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New secular religions and original sin

5 May 2018

Yesterday morning at TGIF Johan Erasmus spoke about new secular religions and original sin. There were secular ideologies that used religious language, and were rejected by some people as being “too religious”. He cited President Cyril Ramaphosa, who spoke of the land grabs under colonialism as the original sin, and said that this implied that before then southern Africa was paradise.

He then focused on Critical Race Theory as such a secular religion. When it comes to defining the narrative of our country, he said, this Secular Religion has its own zealous preachers, doctrines of sin and repentance, creeds that may not be questioned, and excommunication if you do not toe the line.

If I understood him correctly, he did not disagree with critical race theorists’ view of what was wrong with South Africa, but he did disagree with the religious rhetoric  that accompanied it.  I too have been critical of secular ideologies like critical race theory, and suggested that we need the tools to deconstruct them, but one thing that bothered me about what Johan was saying was that he seemed to have his own secular version of original sin.

He noted that for critical race theorists original sin is racism, slavery and colonialism. And racism has been redefined. But in criticising this version of original sin Johan Erasmus seemed to come up with another trio of characteristics: postmodern, neomarxist and liberal. He did not explicitly say that these characteristics constituted the original sin of the critical race theorists, but his repetition of these terms, especially the first two, in his criticism, certainly implied that they constituted some kind of original sin. The assumption was that it was sufficient to say that something was “postmodern” and “neomarxist” for people to know what is wrong with it. And I question that assumption.

What exactly do we mean by “postmodern”? And why should we automatically assume that it is wrong? I’m not saying it can’t be wrong, but we can’t just assume that it is wrong without further qualification. I’ve also criticised critical race theorists in similar terms, here, for example Can we only understand racism in terms of postmodern litcrit academic jargon? | Khanya. But we need to specify what is wrong. It is not simply being postmodern that is wrong, because when we use terms like “narrative” and “discourse” in certain ways we are already engaging in postmodern discourse. If we assume that “postmodern” is original sin, then what is paradise? Modernity? Premodernity?

In a rather convoluted set of hyperlinks, we have here an exercise in narrative theology, which can probably be characterised as postmodern: The ‘Story’ That Replaced Christianity Is Collapsing | Intellectual Takeout. And that story links to this one, Do You Ever Think About Being A Hobbit? – Glory to God for All Things, which is, if anything, an even stronger postmodern critique of modernity. I don’t know if those are neomarxist or liberal, but they are certainly posdtmodern

My own critique of critical race theory is partly verbal. Critical race theorists play an quite common academic word game. They change the meanings of words, and because no one else understands the new meaning they have arbitrarily imposed on the words, claims that no one else knows what they mean, and thus make themselves indispensable for the interpretation of these things, thus creating new academic posts for themselves and comfortable employment.

As Johan Erasmus pointed out, critical race theorists redefine racism as prejudice plus power.

That gets it exactly backwards. because in ordinary English, apart from convoluted word games, racism precedes prejudice.

Racism (in ordinary English) is the belief that some races, especially the race one perceives oneself as belonging to, are superior to others, and that race is a very important, if not the most important characteristic of a persons.

This leads to prejudice. in that when a racist meets a person of a different race to themselves, they assume that that person is inferior because of their race. Racism nearly always manifests itself as prejudice, and therefore precedes prejudice. But one can be prejudiced about all kinds of things, and not just about race.

Prejudice + Power does not lead to racism. But racism + power can lead to such things as apartheid, ethnic cleansing and genocide. That’s a different order from the Racism = Prejudice + Power equation, however.

In saying this I’m not trying to equate academic word games with original sin. But academic word games + power, well, that can be dangerous.

Another problem I have with the concept of “critical race theory” is that tacking “critical” in front of the term does not sever race theory from its Nazi roots.

But to return to original sin, I don’t think President Cyril Ramaphosa was that far off the mark when he referred to colonialist land grabs as the original sin (and remember that, by definition, sin is being far off the mark). The original sin (in Christian theology) was taking what was not given. God gave man (male and female) any fruit of the garden to eat, with one exception. And land grabs are essentially taking what is not given.




2 Comments leave one →
  1. jimoharries permalink
    7 May 2018 11:18 am

    Two immediate problems with contemporary race theory. 1. It conceals the impact of the Gospel. This is because it is the Gospel that is at root of a lot of the peculiarities we currently associate with ‘white’ culture. 2. Because it basically confuses ‘culture’ with race, critical comment or reflection on non-Western culture(s) is disallowed through fear of being racist. This produces dependence on the West by people who are at the same time not ‘allowed’ to understand themselves. Being against racism, therefore amounts to ‘white supremacy’. See:

    • 9 May 2018 10:37 am

      I must say I found your article very difficult to follow, and we seem to proceed from radically different starting points. In particular I disagree entirely with your saying that we should not oppose racism because antiracism is secular, if I have understood you correctly.

      Neither blog posts nor Facebook are suitable media for such as discussion, but I believe you and Stan Nussbaum (who also commented on my article) are on the Missiological mailing list, so I hope we can discuss it there, and if anyone else wants to join in, I hope that they will join us there too. Here’s where to find it and how to join:

      Group Email Addresses
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