Low Marx

Honesty is always to be commended. In a recent post on his website, Richard Dawkins, “thinking aloud, among friends”, mused on whether it was time to ridicule the religious into atheism. He was commendably precise about what he meant. This wasn’t to be ridicule “of a humorous nature”, in which he and others had apparently, until now, been engaged. Rather, he pondered, whether “we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, [and] sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt”. The ridicule was not to be indiscriminate. Indeed, the “irremediably religious” were to be spared “precisely because that is what they are — irremediable”.

Rather, it was to be “the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully” who were to be the target. “They are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt,” Dawkins reasoned. “Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.”

Those who have paid any attention to Dawkins’s transformation from the English language’s undisputed champion of popular scientific writing to the angriest of many angry atheists are unlikely to be surprised by the tone of these remarks (although they may be surprised to learn that he has been keeping his gloves on until now).

They may, however, be surprised to learn that his attitude to ridicule has excellent precedent. Researching a book on the history of atheism in Britain, I came across the following footnote in Beatrice Webb’s memoir My Apprenticeship: “My first introduction to the Social Democratic Federation, and the socialism based on ‘scientific materialism’ which they preached,” Webb wrote, “was an interview with the accomplished daughter of Karl Marx in the spring of 1883.” 

Webb goes on to record her diary’s account of the meeting, which took place in the refreshment room of the British Museum. Eleanor Marx, angry about the recent imprisonment of George Foote, editor of The Freethinker, for blasphemy, reasoned: “Ridicule is quite a legitimate weapon. It is the weapon Voltaire used, and did more good with it than with any amount of serious argument.”

She went on: “We think the Christian religion an immoral illusion, and we wish to use any argument to persuade the people that it is false. Ridicule appeals to the people we have to deal with [the working class], with much greater force than any amount of serious logical argument…We want to make them disregard the mythical next world and live for this world, and insist on having what will make it pleasant to them.”

Strip it of its attribution and you would be hard pressed to tell to which atheist, or indeed, to which century, the quotation belonged. 

In her defence, Marx did at least have the excuse that she was speaking shortly after Foote had been imprisoned for blasphemy, during the period in which Britain’s first openly atheist MP was being barred from taking his seat, and half a century before the reality of what “to make [the lower class] disregard the mythical next world and live for this world” actually meant. Dawkins doesn’t.

Moreover, she was talking about ridiculing Christianity in order to make it less appealing to believers. Dawkins was talking about ridiculing the believers. 

For her part, Beatrice Webb (then still Beatrice Potter) didn’t bother to respond. Despite her subsequent enthusiasm for Soviet central planning, at the time of their conversation she had much sympathy for Christianity. Instead, she simply wrote resignedly in her diary: “[Eleanor Marx] read the gospels as the gospel of damnation…it was useless to argue with her.” Indeed. 

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