This is bibles full of libel, this is sin an eternal hymn

Wow!! As if Alex Case had not done enough with hosting the fantastic article and discussion on recruitment of Sri Lankan teachers to teach English in South Korea, now he has single-handedly opened up another can of worms in the very same discussion by linking to issues of Christian missionaries and ELT (first raised by Lindsay Clanfield’s blog, Six Things). Of course we would prefer not to be a simple off-shoot of everything Alex and his contributors do and say over at TEFLtastic , but such is the fertile nature of those discussions (sincere congratulations go to Alex and his contributors for this being so), we feel obliged to comment.

Firstly, in his contribution Jason Renshaw seems to be suggesting that a new piece of workplace legislation be added to existing Racial and Sexual Harassment, namely Spiritual Harassment. He details the case of a teacher who used their classes as a platform to preach religion and even pestered one student (the similarities with sexual harassment are incredible) with promises to buy him a bicycle if he “went to church with her”.

Secondly, Teflista links to an article (which is depressing reading indeed) showing Mormon missionaries busy at work in South Korea, using free English classes to “convert the natives” to the “true religion”.

Now the first thing we want to point out is that whilst, as Marxists, we generally despise religion (we are against investing immaterial or material objects with a power they clearly do not have), we also defend the rights of people to hold and practise religious beliefs, and, this being crucially important, we also, like many religions, believe in an ethical “redemption” of human values in a world which is somewhat devoid of such qualities. Whilst most people know a small part of Marx’s famous quotation on religion, “opium of the people” the vast majority of people do not know or have neglected the full context. Here is the quotation in full (emphasis in bold):

Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man—state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

We say all this, because, though we recoil in horror at the way religious organisations “trap their victims”, the homeless, the dying, the sick, the poor, with their charity, we should not forget that these are people in need (needs which others neglect)and that these religious people feel obliged, by their beliefs, to help them.  Would those of us, whose eyes pop out at the stories of Christian missionaries working in South Korea, also call for all religious hospices to be closed or for the Salvation Army to be driven off the streets? Moreover, in what ways are secular charities better than religious inspired charities, as Richard Sennett points out:

The philosopher Hannah Arendt once proclaimed that “compassion breeds inequality”. Middle-class women in 19th-century Britain and America who visited the poor undoubtedly felt sympathy for those condemned to the slums, but their visits often aroused resentment. “Helping those who cannot help themselves” continues to carry an undertow of condescension: the needy have nothing to give back. Thus the anthropologist Mary Douglas observes about traditional Christian charity: “Compassion wounds.”

In what ways do secular charitable values merely mimic the worst excesses of Christian missionary zeal? We need merely pause for thought about the role of the Peace Corps, or the truly loathsome Global Vision organisation to see such similarities, both positive and negative, emerge. So as Marxists, we try not to judge the missionaries too quickly, because before helping others we must first create the other to help and whilst we tolerate the system that creates the unequal other, our actions in “helping the other” will always remain ethically questionable. Moreover, whilst TEFL teachers continue to perpetuate educational inequalities in South Korea, how can we be so morally superior to Mormons who give free lessons to the poor? Maybe, we should not be so quick to misjudge “the good intentions” of others until we have critically examined our own conscience (of course, if you agree with this statement then you yourselves are “slaves” to the Christian edict, “let he have no sin cast the first stone”)

Furthermore, whilst we share Jason’s hatred of the classroom preacher, how easy is it to dissociate religious belief from teaching? Consider for example how the great secular teaching tradition continues to impose the Christian calendar on its students as if this were in someway neutral, as if the very notion of a secular education wasn’t indeed premised in the Enlightenment, itself a product of Judean-Christian thought, and that our values as teachers (as evidenced above) are not shaped by our own spiritual values. Similarly, as Marxists we have to recognise that Marx himself came from a great line of radical Rabbis (it is not something we take shame in but great pride in, putting human values back on their feet).

We must remain critical of religions and in particular how they encode and justify unequal power relations; especially with regards to the role of women in society. Yet, we should not just construct religion as the other to secular education, as if there is a neutral position empty of human values. As Marxists we gamble, on the critical rationalism of humankind, the ability to critically reflect on our conditions of being and thinking, in order to construct better ways of relating to each other. This means that we are as opposed to the preaching of Marxism in the classroom as we are opposed to the preaching of Christianity, as neither encourage rational critical thought. But we are not opposed to the implicit teaching of Marxism (critical pedagogy/ learning as self-directed transformation of self) rather we are opposed to the implicit teaching of neo-liberalism (English as gateway to success, English as a neutral world language, English as superior liberal/secular values).

Some soul searching questions, indeed.

Footnotes:

For those of a more militant atheist persuasion, we would also like to recommend this wonderful and pertinent militant atheist ELT blog, A small flaking white huse in lost Spain, and to remind you of this 1970’s classic by a man called Johnny Rotten.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “This is bibles full of libel, this is sin an eternal hymn

  1. Oh indeed… am finally catching up on some of work and popping by to see what you’ve been writing recently.

    It’s a very interesting thing… religion, people, values.

    Being agnostic, I have always been quite skeptical of atheists and in fact consider this a religion, the one of no god – as it requires one to be emphatically convinced that there is absolutely nothing out there, ergo, requires the same blind faith as believing that there is something out there.

    I think your points are hard-hitting and valid.

    When a hurricane hit Grenada, where I am from, a few years back it was pretty much, the churches who stepped out to the plate and helped people out.

    And I have always looked interestingly at how people are quick to load up all the evils of the world on to religion’s shoulders but completely blank on the fact that it is, essentially, from religion that most charities do their work.

    Man is a selfish beast… not many help out their neighbours and definitely fewer without an agenda.

    • Hi Karenne,

      Good to have your comments. Yes, religion is far more nuanced than some of its detractors might claim, which in part explains its enduring strength. Our principle concern, of course, is with its promotion of unequal relations between men and women and hostility towards non-believers but this criticism is not necessaily valid for all religions or all religious people.
      We need to tred carefully on the subject and might ask, therefore, what are the concrete outcomes of this faith, are they positive or negative? We suspect, given strong historical evidence, they will often be a mix of both. Those who do not grasp the nuances of such isues are often drawn into negative behaviour themselves. For example, we need to come together to defend the rights of moslem women both against discrimination inside their own faith and against the violent hostility from outside. In Spain, women wearing a burka are being banned from public buildings because the burka is “derogatory towards women”. Basically we will punish women (deprive them of essential services) to stop women being discriminated against. It’s really stupid but, at the same time, really frightening how a group of people (often vulnerable with little support) are being demonised

  2. An interesting post (and one which is going to cause me to arrive late at work).

    As a fully-paid up atheist, I find myself in full agreement with you. Agnostics, I am afraid, seem to be atheists who are scared to commit. There is a wonderful book in Spanish called “A brief course in atheism” which advocates the following statement of belief (!) for atheists: “It is not possible for me to say whether or not there exists a divine being; however, on careful consideration of the evidence, I am inclined to disbelieve in its existence.”

    Nevertheless, what I find depressing is militant atheism that seeks to deny people the solace and the morality that religion often cultivates. My parish priest undoubtedly contributes much more to alleviating the suffering of his parishioners than the most bolshy Bolshevik at my place of work. That said, he probably contributes more to the suffering as well!

    The battle against religion needs to define itself more clearly as a battle FOR rational thought and personal social responsibility. And in that battle, I am sure that there are many religious-minded people who would be happy to fight alongside us.

    Thanks for putting forward ANOTHER fascinating article. Now, back to the mill.

  3. Great blog ! just discovered you and will return for more inspiration and reflection.
    Two immediate responses: Marxist base being power struggle between owners of means of production and those without. Are you applying that notion to native English language speakers and learners, or between English language teachers and the companies they work for? Can it be applied in both instances and if so, wouldn’t that be in different ways? In which case isn’t the base rather simplified in being so stated?
    Secondly – religion as opium of the masses. Yes, it can take on many different aspects to many different people and not so easily pigeon-holed. But as an ‘ opium of the mass’ – why not? We all need some buzz too get us through mundane existence and if religion provides – better that than some things I could mention. No?

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