranger”), Islam (“a white has no superiority over a black nor a black over a white”), and other religions.

Yes, terrific. But you can find that stuff in Marx, too. And in Star Trek, for that matter.

Just as the French republican tradition of liberation came to be used as a stick to beat Muslims in a completely different social context from which it emerged, so the militant secularists who fetishise metaphysics and cosmology as a reason to declare the religious beyond the liberal pale are now ending up as apologists for western supremacism and violence. Like nationalism, religion can play a reactionary or a progressive role, and the struggle is now within it, not against it. For the future, it can be an ally of radical change.

And so the balkinisation of the left continues: the atheists in the anti-war left should align with the religious in the anti-war left to do battle against the atheists in the pro-war left, the religious in the pro-war left and everyone on the pro-war right. You’d better not have any plans for the weekend. I understand that factionalism is rife on the left & forever will be, but I look at the columnists and bloggers writing today and think not only are they re-fighting the battles of 2003; they’re re-fighting the battles of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s as well.

I opposed the liberation of Iraq but always hoped I would be proved wrong. I know the threat posed by Islamic extremism but remain vigilant against racist Islamophobia, and reject the idea that multiculturalism is a failure that should be abandoned. Lastly, I am an ex-Church of England alter boy turned atheist who hates any political intervention made by religious groups but will never tell my mother that my late brother probably didn’t go to heaven when he died.

In the current climate, there doesn’t appear to be any Left for me, so I’ll just have to make my own…

Update: Norm wrote far fewer words about this article, but wrote them far better:

What is the instruction that is to be had from this? It’s something indirect. Milne here sets himself up as a spokesman for putatively progressive strands within religion. Liberals and leftists who spend their time badmouthing religion and the religious in general should take note. His ‘progressivism’ is of the spurious Guardianista type that finds itself able to ‘understand’ the most reactionary movements and the most murderous methods as being merely symptoms of justified grievance and legitimate aspiration. Atheists and humanists of the liberal-left who try to defend its more authentic values should not concede this terrain – the terrain of working and talking together with people of all faiths who share similar values – to the Seumas Milnes of this world. It is a mistake that has been made too often before, conceding concepts, values and practical initiatives which are important to the representatives of political reaction.


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  1. […] the Shannon Matthews saga? Wouldn’t you be happier indulging your Obama fetish, being mean to Guardian columnists or writing about obscure indie […]

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