ASN2 conference stream report: “‘No Master But God’? Exploring the Compatibility of Anarchism and Religion”
Anarchism and religion have long had an uneasy relationship. The aim of the ‘no masters but God?’ stream of panels was to explore this relationship and it tensions. Seven panels brought together eighteen papers on the topic, from a variety of different angles.
The first panel focussed on anarchist Biblical studies. Justin Meggitt asked whether calling Jesus an anarchist is anachronistic and concluded that on balance and given the political and prefigurative tendencies of the historical Jesus, it is not. Mark Mc Henry compared Leo Tolstoy with the prophet Isaiah, outlining the parallels in their criticisms of power structures but also their contrasting visions for society. Danny Nemu discussed significant inaccuracies in the King James translation of the Bible, inaccuracies which when rectified turned some classic submissive passages into a much more empowering call to ‘occupy the land’ and ‘cast wickedness into the furnace of fire’.
The topic of the second panel was religious and anarchist philosophers/philosophy. Alexandre Christoyannopoulos summarised Tolstoy’s pacifism, anarchism, anti-clericalism and activism and reflected on ways in which much of his thinking arguably remains relevant today. Richard Fitch summarised the anti-dogmatic qualities of Pyrrhonian scepticism in order to argue that anarchism and religion might find common ground in ‘a reasoned scepticism towards reason’. Hugo Strandberg offered a different way of looking at the relation between anarchism and religious belief by critically analysing Stirner's Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum and developing an analysis of what happens when ‘I’ adopt an ‘I will not serve’ attitude of ‘hardening my heart’ against God.
The second day began with two panels on anarchist theology. Siegfried Bernhauser illustrated his claim that anarchy is part of the natural order by showing how religious teachings are in line with anarchist principles and how anarchy requires an inner change guided by love. André de Raaij outlined Ernst Stern’s controversial interpretation of Romans 13 as a call for liberation, not submission, and Felix Ortt’s ‘pneumat-energetic monism’ as the foundation of real freedom. Stefan Rossbach argued that mystical union (as expressed for instance by Dorothee Soelle) parallels, both in its focus on inward experience and in its contrast to externalized forms of religion, the Rousseauistic and anarchist-leaning critique of modern civilization and call to firstly reform oneself. Sam Flintoft demonstrated how the theological non-realism and kingdom theology of Don Cupitt provides both a theology and ecclesiology which implies a certain anarchism in the relationship between humanity and God. Simon Podmore compared Kierkegaard’s ‘self before God’ to Proudhon’s ‘anti-theism’ and concluded that Kierkegaard implicitly values Proudhon’s “anti-theism” as a potential stage on the way to God.
The afternoon on this second day say two presentations on anarchist encounters with religion. Pedro Garcia-Guirao discussed the continuing prevalence of old stereotypes about religion in contemporary Spanish anarchist films, including the depiction of the religious as ideologically ‘sick’ but curable through exposition to anarchist principles. Matthew Adams analysed Herbert Read’s assertion that clerics were ‘as harmless as the rats and crows which inhabit historic monuments’, showing how despite his hostility to organised religion, Read attached great importance to the communalist ethic of religion and the manifestation of spiritual unity through mutual aid.
The last day began with a panel on spiritual anarchism. Anthony Fiscella depicted spiritual anarchism as a struggle for mental autonomy, by presenting table listing spiritual anarchist movements according to the importance they attribute to individual privacy vs group commitment, and to social justice vs the creation of autonomous space. Paul Cudenec cited a number of anarchist and religious thinkers to develop the argument that a spiritual perspective is not only compatible but essential to a coherent anarchist philosophy.
The final panel was on anarchism/religion parallels. Jay Cassano drew parallels between Jewish thought influenced by mysticism and anarchist notions of prefigurative politics through a study of Walter Benjamin’s anti-eschatological philosophy of history and Martin Buber’s writings on “the deed” in Hasidic thought. Keith Hebden illustrated the numerous parallels and contrasts between Simone Weil and Emma Goldman, drawing particular attention to their differing ‘atheisms’. Erica Lagalisse argued that the dichotomy of anarchism and religion was misguided by exploring the occult and pantheist origins of early anarchist writings and concepts.
The stream therefore generated much food for thought on a variety of different ways in which anarchism and religion relate. The intention is to compile a peer-reviewed and open-access publication of these (and other) papers on the subject, so as to make a more detailed (and thus fairer!) account of all those arguments more widely available (the call for manuscripts is available online). That book will also hopefully demonstrate how frequently Bakunin was quoted in the discussions, and how this was typically not in the usual way he is placed on the anarchism and religion debate!