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Plea against abstract atheism: The basics of the Enlightenment

After the terrorist-motivated murder of a Parisian teacher, our author pleads for a more consistent criticism of religion - also from the left.

Palestinian demonstrators burn a Danish flag in Gaza in 2006 Photo: Zuma Press / imago

Talking about criticism of religion in 2020 is difficult because it is difficult to relive the battles of the Middle Ages. The question arises as to how people should be criticized who seriously claim in the 21st century that there are higher beings and thus, quite voluntarily and without coercion, go to the intellectual level of a few hundred years ago. One would love to limit oneself to exchanging the best jokes from the Prophet, Jesus and Messiah.

However, the last few decades have shown that what is now known as religion is too serious to be dealt with solely with the means of criticism of humor - even if some religious dogmas and ideas actually appear to be a bad joke at first. Just think of the claim that jihadists who blow themselves up in Israeli vegetable markets are rewarded with a few dozen virgins in paradise.

Unfortunately, the jihadist suicide bombing and the current Islamist attacks are not about an intellectual quirk, but about a bloody social practice.

The reactions to the “cartoon controversy” in 2006, the murder attempt on the Danish draftsman Kurt Westergaard in 2010, the murder of members of the editorial team of the magazine Charlie Hebdo and now the brutal murder of a teacher in Paris, who showed some cartoons of Mohammed in class, make it clear that jokes, especially about the Islamic religion, play down the problem rather than illuminate it.

Barbarism of various Islamic factions

One could make fun of it if it were only the private displeasure of obscurants hostile to pleasure, indulging in some nonsensical diet, image and sexual regulations.

It is by no means exclusively about the various manifestations of Islam - but for good reason primarily about them: Of course, it is important to oppose anything Christian fanatics, even if they do anything but dominate the societies in which they operate. But hardly anything comes close to the barbarism that is currently represented by the various factions of the Muslim Brotherhood, the “Islamic State” and other Sunni Islamists or the “Islamic Republic” in Iran.

Stephan Grigat teaches at the universities of Vienna and Passau. Fellow at the Moses Mendelssohn Center in Potsdam and Haifa. Author of "The Solitude of Israel: Zionism, the Israeli Left and the Iranian Threat", editor of "Iran - Israel - Germany: Anti-Semitism, Foreign Trade and the Nuclear Program".

When since the beginning of the millennium a few harmless caricatures have been able to trigger a medium-sized uprising halfway across the globe, when groups like Hamas win elections, when an esoteric obscurant with a preference for feudalist structures like the Dalai Lama acts as a model for entire generations across all political boundaries when Catholic homophobia in Poland and Russian Orthodox in Moscow reappear as a militant mob, when what has already been declared dead a thousand times over turns out to be very much alive today - in the case of jihadist Islam, so alive that it is deadly for unbelievers Poses a threat - then one would have to go back to the beginning and consider the fundamentals of the criticism of religion.

At the same time, however, one cannot stop at such a general criticism of religion. The point is to make it clear to what extent religions are at different distances from the idea of ​​materialistic enlightenment and criticism; that some religious currents strive to impart faith with reason, while others consider ratio to be pure devil stuff.

Differences between religions

That, as Max Horkheimer emphatically pointed out, there are forms of religiosity such as Jewish messianism, which above all preserve the longing for the completely different, which therefore also maintain the idea of ​​a liberated society in whatever deformed form instead of the enforce violent mediation in the wrong existing. In short: one would have to address the differences between the religions.

It was thought that everything was said about religion, and it is difficult to add much new to what has been established about belief in gods and idols over the past 300 years. Kant brought reason and maturity against the old belief in God and Ludwig Feuerbach saw in religion the projection of human longings. Marx described religion as the opium of the people, Freud identified childish aspirations in faith and Sartre quite rightly viewed religion as a threat to human freedom.

As early as the middle of the 19th century, Marx assumed that the criticism of religion had already been made and that one now had to deal with the social misery that first created the need for religion. He saw religion as having a double character: it was an escape from misery, but also a “protest” against this misery.

But one should not overestimate this protest, because it is hardly able to penetrate to the real causes of the misery and remains as a rule conformist rebellion due to its imprisonment in religious illusions.

Conformist revolt

In view of the current position of the Christian churches, however, even current criticism of religion, which focuses primarily on Christianity, compared to its forerunners in earlier centuries, always has something of a conformist revolt by people who shy away from radical social criticism and prefer to pose in an accusatory manner towards something that has long been done throw.

While Giordano Bruno and all the other heretics ended up at the stake, jokes about the Pope today are as subversive as the criticism of capitalism put forward by ruling parties.

Today, among other things, it is a matter of finally eliminating the pre-bourgeois relics in civil law, i.e. erasing the blasphemy paragraphs from the law books and wherever religious practice violates those, however limited, individual freedoms that Western societies have after the partial emancipation from Christianity Virtue terror and arbitrary rule by the state can at least guarantee that the minimum standards of civil enlightenment will be implemented.

It is important to maintain the conditions for socially critical reflection - and criticism of religion will have to remain one of the necessary components of such reflection. In view of the reactions with which representatives of the Islamic religion in particular have reacted to criticism in recent years with the strong support of cultural relativists of all stripes, these conditions must be described as threatened.

Do not leave criticism of Islam to xenophobes

Large sections of the left leave the urgently needed criticism of Islam to the xenophobes from the right, instead of formulating a criticism of Islamic human reorganization based on general emancipation and self-enlightenment.

Seen in this way, it is not at all surprising that, just like after the murder attack on Kurt Westergaard, even after the current murder in Paris across Europe, the media reported to their readers and viewers about the "controversial caricatures", but hardly any leading newspaper reported or a broadcaster dares to reprint, for example, the image of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, which after thousands of jihadist-motivated attacks in the past decades is as obvious as it is reluctant to criticize.

The task today is to defend the civil liberties of people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who called the Prophet a perverse tyrant, of hipsters who call Jesus a bastard, and of Israeli pop-lefts who proclaim that the Messiah will not come.

The question of why the latter two had to live with criticism, outrage and, in the worst case, with ludicrous criminal penalties, like Manfred Deix for a long time, while Ayaan Hirsi Ali faced death threats and Kurt Westergaard with attempted murder, can only be explained if attempts are made in the future to address the crucial differences between religions and their respective functions in today's societies.

And the reaction to the gruesome beheading of a Parisian teacher due to his self-evident advocacy of the enlightenment table cannot be an abstract forest and meadow atheism that is all one.

If, in the face of such brutality, the left and liberals do not agree to consistently criticize both radical Islamism and those elements of orthodox-conservative majority Islam that threaten the emancipatory achievements of Western societies, anti-cosmopolitan political formations will continue to thrive with their "criticism of Islam" in terms of anti-Semitism, misogyny and homophobia are nowhere near as far removed from the object of their criticism as they like to suggest.