Robert Misik: Criticism in the Spirit of Enlightenment

Deliver Us from the Return of Religion!

Robert Misik may be a textbook critic of religion, but he is also one of the most vocal opponents of Islamophobic disparagement. Lewis Gropp met the Viennese journalist and author

Robert Misik (photo: private copyright)
Fighting an absolutist concept of truth: Robert Misik undertook a theological study of sources in order to learn more about the dogmas of monotheist religions

​​ The gradual return of religion to politics moved Robert Misik to undertake a theological study of sources. In doing so, he focussed in particular on the Bible and the Koran. Having completed his study, Misik concluded that the two holy books themselves more than refute the claim that the moral fibre of modern societies would decay without religious values.

"The holy scriptures of the major monotheistic world religions are not very friendly books," says the Viennese author. "They portray events in the most glowing terms that we today would classify as genocide, ethnic cleansing, or religious terror."

The intolerance of the absolutist concept of truth

In his 2008 book with the subtly ironic title Gott bewahre! (God forbid!), which is a plea to keep religion and politics separate, Misik argues that monotheistic religions by definition claim to have an absolutist concept of truth and that their teachings are consequently based on a dogmatic and intolerant view of the world. He concludes that while the Bible is certainly a significant piece of literature and the Koran an aesthetic experience, "neither are books that you should give to your children if you would like them to grow up to be moral individuals."

Tolerance born of weakness

​​ According to Misik, the only reason that the Church is currently portraying itself as a charitable institution that benevolently takes the part of outsiders and underdogs is because its social power has been broken. He backs up his theory with a quote from the philosopher of religion Kurt Flasch: "When it [Christianity] was powerless, it called for religious freedom. In those countries where it was state religion, however, it adopted an aggressive and fundamentalist stance against groups of heretics."

In short, the Church only discovered tolerance when its monopoly of power was finally broken. Misik made a similar discovery in the Koran: all of the moderate sura date from a period when Mohammad did not yet have the political power to disseminate his faith with force. The later sura, which originated at the zenith of the prophet's political power, are, on the other hand, permeated by a spirit of belligerence. With enlightening observations such as this, Misik illustrates how the supposedly divine is fettered to the all too human.

Religion: not opium, but a stimulant

​​ In his clever, entertaining, and stylistically refined monography, Misik refutes Karl Marx's dictum that religion is the "opium of the people". Misik feels that religion is more of a "stimulant" that is ideal for fomenting discord between the religions and cites the dispute about cartoons in 2006 as an example. He rejects both the special treatment that religious groups repeatedly demand for their convictions and the claim that all kinds of criticism are automatically a demonstration of a lack of respect. "No other voice in society can insist upon their feelings not being hurt when there is a difference of opinions. Have you ever heard political players complaining that their opponents' arguments were an offence against their 'trade union sensibilities' or a disparagement of their 'Liberal beliefs'?"

Criticism from outside and inside

That said, Misik sees a major difference between criticism that comes from inside and criticism that comes from outside. "Satire was introduced into religious criticism by the Enlightenment," he explained during an interview conducted while attending a conference in Cologne. "It was generally the case that the powerful clerical authority in Europe was ridiculed by Liberal critics who themselves grew up in this Christian culture. The powerless ridiculed those in power. It was, therefore, a typical act of emancipation and that being the case: anything goes in satire." When it comes to situations where a well integrated majority ridicules the religion and culture of a disadvantaged group within the population, however, Misik takes a very different view. "It would never have entered anyone's head to refer to the Nazi ridicule of the Jews as an enlightened form of religious criticism."

Against a new brand of "culturalism"

​​ However, Misik's sole aim is not to reinforce the separation of Church and state in the spirit of secular ideals. "Since September 11, religion has crept into all discourses," he laments. The consequences of this are what he terms a "rhetorical escalation". "In the past, global conflicts were described using terms such as 'colonialism', 'imperialism', 'nationalism' etc. Today, everything is traced back to religion." This new "culturalism" is, says Misik, basically no different to yesterday's racism. "A foreign child playing football in the park is no longer referred to as the 'little Turkish lad', but the 'Moslem that doesn't fit in,'" explains Misik, "despite the fact that the causes of global conflicts are still political." His plea to keep religion out of politics should be understood in this light too.

The contradictions of the cultural chauvinists

In his new book, Politik der Paranoia (The politics of paranoia), in which he launches an attack on reactionaries, Islamophobes, and cultural chauvinists, he highlights the contradictions of the new cultural warriors. "They celebrate the 'renaissance of religion' and hope that it will lead Europe, the 'secular continent', to rediscover the value of its 'Christian identity' in order to distinguish itself from the 'evil Moslems'. Even the slightest attempt to fathom why the US Army is not considered the military wing of Amnesty International in some parts of the world is regarded by reactionaries as damnable 'appeasement'." The actual paradox we face is that free, democratic society is holding up its own values like a truncheon and in so doing, is unwittingly revealing its own ideals. The book ends with the conviction that "you cannot convince people of the moral superiority of your values if you continually discriminate against them."

Lewis Gropp

© Qantara.de 2009

Robert Misik (b.1966) is the author of Genial dagegen – Kritisches Denken von Marx bis Michael Moore (Brilliant dissent: critical thinking from Marx to Michael Moore), published in German by Aufbau Verlag, 2005. Last year, the Vienna-based Überreuter Verlag published his book Gott behüte! Warum wir die Religion aus der Politik raushalten müssen (God forbid: why we must keep religion out of politics). His most recent work, Politik der Paranoia: Gegen die neuen Konservativen (The politics of paranoia: opposing the new conservatives) has just been published by Aufbau Verlag. He also writes regularly for the taz, the Austrian magazines profil and Falter, and Qantara.de.

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