An Interview with Ronald Aronson

aronson.jpgRonald Aronson is the author of Living Without God New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists and the Undecided.

Ronald Aronson is Distinguished Professor of the History of Ideas at Wayne State University and the author or editor of nine books, including Camus & Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It, After Marxism, and “Stay out of Politics!” A Philosopher Views South Africa. He has published articles in The Nation, Bookforum, The Yale Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post, The International Herald-Tribune, The Toronto Star, The (London) Times Higher Education Supplement, and The (London) Times Literary Supplement.

Aronson has produced televised political debates on democratic values and affirmative action (participants have included Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenreich, Abigail Thernstrom, David Frum, and Dinesh D’Souza). He is co-producer of the feature-length documentary film Professional Revolutionary about legendary Detroit social and political activist Saul Wellman and, most recently, 1st Amendment on Trial: The Case of the Detroit Six, focused on the Federal government’s trial of Michigan Communist Party leaders in the ’50s.

One of Aronson’s lifelong concerns has been to study and write about the nature of hope, especially as related to political commitment. Since the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, he has been active in the Huntington Woods (MI) Peace, Citizenship, and Education Project.

A few months ago, I discovered Ron Aronson’s articles “The New Atheists” at The Nation and “Thank Who Very Much?” at the Philosopher’s Magazine Online. I was attracted to the positive atheism expressed in both essays, and hoped to interview Aronson for readers of The Eloquent Atheist, but at the time, he was attempting to complete his latest book, Living Without God, and deeply involved in the editing process. Fortunately, his book is now in print, and Aronson and I exchanged emails, leading to an interview by telephone on September 5, 2008.

Aronson is easy to listen to, with his teacher’s voice—friendly, vibrant, and precise—as we introduce ourselves, say hello. I ask what motivated him to write Living Without God.

“Well,” he replies, “in the past years there have been many books about atheism written, like Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. All these writers have come out with strong atheist arguments against the magic of religion.” He mentions the term “New Atheists,” a sobriquet he likely coined in a 2005 Bookforum review of several authors whom he described as “refreshingly free from the hidden theology of history-as-progress that inspired past atheist writers,” among them Michel Onfray and Sam Harris.

“In many ways,” he continues, more passionate now, “these writers have broken the spell, but this hasn’t strengthened our world view. I grew up believing in a future in which religion was going to wither away and the world would be better for it, but that hasn’t happened.”

For readers unfamiliar with Aronson’s life and career, he was born in Detroit, Michigan, educated at local Wayne State University, the University of Michigan, and also at UCLA and Brandeis where he earned his Ph.D. in The History of Ideas. Politically active, he served as a community organizer in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and was editor of the New-Left journal Studies on the Left. He has taught at Wayne State University since1968, becoming one of the foremost international scholars of Jean Paul Sartre. A self-described “cheerful atheist,” he also teaches non-traditional students, the vast majority African-American adults—many of whom are theists—about religion and secularism, giving due respect to both lifestances. Sadly, the university has just abolished his open-admission program, pretending to be making cost savings from the move.

“Not only has religion not faded away,” Aronson elaborates, “but despite the New Atheists there has been a loss of confidence among secularists.” He mentions Alister McGrath’s Twilight of Atheism, a negative history of nontheism, which concludes that atheism has been sullied (however unjustly) by being linked to Nazism and Stalinism. McGrath, an Anglican priest and Oxford theology professor, was a fervent atheist and Marxist during his teenage years, but now, in his view, religion has found new energy among a considerable population and Pentecostal religions have gained the power to profess the “immediacy of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit” worldwide.

“It dawned on me,” Aronson says, giving due consideration to McGrath, “that the most important thing I could do was articulate a positive worldview for secularists. You don’t have to be religious to have a meaning in life, a sense of purpose, and a deep sense of belonging to something larger than yourself. That is the most significant reason I wrote my book.”

Living Without God is a paean to the values, responsibilities, and hopefulness of the secular worldview. “Gratitude,” “Taking Responsibility for Ourselves,” “Choosing to Know,” and “Dying Without God” are among its chapters. The book’s first review by Doug Ireland in The New Humanist (September/October) praises Aronson’s approach: “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. […] 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.”

Elaborating on his positive vision, Aronson says that the chapter “Gratitude,” evolved from his article “Thank Who Very Much?” which was reprinted in several journals and became a featured piece in the Toronto Star’s “Ideas” section. “In that article,” he says, “I acknowledged our existential condition, while attempting to sketch out the relationships with forces that define our humanity—nature, history, society. We are not isolated individuals and we don’t have to be religious to find meaning in life.”

I tell Aronson that I was struck by one particular statement in the article, that “there is an alternative to thanking God on the one hand and seeing the universe as a ‘cosmic lottery’ or as absurd on the other.” “You know,” he replies, “it’s true that there’s much that we still can’t answer, but we need to acknowledge all the vital questions that we can answer because of collective human effort over centuries. There are values, ideas, and knowledge that can stand as powerfully for us, as God does for the religious. I am excited about all that we can answer.”

For Aronson, inflaming hostilities between secularists and their religious counterparts is a lose/lose proposition. “There’s a sense of superiority on both sides—nonreligious and religious—and yet we need to talk, to find respect that goes both ways.” He finds that, in general, “Americans are hostile to each other’s starting points. We tend to be absolutists rather than admitting we can be wrong.” In the last months of his Interdisciplinary Studies Program at Wayne State University, he teaches both “irreligion” and “religion” to older students, and while the effort is difficult at times, the upside is that students are encouraged to think through the premises of why they believe as they do. Social progress, he insists, can sometimes come from rational discussion and refraining from hostilities.

As someone drawn toward social action in the 1960s, he elaborates on the chapter “Hope,” which was based on his work in South Africa to end apartheid. “The chapter is fueled by the sense of that struggle,” he remarks, “and if we want to ask ‘Is there hope,’ I would reply that hope is very historical and concrete. Hope is what we have achieved over human history and by all the times the baton has been passed from one social movement to another.”

I ask Aronson about Barack Obama, as the theme of hope pervades his campaign. However, I also want to discuss the “Unity Event” at the 2008 Democratic Conference. Billed as an interfaith gathering, secularists were excluded, despite an appeal from Ron Millar, Associate Director of the Secular Coalition for America, who wrote the Democratic National Committee in order to have an invitation extended to nontheists. (News coverage about this incident is available on the Secular Coalition web site.

In its August 18, 2008 edition, The Denver Post published a guest editorial by Aronson, “What About Democrats Who Are Not People of Faith?” He was also interviewed about this matter on Rev. Weldon Gaddy’s show “State of Belief,” broadcast during August 23-24, 2008 by Air America Radio. In both his commentary and interview, Aronson asks: Why, if this was a unity and values event, weren’t nontheists and secularists invited? In the Denver Post he observed: “If the Democrats are trying to strike unifying chords among their entire kaleidoscopic range of liberals, moderates, and progressives, it should be obvious that secularists cannot dare be left out of the ‘big tent’ event, and that it should be about beliefs and values, not solely about religion.”

Regarding Obama’s relationship with secularists, Aronson comments that in Obama’s 2006 “Call to Renewal” speech, the presidential candidate sought out common ground between believers and the nonreligious. Obama, in fact, argued that “because I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending that they’re something they’re not”. Obama also pointed out, however, that “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.” The means to true progress is to “recognize some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country.”
“Since becoming the Democratic nominee,” Aronson says, “Obama has contradicted his points about finding common ground.” Aronson recounts a Labor Day speech in Detroit that Obama gave when Hurricane Gustav was coming ashore. Due to the urgency of the occasion, Obama cut his planned speech to just ten minutes. Aronson couldn’t attend the event, but he followed the coverage, and noticed that Obama invoked God or religion at least six times, and then asked his audience to join him in a moment of silent prayer. “This wasn’t a ‘moment of silence,’ Aronson points out, “but rather a prayerful message, and once again secularists became an invisible minority, with religion being forced on them.”

Ironically, based on his research of the recent Pew Poll on religious identity (U.S. Religious Landscape Survey), Aronson finds that perhaps two-thirds of the American public gets its values from outside religion. Values are derived from a multitude of factors, including from pragmatic life experiences and science. Among Democrats, Aronson estimates, upwards of 40% are nontheistic or do not believe in a traditional god.

Regarding Obama’s courting of theists, Aronson concedes that this is probably a campaign strategy. It is likely that, when polled, people under-report that they will not vote for Obama due to his race. Not many people will openly admit to racism. However, if Obama successfully appeals to the traditionally religious, he may get a significant percentage of their vote to offset losses due to racism.

Aronson proposes a new effort, aimed at future state and national Democratic conventions. “We need to do what the religious do,” he says, “and hold Secular Caucus meetings. If enough people do this, then we can assert ourselves, invoking the values we share, and insisting that they must be included in any ‘big tent’ event. That is pluralism, that is mutual respect.”

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