Doug Ireland welcomes a passionate and practical approach to secularism
Ronald Aronson’s new book, Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided, represents a radical departure from the recent attention-grabbing anti-religion polemics from Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Michel Onfray. While Aronson pays heartfelt tribute to all of these authors, his is a much more pragmatic proposal. He suggests that “even after reading Harris, Dennett, Dawkins or Hitchens, secularists often have difficulty discussing what it is we believe in, if not God.” And what that means, for Aronson, is that humanism needs to recouple thought with action, morality with socialism.
“To live comfortably without God today means … rethinking the secular worldview after the eclipse of modern optimism,” Aronson insists. “This can happen only by working through the secular outlook itself, in light of the disasters and disappointments of the last century, and the dangers of this one.”
Aronson, perhaps of all contemporary thinkers, is ideally situated to take on the task. He is internationally recognised as the foremost Sartre scholar in the English-speaking world. A native of Detroit, Michigan, that’s where he has chosen to stay, making his academic career at the unglamorous Wayne State University, where he has taught since 1969, and where today he is a Distinguished Professor of the History of Ideas. The grandson of immigrants, Aronson is fiercely loyal to his city, once the proud flagship of the American trade union movement, the birthplace and headquarters of the United Auto Workers, but today America’s poorest urban agglomeration now that the auto industry has collapsed and much of the well-paid white working class has fled.
Detroit is, in fact, one of the characters in Living Without God, for Aronson often invokes his city to illustrate his thesis: that we need an ethics and a morality which, without belief in a supreme being, allows us to confront the daily problems of our lived lives, from Hurricane Katrina to economic insecurity to social injustice and want to death and dying.
Aronson is a philosopher, but of a special kind. One of his most important books is titled Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosophy in the World (unfortunately out of print, but available in its entirety on Aronson’s website), and he situates himself firmly in what Oliver Wendell Holmes once called “the passion and action of our times”. His writing frequently draws on his own life. In Living Without God, for example, the chapter on confronting mortality was written while Aronson was undergoing (ultimately successful) treatment for prostate cancer.
As a scholar and writer, Aronson for the last three decades has explored and illuminated the nature of hope as reified through political commitment. And he is also today one of the handful of contemporary US public intellectuals who has the courage to openly identify himself as a socialist. Chased from the public square in the McCarthyite 1950s and given the coup de grace by the collapse of its endlessly perverted incarnation in the Soviet Union and its satellites, the idea of socialism, indeed the very word, is a taboo in modern America.
But Aronson’s radicalism is deeply rooted, and distinctly American. A student of New Left icon Herbert Marcuse, under whom he took his doctorate while at Brandeis University, Aronson was swept up in the political activism of the 1960s. He became a community organiser in the African-American neighbourhood of New Brunswick, New Jersey, and an editor of the influential New Left journal Studies on the Left. In the heady spring of 1968, while completing his doctoral dissertation on “Art and Freedom in the Philosophy of Sartre”, Aronson participated in the Freedom School organised in the aftermath of the student strike at Columbia University. Unlike many who left their activism behind them once they’d moved on from student life, Aronson has continued down the path of explicit political engagement.
During the apogee of the struggle against apartheid in the late 1980s, while a guest lecturer at universities in South Africa, Aronson threw himself into the fight – a story he told in his 1990 book, Stay Out of Politics: A Philosopher Views South Africa. He was later celebrated for his activism and his writings with an honorary doctorate from the University of Natal in Durban. More recently, he has been a fierce opponent of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and as a firm believer in local activism has been an active member of the Huntington Woods (Michigan) Peace, Citizenship, and Education Project in the Detroit inner suburb where he resides.
Ever ready to take the clash of ideas out of the academy, Aronson has produced televised debates on democratic values and affirmative action that have pitted the likes of Cornel West and Barbara Ehrenreich on the left against conservative writers like David Frum and Abigail Thernstrom. And, unusually for a philosopher, he has produced two films, together with Academy Award-nominated director Judith Montell. One of them, Professional Revolutionary: The Life of Saul Wellman, explores the life of a legendary Detroit trade union radical who was once indicted and jailed by the federal government (a conviction later overturned by the Supreme Court on free speech grounds) and who much later was honoured by testimonials from both the Detroit City Council and the state legislature for his contributions to Michigan’s working class.
Wellman, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, in later life mentored many younger leftists, and played a key role in Aronson’s life in 1974 when Aronson was denied tenure at Wayne State University and lost his job because of his political activism. “I was feeling whipped,” Aronson once told me, “and I had offers elsewhere, and didn’t feel like fighting. But I told Saul about it, and he said, ‘You can’t leave, this is your home – you have to fight it. Now, who should we contact?’ And he took out his list of addresses and we started organising the movement for the reversal of my tenure decision.” Aronson won that fight, and was reinstated in 1975 –with tenure.
Aronson’s second film, First Amendment on Trial: The Case of the Detroit Six, chronicles how the federal government overreacted to dissent during the Cold War when it indicted and convicted Michigan’s Communist leaders during the McCarthy hysteria. “The film seeks to situate the story in its historical era and then consider it from the distance of 50 years,” says Aronson. “It demonstrates that the political system failed to protect dissent at a time of national crisis but that the judicial system stepped in at the highest level to ultimately confirm and clarify freedom of speech and assembly.”
Aronson has churned out a steady stream of articles and books: the latter include The Dialectics of Disaster, After Marxism and the groundbreaking Camus and Sartre: the Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It, which was hailed by critics in both the US and France for uncovering the personal and political roots of the quarrel between the two gigantic figures of existentialism. Aronson’s easily digestible prose is remarkably free of academic cant; as the Times Literary Supplement has observed, his work combines “the highest level of scholarship with a lively and readable style of writing.”
But if Living Without God is an enjoyable read, anyone looking for a catechism of neat, formulaic, three-a-penny slogans of the prêt-à-penser variety in this volume will be disappointed. Taking as his starting point Immanuel Kant’s three questions – “What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?” – Aronson wants above all to make us think.
He writes, “Instead of lending our power to a being above us and then asking for it to be lent back to us, we may be able to feel our power as drawn from, and connected to, all that we depend on.”
That interconnectedness commands us to assume a sense of absolute responsibility as beings for the world around us. For example, the coming to power of Adolf Hitler and the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust that flowed from it “required the active or passive consent of tens of millions ... many of the accomplices may have done very little or even nothing. Some only averted their eyes. But each did exactly what was needed” for the triumph of evil. And he brings his assessment right up to today by discerning the bulk of the American people’s similar responsibility for the war in Iraq.
But Aronson also insists that “ignoring that we are interdependent is ruining our society” because we refuse to tackle a different form of quotidian violence: inequality. “Inequality may be wholly impersonal, and we may have no intentional relationship to it, but by our failing to name it and confront it and do something about it, we wind up living by it. We make it ours. To condone and benefit from injustice is to become implicated in it.”
I asked Aronson what he thinks humanists should be doing to address inequality. “The struggle for equality, which has been not only going on but making slow, painful strides – and sometimes quick and exhilarating ones – is an essential part of the humanist identity,” he responded, “not tacked on as something that it might be good to do. We are responsible for ourselves and each other. For combating the inequality that keeps us from ourselves and each other.”
Is Aronson hopeful about how Living Without God will be received? “I’m holding my breath about the book,” he told me. “I say hopeful, not optimistic, inasmuch as I see myself as part of a long-term struggle to make the world more humane and more equal. I believe that social and political action is absolutely necessary to keep one’s sanity. It’s simply a matter of acknowledging and acting on our social and political identities: we are citizens, whether the powers that be like it or not.”
Two years ago, Aronson created a stir by publishing in the leading US progressive magazine, The Nation, an article entitled “The Left Needs More Socialism”. In it, Aronson argued that “The next Left will have to acknowledge, and even celebrate, the socialist spirit ... The socialist standards of fairness, democracy, equality and justice are as much a part of daily life as are capitalism’s values of privilege, unequal rewards, and power.”
When asked if he thought America could become more socialist, Aronson, as he does in his books, saw inextricable links between America’s political character and its religious inclinations: “I think about these together, because America’s retard in terms of the basic securities of advanced societies is connected with its status as the most religious of societies. As Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart demonstrate in Sacred and Secular, religiosity seems to diminish as security and equality increase. The most unequal and insecure of advanced societies, the US, is also the one that has the greatest presence and intensity of belief in heaven above and a transcendent force managing human lives.”
Even though the word “socialism” scarcely appears in Living Without God, Aronson’s new book represents the logical extension of his lifelong probings of how political commitment is constructed and of his untimorous socialist faith. In his refusal to think about religion and humanism outside the frame of the political, Aronson has extended the “new atheism” into regions it has often been reluctant to go. His challenge to humanists – to live up to their commitment to human equality – is both welcome and profound.
The Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci wrote from his prison cell in Mussolini’s Italy that “The challenge of modernity is to live a life without illusions, without becoming disillusioned.” In Living Without God, it seems to me, Aronson has admirably met that challenge.