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Why Progressives Need God: An ethical defence of monotheism by Jonathan Clatworthy

24 August 2018

David Martin assesses an argument in favour of monotheism

THIS is a very clever set of arguments, part an ambitious history of religions, mainly of monotheism and especially of Christianity, and part acute philosophical argument about the implications of monotheism as against polytheism and atheism.

In the early part, Jonathan Clatworthy argues against those who contend, like Jan Assman, that imperial and patriarchal monotheism is the problem, not the solution. For Clatworthy, monotheism provides the grounding for objective values from which to challenge the powers of this world, nowadays represented by neo-liberalism and the technocratic capitalist ruling classes.

However unacknowledged and occluded, these objective values underpin the supposedly free-standing human-rights discourses of secular-minded progressives, rather as Charles Taylor has argued. They are suspect because religious arguments used fear of hell and our bodily desires as sources of control, and were responsible for destructive wars. But nowadays it is secularism that is responsible for the increasing horrors that oppress us. Clatworthy begins, correctly in my view, with the problematic raised by what Rilke called “the praying man”: why does he pray and with what expectations?

All this is arguable, though it seems to me that the problems of overweening power, wealth, and war over scarce resources are generic and not at all especially characteristic of capitalism. Clatworthy’s technophobic analysis of contemporary ills is pessimistic in its condemnations and wildly optimistic in its solutions in a way all too characteristic of utopian dreams. Much of what he says is an updated version of such disastrous Sixties simplifications as “All you need is love,” and “Make love, not war.”

Take, for example, a critique of Western policy towards refugees which takes no account of the political problems currently encountered by Angela Merkel. Politics, after all, is about compromises and what is possible by way of amelioration in a world universally governed by tit-for-tat.

All this is mixed up with a ridiculous ideology of trusting nature when it comes to earthquakes and tsunamis, and an outrageous theodicy that, for example, emphasises human activity in the causation of cancer. The West condemns violent responses to its imperialism as “terrorism”. And so the righteous complaint rolls on.

Perhaps some consideration of the very different forms of monotheism would help, and a realistic assessment of the state of affairs where monotheism proposes objective moral positions, whether in the Russian Church or some forms of Islam, close to home as well as abroad.

The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

Why Progressives Need God: An ethical defence of monotheism
Jonathan Clatworthy
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