Atheism in Christianity

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Ernst Bloch, Verso; £14.99

Why republish a book that first appeared in 1972? The answer has to do with the current attack on religion by such writers as evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins and right wing political commentator Christopher Hitchens. Bloch, on the other hand, argues that there are liberatory, "atheist" elements within Christianity with which socialists should make common cause.

His starting point is Marx's. Religion is not a delusion to be overcome by "superior" ideas. It can only be superseded if the material roots (deprivation, alienation, oppression) that make religion the "heart of a heartless world" are themselves superseded. Thus it is not the main enemy (whatever Hitchens et al say). Those who fight injustice under its banner can be our allies.

Much of the book involves patient detective work among biblical texts to unearth the traces of rebellion and heresy that challenge received notions of god. Bloch is often difficult to follow, but the direction of the argument is clear enough. When human beings challenge god as an external power to whom obedience is due as a condition of their creation (the Genesis myth), they begin to see themselves as having "god" within them (particularly, in New Testament terms, the Jesus who is "the Son of Man"). So, instead of looking back to a lost paradise, they look forward to some future state in which the "god"-like power within them can be realised.

However, there is a problem. First, Bloch concentrates on Christianity - understandable in a period when liberation theology was deeply at odds with the reactionary hierarchy of the Catholic Church. But how Bloch's analysis could be generalised to other religions (such as Islam) is unclear.

Second, Bloch seems to want to find the "true", revolutionary Jesus (as opposed to the official church version), without understanding that Christianity necessarily combines a Jesus that can appeal to the poor (while reconciling them with their lot) and a Jesus that can appeal to their rulers (while putting pressure on them to do something for the poor).

Third, there is a problem with the utopian impulse he says is common to atheistic Christianity and Marxism. If he means we have to have a "big vision" of what we are fighting for to sustain the day to day struggle, then fine. But he comes close to saying that religion (as he defines it) contains something positive, something that is needed by Marxism to make it complete.

Marxism rejects the crude atheism of Hitchens et al (because it tends to an elitist siding with power against "backward" religious people). Marxism also rejects absolutely the idea that religious-minded people can play no part in the socialist movement. But for all that, Marxism believes that not even a religion that champions the poor and disinherited can provide the tools needed for changing the world.